Darkness in Matheran

Good legs and comfortable shoes are what you need to visit Matheran. No cars are allowed on the plateau. You could drive from Mumbai and park at the immense parking lot below the plateau, or take the train in. A century old toy train may run from the station up, but it is often out of order. So you either walk or take a horse. A dozen years ago, we walked up immediately after the end of the monsoons.

No ID for the moth, and I didn’t notice the insect with the long elegant legs until later

Matheran is only 800 meters above sea level, but it seems immensely high when you look up at it. The youngest among us was seven years old. Lewis Carroll’s description “All of us were out of breath, and some of us were fat” fitted us to the last trailing T. Clouds had gathered over the plateau as we drove in. True Mumbaikars that we are, our rain gear had been packed away after the monsoon. We confidently predicted no rain, and began the walk along the tourist route. The hour long walk turns lovely a little way up. We stopped frequently to take photos and prolonged it a little.

After checking into the hotel, we decided to have tea before going out for a walk. It can take a couple of days to stroll all the way around the plateau. Although we were keen to do it, we had to have tea first. It was already late afternoon. A very lucky decision, because the clouds burst into a hard rain. The rain became a storm. And in no time, a tree fell on the power lines up to the plateau. It would take a few hours for Matheran to get its electricity back. The tea became an elaborate affair. Darkness fell before we could go out.

We love to take isolated hotels. This one evening it did not seem like a good decision. The mall road was a smudge of light in the distance. We walked out into a dark and muddy path. You knew there was a puddle to be avoided only after your shoes were wet. The Family did not mind. It was a little adventure, and Matheran is famous for its footwear. Each shop in the market had emergency lights. Power outages are frequent, but commerce cannot stop. Handbags, fancy footwear

I knew it was time for me to leave The Family, The Leafless, and the nieces to their devices. My cousin and I slowly melted into the gloom. The thin red laterite soil overlying the porous rock would drain away the water within a couple of hours. That’s also the reason why this place is not really fit for human habitation. There would have been no people here if it wasn’t for the 19th century craze to take the mountain air. That drew the British, the Parsis, and the Bohras to build little sanatoria here. Their remains, now largely turned into hotels, now draw crowds from Mumbai. The locals turn up to make a living off the city folk.

Leaving the women to the handbags and chappals, we walked around looking at what else was on offer. Training horses for riding across the plateau was a major occupation. Although the darkness was not the best time for it, there were lines of hopefuls who eyed us. We stopped instead at one of the many people roasting bhutta. After all, you need to eat a couple of times between tea and dinner. It was either bhutta or chikki. Why not both, I suggested to my cousin. He is an agreeable sort when you make such suggestions.

The lights came back before we had finished inspecting all the food on offer. We decided to find the rest of the party before less adventurous tourists decided to leave the safety of their hotel rooms. A mall road is a magnet for moths and men after dark. I took a last photo of two men in animated conversation in a small eatery. It was time to go find how many shoes and handbags a woman needs.

A red-tailed skink

I sat at the very edge of the protected forest near a rubber plantation in the neighbourhood of Thattekad in Kerala. In front of me two juvenile skinks ran along the leaf litter on the ground, and climbed over tree trunks and stones. The horizon was rising towards the sun, and we could see sunlight only on the tops of the trees around us. I guessed that these skinks were diurnal, but couldn’t figure out why I thought so. Had I seen them before?

A little search, and I figured that these were Dussimier’s skinks (Sphenomorphys dussimieri). That led me to the information that they are diurnal and eat insects. The IUCN red list says that they are widely distributed along the Western Ghats, and are not thought to be threatened. It also mentions that they are oviparous. That was puzzling, are some skinks not hatched from eggs? It seems so. Some skinks even have placenta, like true mammals! Not much seems to be known about skinks. It is not even clear whether most Indian skinks came with the drifting landmass when it separated from Africa, or migrated into it after it struck Asia. In fact, it is possible that there are as yet undiscovered skink species in the Western Ghats.

But the sight kept bothering me. Had I seen this species before? Some digging through my archives threw up the photo that you see above. Four years ago I’d seen a Dussimier’s skink 1500 kilometres north, in Matheran. That could be close to the northern limits of this species. In this photo it is clear that the species has four toes. The three black stripes, one on top, and two on the sides are distinctive. The red tail belongs to juveniles. I think it turns into the striped white and black in an adult. I’m so happy that I could trace down that itch in my memory.

Where will I be this weekend?

lonavala

You will definitely not find me in Lonavala. Once upon a time, perhaps a century ago, this was a little town nestled in the Western Ghats. The train station and a market tell how the pleasant getaway began. It is still different from Mumbai: sunbirds can still be seen in trees. But now the best parts of it look like the crowded urban landscapes of India’s small towns. A highway runs through the heart of the town. You smell burnt diesel here, not flowers.

Mahabaleshwar is a little like Lonavala. Too much "development" has spoilt what people used to come here for. The charming little village is now a crowded bazaar where weekenders frantically shop for honey and jam. The farms which produced them in small quantities earlier are now large concerns; their products can be found in shops in Mumbai. It does not make sense to go all the way to this no-longer-beautiful hill town to buy the same bottles. The sole reason why I still go there now and then is that behind the crowded temples of old Mahabaleshwar one can gets a spectacular view of the Krishna river.

On the plateau called Matheran is the one little town near Mumbai which still retains some charm, perhaps because motorized traffic is forbidden. There are long walks across the wooded plateau. From the edges of the plateau you have views of the spectacular rock formations in the area. This weekend will be really crowded, but it is the one place in the neighbourhood of Mumbai where I might go.

Mumbai has mountains and the sea. One weekend many decades back we took a ferry from the harbour, and a bus on the other side to get to a pleasant little beach called Alibag. This has now grown to a massive destination, with a festival this weekend. Going there would be like dropping into your favourite bar: live music and friends. It is no longer a place where you can step out of Mumbai.

The double barrelled Murud-Janjira is similar. Murud was once a deserted beach where you could camp out. If you felt like it, you could take a fishing boat out to the spectacular Janjira fort. I haven’t been there for years, and as I write, I suddenly feel like looking at it again. But it is too late for this weekend.

If I leave Mumbai this weekend, at best I will be drifting off the coast in a fisherman’s boat, helping to haul the net back.

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