The historic episode etched in golden hues in the pages of history – Shivaji Maharaj’s escapade from the fortress of Panhala to the fortress of Vishalgad is a perfect example for the phrase ‘against all odds’. Although not to be calculated in the same scales, our biped venture following the same trail was nothing else than against all odds, albeit the odds being of the lesser magnitude.
An approximate route of 75 km to be completed in 3 days, was the task we set ourself for the long weekend. We did not manage to reserve the train tickets for Kolhapur, but alternatively we got our bus tickets booked. We were lucky for our return journey as we managed to get the reservations done for Mumbai bound Mahalakshmi express. So the travel was taken care of, headcounts estimated and grocery purchased, al the schedules worked out and all geared up were we. It was going to be long trudge and yes we all were very well aware of the fact and were well prepared, until the rain played the spoilsport.
The met department hit the nail right on its head and their predictions of heavy rains across Maharashtra proved very correct. As always is the case with Panchaganga River near Kolhapur, water logging affected large areas of the city. Dams filled till the brim and threats looming large with the impending gate opening. Newspapers and news channels flashed news stories about submerging Kolhapur and Karad regions. Fields, villages and roads submerged under the murky waters of overflowing Pnachaganga. Our well wishers from Kolhapur also suggested that if the situation continues then all our plans of the trek would be jeopardized and it would have to be cancelled.
With all the reservations made and efforts put in, it was a hard call to make, but rather than finding ourself stranded in flooded areas, we had prudent enough choices. So we decided the cancel the event and even informed the participants about it. Many disappointed faces, until we decided otherwise and took the chance of proceeding with our plans as charted out. Another round of calls followed and everyone was informed about the trek and its proceedings. So it was on and final now after a round of ruckus. It did not end here though!
So it was 9.00 PM, the time we were supposed to meet at Thane on 14th August. Very well and keeping a safety margin we boarded the local train from Kalyan and headed for Thane. Some of the participants had already reached there and were eagerly waiting for us. Mind you, we had all the tickets and reservations with us, leave aside the trek route information and planned charts. Fate had something else in its mind. As we crossed Dombivli station, our train halted and ceased to move for a good hour or so. We were stranded between Dombivli and Diva stations, with darkness and open spaces surrounding us. I cannot describe how intimidating and instable those 60 minutes of static upheaval were. The scheduled bus departure was at 9.45 PM and we were still waiting for the train to move even as the clock ticked 9.55 PM. We could not have made it to the bus depot before 10.30 PM and we were well aware that it was going to be impossible to board the bus and all our plans were going down the drains with flooding at Kolhapur, not exactly – but with the mess that the slow track on the suburban lines of central railway has to offer.
We asked others to reach the depot and try and explain the situation to the bus driver and conductor and ask them to wait for some time. The conductor refused to budge and set the time to 10.00 PM. It was going to be impossible. Finally the clock ticked 10.00 and it moved, well not the bus but our stranded train. It was another 20 minutes before we reached Thane and another 10 minutes from there to reach the depot. It was 10.30 PM by the time we managed to reach the bus and thanks to some good convincing and generous requests made by others the bus kept waiting for us. After a lot of ruckus, reservations, rains, floods and then train delays we finally saw the entire team seated in the Kolhapur bound bus – a total of 18 souls, on the trek. The trek began; finally!
Not often you see that even before the first step of the travelogue is written, you find nearly 800 words already occupying the space; that just explains the initial hiccups – the hurdles that we all had to counter to get there. After the entire circus, we set our feet on Kolhapur depot at 7.00 AM on 15th of August. One of our participants was supposed to meet there directly and she arrived an hour later; hour filled with refresher and tea and weight distribution. Everyone arrived and the next as per the schedule was a bus journey to Panhala, which lies at around 20 km from Kolhapur. As the bus whizzed beyond the city limits, we actually saw what havoc had the uncontrolled flow of Panchaganga caused. Floods everywhere, villages submerged, trees uprooted, fields devastated, roads blocked. Even the normal bus route to Panhala had to be diverted and it took nearly 45 minutes extra for us to reach Panhala. Already the bus delay and further extensions saw us lagging by a good couple of hour behind our schedule.
We saw Panhala fort after our breakfast session atop Panhala. Panhala is a Taluka place and actually has lost the charm of a fort with all the tar roads penetrating to every corner on the top. All the sites are now reached by vehicles and it is no more of a hill station rather than a fortress. We quickly wrapped with Panhala fort seeing all the possible and interesting fortification and structures atop and moved on further towards Vishalgad. We exited the fort from Raj Dindi, just before Pusati Buruj (Bastion) from the west. A quick descent of 20 minutes brought us to the lower slopes of the fort and a further walk of another 15 minutes brought us to Turukwadi.
From Turukwadi we started ascending on a ridge falling to our left. Within 15 minutes of gradual climb we reached Mahalunge village. We were well aware that this is the last village that we will see until crossing over and descending the vast expanse of Mhasai pathar. A 20 minutes climb brought us to the unending expanse atop the rocky bed of Mhasai Pathar – one of the largest plateaus in the Sahyadri ranges. The plateau is actually stretching the the East-West direction, but is very narrow in the North-South direction. The plateau is connected to the mass of Panhala by a small intervening col. We crossed over this col and reached the plateau.
It would be fair to say that we were favoured by the weather and rain Gods this time as the sun shone it light on us and the clear weather allowed us to have our orientation maintained. We all were heading for the first time on this route and a slight misdirection on the plateau can leave us walking in completely wayward direction. We were aware of sticking to the left edge and continue walking till we reach the Mhasai temple. Actually the trail is very well marked now and it is very difficult to miss the trail. After a walk of an hour and some minutes we reached Mhasai temple. A nice pond of accumulated rain water spreads in front of the temple with a lush green cover occupying the rest of landscape. We decided to have our lunch here. Tiffin were unpacked, chapattis and sabjis with the spice of pickle served for a good meal. Good one hour break before we proceeded further.
We continued on the cart track further until we came across very ancient caves hewn in the belly of the northern slopes of the Mhasai plateau. These are some series of rock cut caves – the Pandavdara leni. However, the caves are now inhabitable with grass and marsh occupying most of them. However, some caves still have dilapidated remains of the carving and lithographs inscribed on their walls. A quick look at these from the exterior and we moved further. A short walk from here brings in sight the only and relatively large tree on the northern edge of the plateau. We descended from here and with in 15 minutes reached a small hamlet – Varewadi. Another 30 minutes walk over the marsh tracks took us to Kumbharwadi village. Actually if we would have continued further on the plateau and then descended from the ridge we would have skipped Varewadi and directly would have reached Kumbharwadi.
It was nearly 5.30 by the time we reached Kumbharwadi and the day still held enough light in its store to allow us to trek further and reach Chapewadi. Chapewadi was supposed to be our night halt for the day. It was a mere 4 km distance and should have ideally required less than an hour, still it took us more than an hour and half before the last member of the group reached there. It was not the day long trudge that caused the delay or any whiling away on the way, but for the knee deep wet mud and marsh that encountered. Every step saw most of us submerged in knee deep marsh and retrieving without loosing our footwear was a task to handle. Soiled clothes, lost balance, searching for footwear, tired legs and all along some funny incidences saw us through the 4 km long puddle and reach Chapewadi (Also called as Khotwadi) finally at 7.15 PM. A nearby handpump provided the much needed cleanser with clothes and faces washed to drain away the mud.
A quick change of clothes before the kitchen was setup. A hot cup of tea spiced with talks and chats filled the class room of the village school as we occupied them for our night stay. The tea session was quickly followed by moong khichadi, pickles and papad and then the sleep time started invading the ambience. Day long walk with the last few hours including knee deep puddles had drained some of them and a good dinner saw them dozing before anyone realized. Others chirped their way through before eventually falling asleep.
16th August had an early start. Saturday it was and it was supposed to be the longest and most strenuous part of the trek. Long distances had to be covered to make up for the lost hours on day one. We started at around 7.30 after a quick session of morning tea and some breakfast in the form of bread jam, biscuits and snacks. It was also supposed to be the most eventful day ahead with treks through the leech infested trails.
Our next destination was Mandlaiwadi, which is a good 1 hour walk away from Chapewadi. One most welcome change was that the path was nowhere near what we had encountered the day before. It was quite firm and not marshy, with maximum depth soiling barely upto our ankles. Knee deep marsh was left way behind and that really helped us to cover distances quickly. We reached Mandlaiwadi at around 8.45 AM and moved further. Arrow marked helped us on the way, as we covered distances between Dhangarwadi, Ambewadi, Malewadi and Patewadi relatively quickly. It took us nearly 4 hours to reach Patewadi and just beyond the village at around 2.00 PM we had our snack – cum – lunch break. A quick refresher and we moved towards Pandhrepani, our supposed night halt for day two.
The intriguing thing that we noticed on day two was the fact that Pandhrepani seemed to be just two hours away right from 1.00 PM, until we finally managed to reach there at 5.30 PM. It is a good 4 hours walk from Patewadi, but villagers in the intermediate wadis seems to have some other ideas and their relative mis-information dazzled us quite a few number of times as our expectations of getting there were always being wrecked with another couple of hours added to it at the next wadi. All along the way we walked over leech infested grassy plateaus, over the bunds of the fields, through the forests of shallow-rooted Nilgiris that were uprooted due to loose soil at its base, flat terrains and so on.
Leeches played a nuisance for some of us. All along the day long trudge leeches managed to suck quite a few from most of us, especially those who were in floaters and shorts. The bare fingers exposed through their floaters offered a good avenue for those tiny leeches to hang on and have satiated their appetites. The worst part – the injected anesthetic doesn’t let us sense the pain and the leeches quite hideously manage to do the job, secondly the anticoagulant injected doesn’t allow the blood flow to cease and bleeding may continue for hours after the leech drop away. It actually led to everyone checking their pants and shoes/floaters every 10 minutes of so to see if there is that small bug sticking to their feet and sucking on. Some found out, some didn’t.
It was Raj actually who found the first sign of leech infestation and immediately brought to notice the trouble that lay ahead for those who did not bother to wear full pants and shoes. It was one specific person – Vinita.. who has some special affinity for the leeches it seems – somehow manages to invite leeches at the least likely places! She was terribly drained with all those bugs sucking on her RBC’s every now and then. Few others had minor niggles with the suckers too, but manageable!
So after a brief lunch break (sort of) and after 4 hours of walk though the forests and grasslands, over the bunds of fields and terrains we managed to reach Pandrepani at 5.30 PM. The last 45 minutes walk is on tarred road and can be really quite boring to tread on after a day long walk. The distance from Chapewadi to Pandhrepani is really a long one and we covered good ground to make u for the delays on day one.
After sipping on hot cuppa of tea at a local village shop at PAndhrepani, a poha session spiced up the fun talks and masti. We managed to get a cosy stay at one of the houses in the village. The warm ambiance after the day long drench was the perfect compliment anyone would have asked for. Poha was followed by some munching on snacks and after some chit chats; however the long day saw everyone quickly setting up their carry mats and sleeping bags quite early.
Day three it was and the last day of our trek. We had to cover the distance from Pandhrepani till Vishalgad and head back to Kolhapur to board the Mahalkshmi express back to Mumbai. So another long day and more importantly time frame was much more important today as getting back to Kolhapur in time was imperative. So after tea and breakfast session we moved at around 8.15 AM from the village. The day began on confusing note with different people giving different opinions about bus timings and their frequency. Irrespective of all the jumbles, we decided to walk the distance of 6 km till Pavan Khind. The entire route follows the tar road and we briskly covered it in an hour.
We managed to reach Pavan khind at 9.20 Am and really – a glance at the narrow gorge and one just can’t help, but go back and salute the Guerilla warfare tactics of the Maratha and the ingenuity of Baji Prabhu Deshpande. The narrow gorge, then known as Ghod Khind provided for the perfect location to stop the march of the chasing army and allow for the escapade of Shivaji Maharaj to Vishalgad. The narrowness, the terrain and the relative trap-like location proved very effective and with the sacrifice and valour that Baji Prabhu and the fellow Mavlas exhibited, Ghod khind was rechristened as Pavan Khind. We had a brief session at the gushing waterfall that adds to the beauty and enthralls the visitors with its flow. This is actually the origin of Kasari River. There is a project (Kasari Prakalpa) that is being worked on and is being converted into a reservoir. We payed our obeisance with a typical Shivgarjana recited by Amod, a group photo and moved on towards Visahlgad.
We retraced our steps back to the tar road. Vishalgad was still 15 km away from here. The clock now ticked 11.00 and the time crunch began to raise its head. We waited for a bus as informed by the villages, but another person came up and informed that there were no buses available at that time of the day. So we just continued to march on our feet further. The tar slipped under our feet at a brisk pace and it was nearly and hour and quarter before we made our way to Tembhurne wadi.
Just when we were thinking of skipping Vishalgad – Vishalgad is at a distance of 8 km from here – fortunately, we got a jeep from here that was ready to take us to Vishalgad and then back to Amba. Amba is a well connected to Kolhapur. So without wasting much time we all crammed into the jeep and reached Vishalgad after a bumpy ride of 20 minutes. It takes mere 10 minutes to reach the top of the fort. The fort looks nothing like a fort, but is only a crowded settlement of the local villagers. Filth now mars the beauty of the fort and irregular and haphazard houses build on the fort just dims the entire spirits. We roamed around the fort for around 45 minutes or so before retracing our steps down and boarding the jeep.
The jeep took us to Amba within one hour. It was nearly 4.00 PM by the time we reached Amba. As everyone was quite hungry then, we decided to have a quick bite of Misal pav, which unfortunately was not very quick. After the entire chore, we waited for the bus. But since after a wait of nearly 20 minutes bus did not show up, we decided to reach Malkapur – 10 km from Amba – by jeep. We reached there by 6.00 and an immediate connecting bus took us to Kolhapur by 7.30 PM. We reached there barely an hour before the scheduled departure of the train. We managed for some dinner (Veg Biryani) and after a sumptuous dinner, we all headed for our respective berths reserved in the train. Let me tell you, it was an experience to have all 18 people together at the dinner, after a 3 day long trudge. It was so satisfactory to have the entire group together, sharing a good laugh and talk about the trek, completed route and everything, specially after all the stuff – rains, delays and all we had at the start…!
It will always be one of the memorable ones, for various reasons, but cherished nonetheless.