Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Miserable Matheran - Mumbai's weekend break

In the fairy-tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone pretended that the king was fully clothed when in fact he was naked. It was a sort of mass delusion. Something similar it seems is occurring with the little hamlet of Matheran, a hill-station just a hundred kilometres from Mumbai. Everyone says how delightful it is. But, I come to tell you the truth. It is not. It is dull. Very dull.
Cool... in one way only
The main point about Matheran is that sited high up on a ridge in the Sahyadris. This makes it cool and tree-lined and leafy, and from certain exposed lookouts at its edges you have a good view of the valleys below. But, that’s it. That really is it.
Now, some folk talked to me about the Toy Train there, which circles higher and higher up the mountain taking you from the foothills up to the plateau on which the town rests. Okay, I said, I’m a grown-up, but I’ll try it.
And when we got to Nerul, the town on the plain below, just after midday, I did enquire about a ticket. But the man said: Ah, the next train is not for five hours sir. (Five hours? I thought this was the main attraction? What craziness is that?).
But, afterwards, I considered it a blessing that we did not take it; we found out that the little train takes two long hours to crawl up to the top. I mean, I like scenery – but not that much!
We took a taxi, and got there in fifteen minutes.

The second thing 'everyone' talks about is the “quaint” fact that only horses and hand-pulled rickshaws are allowed on Matheran’s lanes. I am not sure why there is this prejudice against motors. In fact, I thought a few putt-putts might be a boon, but maybe, because the roads are so dusty and badly maintained, no motorised rickshaw would last long on them anyway.
We duly mounted the horses that the hotel had sent for us. We were aching for an hour afterward.
A sunset... is just a sunset
When she was fit again, we set off to walk to a lookout point. You see, there is pretty much nothing else to do in Matheran but walk along lots and lots of meandering forest paths - as the centre basically consists of nothing a tiny “commercial” area, a couple of small lanes, hotels, and, well, that’s it.
I like walking, so this should have suited me. However, the maps are hardly exact, even the one in the excellent guidebook by Mr Utekar (much recommended), so getting lost is obviously meant to be part of the fun. If that is indeed the case, we had lots of fun.
Finally, we ended up with lots of other people at Sunset Point. Now, sunsets are rarely spectacular; mostly they are just sunsets. The one we attended was just that - an ordinary sunset. And I thought: if this were a Marine Drive sunset, I could now go for a drink at, say, Not Just Jazz.
On Sunset Point however, there is nothing left to do but the two-mile trudge back to the centre - in the dark.
I could go on with the misery that is Matheran. If you are British, imagine being at Rhyl in March, or Calais.
Its soil is so red and dusty, that soon your face and clothes are caked with it. The kids are so bored they tease the horses. The food is abysmal; I had my worst-ever meal in Matheran (tip: never ask for a sizzler). The “historic” British-era bungalows are ugly, crumbling and on private land.
One shopkeeper confessed to me that even the chappals (for which Matheran is supposedly famous) are actually nearly all made in Mumbai, and shipped up. (Okay, the chikki is pretty good – but you can get that anywhere these days.)
Did I enjoy anything about Matheran?
Okay, one thing – Tukaram’s horses. Most of the horse-drivers hold the reins of the horses as they ride you along, for safety reasons I suppose. But Tukarram is a bit of an anarchist – to your complete surprise, he just lets you go, and, what’s more, then shouts at your horse if it shows like flagging, and urges it to gallop. To a born city slicker like me, the experience was pretty frightening – and exhilarating!
So, if you have the misfortune to find yourself in Matheran, seek out Tukaram. With his help, Matheran might turn out slightly less than Deadly Dull.

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