By Ravi Valluri

“I like trains, I like their rhythm and I like the freedom of being suspended between two pieces, all anxieties of purpose, taken care of; for this moment, I know where I am going,” writes the iconic Australian author Anna Funder.

Meanwhile the group of Americans from Boston who romanced with India on their maiden visit while traversing the Golden Triangle circuit (Delhi- Jaipur- Agra) googled and decided on an expedition to Matheran Hill Railway. They found it to be exciting, exotic and opined that a visit to the verdant mountains would provide an exhilarating experience.

They were received by a representative of the IRCTC at the Sahar International Airport and put up at a glitzy hotel in Mumbai. The backpackers accompanied by IRCTC officials boarded the Kurla-Karjat Express the following morning and detrained at Neral. This enthralling journey in the viridescent Western Ghats is a journey of around two hours.

Neral is the starting point of travelling on the Matheran Hill Railway (MHR). The MHR is a 2 ft narrow-gauge heritage railway in Maharashtra, under the auspices of Central Railway zone of the Indian Railways.

Neral rises 131 feet above sea level and is around 85-87 kms from Mumbai. Jumma Patti and Water Pipe are the only two railway stations along the Matheran Light Railway. This quaint hill resort does not boast of any upmarket hotel or resort and makes for a quiet, green retreat with tiny holiday homes, away from the bustle of Mumbai.

Several bird species including egrets and the common bulbul and Bonneted Macaques can be spotted throughout this region all the way up to Matheran. The mystical journey amidst a thick forest cover is a distance of 21 km, connecting Neral to Matheran in the Western Ghats. The MHR has tentatively been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.

The Neral–Matheran Light Railway was built between 1901and 1907 by Abdul Hussein Adamjee Peerbhoy and financed by his father, Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy, at a cost of $160000. Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy was an Indian magnate, philanthropist belonging to the Dawoodi Bohra community, based at Bombay in British India. He was born in 1846, at Dhoraji in the Princely State of Gondal of British India (present day Gujarat) into a very poor family. The entrepreneur frequented Matheran often, and had an intense desire to establish a railway to ensure seamless travel to spread his business empire.

Hussein’s plans for developing the Matheran Hill Railway were formulated in 1900, and construction commenced in the year1904. The architect to execute the plans was a Britisher named Everard Calthrop. Commercial operations on this incredible line opened in 1907.

The Americans travelling by the toy train were speechless at the crawling pace of a mere 12kms per hour, where they could feel the clouds passing by, making the atmosphere amorous.

Train operations were wrecked and infrastructure ravaged in 2005 as the entire area was flooded following a cloud burst. However, ingenious engineers restored the track by July 2007 and operations resumed.

It is noteworthy to mention that the MHR celebrated its centenary operations that year. In November 2012, Central Railway added a saloon to the trains operating on the line. The saloons are embellished with LCD screens displaying various pictures and images of the mountainous terrain. .

Neral, from where the journey commences is in close proximity to the financial capital of India. It is a majestic sight to see the narrow gauge line running parallel to the broad-gauge line west of Hardal Hill before turning eastwards prior to the ascent towards Matheran.

Rail and road (always fierce competitors!) cross each other’s path at Jummapatti, and once again to unite after a brief separation at Bhekra Khud. After a short level stretch, the foreigners had their jaws dropping at the sharp ascent just before Mount Barry.

A large horseshoe embankment was built to eliminate a reversing station here. The line runs for a mile or so northwards around this before turning to take the One-Kiss Tunnel through the embankment. It takes around two hours and 20 minutes to complete the 21-kilometre journey, although CR plans to reduce this to one hour 30 minutes.

Matheran is an alluring town, where a tripper is in communion with nature and divinity. On the lofty hill, the air is pristine. The thick forest covering the entire hill keeps the weather salubrious.

Once the Americans reached Matheran, they were housed in a reasonably furnished lodge and soon after a sumptuous lunch they trekked up the mountain slopes of the Sahyadaris. One among the tippers was a biologist and screamed in sheer delight, “Look at that rare Ceropegia, it's a carnivorous plant!”

As one clambers the majestic peaks higher one encounters grandiose cascading waterfalls. All the slopes are dotted with several hues of green, making it the cynosure of any traveller. Soon the tourists approached the outskirts of the village and spotted a few boys who were flying their kites in the stiff breeze. They cocked up their ears to hear the distant cry of the peafowl.

The Americans were to observe the origin of a stream on in the rocks. This rivulet would eventually emerge from a tiny stream into a boisterous river as they followed its trajectory along the river bed. The might of the Sahyadris with thickly wooded ridges and imposing formations made for fantastic views along the way. It was an unalloyed peregrination into glorious nature.

The night was spent in the lodge and the Americans recalled the day’s events in the amphitheatre of their mind. The next morning they travelled by a SUV to Mumbai, to board a flight to their next pit stop- Goa.

“The impulse to travel is one of the hopeful symptoms of life,” writes Agnus Reppler.

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