Summer holidays are all about “fun and laughter”, recalling the song by Cliff Richards with which we grew up in our childhood. And so when the Pune Book Readers’ Club proposed a trip to Panchgani, in the month of April, I readily agreed. It was truly time for some fun, after months and months of hard work.
The trip promised to be a deluge, with 17 probable members at one time. But gradually, as D-day arrived, and we assembled in front of E-Square on a cool Saturday morning, there were 9 of us left. We loaded our bags on to the bus, and set off .A lot of chatter, a bit of banter, and here we were- on the way to Panchgani, 120 km away from Pune.The road lay out clearly before us, and before we knew it , we were at our first stop, Shiroor, for some quick snacks before we set out again. The Vada Pav at Shiroor was tastier than the usual variety found elsewhere in Pune.
The road to Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar, two of the most popular hill-stations in Maharashtra, lies through undulating sections of the Sahyadri ranges of the Western Ghats. We passed a ghat section on the way, which Rajesh, Tavisha and I made full use of, by clicking pictures all around. The view of the plains below looked so mesmerizing!
Panchgani, at a height of 4000 ft above sea level, is known for it salubrious climate. It was discovered, as is the case with so many of our hill-stations, by the Britishers, who found the cool climate a welcome relief from the harsh summers of Bombay. Mahabaleshwar, further up the road and slighter higher than Panchgani, became the summer capital of the Bombay Presidency and Panchgani, which literally means “ confluence of five villages”, became a favourite holiday home , and in due time, home to several reputed boarding schools. The tradition continues till date, and one can see a profusion of old colonial bungalows amongst the undulating hills around Panchgani.
We were headed for Camp Baji Santeville ( quaintly named!) a nature camp , which had been discovered by Kajal, and we were well and truly excited, looking forward to the prospect of spending time camping out in the open, with like-minded friends. The proprietor of the camp, Mr.Tathagata Ghosh , had promised us a good experience and good adventure, with comfortable amenities and reasonable adventure ( “ nothing too hard! “ as he explained).
The bus turned left from the road just after the Mala factory,at the Bhose Khind junction, then on to Bhilar village, further on the way to Goteghar, on the way to the camp. It is inevitable that one must lose his way sometime or the other, so we had a bit of confusion and even turned into a wrong building , with the alarmed owner running out at the sight of a bus filled with unfamiliar people, before we found the right place. And what a place it was!
Looking down onto a valley, housing a reservoir of the river Krishna, with the hill ranges in the distance, occupying a flat stretch of land on the edge of a plateau, was Camp Baji Santeville. Mr.Ghosh (“call me TG”, he insisted) was waiting for us. The weather was mildly hot, but in the shade, it was cool. We got around to clicking pictures immediately, in several experimental styles.
The camp actually is an old converted farmhouse, as TG explained. It has been done up to accommodate dormitories and a living room, with an open camping site. The area of the camp is about 5 acres, and for us, wanting to get away from the maddening crowd, it was ideal, insulated as it was from the touristy congestion of Panchgani.
At lunch, we got around to hearing TG’s story. Everyone gets fed up of the usual corporate life sometime or the other, and so was he, leaving his job to set up an nature adventure and tourism company. It was here, in Panchgani, that he and his partners set up their first venture, at Camp Baji Santeville. It is basically an eco-tourism effort, and so you will find no ACs, no frills, but all the required comforts like clean rooms, running water, good washroom facilities and to top it all, proximity to nature! The surroundings looked inviting enough, but in the monsoons it is an even prettier sight, with lush greenery and flowers all around. TG showed us pictures taken during the monsoons, which brought out the beauty of the place.
Post-lunch, it was time for the usual chit-chat. The weather was mild provided you did not venture out in the sun. TG had promised us a trek in the afternoon. It was refreshing to be way from the usual hustle-bustle of city life, just chilling out in the open, whiling time away.
TG turned out to be a fellow-Bong, and so there was a bit of Bong and not-so-Bong discussion with him about Panchgani , Delhi, Bombay, Bengal et cetera, and life in general.
It was late afternoon, and time to pitch the tents. Most of us had never pitched a tent before, let alone sleep in one! Tents these days come in compact, easy-to-install styles, and after some struggle and assistance from TG and his trusted lieutenant “Major” (an-ex Army chap who was very efficient in most things), we finally got the tents up and standing. We decided to take an impromptu photograph then and there.
Then it was time for the trek. After some prodding, the entire group set out, across the tableland, climbing the slopes under TG’s watchful guidance. Panchgani is on the leeward side of the Sahyadris, and therefore gets less rain compared to its cousin, Mahabaleswar, but nevertheless enjoys a salubrious climate. The Sahyadris are an area of amazing eco-diversity, probably one of the hottest bio-diversity zones in the country. There weren’t many flowers around at this time, but TG told us that in the monsoons, this area would be carpeted with wild flowers. That would be quite a sight, and we made a mental note to come back at that time. As we climbed the slopes, we could see the camp in the distance below. This area is formed of volcanic black rocks and black soil. We could see the soil dug up by the wild boars who visit here to rummage for food at night. We also came across some deep ravines and crevices where, it seems, no human being has ever set feet. We had no desire to be the first ones to do so, so we kept a respectful distance and clicked pictures!
The sun would be setting after some time. As we walked, the falling rays of the sun cast a golden gaze on the horizon and further out, lay the gently rolling hills that led to Mahabaleswar. Finally, we trekked back to the camp, albeit via a different route, just ahead of the sunset.
At the camp, it was time for the bonfire, and so people huddled around the fire, chatting. Meanwhile, what caught my attention was that, against the background of the evening sky, with stars forming the canopy, and punctuated by the specks of light that lit up the valley below, the full moon had come up on the horizon. I sat there, with Rajesh for company, wondering whether I had ever seen such a sight before. We could see the Orion and the pole star, and Rajesh even sighted a shooting star! The evening breeze had turned cool and inviting, there was no sound except the sound of silence. Far removed from congestion and chaos, deep in the lap of nature, this was pure bliss, and this was what I had come here for!
We spent time around the bonfire, talking. TG’s co-proprietor, Mandar, had come over from Bombay with his wife, and spent time chatting to us. The chicken tikkas and paneer that were dished out, were gulped down in an instance, as a prelude to dinner. Finally, dinner, complete with sweets prepared by Major’s team, was a happy affair.
Post-dinner, we sat in the moonlight, soaking in the atmosphere. Moonlight leads people to do crazy things. Tavisha had a horror mask, and we decided to try it out on unsuspecting souls. As Bhavna came walking towards us, fresh from her post-dinner siesta, she turned around and saw a ghostly creature calling out her name (it was actually me wearing the mask). She had the fright of her life, and after some time, it was Palki’s turn as we played the same prank on her! The moonlight was inspiring us to do crazy things!
Finally, after another round of chatting, and a bit of singing, we went to sleep inside our tents. The cool wind was blowing quite steadily, and I could see the moonlight sky from the window of the tent. It was an experience to be sleeping in a tent for the very first time!
Next day, the morning dawned bright and clear. TG had promised us a view of a fantastic sunrise, so up we were, scanning the horizon. As the sun rose, casting golden hues all around, we felt suitably thrilled. It was the time for another round of photographs. Later, it time for a bit of biking up and down the hills with Rajesh and Rahul. I enjoyed the scenery thoroughly and we returned before we were suitably out of breath. Gradually, after another round of chatting, and breakfast, during which we had a long discussion with TG, it was time to pack up. I donned the role of the Munshi, settling accounts. We would have loved to stay some time more, but then we had to go back.
We took a parting photograph with TG, promising to come back again. The last 24 hours had done wonders to our morale, after all the din and hum-drum of usual city life. More so because we spent it in the company of like-minded people.
On the way back, we made a detour via the Mapro garden, which is a very touristy affair with the Strawberry festival, dances, strawberry and fruit products and the like. Nevertheless, it’s worth a dekko, and after having bought strawberries, mulberries, syrups and the like, we set off. On the way, we had lunch at the Rainforest restaurant, just overlooking the Wai valley and the Krishna river.
As we descended the hills, we naturally felt sad to leave this place behind. Soon, it would be time to go back to our usual roles in the hum-drum of life. But without any doubt, the time that we spent here would be cherished by us for a long, long time to come. This was a tour with a difference- staying close to nature helps to remind us that we are all born from the soil, destined to go back to the soil some day. For the duration of our stay on Mother Earth, we need to appreciate, love and learn from nature, for it is here that we ultimately belong.
Best weather: Year-round, except rainy season ( July- August)
Languages: Marathi, Hindi
Events: Strawberry Festival, Panchgani ( April/ May)
Tourist attractions: Sydney Point, Table Land, Parsi Point, Devil’s kitchen, Mapro Garden