Mumbai is a fascinating city, no doubt. But about 54 km away lies Vasai, a closely knit township, steeped in culture and boasting a glorious history. There’s so much to explore in this nature’s haven from beaches to ruins of structures such as churches and forts, once the stronghold of powerful empires — the Gujarat Sultanate, the Portuguese, Marathas and British.
Vasai Fort drew international attention especially after Coldplay’s ‘Hymn For The Weekend’ featuring Beyoncé Knowles was filmed here. Sprawling over 110 acres of land, it was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. It used to be accessible by both, sea and land — porta de terra and porta de mar. Though parts of it have been restored, a major portion is the original structure; stone plaques bearing the name of the Portuguese governors and captains under whose leadership the fort was constructed, arches, pillars, tall wooden doors, stairways, etc.
The fort is part of a city, which was home to over 3,000 residents, soldiers, nobles and artisans. The township also had churches and chapels, a hospital, granary, library, coin mint, market place and more. Apart from the fort itself, ruins of the churches, chapels, market and granary also exist, as I discovered on an organised heritage tour of the place. “There were seven churches,” says Deepak Machado, the tour guide, adding that the Portuguese loved to build churches. Their architectural style isn’t unlike the churches in Goa, which was also ruled by the Portuguese; they have elements such as naves, arches, bell towers, windows positioned to allow natural light to filter in at all times.
We visit a church with an exclusive section where the Baptism ceremony is said to have been held. The concave roof of this section is painted with faces of cherubs. Throughout the tour, we don’t just learn about the history of the place but also discover intriguing facts about Portuguese architecture. Says Sunil D’mello, the other tour guide, “The Portuguese had a way of interlocking stones while building archways, which secured them in place.” It’s no wonder that while most of the fort is in ruins and bears signs of the attacks — dents and chips by cannon balls, for instance — the archways remain unscathed.
Another common feature of Portuguese architecture is Corinthian and Doric pillars. We find the former adorning entrances to the citadel as well as the churches. Watchtowers, posterns, piers and hidden tunnels are other features. At the end of the tour, we go through a short tunnel, a part of the main fort, which is quite a challenge because the entrance is so small and low that you have to literally crouch and wriggle out.
We visit a second church, which was also a Jesuit college, where prayers are held for the locals to this day. Part of the structure was built with red coloured stones that are still intact. Another church we go to has gravestones; some are carved in Portuguese and one in English, indicating it might have been used during the British Raj.
Vasai has developed in leaps and bounds since I last saw it over two decades ago. But even today, it retains its rustic, small-town charm; the shops dotting the street, the labyrinth of villas belonging to East Indian families — residents of this place, the odd housewife, selling snacks from a makeshift shop — a table and a clothing line displaying chips in local flavours… Easily accessible by road and railways, this slice of Portugal in India is a must-visit.
This post was written by one of our participants, Melissa Nazareth on her visit of Vasai Fort with local experts Sunil and Deepak. You can find her original post here.
Modern-age marketing has many of us convinced that only deserted islands with white sand beaches that are surrounded by coral reefs and crystal clear blue waters can be considered as tropical paradises. How about we give other places a chance?
We know, Mumbai is crowded, busy and stressful. But if you look around, it is also home to many places that are calm, quiet and peaceful. So, if you live here and you want to travel to a tropical beach destination you might want to remember that you already live in one.
Here are a few reasons why we feel Mumbai is a tropical paradise.
- Mumbai is a tropical island
Stretching from 18°53’ N to 19°19’ N, it lies entirely within the tropics. Even as the original islands have now been reclaimed and connected by land bridges – the only way from the city to the Indian mainland is on a bridge across saline water.
- It has a lot of beaches
The western coast of Mumbai island alone, from Colaba to Uttan – is home to 17 distinct beaches. Even though some of them have severe waste management and urban encroachment issues, many are relatively pure and are an absolute pleasure to visit. As we go further away from Mumbai, there are hundreds of beaches which are more pristine and isolated.
- It is home to unique communities
From the Kolis (fisherfolk) to the Warlis (self-sustaining tribals), the Mumbai region still has many communities that are linked with the sea, the jungles and the incredible abundance of natural resources in the region – in part due to the heavy monsoon rainfall received by the region. As the city grows and pollutes the seas, air and land further, their culture and profession is under threat, but as of today it is very much alive.
- It is also home to a lot of marine life
If you think that a tropical paradise must be abundant with exotic marine life, then Mumbai is certainly one. Flamingos, dolphins, turtles, crabs, jellyfish, octopuses and even sharks and whales are found in the waters in and around Mumbai.
- It has its own dense jungle
If the Mumbai local is the lifeline of Mumbai, then the lungs of Mumbai certainly are its mangroves and the Borivali National Park. Accounting for around 17% of Mumbai’s land area, Borivali National Park is home to several species of indigenous fauna and flora, including over 35 leopards! This makes Mumbai the only large metropolis to have a species of big cat roaming in the wild.
- It is surrounded by more dense jungles
All around the city – to the north, east and south there are dense tropical jungles. Many of these are rich in endemic species that are not found anywhere else. In fact, the Western ghats have so much unique bio-diversity that they have been designated as a World Heritage site.
- It has a pleasant climate
You may or not agree, but Mumbai is a rare Indian metropolis where summer temperatures rarely exceed 40 or go below 10 degrees – making it ideal for living sustainably without much need for air conditioning or heating. Almost every evening can be enjoyed outdoors in the open, especially along the coast.
This post is the second part of my solo cycloexpedition from Mumbai to Goa. In case you haven’t read Part I, you may do so by clicking on this link.
Day 5: Ratnagiri to Vijaydurg
February 19th, 2018
It was 7 am when I disembarked from the overnight bus from Mumbai. I loaded my gear on to the cycle and rode towards the city centre of Ratnagiri, in order to restart from the very same location I had paused my journey one month earlier. I exited the coastal city from its southern end as it was still waking up. And once I crossed the bridge over the Kajali river I was instantly back out into the countryside, with no sight of man anywhere.
My target was to get to Pawas, 17 km away, and then plan my day over breakfast.
After a kilometre of flat and smooth road along Bhatye beach I arrived at my first climb of this leg of the journey. Full of energy, I raced up the slope and a hairpin bend and effortlessly climbed up to a small plateau.
I had been on the road for an hour when the descent to Pawas began. And in that hour, I had completely forgotten that it had been a month since I was continuing my journey. As the wind hit my face, I felt as though I was in a dream where I was always on the road, without any idea about where I started or what my destination was. A sweet, sweet dream it was.
I found the only place open for breakfast in Pawas at that time as I sat down and began to plan my day. My plan was the same as before – ride as close to the coast as possible, as long at the route kept going towards Goa. Even if this meant making unconventional water crossings instead of using inland road bridges.
The huge peninsula of Vijaydurg was hampering my plan. This thumb shaped peninsula was only connected to land from the south, with the Vagothan river shielding it from the east and the north, where I would be coming from. Accessing it from the southern end would mean another 31 km of extra riding. So, I decided that if I could somehow manage to cross over to Vijaydurg by boat, I would spend the night there. If not, I would ride on further towards Kunkeshwar.
Being Shivaji Jayanti, it was a state-wide holiday, which did not seem to make a difference in the daily lifestyle of the people in these sparsely populated parts. I did pass a couple of bikers with their pillions waving saffron flags with Shivaji Maharaj’s face emblazoned on them, but not much more. At the same time, Maharashtra Tourism signboards along the way pointed towards Purnagad Fort, and I decided to visit it.
Another medium sized climb later, I was at the base of a hill atop which was Purnagad Fort. Leaving the cycle behind, I found my way through a maze of stone steps, sometimes going right through tiny settlements. The fort walls came appeared after about 5 minutes of climbing. It was more of an outpost than an actual city-fort, but the views of the sea from its bastions were incredible.
The rising temperatures reminded me that I needed to get going. I hiked back down, found my cycle and gear just as I had left it, and crossed a big bridge over the Muchkundi river. On the other side was one of the densest groves of Suru, or Casuarina trees I had ever seen, hiding and protecting Gaonkhadi beach which had zero manmade structures along its entire length.
After leaving from Gaonkhadi beach, I climbed up and down several hills and plateaus as I reached Jaitapur. There were settlements in the valleys and on the plateaus. Geography had a very big part to play in the professions of the inhabitants of these settlements. The valleys and their slopes were green and dotted with rice, mango, jackfruit and supari plantations. The plateaus were barren this time of year but as they were better connected with the bigger cities further inland they had more trade and commerce activity. I was getting hungrier but settled for an icy glass of limbu sharbat to stay hydrated.
Jaitapur is the site of the proposed Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant, which will become the largest nuclear power generating station in the world once operational. Despite being mired in controversies and facing strong opposition from locals and environmentalists alike, the project is going forward as India’s insatiable power needs keep increasing. As consumers, we are shielded from the fact that the electricity that we take for granted in our urban homes and offices often has a very violent, bloody and unjust background. On that day though, there were no protests or lathi charges as I rode through the area.
It was 2:30 pm and the sun was getting unbearable when I pushed myself a little more and arrived at the small fishing village of Dandewadi. This is where Strava records had shown previous cyclists crossing over to Vijaydurg by boat, but they had been very few compared to the number of cyclists taking the inland route and skipping Vijaydurg entirely. I was hopeful, but not very.
I asked a man pulling his nets out of the creek if anyone could take me across, and he said that it seemed really unlikely since such boats must be booked in advance. As I was about to leave he came up to the road, spotted a boat harboured in the bay and gave me the number of its owner – Avinash Pangrekar.
I called Avinash and he asked me to enter the village, which was fast asleep on a mid-afternoon siesta.
He said the tides were favourable and since fishing season was low, he had the time to drop me to Vijaydurg. His boat had taken up to 10 cycles in the past, but since I was alone I would have to pay for the entire boat. We agreed at a price of ₹400, a hefty sum but one which saved me another 3 hours of riding in the hot sun.
I climbed into the boat with my cycle after Avinash’s father as they started the engine. We left the sheltered harbour onto the estuary where the Vagothan river met the Arabian Sea. The sea breeze and panoramic vistas quickly negated the searing afternoon heat. They told me that dolphins, olive ridley turtles and even octopuses were abundant in these waters, but catch of commercially important fish such as surmai and pomfret had reduced significantly in recent years.
15 minutes later the massive multi-tiered fort walls of Vijaydurg came into view, jutting out of the peninsula directly into the sea. I had never seen a Maratha fort of this size in its entirety, with the sea offering an unhindered view of the sheer size and magnificence of the fort. The Pangrekars dropped me right at the base of the fort, where two hotels/homestays were located.
After getting a good deal at Hotel Suruchi, I had a quick shower followed by a scrumptious coastal thali. The flavours in the fry were intense, quite different from anything up north. I then realised I had now crossed over into Maharashtra’s southernmost and least populated district – Sindhudurg, and the dialect and cuisine here was the legendary Malvani.
At 4:30 pm, I went to visit the fort. At its entrance, there was a small counter where one could hire a guide. I signed up for the service and met Sanket Rahane.
The next couple of hours were extraordinary. Sanket, all of 23 years, was one of the most eloquent storytellers I have ever come across in my life. Not only did he have all his facts and timelines from over the past millennium spot on, he could make the walls speak for themselves as we walked through the fort.
Spread over 17 acres, the gigantic Vijaydurg is one of the best preserved forts in Maharashtra and speaks volumes of the glory days of the Marathas and Angres. Sanket showed me all the different tiers of fortification the fort had, cannon marks on its walls, secret chambers, hidden tunnels crisscrossing the fort, as well as its strategic defences and booby traps. All this while, he continued the story of the fort century by century. He added context by cross-referencing relevant historical events that unfolded in Pune, Delhi, Kolhapur and London that impacted the power dynamic of the rulers of Vijaydurg.
Sanket told me that legend had long dictated that a massive underwater ridge had been constructed to foil attacks from the sea. This had been recently proved by scuba divers carbon dating the rocks on the ridge.
As the sun set, I thanked Sanket for his time and walked out onto the beach. My mood changed as I came upon the carcass of an adult olive ridley turtle, stuffed with and surrounded by plastic. Even as megacities such as Pune and Mumbai have shockingly inadequate waste disposal facilities, the rest of the country is further behind. It is important for us to understand that most of our plastic waste while visiting smaller towns and villages flows directly or indirectly into the sea. The only way we can save our oceans from choking is to drastically reduce, if not completely stop, our consumption of single use, non-biodegradable products.
Lunch was so good, I had the very same thali again for dinner and went to sleep under a star-filled sky.
Total distance: 74 km
Total riding time: 6 hours
Elevation gained: 923 m
Water crossings: 1 – Dande to Vijaydurg
Total travel costs: ₹400
Districts traversed: 2 – Ratnagiri; Sindhudurg
Avinash Pangrekar’s number (to cross from Dande to Vijaydurg): 08806888357
Sanket Rahane’s number (historian at Vijaydurg): 09168316179
Day 6: Vijaydurg to Tarkarli
February 20th, 2018
160 km away from the border with Goa, I was now in the southern reaches of the Konkan. This meant that the hills and climbs were now shorter, but more frequent. My average speed shot up as I cruised along the only road out of Vijaydurg and reached the junction with the SH-4 at Padel. The tree cover was getting denser and I could feel the slow transition from a subtropical to a tropical climate.
Mango trees were everywhere. Some were bearing small fruit, and some none yet. I was well and truly in the heart of the most famous mango producing region of the world.
Just as it began to get warm, I reached Devgad – famous worldwide for its exemplary Hapus mangoes. I parted with the SH-4 as I saw that a newly constructed coastal bridge connected Devgad with Kunkeshwar along the coast. As Devgad Fort was situated on the other end of the city, I would have to climb down and then up a big hill to get there, and repeat the same on my way back. I decided to skip it as I raced downhill towards the bridge.
For some reason, I was riding right in the centre of this bridge. It had high concrete walls and all I could see were the golden sands of Mithmumbari beach on the other side. Something told me to take a picture of the beach from the side of the bridge. This is when I happened to look backwards and my eyes were blinded by the clearest water I had ever seen. Different hues of blue and turquoise shaded the river as it collided with the Arabian sea. Schools of multi-coloured fish and eels roamed around in these sheltered waters, clearly visible from over 30 feet away. A calm fishing village rested by its sides. There was not a speck of trash anywhere in sight. I hope that future visitors to this pristine location will respect its natural purity and sanctity.
I pedalled on and arrived at the beach. The windmills of Devgad were visible in the distance. The sands were spotlessly clean, the road had next to no traffic. I sat down and watched migratory gulls prey on small fish with no sound other than that of the gentle waves lazily caressing the beach.
I reminded myself that it was 10:30 am and I hadn’t even had breakfast when I forced myself to get back onto the road again. The road towards the temple town of Kunkeshwar now hugged the sea as it climbed steeply up for around 40 m and then descended straight past the temple, onto the beach.
A lot of construction activity was going on in and around the temple, with concrete structures and a road having been constructed right in the middle of the wide sandy beach. I stopped for breakfast at a fast food joint right behind the temple.
It was only 11:30 am, and I was full of energy. With good road conditions and shorter hills, riding another 50 km to Malvan was very achievable. I just had to be sure to keep hydrating myself under the afternoon sun.
Just as I left Kunkeshwar, I was greeted with a big climb, the last 100 m climb of the route until Goa. I kept riding through sparsely populated villages until I reached the village of Munage. Here, I had the option to go forward and try and make a river crossing to Achara Beach, or turn inland with the highway and cross the Achara river over the bridge. Most villagers I asked said that a jetty did exist, but it would be very difficult to spot an operating boat on this side at that time of the day. Furthermore, I couldn’t find any record on Strava or the internet of any cyclist having taken this route. If I didn’t get a boat to take me across, I would have to climb all the way back up to Munage in the torrid heat. This deterred me as I turned inland, and I chose a stony off-road trail instead of the highway. I probably chose this trail just to feed my adrenaline, which was more than satisfied as I navigated steep drops and a narrow bushy path until I re-joined the highway right before the bridge.
It was now 2 pm, but the road ahead was wide, flat and of excellent quality. On the flip side, I was accompanied by light truck and bus traffic on the route for the first time since Mumbai. As I had a nariyal paani, I thought I could push myself until Malvan and have a big meal there instead of breaking for lunch near Achara.
The road was getting flatter as I got closer to Malvan and was lined by trees on both sides. I zipped through and rolled into the town of Malvan at 4 pm.
The town was entirely flat and I was finding this topography rather bizarre after being accustomed to constant undulation since Mumbai. There were also crossroads and some light traffic congestion to deal with, but thankfully no traffic lights.
What struck me was the number of people on bicycles. From elderly women to school kids, everyone in Malvan appeared to be casually riding a bicycle. I decided to head towards the southern beaches of Tarkarli, which seemed to have more homestay options.
I checked myself into Shree Ganesha Home Stay, got some chai and bhajiyas into my stomach and walked onto the golden sands of the beach with my book. There were a few tourists further down the beach, mainly around the official MTDC resort, but I was surrounded by nothing but golden sands and a few curious and friendly beach dogs.
Once the sun set I dusted myself off, left the beach, had a shower and joined the family running the home stay for dinner. The high culinary expectations I had of the region were surpassed, if not shattered.
I had really pushed myself with the day’s ride, and could finally afford to wake up a little later the next morning.
Total distance: 92 km
Total riding time: 8 hours
Elevation gained: 986 m
Water crossings: None
Total travel costs: ₹ 0
Districts traversed: 1 – Sindhudurg
Day 7: Tarkarli to Vengurla
February 21st, 2018
With the Goa border only 67 km away, I decided to spend the morning by visiting Sindhudurg fort or a dive site around it. I would return for lunch to the homestay, and then ride to Vengurla, the last town before the border with Goa.
I woke up at 8 am, and rode back up from Tarkarli to Malvan’s Dandi beach. The first thing I noticed was the number of trucks on the beach. Instead of taking the road, trucks transporting fish seemed to prefer to cruise along the length of the beaches of Malvan.
Besides the small shacks offering water based activities mushrooming all over the beach and the frenetic truck activity, the beach was pristine. Forming quite a dramatic setting, Dandi beach and Wayari beach merged into a narrow isthmus that jutted out towards the island fort of Sindhudurg.
I approached one of the shacks, and asked if could rent a kayak and paddle out and around the fort. They said they had stopped renting out kayaks for security reasons.
A bit disappointed, I decided to settle for a tandem dive at a site next to the fort walls. I knew it would be commercial and would have preferred to dive freely at one of the highly-acclaimed spots further away. However, with my time constraints, this was the only way for me to discover the marine life that inhabited these waters.
I waited for 10 minutes as the men working at the shack opened a bottle of liquor (it was 10:00 am after all, a perfectly acceptable time to start drinking in the Konkan), when a boat approached the beach. I was ushered in with a bunch of excited tourists from Pune and we were taken to a larger boat that was harboured by the fort walls.
The divers took turns escorting the tourists on tandem dives. No lessons, tips or instructions were given of any kind. All we had to do is breathe and not move. While we waited, we were free to put on snorkels and float around the boat. As I had my first glimpse, I saw that the waters were teeming with life! Fish of every shape size and colour were abundant in and around the boat. The dive itself was brief but interesting as we saw some old stone idols and a lot of marine life in and around the bleached corals on the bedrock.
Sadly, I did not have time to visit the inside of the fort as I would have to return to the beach and take another boat to visit it.
I cycled the 6 km distance back to my homestay, and wolfed down another Malvani-styled thali. The delicious food was making it difficult for me to leave, but after half a day without riding to explore I was itching to get back onto the road. I bid my lovely hosts goodbye and was on the road by 1 pm.
Tarkarli beach was shaped like a long extension jutting southward, with the Arabian sea to the west and the Karli river to the east. This meant there was only one way in and out by road. Taking the inland bridge over the Karli would be a 22 km long diversion from the coast. Again, Strava’s heatmap told me that cyclists had previously crossed the Karli river from Tarkarli itself instead of taking the road bridge. That was all I needed to know as I rode towards the end of Tarkarli’s peninsula, towards Devbaug.
But when I arrived at the jetty next to the Mahapurush Temple, it seemed like the entire district had chosen to hibernate indoors, away from the afternoon sun. I looked at all the empty boats anchored by the riverside, hoping for someone to show up. An old man appeared dramatically, making clouds of smoke with his beedi. Looking at me stare at the other side of the river with my cycle, he was a bit confused at first. Once I explained, he offered to take me across for a hundred rupees.
Cycle in hand, I followed him as we hopped onto a large motorboat. He continued onto a smaller, rickety rowboat. As I wondered if it would float, he bent over and pulled a rope and the smallest boat on the river drifted towards us. I realised that this crossing was going to be interesting.
After about 15 minutes of rowing, we reached halfway across the river. The tidal current was quite strong and he masterfully used the oar as a lever against the tiny mud islands to navigate. The small landing of Korjai jetty was finally in sight on the other side. But he wanted to smoke another beedi right in the middle of this intense physical exertion. I held the oar for him as he lit up. Sensing the opportunity, I asked if I could row. He laughed and told me I could try. A few strokes later I realised it was far more technical compared to the two oared boats I was accustomed to. I rowed until he finished smoking and returned the oar to him.
He dropped me at Korjai jetty, from where there was a steep climb right up to Chipi where a new airport to serve Sindhudurg district was under construction. Clouds of dust rose all around the site as truck after truck dumped debris, making it difficult to breathe. It was so dusty that the harsh afternoon sun rays were almost entirely blocked out.
After the airport, I was back in isolated country. I passed through the towns of Parule and Mhapan, where traffic was sparse. Life seemed even more laid back and relaxed if that were possible. Mango trees and plantations were far fewer than up north.
After a stretch of relatively flat terrain until Mhapan, there was now a series of big climbs before Vengurla. Road conditions were excellent, and with the heat subsiding, it was only getting easier to climb. Children returning from school cheered me on, giving me all the energy and motivation I needed.
As the sun got lower, I was passed by several cavalcades of foreign travellers on scooters. They were on their way back to Goa after a day spent in Maharashtra in pursuit a peaceful and isolated beach. Going by their sheer numbers I was already dreading the chaos on the other side of the border.
I reached Vengurla by 5:30 pm. As the length and breadth of Goa’s coasts are approaching total saturation, a spill-over of tourism from Goa is slowly creeping into Vengurla. This meant fewer homestay options and more resorts. The prices at some of the resorts were atrocious. I headed to the southern end of Vengurla beach, where it was a bit a more isolated. Somehow, I managed to find a lodge offering makeshift beachside huts less for an extremely reasonable price.
Once again, I head out to the beach for a sunset swim. Due to the lack of rocks, Vengurla beach was excellent for swimming. I made friends with a couple of beach dogs as they protected my bag from strangely aggressive crows, expecting to be rewarded. I gave them a banana each and returned to my hut.
Dinner at the was a slight disappointment as compared to the high standards set by Malvan, but satisfying nonetheless. I booked a bus ticket back from Goa to Mumbai for the next evening and went to bed.
Total distance: 42 km
Total riding time: 4:30 hours
Elevation gained: 516 m
Water crossings: 1 – Tarkarli to Korjai
Total travel costs: ₹ 100
Districts traversed: 1 – Sindhudurg
Day 8: Vengurla to Mapusa, Goa
February 21st, 2018
I woke up to see the sunrise on the beach. A cool northern breeze blew over as the sun peeked through the wall of casuarina trees shielding the beach. Brahminy kites and seagulls soared high above, trying to spot a meal in the morning light. Crabs of various colours and sizes scurried in and out of their holes on the beach. Since I had left Mumbai, I had motivated myself by the very thought of arriving in Goa successfully. After every pedal, I had told myself that I was closer to my target. Reaching Goa was a dream I was sleeping and waking up to. But in that moment on the beach, all I wished for was another 500 km of unexploited, pristine coastline before I reached Goa. There was only 25 km.
I left Vengurla at 7:30 am, and rode southwards. There was one big climb out of Vengurla, after then the terrain would be much flatter. I gave it my all as I tore through the descent past the small village of Mochemaad. As I passed Naichiad I spotted a church on the road, for the very first time since Mumbai. I rode past Shiroda and arrived at Aronda junction within an hour.
From here, I could either ride down to the Goan exclave of Terekhol and then take a ferry across the Terekhol river to Querim, or turn left and cross over the Aronda bridge into Goa. Terekhol was famous for its 17th century fort overlooking the river, but since the fort had been recently converted into a luxury hotel, I decided against visiting it and turned towards the bridge instead.
A few kilometres later, the border checkpost at Aronda appeared and I could see the bridge and Goa on the other side. 8 days of cycling and 561 km later, here I was. A message left in 2016 by a cycling group called TOD (Tour of Deccan) welcomed me to the state.
While the bridge had taken me to another state in the same country, it felt like I was in another continent. Signboards and roadside advertisements that were in Marathi, were now all in Russian. I knew that Russians controlled much of the land and trade (both legal and illegal) in these northerly parts of Goa, but I was taken aback by the profundity of their presence.
It was only 9:30 am but the roads were packed to capacity with tourists on scooters whizzing around in every direction. And these roads were considered the most isolated in North Goa. Funnily, I was the only one on two wheels wearing a helmet. I had to deal with yet another change – instead of respect and space offered by fellow motorists, I was now being pushed to ride on the side of the road by impatient tourists in jeeps.
I rode on south towards Arambol beach, as the rice plantations slowly disappeared and hotels and resorts sprung up on every inch of land. At 10 am, I reached at a beach shack at Mandrem beach where I got a celebratory beer and breakfast.
Mandrem beach was beautifully located with a clean tidal river flowing towards the sea. The beach itself was surprisingly clean. I spent the rest of the morning and the afternoon at the cafe as I watched the tide change directions in the river. My bus was at 8 pm from Mapusa, 23 km away.
I left Mandrem by 5:15 pm, and rode through crowds at Ashwem and Morjim on my way to Mapusa. As I crossed over the bridge from Morjim to Siolim, the signs and advertisements in Russian switched to English as I was well and truly in the heart of India’s most touristic parts.
I arrived at the bus stand an hour early, and waited by the side of the road until it was time to board. I took a mental picture of the bus stand and promised myself that I would return to that very spot on a bicycle.
There was another 1100 km on the western coast between Mapusa and Kanyakumari.
Total distance: 58 km
Total riding time: 4:30 hours
Elevation gained: 592 m
Water crossings: None
Total travel costs: ₹ 0
Districts traversed: 2 – Sindhudurg, Maharashtra; North Goa, Goa
Finally, after 584 km of riding through the Konkan, I had an answer to the question I had before I set out on this journey. Was it worthwhile visiting coastal Maharashtra?
Yes, and I now consider it to be one of the most beautiful regions in the world! I hope that through my words and pictures, I was able to share with readers some of the incredible cultural, environmental and historical wonders that lie along Maharashtra’s Konkan coast.
But why is tourism in coastal Maharashtra is not marketed as much as Goa?
Of course, a direct comparison would be unfair to both regions, but a major factor in my opinion is the relative isolation of coastal Maharashtra. Due to the hilly nature of the terrain and lack of major entry points, arriving at any beach destination on the Konkan coast from Mumbai or Pune still consumes the significant part of a day.
Things are changing rather quickly though. Tourism is growing exponentially in and around a few pockets such as Dapoli and Malvan, as more roads and bridges are built in the region. The airport being constructed in Sindhudurg is expected to open by the end of 2018. Sensing the potential, some politicians have even made comments about constructing a wide, commercial highway sticking to the coastline – a potential environmental nightmare.
An increase in the number of tourists brings in more opportunities for big hotels and resorts, many of which have bought large amounts of land and have begun to clear large sections of forest and mangroves to construct their facilities. Rarely does the influx of tourist money trickle down to the locals when big hotel and resort chains are set up in a developing area. The worries don’t end there. Dolphin sighting tours are often harmful to marine life. Waste disposal facilities do not exist anywhere, while shops selling plastic products are everywhere. Many reckless tourists find it adventurous to drive their vehicles on the beach, causing irreparable damage to the ecosystem.
Tourism cannot be stopped. But the thing visitors to the Konkan must learn is that most of the locals already live a very peaceful and ideal life. Hence, tourism has to be beneficial to their lives, and not disruptive. If we allow tourism to grow unchecked, we risk losing the invaluable heritage of the region forever.
For a sustainable model of tourism development to be applied across the region, the government does not need to look further than the Konkan’s very own Velas village. All of Velas’ accommodation options are homestays run by locals, while the village has evolved into a hub for eco-tourism where every local understands and appreciates the value of protecting and preserving their heritage. Our collective heritage as a species.
“I’ve never been to a beach destination in Maharashtra despite living here for most of my life. On the other hand, I’ve been to Goa over 15 times. How did that happen?”
I had been pondering over this question much more in the past few months than I did in my adolescence. Was coastal Maharashtra’s allure affected by a lack of infrastructure, was there an absence of marketing efforts or was it just that Goa had more to offer? Since Maharashtra’s coastline was seven times longer, I knew that the last possibility could not be true. I realised that in order to seek answers I would have to explore the coastline of Maharashtra by myself.
Now, during my time living in global megacities such as Santiago de Chile or Paris, I’d been commuting by bicycle for reasons including health as well as time and money saved on transport. So as soon as I moved back to Mumbai half a year ago, I bought a bicycle to explore routes in and around the megapolis. Many thought this was a terrible idea. If not the traffic conditions, the weather isn’t ideal they said. But I found that except for the two months of April and May, weather on the tropical island of Mumbai is very agreeable in the mornings and evenings. Perfect for riding and far better than many Northern European nations where large percentages of the population commute by bicycle. Rain is strictly limited to the monsoon months and with the right gear it’s not much of a hindrance either.
But to cycle while travelling across a region? Over the years, I’ve found that cycling is an excellent medium to connect with a region as it relentlessly compels you to employ all your senses which themselves are spiked to their maximums with adrenaline. From an explorer’s perspective, it’s cheap and easy to stop and take diversions with. And in coastal Maharashtra, a cycle goes almost everywhere a person can walk. If I was to explore the coast, it was going to be on a bicycle.
After a few clicks on the internet, it seemed like a decent number of cyclists been on this route previously. Most had done it in groups. A few had done it by themselves, as I planned to. To be honest, I had no idea what would come across my path or what path I would take on the expedition. Perhaps this wanderlust, this desire to lose myself within my own home state was the single biggest motivation for me to embark upon this journey.
If you’ve read this far, you might have noticed the use of the words explorer or expedition. This is because I strongly believe that all of us can be explorers. Also, expeditions don’t have to be in remote and uninhabited lands. The thirst to explore and learn something new is all it takes to make one an explorer or go on an expedition. It doesn’t matter if others have explored the same region before, because every expedition will conjure up unique, emotions and perspectives.
Read on as I plan this solo cycloexpedition in order to seek answers and discover what the coastline of Maharashtra had to offer.
The terrain of the Konkan
Two brief, but very relevant geography lessons.
The first is etymological. The coastal districts of Maharashtra, Northern Karnataka and all of Goa form a region known as the Konkan (Sanskrit for corner piece). The Konkan’s culture, language and people are all named such, especially in Maharashtra.
The second is more technical. Coastlines can either be submergent or emergent, formed by the relative submergence or emergence of the land with respect to the sea. And all of peninsular India’s coastline, barring the Konkan coast is emergent. Common features of emergent coastlines include sand bars, spits, coastal lagoons and river deltas. These generally make for a flat ride.
On the other hand, the submergent Konkan coast is filled with cliffs, mountains, inland plateaus and many many short and fast flowing rivers that form deep estuaries. In fact, the terrain is so rugged that the Konkan was the last major stretch in sub-Himalayan India to be connected by the railways, in an incredible feat of engineering that connected Mumbai and Goa by rail only as recently as 1998. This train journey is now considered one of the most scenic routes in India.
To get to Goa from Mumbai, I had the choice of these three routes at my disposal:
- National Highway 48 (in red) – Running from Delhi to Chennai via major cities such as Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore, this road witnesses a lot of high speed traffic. In Maharashtra, it mainly runs through the rain shadow of the Western Ghats, on the relatively high altitude of the Deccan Plateau. The best way to get to Goa from Mumbai by car, and the worst by bicycle.
- National Highway 66 (in green) – This infamous highway winds through coastal Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, all the way from Panvel on the outskirts of Mumbai to Kanyakumari. Formerly NH 17 before all National Highway’s in India were renumbered, this hilly two-laned highway is characterised by many ascents and descents, sharp turns and heavy truck traffic. It’s high fatality rate made it a certain no-go for me.
- Maharashtra State Highway 4 (in blue) – also known as the Sagari Mahamarg (Coastal Highway) – The existence of this road is a bit obscure but most maps display a road from Mandwa Jetty near Mumbai all the way to Vengurla, the last town in Maharashtra before the border with Goa. Even as it hugs the shore, it is regularly broken by deep estuaries. The authorities have built many bridges over these estuaries in recent years. But in many cases, the only way across is by boat. This was the road I planned to take.
Preparations & gear
I decided that I would require 7-8 days to complete this cycloexpedition, with some time to visit and explore each destination. As I couldn’t take more than 5 days off work in one go, I decided to break my journey in two phases of 4 days each. The first phase would take me from Mumbai to Ratnagiri and the second from Ratnagiri to Goa.
Physically, I had been training regularly. I had been on a multi-day cycloexpedition only once before, a 128 km long circumambulation of Pawna and Mulshi lakes that had taken 2 days. But I had been completing 40-50 km long rides on a weekly basis through the islands of North-western Mumbai, and was feeling fairly fit, especially on climbs.
My equipment included my mountain bicycle – a Fomas MTB 3.0 King – known now as the Coastslayer, a cycling helmet, one spare tube, one screwdriver tool kit, two pairs of riding clothes, one pair of pajamas, one pair of shoes, two bottles of water, two portable chargers, my cell phone, a DSLR camera, a GoPro, a book and lots and lots of homemade health bars.
All my gear fit into one top tube pannier pouch and a small 20 litre backpack.
Day 1: Mumbai to Diveagar
January 14th, 2018
On the morning of Makar Sakranti, I left from my Vile Parle home at 5:30 am in the morning. A few minutes later I was at Vile Parle Station where I got onto the luggage compartment of a refreshingly empty suburban local train. 40 minutes later, I arrived at Churchgate Station from where I rode another few kilometres to get to the jetty at the Gateway of India.
Of the several companies that ferry passengers from the Gateway of India to Mandwa, Ajanta is the only one that operates in the early hours of the morning. I paid ₹85 for my ticket and another ₹100 for the bicycle on board the Ajanta ferry, which departed promptly at 7 am.
About halfway through our 40 minute long journey across the Mumbai harbour, something magical happened.
Just as the sun rose above the morning mist, we saw two dolphins spin out of the water on the horizon. I had seen leopards and flamingoes in Mumbai before, but I never fathomed that the city’s murky waters were also host to these highly sentient aquatic mammals!
This short-lived moment was followed by something equally disastrous. Some tourists who were already enticed by the hungry sea gulls surrounding our boat, hesitated no more as they threw plastic packets of chips and cups of chai straight into the sea hoping that it would attract the dolphins. Of course it didn’t. I spoke to a few of the people who took part in this act and they believed they were committing a noble act by feeding the marine creatures. The fact that they were causing irreparable damage to the environment never crossed their minds.
At 7:50 am, I was out of the orderly Mandwa jetty and on the road to Alibaug, short on sleep and slightly annoyed due to the incident on the ferry. A sip of water, a health bar and a banana later, I was off towards Goa, with my heart-pumping and the only thing on my mind being the road ahead of me.
It only took ten minutes for disaster to strike. I had been warned before purchasing my basic, entry-level mountain bicycle that it could break apart any moment, but I had hoped that moment wouldn’t arrive during its first year. Bizarrely, the screw that connected the seat rod to the seat just snapped in half, which meant the seat was completely dislodged. I walked on with the cycle by my side in a futile hope to find a repair shop that would have the exact spare part, even as I contemplated the harsh reality of having to abandon my plans and return to Mumbai.
A few minutes later, I came across a hardware store that was just opening its shutters. I guessed that a regular 10-12 mm screw might just work and it did! Not just that, it was far sturdier than before. These repairs cost me a total of ₹8.
My plans back on track, I swiftly made my way through the town of Alibaug until I reached the town of Revdanda. This was the flattest section of the entire journey and I clocked over 20 km/hr despite moderate traffic and the usual morning chaos on the roads in and around Alibag.
After a quick vada-pav-and-chai breakfast in Revdanda town, I went to quickly glance at the ruins of the Portuguese-built Revdanda Fort. I didn’t spend much time there, but it looked like its centuries-old walls had many stories they’d like to tell. From a photographer’s perspective, the fort’s crumbing church tower and beach-side walls made for a very dramatic setting.
Leaving Revdanda at 12:30 pm I finally encountered the big challenge of the expedition – an uphill climb under the mid-day sun. Fortunately, this one wasn’t too hard as the green cover of Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary provided me with shade and refreshingly cool temperatures. I rode on and the golden sands of Kashid beach came into view an hour later.
Being a Sunday, the main entrance to the popular Kashid beach was extremely crowded. Famished, I headed straight for a khanaval to the south of the beach and rewarded myself with a delicious Konkani thali.
My energy replenished, I made my way towards the jetty of Agardanda where I had another ferry to catch. It was 2:30 pm and I had to catch the 4:15 or 5 pm ferries. Taking the one at 5:45 pm would mean riding the last stretch in complete darkness. As I had around 27 km to cover until the jetty I wasn’t very worried. I should have been.
The journey south from Kashid was excellent as I climbed hill after hill, with each descent rewarding me with panoramic views of pristine beaches and picturesque fishing villages. The road was smooth and a nice sea-breeze had set in. Just a few hours from Mumbai, just being here was very liberating.
As the imposing island fort of Janjira came into view, it struck me that I was in the erstwhile land of the Siddis. The Siddis were an Abyssinian (Ethiopian) people who had set up their own kingdom right here on India’s Western Coast, one of the rare instances where sub-Saharan Africans have set up their empire outside of the African continent. This intermingling of races, religions and cultures in the same town was a microcosm of the incredibly diverse history and culture of India’s Western Coast.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit the fort of Janjira, but I knew that I would be back to explore it properly due to its proximity to Mumbai. Now, because of the numerous photo-breaks I had taken, I was now racing against the clock to catch the 5 pm ferry from Agardanda. I had 15 minutes left and a little under 5 km to go.
Going past the town of Murud, just before the enchanting Khokari tombs where many Siddi Nawabs are buried, I crossed a set of ancient African Baobab trees. These trees most probably had been brought in and planted by Arabian or African traders many, many centuries ago. That the Western coast of India had historically witnessed high and significant volumes of sea trade were a known fact, but to see so many diverse relics of its splendour at the same spot was truly mesmerising.
I began to see how unfair it was for me to stereotype and compare coastal Maharashtra with Goa when every town and village in this region had so many of their own tales to tell.
Somehow, after being on the absolute verge of giving up the 5 pm ferry, I arrived at Agardanda jetty with no breath and 3 minutes to spare. I paid ₹47 for me and the cycle for the 15-minute-long ride to Dighi. The ferry departed right on time as I fuelled up with another health bar and mentally prepared myself for the last stretch of the day.
The jetty at Dighi was a gateway to another world. Very few tourists that thronged Kashid and Murud came this far south. I was now being greeted and cheered on by many locals who seemed quite excited at seeing an Indian citizen cycling alone on this route. As it got darker and my energy drained, this constant encouragement was a big motivation to climb the hill south of Dighi – the biggest climb of the day.
A few minutes past 7 pm, my wheels rolled into Diveagar. The entire village was filled with homestays and guest houses which were all entirely empty at the time. I had planned my journey in a way that I would avoid the weekend rush, but I hadn’t expected deserted resort towns. Upon asking a few locals, I ended up getting a good deal at Soham Guest House.
I had another scrumptious Konkani thali for dinner at Patil Khanaval and went straight to bed. It had been one of the longest days of my life.
Total distance: 110 km
Total riding time: 8:30 hours
Elevation gained: 788m
Water crossings: 2 – Mumbai (Gateway) to Mandwa; Agardanda to Dighi
Total travel costs: ₹232
Districts traversed: 3 – Mumbai (suburban); Mumbai (city); Raigad
Day 2: Diveagar to Murud Beach (Dapoli)
January 15th, 2018
I left my guest house at 7:30 am with a plan to reach the ferry crossing from Bagmandla to Veshvi before the afternoon heat set in, at which point I would establish my destination for the day.
The cool morning air was a bit hazy with the locals sweeping leaves off their courtyards and setting small mounds of them on fire to get rid of them. I exited Diveagar on a part-mud, part-cement road parallel to the beach. I then went past the fishing village of Bharadkol as I faced my first big climb of the day.
For the first time since Mumbai I faced bad, bumpy roads.
These potholed roads made the descent almost as painful as the ascent as I cursed myself for not having invested in cycling gloves or handlebar grips to sustain the shocks my hands were receiving. However, the cliff-side views of the sea right before Aravi beach took all thoughts of pain away.
Aravi beach is a 3.5 km long stretch of sand with relatively very little human habitation or resorts around. In my opinion, the closest truly isolated beach to the south of Mumbai.
After spending some time on this pristine beach, I rode on towards the popular coastal towns of Shrivardhan and Harihareshwar, but decided to skip visiting them as I was already behind schedule. As I approached Shrivardhan, the road quality went from terrible to excellent as I effortlessly climbed small hills while maintaining a steady pace.
I stopped for breakfast right before the road turned in towards Harihareshwar. Upon checking the map, I saw that there was a much shorter route via Kolmandale if I bypassed Harihareshwar altogether. In my haste, I didn’t check the elevation profile of the hill in front of me. As it became terribly hot around 10:45 am, the climb became more and more relentless. I absolutely had to get the 11:30 am ferry across, as the next one would only be an hour later and I hadn’t even stopped for lunch yet.
The most draining part of this climb was that even after a series of switchbacks, the ascent didn’t end. I kept climbing under the scorching sun onto an open plateau. This was the village of Kolmandale. I now had less than 10 minutes to get to the ferry and the descent was finally in sight! The road opened to a wide view of the Savitri river and I could see passengers and vehicles slowly boarding the ferry. I let go of my brakes entirely as I tore through the slope and made it to the ferry with a minute or two to spare. This was the second time I cut it close with the ferry crossings.
As my heartbeat calmed on the ferry, I realised I had a big decision to make up ahead. I had studied the map extensively via Google Earth and I knew I had to cross the Bharja river before I got to Kelshi. From Kelshi the road was rather straightforward on to Murud Beach, my target destination for the day.
The route suggested by Google, the only plausible one, was to take a left and then go further inland where a bridge existed. I really wanted to take the coastal route via the village of Velas, famous for its annual turtle festival. Visiting Velas and then taking the bridge would have meant at least another hour of cycling through very hilly terrain. This would have certainly resulted in me not reaching my day’s destination.
Now, sometime during the end of 2017, Strava, a popular software used to map rides had compiled all its user information in a compiled global heatmap. What this meant was I could now see every ride made on Strava in the world.
Out of curiosity, I checked to see what route the riders before me had taken. While almost every rider had chosen to take the long and winding land route, there were indeed a few that had taken the coastal route via Velas and crossed over to Kelshi by boat!
So as soon as I got off the boat at Vesavi jetty, I asked around if there was any chance of getting a boat to get to Kelshi. Most bus and lorry drivers said there was no such service, and I would have to come back the same way if I headed towards Velas. Some said that at times a service exists, but you need to call the fishermen in advance to arrange for a boat to take you across.
Dejected, I was about to take the inland route, when one of the lorry drivers got off the phone with someone and told me there was a possibility of a boat being there to take people across! This one semi-endorsement of my route was enough to get me racing towards Velas.
Turning right from Vesavi, I went on through the fishing village of Bankot, and onto one of the most dramatic roads I have ever been on in my life. It was a thin stretch of dirt road wedged between high cliffs to the left and the sea and river crashing into each other on the right. By now, there was little doubt in my mind about the coastal splendours that the state of Maharashtra offered.
Fifteen minutes later, the village of Velas appeared, cradled between the sea and the mountains. There was no activity on the village streets and no one in sight. The only I found open was Uphadhye Homestay. I asked if they could serve me lunch, and they said they could only offer me basic chapatti and bhindi. After a few heavy Konkani thalis the previous day, this was just what I wanted.
Lunch amidst the family and their son was an incredibly humbling affair. Food was absolutely delicious, particularly the freshly made coconut chutney they served me.
Over lunch, it took us less than ten minutes to become friends.
Omkar, who runs the homestay along with his wife Mrunal, told me about the village and its famous turtle festival. He went on to tell me about their love for the environment and the commitment of the villagers to ensure tourism is sustainable. The owners of the homestays help each other and organise regular village and beach clean ups. Hearing about such ideals and morals in this tiny village made me realise that it is a complete fallacy to assume knowledge and progressive development are only restricted to big urban centres.
Regarding the route, Omkar told me that he could not guarantee there would be a boat to ferry me across but there was a chance of one. He said that the road ahead was densely forested and was where he had been attacked by a leopard when he was younger, but during the day there was nothing to worry about.
Going past the beach, which had informative boards teaching visitors about the local flora and fauna, I climbed a hill filled with mango trees from top to bottom. An obvious indication that I had now crossed into the famed Ratnagiri district.
As I crested the hill, Kelshi beach and the river I had to cross came into view. Below me, I could see a small bauxite mining operation. I rode down and asked if there was someone who could take me across. The only man there pointed to a boat and told me that once they were done with work for the day, they would go back across the river and would take me too. Even though my wait could be anything between 15 minutes and an hour, it was much lesser than the alternative. I was relieved.
Surely enough, after about 30 minutes an old man and two children appeared, pulled the boat out of the low tide and called me over. I hoisted my bicycle into the tiny boat and hopped in. Five minutes later, I got off onto a sand bar on the other side and rode through Kelshi village, which felt like a strange welcome back to civilisation.
From here I had a relatively flat ride to Murud beach through mangroves and small coastal villages. After passing by Anjarle, approaching Harnai, I began to see advertisements for hotels and resorts everywhere. The proximity of these beaches to the popular getaway of Dapoli has resulted in an abundance of resorts and homestays cropping up, especially in recent years.
Too late for me to visit the glorious sea fort of Suvarnadurg, I visited Harnai beach to see its fish market – one of the most incredible sights I have ever witnessed.
This is how the market works. The day’s fresh catch is transported onto smaller boats from the trawlers anchored down the bay. Bullock carts then enter the waves to bring the fish ashore and dump them right onto the beach to be sold. As a result, fish purchased by customers is as fresh as it can get. There are no fixed structures, no organisers or support staff. This massive popup market appears by itself every morning and evening, and disappears just as quickly.
I rode on a few more kilometres to Murud Beach and settled into a beachside homestay. I spent the rest of my evening reading on a hammock as the sun set and stars began to fill the night sky. In the distance the outline of Survanadurg and Harnai bay could be soon. Just a few hours from Mumbai by car, life here seemed to belong a completely different planet.
Dinner was again an excellent coastal affair. The solkadi served at my homestay was the best I had ever had, and I couldn’t stop myself from taking 3 additional refills.
Total distance: 79 km
Total riding time: 6:45 hours
Elevation gained: 836m
Water crossings: 2 – Bangmandla to Veshvi; Sakhari to Kelshi
Total travel costs: ₹90
Districts traversed: 2 – Raigad, Ratnagiri
Day 3: Murud Beach (Dapoli) to Velaneshwar
January 16th, 2018
The next morning I left my homestay once again at 7:30 am as I made my way along the coast, crossing Karde and Ladghar beaches. I avoided a long and very hilly detour via Dapoli by taking this route, even though most of the route was just a bumpy dirt road.
Through dramatic coastal scenery – the sea to my right and cliffs to my left, as always when heading south, I made my way to Ladghar beach without crossing a single car, lorry or motorbike. The only noises were the chirps of hundreds and thousands of birds waking up and the waves crashing onto the cliffs and beaches. It was one of the most serene mornings I had ever spent.
From Ladghar I had to take the SH-4 again. Looking at the map of the area, I saw that the route took a diversion to meet the highway because a small river separated Ladghar village from it. It made sense that a small pedestrian bridge should exist for the villagers to cut across, and upon zooming in onto Google Maps, I found one. Asking a few school boys on their way to school how I could get there, they provided me with perfect directions. I soon found myself riding through a narrow ridge between two paddy fields, across the bridge and onto the highway. This shortcut saved me around 4 km or 15 minutes of riding.
This incident made me realise how important it is to view mobile maps on satellite mode, not just while travelling, but also in everyday urban life. If we try to see and observe the terrain around us, who knows what we might encounter?
Now that I was unquestionably in the heart of the Konkan, today’s ride also had the most climbs in store for me. The terrain ahead involved a series of plateaus sliced by numerous small and large rivers, shaped such by high volumes of rainfall in the monsoon months. Typically, the slopes of each plateau were lush green and densely forested, while the plateaus themselves were mostly barren as trees had been cleared for farming. Valleys were filled with coconut, betel, banana and mango plantations, amongst others.
My average speed dropped from around 15-17 km/hr to around 10 km/hr as I climbed on endlessly from Tamastirth. What stopped me from giving up was me repeatedly telling myself that the descent would only be more enjoyable the higher up I went. It took me the greater part of an hour to get to the very top, from where a very enjoyable 15-minute-long downhill section got me to the tiny village of Panchanadi, almost at sea level.
I took a small break on the bridge crossing the river that sliced the valley to fuel up and then look for a source to refill my bottles of water. The two litres that they could hold had been completely exhausted for the first time on the expedition.
Looking around, I noticed the water of the river was incredibly calm and crystal clean! An egret looked to feed on small fish by the banks, populated by crabs of various sizes. The water itself was filled with multitudes of fish, as I had never seen before. The road I was on was indeed the same state highway – SH-4. But there was no sign of a vehicle anywhere in these parts.
This made me wonder if this is how rivers in and around Mumbai must have appeared before construction activity and non-biodegradable waste became a big part of our lives, until Sameer appeared on his bicycle. A resident of Panchanadi, he saw me looking amazed at the water. With a proud smile on his face, he explained how the residents made efforts to keep it clean and discouraged settlements on the banks of the river. He invited me to his home and helped me refill my bottles of water. He even asked me to have lunch with him, but as I had the ferry to catch from Dabhol, I had to politely decline his invitation.
Having lived in big cities all my life, the pace of life in these parts was nothing like I had experienced before, but something felt strangely familiar.
As I learnt by now that the ferries departed almost exactly as per schedule, I could not make the 11.15 am ferry, but could manage the one departing at 12 pm easily. I climbed on for another 25 minutes until the SH-4 connected with another road coming in from Dapoli and the descent began. I was accompanied by light traffic all the way down to Dabhol.
Dabhol was the biggest town I had come across after leaving Diveagar the previous day. Strategically located at the junction of where the Vashishti river met the Arabian sea, Dabhol was one of the biggest ports in the Konkan in the medieval era. Today, its erstwhile glory can only be seen in the stunning ruins of an ancient mosque built during the regime of the Adil Shahis.
As the town provides the only organised crossing of the Vashishti river after Chiplun – 50 km inland on the Eastern boundary of the Konkan, it has retained some of its importance in the region. The river itself is one of the biggest in the Konkan and hosts a population of muggers or riverine crocodiles further upstream.
I realised I had become accustomed to the solitude of the journey when I felt strange navigating through the maze of people near Dabhol’s bus stand as I finally arrived at the jetty at 11:50 am. I quickly drank a nariyal, grabbed a vada pav and rode onto the ferry.
Waters around Dabhol were clearer than anything I had seen further up north. I might not be correct, but my theory is that this had a lot to do with the sky and air quality. As I got further away from Mumbai, visibility and air quality was improving drastically.
I disembarked at Veldur jetty, still early for lunch, and rode on towards Guhaghar. I crossed the massive and highly controversial Dabhol Power Plant, once partly owned by the infamous American power company – Enron. I later learnt that this was the site of India’s largest foreign investment at the time, and had witnessed many protests due to allegations of corruption and environmental hazards generated by the plant. It was as calm as it could get when I passed by.
I had one big and long climb before Guhaghar and it was difficult. A heat wave had just set in and the region was seeing the hottest temperatures of the year – in January! With the thick smog that had followed me within a few 100 km of Mumbai no longer shielding me, I felt the brutal impact of the direct sun like never before in my life. My phone told me it was 38 degrees, but it was certainly more on the heated tarmac.
Finally, around 10 km later, the road began to descend from the plateau down towards the sea. I zipped past mango orchards and as the descent ended, I found myself in the coastal resort town of Guhaghar.
I had a massive lunch in a beachside restaurant and found sockets to charge my portable chargers. I had made good time and could afford to take a break. As I lay on the beach, with my sore body being massaged by the warm and golden sand, I was tempted to make Guhaghar my destination for the day. I decided to continue riding to make it easier to get to Ratnagiri the next day.
A cool sea breeze began to set in around 3:30 pm, my cue to leave if I had to reach Velaneshwar before sunset. Once again, I had two routes to choose from. The main SH-4 would take me inland, while a slightly shorter route ran along the coast. I could see the coastal route on the map, but Google refused to suggest it. I asked the owner of the restaurant about the best route by bicycle. It turned out that he was an avid cyclist as well!
He looked at my bicycle and its condition and was doubtful that it would make it via the shorter route. He warned me that the climb up on this route was extremely steep and the road on the other side was in bad shape. He also mentioned that the views of Guhaghar beach on this route would make the climb worth it – and that’s all I needed to hear! He was also kind enough to share the contact details of a homestay in Velaneshwar, in case I decided to spend the night there.
Going past the southern end of this narrow coastal town, I suddenly found myself in the wilderness again. As I headed further south the vegetation was getting denser and greener. The kind man from the restaurant was correct, this climb was hard. Burning every calorie from lunch, I somehow managed to ascend without getting off the bicycle – as I had conquered all climbs until now. Views of Guhaghar beach were stunning, as promised. I paused to take pictures, my only company being three Brahminy Kites gliding a few metres overhead.
His advice about the descent wasn’t correct though. He told me that the road was in bad shape, but in reality there was no road! The tarmac suddenly disappeared and a stony dirt-track took its place. It was time to test the suspension on my bicycle. A few exhilarating hairpin bends later, I was back down to sea-level with the glorious Palshet beach in front of me.
I had passed over 20 beaches in the past few days, but every new beach seemed to amaze me. Palshet was entirely deserted, with no hotel, hostel or homestay anywhere in its vicinity. A fleet of fishing boats was anchored just off the beach. The waves were so calm it felt like I could hear the entire bay breathe slowly.
A few minutes later, I saw a few local kids walking towards the beach with a football and cricket bat. Extremely jealous of them and their playground, I went on towards Velaneshwar.
The dirt road soon re-joined the highway, making the rest of the ride to Velaneshwar comfortable and smooth. Another big hill had to be climbed, and I climbed it quickly motivated by the fact that it was the last bit of riding for the day. A smooth downhill section later, I found myself directly on the main entrance to the Velaneshwar beach.
The homestay suggested to me by the restaurant owner from Guhaghar – Hotel Kalptaru, happened to right behind me, wedged between Velaneshwar’s temple and the sea. Its location could not have been more convenient.
After checking in, I spent the rest of the evening swimming in the sea. Due to the shape of the beach and the lack of rocks, I was able to venture much further into the water than elsewhere. It was the best way to relieve my sore muscles.
Due to their affiliations with the temple, this homestay only served vegetarian fare. Managed at the time by a young boy and his grandmother, the food cooked by them filled my not only my stomach, but also my heart. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try the famous modaks made by them. Just like every other place I had stayed at, I was the only guest. The three of us spent another couple of hours post dinner exchanging stories from our lives.
Once again, I went to sleep under a starry sky, with only the sound of the waves in my ears. This was the only thing that remained constant on my journey.
Total distance: 75 km
Total riding time: 7 hours
Elevation gained: 1057 m
Water crossings: 1 – Dabhol to Veldur
Total travel costs: ₹40
Districts traversed: 1 – Ratnagiri
Day 4: Velaneshwar to Ratnagiri
17th January, 2018
I left a little later than usual as I spent the morning watching the sun rise from the beach. My destination for the day was predetermined – I had to reach Ratnagiri by 5:30 pm to board my train back to Mumbai. However, I had around lesser kilometres to cover than the day before.
Leaving Velaneshwar at 7:55 am, I took the road leading out of the south of the town towards Hedavi as I climbed towards the SH-4 again. I had to catch a ferry from Tawsal after only 20 km, but to get there I had 4 moderately sized climbs to conquer.
This part of my journey was wonderfully isolated. In a flurry of morning aviary activity, I saw various species of kingfishers, the Indian roller bird and lots of Brahminy Kites. It was particularly refreshing to see elegant raptors such as the Brahminy Kites feeding on prey in the mangroves instead of scavenging on human refuse on the edge of towns and cities.
Out of sheer contrast, the massive towers of the JSW Coal Power Plant at Jaigad came into view as I crossed Rohile beach – another isolated beach with no sign of any human activity in and around it.
Just past 10 am I arrived at Tawsal jetty, surrounded by a grove of Casuarina trees with a clean and green creek flowing by it. Ferries from here across to Jaigad ran only once an hour and I had to wait for the 10:40 am ferry. I drank from an extremely sweet and refreshing coconut and had another vada-pav-and-chai breakfast. Soon enough, the ferry staff called for everyone to get on board.
As I glanced into the water from the ferry, something seemed strange. There were lumps of orange every 10 metres or so. The lumps seemed to be moving. At first I assumed there were some form of plastic waste, but upon closer inspection they were jellyfish! Hundreds of large, orange jellyfish were present all over these waters.
Mesmerised, I spent another 15 minutes on Jaigad jetty observing these beautiful sea creatures drift and move about with grace, their outstretched tentacles ready to grab any prey that came their way. In a few hours, I had seen some of nature’s most incredible creations, of colours one could only imagine. I had never seen or heard anything of this sort of bio-diversity existing on Maharashtra’s coasts.
Reminding myself that I had to get closer to Ratnagiri before I halted for lunch, I started climbing up from Jaigad jetty, past the JSW Coal Power Plant and a large township for its employees. I was taken aback seeing such a staggering amount of concrete. Then I realised I was headed back to Mumbai that evening.
An hour later, the road descended through mango orchards and I found myself by the coast again. I cycled along another isolated beach before the fishing village of Warwade came into view. Sheltered in the creek yet facing the open sea, this village was dramatically situated.
Life seemed so idyllic here, I wondered what large luxury hotel chains could bring to the local inhabitants of this region besides inequality and divide. Just as that thought crossed my mind, hoardings advertising 5-star resorts further down the road in Ganpatipule began to appear. The very same model of luxury tourism that had taken me to Goa in the past, now deeply repulsed me.
A few kilometres later, I arrived at the northern end of the relatively popular temple town and coastal resort of Ganpatipule. This part of the beach was called Malgund. After another splendid lunch at a local khanaval, I spent the afternoon gazing at multi-coloured crabs and translucent fish in the pristine tidal rock pools on the beach.
As the mid-day heat began to subside, I left Ganpatipule at 2:30 pm and cycled towards Ratnagiri on what was to be the most dramatic segment of my journey yet. The road was almost always parallel to the coast, with a series of climbs opening to sweeping views of Ganpatipule, Aare and Waare beaches. A coconut water vendor on one of these panoramic lookouts told me that this coastal road was relatively new, laid after a bridge linking Aare and Waare beaches was constructed.
The forthcoming impact of this connectivity to some of the best preserved beaches in peninsular India scared me, but my fears were slightly alleviated upon seeing constant boards in various languages reminding travellers to respect their natural surroundings.
At 4:30 pm, I rolled into Ratnagiri town. I rode to a spot closer to the centre from where it would be convenient for me to restart my journey. As the railway station was far from the city centre, and up a big hill, I chose to get there by rickshaw as a reward for having made it this far.
After boarding the train, all I could think/dream/fantasise about on my way back to Mumbai was the moment I’d be back in Ratnagiri, and back on the road again.
Total distance riden: 64 km
Total riding time: 6 hours
Elevation gained: 1057 m
Water crossings: 1 – Tawsal to Jaigad
Total travel costs: ₹38
Districts traversed: 1 – Ratnagiri
Read Part II by clicking on this link.
Anyone who has spent a more than a week in India knows that we’re a nation that loves ‘hill stations’. From ancient Indian mythology to the colonial British to Bollywood movies, a visit to any of the various hills and mountains of India has always been marketed as a positive experience by all and sundry.
Also, anyone who has also spent at least a day on the internet in the past decade has seen or heard the phrase, ‘Don’t be a tourist, be a traveller’. At times it seems well-intentioned, while at times it comes across as rather pretentious.
What’s so charming about the mountains? And what’s with being a tourist or traveller? Read on as I try to answer these questions from both perspectives.
Why tourists visit the hills and mountains
1. The weather
One of the most obvious of reasons. For at least half the year, the plains of India are quite warm. Lower temperatures and cool breezes are extremely comforting. The air tends to be cleaner. They’re also our only opportunity to brush the dust off the woollens stashed deep inside our closets.
2. The sights
Most hill resorts in India have a set of sights or viewpoints where one can marvel over the splendidness of nature, and the planet we inhabit at large. As tourists, it is customary for many of us to visit these spots, as we are also excited to get those priceless pictures that we can go back and share with friends and family.
3. Tourist infrastructure
Another reason why many tourists visit the hills and mountains simply is the plethora of resorts, hotels and lodges available there. From luxury spas to arcades filled with cheap thrills, there are a ton of things to distract our minds with. A relaxed, festive mood with something for everyone to do is why many tourists love hill stations in India.
4. To escape
Life in the Indian plains can be very stressful. In the big cities, one needs to compete just to be able to pay exorbitant sums for products and services. One needs to then compete further just to enjoy these products and services. No wonder then, that the isolation of these hill stations provides for an excellent escape from daily life for many tourists.
No shame in being a tourist or a traveller
Before moving on to the travellers’ part, I’d like to clarify that there is nothing wrong with being a tourist or a traveller. They just have different intentions. We should not judge either one of them. In fact most of us, if not all, are a varying mixture of both when we travel.
However, if we lived in a binary world, I’d say that tourists visit the hills and mountains to recharge their batteries before going back to their lives. Travellers visit the hills to figure out what why their batteries were built and what they run on.
Why travellers visit the hills and mountains
The journey up to the top, whether it’s by jeep, bus, bicycle or on foot, is always extremely rewarding for a traveller. I’ve found that looking back down at the valley floor is one of the best motivations to keep going on, regardless of my destination. The mountains provide an instant, tangible gratification that is not easily seen elsewhere.
Hills and mountains in India are hotspots of cultural, natural and historical diversity. In a few hours or with an altitude gain of just a few hundred metres, one can see the entire landscape change. Cultures change; the way the locals talk, appear and behave is different. The potential to discover and experience so many different elements in the same region is a traveller’s dream.
Ideally, learning can be done anywhere. With anything. However, the isolation that the mountains provide us from the relative chaos of the plains make a very conducive environment for self-learning and discovery. Couple this with the incredible diversity of the region as mentioned above and it’s not hard to imagine why those who seek to learn more are so attracted to the mountains.
4. Comfort (in the lack of it)
One very telling element that you are in the hills and mountains of India, is how much more welcoming people are to other humans. They’ve learned that to try and survive such an environment alone would be suicidal. On the contrary, this harsher, more unforgiving landscape provides travellers with a setting to challenge themselves as they push themselves to discover their own boundaries.