Matheran Hill Station


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December 19th 2008
Published: January 6th 2009
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Cannot believe it's been 8 months since we returned to Blighty and all the accompanying trials and tribulations - due to overwhelming popular demand (specifically my cousin Alan...) thought I'd better finish this long overdue blog before the details fade from my uncertain memory bank, so here goes....

And so we wobbled into Matheran in some style, and booked into the Lord's Hotel just in time for dinner - absolute bliss, French onion soup and crusty bread, fabulous curry and rice main course, Floating Islands for desert, it set the scene for the next two weeks at this impeccabley clean tho' slightly shabby hotel (but then we were fairly shabby after 14 weeks on the road so we fitted in perfectly). Our apartment was set in a row of chalets overlooking a magnificent valley that afforded the best sunrises in Matheran; hot shower, cosy bedroom, veranda with panoramic views but secure from the ravages of the monkeys that maurauded on our roof, as long as we kept the doors shut....mistakes were made, and the room needs fumigation when they do manage to get in. We soon settled into a comfortable routine; call room service at 8am for tea/coffee/biscuits, breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit and the ubiquitous curry, if so inclined, in the communal dining hall, 3 course lunch, afternoon tea and biscuits by the pool, 3 course evening meal, all served by our very own waiter who resembled an Indian version of Jeeves, tall, dignified with a shock of white hair, formal in the extreme and attentive to our every need.

Everything about the hotel reflected the Raj influence of Mr Lord, the avuncular looking Englishman who founded it, sadly now deceased. Mrs Lord, his Asian wife, now runs the hotel in the same vein - she was a child in North India when Partition took place and had hair raising stories to tell about those turbulent times; she was smuggled South into India to safety by an English family and credits these people with her very existence. Many years later she visited England and sought out the gentleman who had orchestrated her escape - his family took her to visit him in his care home in England; blind, frail and suffering from advanced dementia he was locked in his own private world and no longer communicated with or recognised anyone. Mrs Lord sat with him and thanked him for literally saving her life. As she said her goodbyes and rose to leave there were tears coursing down his cheeks.....

Her adult life was informed by this act of kindness, and she has been instrumental in maintaining education for generations of children in the isolated Matheran village. The only school there was a church run institution, and when funding was threatened she campaigned for a year with the powers that be to maintain the school, to no avail. In desperation she wrote to Mother Theresa to plead her case. Mother Theresa wrote back personally, regretting she had no jurisdiction or influence, but promising to pray for divine intervention. She was in fact on her death bed at this point, but somehow permission was given for the school to continue to operate and it still operates today - food for thought...Mrs Lord could be seen in the dining room most afternoons, giving English tuition to shoeless urchins and upbraiding them for being late or forgetting their work books; some childhood behaviour is universal. She is held in high regard in the community, and many local shopkeepers attribute their successful livelihoods to her benign influence. Long may she prosper.

Matheran lies high up in the hills, served by red dust roads strewn with boulders and scarred by the monsoon rains and winter snows - life here must be very hard during these times, on occasion it has been totally cut off for months when the tiny railway line that services to village is disabled by landslides. Somehow it survives. The only other transport is by horse or Shanks' Pony and we had the good fortune to come across Sunny, 21 year old owner of two horses who made it his mission to guide us around the hills and forests surrounding Matheran during our stay. The horse riding trade is the chief income for the Matheran inhabitants; 450+ horses serve all the tourists who flock to the area from Mumbai at the weekends and holiday seasons. Friday evening sees an influx of the new middle class of Mumbai who spend the weekend ricocheting around on mounts of varying size and shape. The tourists are also of varying size and shape and care has to be taken when allocating the horse to the rider. The terrain is rugged, most Indians can't ride and accidents can happen.

Our horses were perfect for our needs, well trained, fit and well cared for, tho we saw some in operation that weren't so fortunate. There is every size and type of animal, from broken down old nags to magnificent Arab and English steeds, all of them spending all day every day traversing back and forth from the main street to the many 'points' that afford views over the magnificent valleys and peaks of Matheran. Our second foray into the forest took us out to Sunset Point, the horses picking their way along a narrow path with steep forest to the right and an abyss to the left. We dismounted just short of the point as the way was too dangerous for riding. I elected to stay with the horses as vertigo was getting the better of me, but Ken continued alone on foot to the peak itself. Perched at the very top, miles from anywhere, was a fountain that would have looked at home in Narnia - an ornate stone built edifice with stone seating. The British had erected the fountain, Lord only knows why or how they managed to organise the plumbing, but organise it they did. Sadly devoid of water since the Brits left, it still stands as a tribute to their ingenuity not to mention their devotion to all things British, however useful or necessary...a magnificent folly and all the better for being totally surplus to the requirements of survival.

By the time we got back to base we had ridden 17kms, which for my second expedition on horseback in my entire life demanded a couple of days out of the saddle to recover. Ken was much more confident on horseback from the beginning than was I. Sunny gave me some lessons i.e 'body front!' when going uphill, 'body back!' when going downhill (instead of the other way round, which I was doing initially, not good) and yelling 'Side!, side!' very loudly, which meant get out of the way unless you want to be trampled. That was the sum total of formal training and it is a tribute to Sunny's care and patience that we both survived unscathed. I was more than happy to plod along slowly taking in the scenery, Ken was more adventurous and wanted to try a gallop. At the very top of the hills was a rudimentary racetrack - the local horse boys hold an annual race here (Sunny's horse Captain, Ken's mount, had won it twice) and professional jockeys from Mumbai come here to train. So early one morning we rode there in convoy for Ken to give it a go, under the watchful eye of Sunny. This was a racecourse so far removed from the norm in England or, I suspect, anywhere else that it really did not qualify for the title - a rock hard,boulder-strewn oval of ochre dust more appropriate for a gladiatorial contest than the sport of kings. I dismounted as Captain's stable mate had the inclination to copy his movements to the letter and no way was I galloping anywhere. And so they set off to the far side of the course, and began to run....even from a distance I could sense the fear as they gained speed, thankfully Sunny still holding Ken's bridle, as Captain was hot to trot and wanted to pull all the stops out. Sadly our camera was not good enough to record the expression on Ken's face accurately, but let's just say he tended to adopt a more sedate pace on subsequent expeditions. There's more to this riding lark than meets the eye...

We had the honour of being invited to Sunny's home for dinner one evening to meet his family - down a small side street his home was the size and style of a prefab, immaculately tidy (unlike the one I lived in many years ago) and home to mother, sister, father when home from his work and his younger brother who was on the brink of achieving his jockey's licence in Mumbai, financed solely by Sunny's labours with his horses in Matheran. Once again treated like honoured guests by people we hardly knew, we were fed and watered then taken to the stables where Sunny kept his horses overnight. A large, seemingly makeshift shelter, dimly lit by oil lamps, the smell of hay and feed, the stamp and snort of horses at rest after a hard day's work, in one stall a 'vet' (no white coats here...' ) massaging a mount that had suffered an injury, horses being brushed and groomed, it felt more medieval than 21st century, and had been thus for over 100 years. Brilliant. On our final visit to bid farewell, we found Sunny's brother lying bandaged on a bed - two month's away from qualifying for a lucrative career on Mumbai's racetracks he had fallen and received a groin injury from his horse - all that training now on hold for at least a year while he recovered. No-one railed against fate, they just get on with it...puts us whingeing poms to shame. One final observation; Indian horses don't eat carrots! I bought some especially as bribery to our mounts to treat us gently and they were not impressed. Why is this? Thought carrots were universally enjoyed by horses the world over, but no....Now, biscuits....don't declare them too close to the edge of a cliff, the animals can get greedy and start nudging for more, a bit worrying.

Our first weekend in Matheran was an annual holiday and our chalet had been pre-booked by nouveau riche IT Mumbai folk for two days of merriment, bad horsemanship and consumption of sweets - there are stalls on the main drag dedicated solely to the sale of incredibly sweet confectionery, with the appearance slabs of tar, the consistency of India rubber and tasting like condensed treacle, this stuff is purchased and consumed by the kilo by the tourists - in the spirit of research we sampled some. The main ingredients seem to be jaggery and various spices, and all shops sell out completely over a weekend. One square was enough for us, we value our fillings, but evidence showed that 'sugar rush' is more than a figure of speech - these folk are high on saccharine and the kids are hyper on the stuff. So we had to decamp to another hotel for that weekend, and the only one with any vacancies was 'Matheran's only 5 star Spa Hotel', an imposing edifice at the top of the town, think Portmeiron with monkeys. Didn't seem too much of a hardshop initially, what's not to like about modern/clean/luxury? Quite a lot as it transpired...

'Luxury' Indian hotel rooms do not bear too close inspection, attention to detail is not a strong point particularly in the bathroom area (the Taj in Mumbai being one exception we came across, of which more later). Anyway, it was only two nights before we went back to Lord's so we knuckled down and settled in. The first disappointment was the wretched monkeys - these seemed far more aggressive than the inhabitants at Lord's, maybe they have higher expectations of easy pickings, but sitting on our balcony for a quiet read there was a sudden thud right in front of us and there was a big male with bared teeth swiftly scanning for plunder, food, anything within reach - swiftly making our escape inside and locking the door, he remained at the window glaring at us, swiftly cleared the patio table of water/glasses in a fit of pique then moved on to more promising sites. We were effectively imprisoned in the room, being too far away from the main hotel to be guarded by the staff patrolling the grounds with industrial sized catapults, the sole defense against these things. If one is being pointed at a monkey it knows to get out of the way or get hurt. If you don't have one, you're screwed...

Then the clientel.....obviously more affluent than we were used to, we had the unfamiliar experience of being ignored, not out of rudeness, but simply because we didn't warrant any attention...it was like being invisible, which after 3 months of being 'high profile', purely because of our novelty factor, was a bit unsettling. Not that we felt we merited special treatment, but to these people we were just superfluous to requirements, below the radar. They also treated the staff in the same manner, so it wasn't just us being spoilt brats. Dinner was served buffet style al fresco by the pool, and there we witnessed the strangest and most pointless Magician's act ever. A lengthy hectoring monologue in Maharashtran would be puncuated, inexplicably, by the cry 'Come on, Charlie!' whereupon with a flourish he would manifest an unimpressive scrap of material from about his person and bow, awaing applause that never came..anyone know what that would be about? Did British officers exhort their servants to 'Come on, Charlie' when attempting to jiffy them along? I would be interested to learn, must ask my Dad. Anyway, we were not impressed by the hotel, and with a sigh of relief returned to the welcoming Lord's on Monday morning, grateful that we could not afford to stay at the Spa even if we wanted to.

So began our last week in Matheran, prior to winging our way home. Spent it swimming in the deserted swimming pool, riding with Sunny, lazing around and generally observing the comings and goings of the local folk. One evening a commotion coming up from the station caught our attention; bells, flutes, drums, and a raggedy looking crowd dancing and singing up the hill - two rickshaws propelled by several coolies, a double wedding arriving - two young Indian girls, downcast eyes looking terrified, two Indian men (older, but not too old!) looking as pleased as punch with themselves......The celebrations went on far into the night. Asked Sunny if he wanted to marry, said he had found a girl he liked, she agreed, his family agreed, her father violently disagreed, no daughter of his would marry into the horse riding trade, so it wasn't gonna happen. I suggested maybe just go ahead anyway, what would be the harm? 'Her father would kill me' said Sunny, and by his tone realised he meant it....so back to the drawing board....Arranged marriages are the norm but all parties concerned have to agree. It is not so common for forced marriages to occur, tho' as on recent news this does happen even in England.....

Reluctantly we bade our farewell to Mrs Lord and the staff at Lord's - as we were going home, we distributed all the bits and bobs of clothing/towels/accumulted excess to requirements stuff amongst the staff who had cooked, served,washed and ironed clothes and generally treated us much better than we deserved, tipping as we felt appropriate. Very humbling when a cleaner tries to kiss your feet when you give him a worse-for -wear pair of sandals, as happened to Ken....gratitude for any gratuity is so out of proportion to the value of the gift it gets embarrassing, so left it to Jeeves to distribute amongst his staff. Mrs Lord advised us not to get the first down train from Matheran, as that would put us on the rush hour train to Mumbai, which is not something to experience if it can be at all avoided....

The narrow guage train journey down to the valley put the icing on the cake - it takes an hour and a half to get to the train station in the valley, on the narrow gauge railway that clings to the mountain side, abyss on one side, sheer rock on the other, magnificent views and adrenalin fired excitement. There is a refreshment service available which we declined, the chap serving chai did so from outside the carriage, dodging rocky outcrops or clinging to the side of the train teetering over a sheer drop, balancing his wares in one hand....And so we reached the valley and boarded the last train of our trip. Mumbai next, then on to Chennai to connect with the flight we booked. Feels like time to go home.....

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