Thursday, December 17, 2015

Kondnaal - Trekking in the Kingdom of Boulders

Kingdom of unforgiving and hostile boulders making the descent arduous and time consuming; a cramped trek mate who is seething with pain; camera taking an unholy dip in the water ; guide along with other trek mates not in the range of shouting distance; darkness embracing the hostile terrain and end of the trek nowhere in sight! Welcome to the inhospitable world of Kondnaal - one of the toughest ghat routes to descend from Satara district to Ratnagiri district!

Plan of Kondnaal-Hatlot was brewing since last few months after completing a trail trek of Vadgaon-Kudpan-Pratapgad. Finally weekend of 5th and 6th Dec, 2015 was finalized after discussion with Nana (Sanjay Amrutkar). Since last few months, Pune group led by me and Nasik group led by Nana have been meeting on such offbeat treks. Considering the hostile terrain, I only invited experienced and long distance trekkers for this gruelling trek. 

From Pune side, we formed a group of four - myself, Tushar Kothawade, Mailikarjun Shirshetty and Santosh Kulkarni. Mallikarjun had contacted me on Facebook and shown keen interest to trek along with me. As he himself being a long distance hiker, I did not hesitate in adding him in my core group of trekking members. He suggested to add his childhood friend Santosh Kulkarni for this trek and as Santosh also seemed to be a regular trekker, I included him as well.

Considering the unfamiliar terrain, to avoid any risk and to get the ample time to descend Kondnaal, I changed the plan of starting from Pune early morning on Saturday 5.30AM. Instead, I proposed the idea of starting at Friday night. All trek-mates co-operated even after getting reprimanded by wives since it was effectively making trek duration longer. Finally we started around 8.15 PM from Sus Road and reached to Mallikarjun's home at Katraj by Santosh's car. We shifted our backpacks to Mallikarjun's swift and started our journey towards Par Village. Ram Vardayini temple was our halting point for the night.

Soon, ice was broken since I and Tushar were meeting Mallikarjun and Santosh for the first time. After having tea on the highway, we proceeded further. Finally, we reached to Par village in the wee hours of the night. Whole village was sleeping and surprisingly, much to our relief, there was not a single dog barking at us at night. Gates of the temple were open and we settled in one of the small temples in the premises and tucked inside the sleeping bag to get some sleep necessary to be fresh for the next day morning.

When we got up, it already had dawned outside. A lone snacks joint outside the temple was just opened and we requested the owner for tea. Till the time, tea was prepared, I ventured into one of the fields to click this frame.

Ram Vardayini Temple:

After getting the much needed energy from the hot tea, we proceeded towards Hatlot village. Soon, after reaching to Hatlot village, we parked the car in front of a house - the same house which had given shelter to us during unseasonal heavy rains in March 2015 when we had to abandon hike to Makrandgad . There was no sign of Nasik team yet. Till the Nasik team arrived, I arranged for the guide. Initially our guide "Chandrakant More" was reluctant to come as he had some work to finish. I asked him to finish his work quickly and he agreed to join us within half an hour.

I felt relaxed once guide was arranged. Soon, Nasik team too arrived and we ordered Pohe and Tea from the house where we had parked our cars. 

Stacks of boxes used to collect honey were arranged in front of the house and house owner gave us fresh honey to taste. This specially designed box is kept in the forest with some residue of honey and honey bees get attracted to it and start collecting more honey inside it. Once the box is filled with honey, it is removed from the forest, honey is extracted and sold in the market. Only registered members in the village are permitted to put these boxes in the forest.

Drinking tea inside the house:

After breakfast of Pohe followed by Tea, we started our hike around 9.20 AM. Our first aim was to reach to Ghonaspur, base of Makrandgad. 

Nice pattern of fields during start of the trek:

Nana always making sure to shepherd the team by staying last:

It was a steep ascent through the woods. At one point, we spotted a Giant Malabar Squirrel (called as Shekroo)  briefly. It disappeared quickly before we could take a photo. Instantly, memories of my Bhorgiri-Bhimashankar trek came flooding back to me.

 All seemed to be good in maintaining the pace and we reached to Mallikarjun temple quickly.

Madhu-Makrandgad was looking very tempting in the background of azure sky. 

Mallikarjun Temple:

Guide's confidence to descend Kondnaal in 3 hours made us overconfident and we decided to hike on Makrandgad first as we still had many hours of daylight available with us. Except Paresh who preferred to rest in the temple, we started our hike on Makrandgad.

(L to R) Tushar, Mallikarjun and our guide while ascending Makrandgad:

Going towards water cistern:

Ancient Water Cistern said to be from the era of Pandavas:

Shiva Temple on top:

Tranquillity inside the temple:

It was close to 12.30 PM when we reached back to Mallikarjun temple. I was of the opinion to directly start descending Kondnaal and have lunch around 2 PM but majority of the members were hungry and we decided to have lunch at Dhangarwadi as per suggestion from our guide.

Dhangarwadi hosted a single hut and I decided to click few pictures of the kid. Initially he was hesitant and scared to pose for the photo but after seeing himself in the photo in the camera, he became cordial to me and I got to click this natural expression of innocence.

We traversed the whole backside of Makrandgad on the trail. 

After walking for about 30 minutes, entrance of Kondnaal became visible. To reach to the opening of the Kondnaal, we had to negotiate a lot of scree.

Looking at the mighty cliffs of Sahyadri mountains made us awestruck as well as scared at the same time. We knew immediately the enormity of the task in our hand. Being in the unfamiliar terrain made the things looked more ominous. Having guide with us was the only comforting factor.

Finally, we started our descent. First descent was quite tricky where there was nothing to much to hold your hands or have firm grips of your feet. Utilizing the friction of body and the earth below, we somehow managed to overcome the initial descent.

The next part of descent was done taking the help of branches and stems of KarviWe were losing a lot of time upfront. Also, rocks were rolling down and we had to be careful in maintaining safe distance among the groups.

Once the initial difficult part of the descent was over, we relaxed a bit on rocks. We were assuming that later part of the descent would be easier but we were so wrong. There were few rock patches which were difficult to descend and we had to be utterly cautious to avoid any injury. On some rock patches, there were hardly any holds and again using the friction by touching maximum part of the body, we made sure to arrest the slide and descend the patches without any injuries.

Two of our guide's dogs were following us since Hatlot village. They were truly faithful to their master and entered Kondnaal along with their master. As our guide was leading the way, these dogs were accompanying the group behind. At one stretch when there were difficult rock patches, these dogs just gave up and started crying loudly. We asked our guide to stop and bring them down but he did not listen. After some time, whining and cries of these dogs stopped indicating that they were no longer following us and must had turned back. Our guide was not worried and assured us that they would return to his home safely on their own.

As the gorge was descending straight and there was no question of missing out on the trail, few of the members who were fast movers went out of sight. My toes were getting bruised during the steep descent where I had to control my balance using the toes. I was cursing my bad luck as I was wearing Action Trekking Shoes on this trek which I find very uncomfortable during descent. This painful descent made me slower and I remained with the last group.

Worst thing of the descent was that gorge was wide and many times, we had to continuously think of the best way to descend. It costed us too much time.

It has getting harder and harder for the knees and at a juncture, Santosh's right knee started hurting badly and he just refused to walk further. At this point, except Nana and me, everyone had gone far ahead and out of reach. After sprinkling Volini Spray, Nana graciously provided his knee cap to Santosh and after a lot of cajoling, Santosh started moving further.

Gradually, we picked up the pace as sun had started moving rapidly to the west. GPS location in the map was moving very slowly and it was indicating that we still had a lot of height to descend. Definitely, it was not auguring well as we had a member who was hobbling. Still, there was no option but to keep moving forward.

Whenever Santosh took the break, I and Nana took the opportunity to click few photos. 

Though the goings were tough, I had managed to click photos considering that I wouldn't be visiting this hostile part again in the near future. I had kept the zips of my camera bag open to have easy access to camera whenever I felt like taking the photo. All was going well when the disaster happened. As I was helping Santosh to descend at one rock patch, my camera bag toppled making the camera nosedived on the hard rock. If that was not enough, it ricocheted from the rock and took a dip in a small pond. I acted instantly and pulled the camera outside. It was totally drenched to my misfortune. Next 15 minutes went into drying the camera, taking the batteries, memory card off and repenting the mistake of keeping the zips of the camera bag open.

Disappointment of damaging camera was weighing on my mind. And with that disappointment, we started our further descent. I had heard the presence of many water ponds at the last stretches of the gorge but they were nowhere in sight and that made us really expedite our descent. We really wanted to descend the gorge before dark and we hurried. As I didn't want to leave Santosh alone, I asked him to be ahead of me.

At one point, Santosh placed his foot on a big rock and to his misfortune it toppled and brushed his calf. He shrieked in pain for a while. But as this rock had just brushed his leg, he escaped with minor injuries. He was urging me to stop as he wanted to check the extent of injury but we hardly had any time left for sunset. So I urged him to check it later to save some time and reluctantly he moved forward.

I was slightly flustered as except Nana, no one was available to help in times of crisis. As no mobile range was available, I was really getting the feeling of stranded in the wilderness without the team's support. Had 2-3 members were available to support the weak member, it would have been easier. But there was really no time in dwelling on the negatives and we kept on marching forward. Finally the darkness started enveloping us as we finally started crossing few water ponds. Presence of these ponds one after another heralded that we were close to the base but as these ponds were right in the gorge, we had to take few bypasses through the jungle to cross these ponds. Again it costed us a lot of time to find the exact route and again I thought that team in front would have been of great help.

Finally, shouts of Tushar from below rang in the ears. Apparently Tushar had decided to wait for us at one point as he also realised that it would be very hard for us to find the route in the darkness. His voice felt so comforting and finally we reached to the point from where he was visible perching in the rock. He guided us to cross one of the water ponds and ultimately we were united with the other members.

Finally, the ordeal of descending Kondnaal was over. But the Birmani village was nowhere in sight. We had lost of fluids during the day and feeling a lot of weakness. So some of us just lied down when we came across a plain terrain. Innumerable stars were twinkling in the sky as if someone had thrown the white diamonds on the black canvas. Combination of this spectacular display of stars and the fatigued body made me lie down for a while and reluctantly I had to haul my body up to start final march towards the village. We again had to trudge on a trail for 2-3 kms further to reach to the village.

Having the local guide really helped as he took us to a big house of his brother-in-law. Gulping the water, lying down the floor for some time, getting fresh with the cold water somewhat made us refreshed but still the legs were aching. So much of energy was drained that I found it hard to even do the stretching to free up the legs.

A hot dinner of Potato Vegetable along with Chapati and Rice replenished some of the energy levels. A good night's sleep was beckoning as soon as we finished our dinner. We were given 2 rooms of the house and the extended area outside of the house and everyone lay down as per one's preference. I chose the kitchen to sleep away from the snoring people and immediately tucked inside the sleeping bag. After chatting briefly with Paresh Amrutkar, I drifted off to a sound sleep.

Next morning dawned with the croaking of the roosters. Birmani village nestled in the lap of Sahyadri mountains  really looked beautiful in the morning. Soon realization dawned to me regarding my camera being damaged. In stead of dwelling on it further, I decided to click few pictures with my mobile camera.

After having hot tea, we paid the amount for previous day's dinner and posed with the family for the picture. As we had to climb the whole Hatlot Ghat, we didn't linger too much in the village and started our hike early in the morning.

We walked for about half an hour from Birmani village to join the intersection of Kondnaal. Covering the same distance had looked so much exhausting last night. Only difference was yesterday we were covering this distance after 8-9 hours of arduous hike and today we were covering it right at the start after good night's rest.

We couldn't resist to give a triumphant look towards Kondnaal. Really it had tested our endurance, put us into the great spot of trouble but provided a feeling of accomplishment, feeling of jubilance.

After talking to the villagers, I had imagined a proper dirt route nicely wide and comfortable to ascend Hatlot Ghat. But I was so wrong. Again, there were rocks and boulders strewn across though the number was minuscule as compared to the ones in Kondnaal. Ascent was steep but our bodies were fresh and good night's rest was helping us to gain the altitude at a fast pace.

On the way, we halted at a water cistern and made sure to drink a lot of water before proceeding further. I was maintaining the good pace and today I didn't want to be in the last group. Still, shouts of Santosh, who was the last one made me to give up the leading position and I waited him to join. We (Nana, Santosh and me) reached to the top at the very last position and Santosh was over the moon to see the top. 

We all were really ecstatic and relished the moment of our achievement by gorging on snacks, joking and lying down on the ground. Still, we had to reach to Hatlot village which still seemed very far. But as it was only a walk on the plain trail, we were not bothered and quickly gathered the speed.

Photo Courtesy: Sanjay Amrutkar

A gurgling sound of water made us stop at one point and we spotted a nice stream getting converted into a small waterfall. Bapu Pagar Sir urged all of us to stop and proposed the idea of having a bath under the waterfall. Our bodies were already stinking and we immediately accepted his proposal and headed towards the waterfall.

We had a nice time in the water getting massaged under the heavy force of the waterfall. Pandit Dhondge Sir even had a quick shave by sitting beside the stream. This bath lifted our energies, washed away all the bad smells from the bodies and appeared to give us a fresh lease of life. Really an indescribable feeling!

With newly found energy, we covered the remaining distance quickly and reached to Hatlot village. After paying to our guide, Paresh clicked a selfie of our group. We bid adieu to Nasik group and headed towards Pune. We were dwelling on the idea of lunching at Mapro but seeing the heavy traffic of the cars in front of Mapro, we decided to skip the idea and instead lunched heavily at Bandu Gore Khanavaal at Wai. Feasting on the great food and ending the food with the delicious desert of Sitaphal Rabadi culminated the trek on a sweet note.

Experiences that don't kill you make you stronger and this was really such an adventurous experience! You can imagine the amount of workload legs bore for these two days as even with the experience of regular trekking, legs ached almost for more than 2 days. This trek has really set some benchmark for the stamina and I am sure this experience will definitely set the tone for more gruelling hikes in future.


Pune Team: Prashant Kothawade, Tushar kothawade, Mallikarjun Shirshetty, Santosh Kulkarni

Nasik Team: Sanjay Amrutkar, Paresh Amrutkar, Shrikant Patil, Bapu Pagar, Pandit Dhondge

Guide: Chandrakant More, Hatlot (9421435992)

Date: 5th and 6th Dec, 2015

Special Thanks: 

  • Jeetendra Bankapure whose blog helped planning this trek meticulously.
  • Ninad Bartakke for providing GPS map for the trek route. Though we had the local guide, GPS helped to check the progress and location at any given moment.

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Happy hiking!

Appeal: No litter; no plastic; no wrappers; keep the mother nature clean!