First of the season, starting small. Borivali National Park. Everyone's backyard. But it's surprising how few people have the time to even visit their own backyards... BNP had always been a kind of ya, it's right there, I'll just drive over and drop in one day, kind of feeling... until six long years have passed by, and all I know of BNP is the sight of the hills rising above the buildings every morning when I'm crossing the overbridge to get to the train, or the green expanse when I'm looking down as the plane enters the final glide down to the runway... It's 104 square km of parkland, right inside the city. At any time, you're never more than 5 km away from the busiest stations - Borivali on the west, Mulund on the east. All around, the city, crawling, teeming with humanity like ants, the Great Unwashed Masses of India, hurrying, scurrying, worrying. Cross a gate, pay 15 bucks, and suddenly you're in a different universe.
We start at 7:30 am, collecting at the entrance. There's already two groups getting ready to go in that look like organized tours - thirty children in one (I'm pretty sure that's not a family outing, not even if the dad was the minister for railways) and a normal trekker-type group.
22 of us pile into 4 cars and reach the parking spot at Kanheri inside, where we reassemble and get ready. D takes the opportunity to market the new ponchos acquired by Nature Knights - hooded rubber / plastic sheets that button under your arms to make an effective shield against windblown rain. I liked it because it's as effective, and definitely a lot easier on your conscience than a 2,999 jacket from Westside, which should ideally be used only to impress women. Subjecting it - or, for that matter, anything - to a full-blown Mumbai monsoon tends to, um, reduce it's lifespan significantly.
Kanheri's a complex of old Buddhist caves; the place used to be a settlement, and served as an inn for travellers visiting the ancient twin ports of Sopara and Kalyan. Kanheri is a derivation from Krishnagiri, or 'Black Mountain'. And black it is - the same dark volcanic rock that's spread across the whole of the Sahyadris thrusts itself up in a 400-m hillock over here, and Kanheri caves are the part of the exposed outcropping that's been shaped and carved into a rock village of 109 spartan stone cells, and elaborate chaityas and viharas.
I'd like to spend some more time here - preferably on a weekday when it won't be so crowded - just trying to reconstruct how it must have been like, back then, living here. Under the Maurya and Kushan empires, this place was a full-scale Buddhist University.
Now you have another essential and unavoidable part of any modern Indian university, large groups of noisy, boisterous and rowdy students of another kind - a troop of rhesus monkeys has taken over the spot, and lives happily off the tourists.
They gave us the once-over when we walked in, and pretty much then ignored us - we must have been looking not worth the trouble. Or maybe just impoverished of food, compared to the chips-packet-carrying and fruit-laden tourists who come normally. All that changed when we bought some cut cucumber for breakfast. Unerringly, the monkeys picked out the youngest member of the group - S, who stood not much larger than a full-grown monkey himself - and headed straight for him, producing alarmed cries of help and Mummy! from the intended victim before they were chased off.
Blessed by the Buddha with the Gift of Bright Sunshine, we started walking up, and almost immediately found the first wildlife of the day - a Russel viper that N almost stepped on.
Next was a group of giant bullfrogs in a small stagnant pool, each almost the size of my foot and twice as fat. I remember we used to have the same frogs in the pond at home back in Gorakhpur... so extraordinarily ugly, they're beautiful. Check out this one. Full redeye effect in the flash, which makes it look like an ancient dragon where the fire within it is flickering in it's eyes. Or some hellbeast out of Spawn 2.
Stopped for a second breakfast at a ruined building called Gaumukh, from the carved cow's head inside from where drinkable water is filtered through. Found a couple of perfectly-preserved husks of the skins shed by dragonfly larvae when they hatch. Dragonfly nymphs are voracious predators in ponds, killing and eating insects and fish many times larger than themselves. These must have been monsters when they were around - over an inch and a half each.
The rest of the trek was fairly peaceful; some relaxation, some walking, and finally we reached Bombay's highest point, called simply 'Radar' after the military radar there. Don't go walking in without permission; because it's a military installation, if caught, you can chucked into jail on a non-bailable charge before you know what's hit you. Actually, the highest point is the top of the radar; but if you climb up there just to prove that you're the highest in Bombay, the military has every right to shoot you down there and then, on principle.
We also acquired our mascot of the day, Ronnie. Ronnie is an adolescent Indian peacock, he lives in Borivali National Park, has an affectionate and companiable nature, and will love to keep you company the next time you visit. He's also an insufferable ham, and loves having his photos taken, often posing and giving you the full supermodel-to-the-paparazzi treatment. By next year, he should have his full tail grown out, too.
Anyway, we met Ronnie at the radar and he became and instant, inseparable, non-paying member of Nature Knights, accompanying us all over the park from there onwards, sharing food, curling up and going to sleep when we rested, and generally being more domestic murgi than peacock.
Radar's also got one unique feature apart from being the highest point of Bombay - from here, you can look out and see the 3 lakes of Powai in one line, the only place in Bombay where this is visible. I feel sorry for the People of Powai; no human being trying to live his life should have to deal with the kind of terrors that are faced daily by the average Powai resident. Domestic help and children get rudely assaulted and eaten by panthers and leopards coming out of the lake; vehicular traffic gets regularly stopped by crocodiles emerging from the lakes; the BMC digs up the JV Link road catastrophically just before each monsoon and puts up boards asking you to bear with them today for a happier tomorrow; Bollywood shoots action sequences and love songs in your only market; and to top it all, you have IIT students roaming around freely. If Hell were designed by Hiranandani builders, it would probably be a lot like this.
Spent the afternoon putting up and practicing on a Burma Bridge, which is two ropes about 5 feet apart (vertically) which you're supposed to walk across.
Found a giant land crab that swore horribly at us in crustacean and waved it's claws around threateningly when we picked it up, and some species of gecko that emerged from under our sheet. Ate poha, shira, mutton sandwiches, idlis, chapattis, laddoos, puri, veg, fried rice, vada, boiled eggs, and biscuits. I don't think we carry enough food on these treks... need more variety.
Walked back to Kanheri by evening, and spent some time there watching the effect that Ronnie had on the monkeys and a small psychotic spitz pup that looked like Albert Einstein.
The monkeys pretty much ignored him, and went back to picking stuff out of each other's butts; Einstein went hysterical, though, and viciously attacked a plastic bottle, a packet of chicken feet that he scattered everywhere amidst shrieks of disgust, and finally chased Ronnie way up on the side of the mountain. Finally Ronnie gave a long-suffering sigh, and flew off the cliff face onto a quieter location, and watched the pup, who now had the extremely embarrassed expression of someone who not only can't fly, but has also lost his nerve and doesn't know how to climb down either.
The evening ended with my bike getting towed for illegal parking. I had accidentally parked it in front of the traffic police chowki... that must have been the easiest two hundred bucks the Mumbai Traffic Police ever made.
See the Photos here.
Very Important Update - It appears that, in the light of recently released top-secret photographs, Ronnie was after all a peahen, not a peacock. The author apologizes for any misinformation and hurting the sentiments of the PeaPerson Gender Identity Preservation Society.