The taxi from Neral Junction, about 100 km from Mumbai, only takes us to a certain point up the hill, from where we can go no further by vehicle. The only option is by horse, man-drawn carriage or on foot.
We are heading for Matheran, a famous hill station, a popular place of holiday or weekend retreat for Mumbaikars.
The first thing you learn about Matheran is that all engine traffic is banned, hence the options mentioned above. Apart from these, there is also a little electric train that takes you all the way up, but we want to save that for later, plus we don’t know the schedule. So, after some haggling, we decide to hire a porter. The man picks up our two large backpacks and places them firmly on top of his head, and off we go, following the railway tracks.
We walk through a forest on bright red clay paths until we arrive at Verandah in the Forest, a hotel that seemingly hasn’t changed since the beginnings of the previous century. With its imposing colonial manner, it still evokes the 1920s, when Britannia ruled the waves and India was the Pearl in the Crown.
So, greeted by a servile butler handing us a glass of iced lemon water each, we step into British India of the early 20th century, travellers both in space and in time.
The hotel is immersed in a luscious garden offering shade and quiet. A hammock by the pond invites relaxation. But so does the iconic verandah that the hotel is named after. I pick the latter and recline on a comfortable armchair with a book.
Dinner is a serious affair here – four courses prepared with care and finesse and served at a heavy mahogany table in candlelight. Fine china, silver chandeliers, faded pictures on the walls – the image is complete. Dinner is ‘European’, while lunch, typically served on the verandah, is Indian. Sadly, Delhi belly catches up with me and I only get to enjoy one meal during our stay. The rest is plain rice and antibiotics, but we still pay the full price without protest (gentlemen don’t talk money, right?).
We spend the rest of the evening pleasantly in the sitting room, leafing through old yellowed albums of times long past.
The next day we get to explore the surroundings, where the forest offers numerous attractions. We are the only ones to choose a forest walk on foot, while Indian holidaymakers go for horse or man-drawn rickshaw.
The high point of the day is watching the sun set down in the valley, while trying to guard our possessions from inquisitive monkeys, ready to snatch a camera or sunglasses out of your hands. Looking down, we can barely make out what lies a few hundred metres away. Everything is obscured by Mumbai’s smog.
We watch the sunset among hundreds of Indians spending a weekend in Matheran. Each and every one has a smartphone and keeps shooting pictures – of themselves, the sun, the monkeys, and of us. There are no other Westerners around, and everyone wants a selfie with us.
As the night falls, we opt for going back on horseback. The horses look a bit emaciated and we feel sorry for them. Throughout the day we have seen many of the poor beasts in the scorching sun, and none got offered any water. But it’s a long way back and the forest is pitch black, so we go for it. We are terrified as the horses press on downhill, tripping on the rocky path. On arrival, we ask the horse handlers to wait and we bring a bucket of water. The animals down it in seconds, they must have been dying of thirst. We also offer them apples, but they spit them out, unused to such luxuries. We end the day with a temple visit by an artificial lake, and another blissful night on the verandah.
The following day we explore the little town of Matheran. It seems to be attracting lower middle class Mumbai families – not quite rich yet, but not poor, with free time and disposable income on their hands, and big aspirations. We are stopped every few steps by someone wanting a selfie with us, which will inevitably end up on social media. Some people don’t even bother asking our permission, they just grab us and shoot a photo.
The town offers all kinds of medium range leisure activities, from restaurants, street stalls with souvenirs to massages and spa facilities. All around the main street we get accosted by men offering horse rides and rickshaw transport. The town is undeniably kitschy, rough around the edges, aspiring to something better.
Since the town holds little appeal to us, we retreat back to the Verandah. It is almost deserted throughout our stay, with only one other room occupied, first by a German couple and then by a young Indian family with a noisy child. The attraction of the day is the magician, who comes every morning and sits in the garden until someone comes out. His whole body is focused on waiting. If nobody wants to see his magic, he’ll leave, but he’ll be back the following day. Eventually we take pity on him and he excitedly demonstrates his tricks. The atmosphere is ruined though when he demands 1000 rupees (15 USD) for the show – from each of us, which in India is a small fortune.
On the way back we board the toy train at the dusty Matheran station, with its distinctive backwater feel. The train laboriously descends from the mountains to Neral, stopping frequently for toilet breaks and to allow vendors of all sorts to sell chilled water, peeled fruit, boiled eggs and sweets.
In Neral we change for one of the notorious Mumbai commuter trains, luckily outside rush hour. Like the Mumbaikars, we took a weekend at a hill station and now we’re back to face the city again.