There’s nothing pedestrian about the only pedestrian hill-station in Asia!
At a little more than 200 sq km, Matheran is most likely India’s smallest hill station. But sometimes the best things come in small packages. This little-known gem, located about 2,625 feet above sea level in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra, is the only hill station in India where motorised transport is prohibited! So, except for an ambulance and a police vehicle, the only way to get around is either on your own two feet, on horseback or in a hand-pulled rickshaw. Where everything – from ingredients to building materials – has to be brought in on the backs of sturdy mules or ponies. Vehicles have to be parked at Dasturi Naka three km from the main hill station.
The charm of this sylvan spot sometimes escapes tourists. The kind who want a pool and discotheque everywhere they go. The type who can’t look beyond the central row of shops around the railway station known as ‘bazaar peth’ and think there’s ‘nothing much to see or do’ here. But the evolved eco traveller knows better. Unlike the others, who literally can’t see the forest for the trees, they recognise the rich bio-diversity of this eco-sensitive zone.
Known as a trekker’s paradise in the monsoon months, Matheran is an all-year destination thanks to its altitude and forest cover. The wet evergreens keep things relatively cool and there are a number of streams and waterfalls throughout the hills from June until the height of summer kicks in, in end-April. There’s plenty of bird and animal life but you have to know where to look. Apart from monkeys like the black-faced langurs and rhesus macaques, if you keep your eyes peeled, you could even spot a Paradise flycatcher, barking deer, fox, wild boar, mongoose, or even the rare and endangered Malabar giant squirrel! What you will surely see are butterflies. In 2020 alone, 77 new species of butterflies (over the 78 existing ones) were discovered here and there’s a lot more that awaits the avid naturalist.
For those like us who love to walk around in the fresh air, Matheran has a wealth of nature trails to wander. There are a few signs to help you from losing your way between any or all of the 40 ‘points’ that you can explore, but usually, one trail connects with another and you’ll eventually find your way back to your hotel. Most people head downhill to the lake or aim to reach one of the popular viewpoints like Monkey point or Panorama for the sunset. But our favourite is to do the circuit between Alexander, Rambaug, and Little Chowk points and then head to the Olympia Racecourse that sits on a plateau at the centre of the southern part of main Matheran.
This is a vast stretch of open space covered with rolling mist and greenery in the rains and golden grass at other times of the year. From here, we like to cut across and go down to the picturesque Paymaster Park. Expect to make precious finds along the way, an embankment of wild spearmint, bracket fungus decorating a moist log, a pretty red beetle to cheer you on… And if this isn’t enough, a longer circuit on the south side includes the path past Chowk and One Tree Hill points, which the habituated walker could comfortably cover in half a day. There are scores of routes that you can explore and each one offers new delights daily.
There are some trails that double up as bridle paths for horses and you may suddenly come face-to-face with a snorting stunner as you walk. The paths where there are riders have to be lined with stones and topped up with the characteristic red laterite soil of the region so that the horses’ hooves don’t slip.
Every monsoon, with the incredibly heavy rain they experience, this soil gets washed away and has to be added anew. And just as it has been done manually for more than a century, this cyclical task is carried out by the locals every season. Such traditions and local culture are what add to Matheran’s magic. Having onion fritters and hot tea in the rain at a makeshift stall near Charlotte Lake is special. Stopping to sip on a chilled glass of lemon juice from the lady in the nine-yard sari and nose-ring is the authentic experience. Making friends with a local dog, who then gives you company uphill and down dale through the day, is what makes for the best memories.
But certain activities centred around the average picnicking tourist (plastic packaging, littering, concretising and paving of roads, the building of pools and other structures that are damaging to the fragile ecosystem, pollution of groundwater, playing of loud music and bursting firecrackers, extra bright lights, etc) are threatening the hill station. Responsible local hoteliers and residents have long been fighting off real estate lobbies that don’t mind changing the DNA of the destination in their misguided masterplan for its ‘development’.
- It was first identified by Hugh Poyntz Malet, the British district collector of Thane, in May 1850. Lord Elphinstone, Governor of Bombay at the time, laid the foundations of its development into a hill station, as a respite from the heat of the plains.
- The affluent amongst Mumbai and Pune society, both Indian and British, bought summer homes in Matheran during the days of the Raj.
- The Olympia Race Course was established in 1892-93 by Sir Dhunjibhoy Bomanji.
- The narrow-gauge Matheran Hill Railway was built in 1907 by Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy and covers a distance of 20 km, a large part of this is uphill and through forests. It is still functional today.
- Many colonial bungalows still exist today, adding to the charm of this under-stated eco destination. Some, like Dune Barr House, the older part of The Byke Heritage (which boasts the first ever British bungalow built in Matheran by Malet) and Hope Hall Hotel have made the successful transition into hospitality while still retaining the old-world ambience.
- In 2004, American model and actor Gary Richardson, who lived in Matheran for a while, wrote an eco-thriller novel called ‘Mad Horses of Matheran’ about the threat from a multi-million-dollar takeover of Matheran.