We left Navi Mumbai bright and early to avoid all the traffic and were excited to explore Konya Wildlife Reserve. We’d heard good things about the viewpoints on the way up the mountain to Mahabaleshwar and had high hopes that Morning Glory would stay alive for the journey.
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The urbanization of Mumbai quickly fades and when you drive just a few kilometers away locals can be seen bathing in the rivers. A little further down an abandoned plane sits collecting rust inviting you in for a photo. Sadly I just got a glance at it as we drove past too fast and were on the wrong side of the road.
The road south remained in good condition as did our rickshaws so before we knew it we were turning eastward into the mountains. Now midday the bathing locals were relaxing in the river instead of having a morning wash. Up ahead spotted a photo opportunity, jumped off the rickshaws and told them to keep driving to the bridge ahead.
Soon after crossing the bridge the roads grew narrower and steeper. A few dirt roads intermingled themselves as trucks blared past in the oncoming lane. The lookouts were everything we hoped even at the edges of Konya Wildlife Reserve. On the other side of the valley I watched a car pass a beautiful vantage point convinced my team to let me out and drive ahead.
I love how this photo makes it look like we really driving up a raw mountain but the truth is there was a decent road the whole way. A few kilometers down our path became a series of blind corners reminiscent of the drive from Chaing Mai to Pai. We honked wildly and drove slow at each bend, only once were we halted by an oncoming horn in response. I can only imagine how crazy this ride would be if there was more traffic on the roads.
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Massive trucks slowed everyone down before a honking parade deftly passed them in the oncoming lane. These nerve racking incidents were bearable but one time we were stuck with massive trucks in front and behind us. The 18 wheeler behind sped up honking as it swerved past us on a small straight away before the next corner. As it reached the bend it turned back towards safety but a car sped behind it. Horns blared from all directions as an oncoming car appeared but somehow everyone fell back into their spots as if the whole thing was a choreographed dance.
I was happy to be on photo duty during these encounters and before I knew it we had arrived in Mahabaleshwar. The road began descending as guest houses and restaurants signaled that we were leaving the wilderness. A guard stopped us on the outskirts and insisted that “3 wheeler vehicles are not allowed.” We knew they were, or at least were yesterday, because a number of other teams talked about how beautiful Mahabaleshwar was. After a little discussion and the friendly help of a local who spoke some English we paid a 150 INR ($2.50) toll for each vehicle and found our way to a hotel.
6 of us crammed into 2 rooms, 3 to a large bed for a paltry 500 INR ($8) each. Chris and Joe were fighting Delhi belly and opted to nap as Tristan, Ben, Sarah and I went off to explore the town.
Mahabaleshwar, a small mountain village, is famous for strawberries and as a midway stop for truckers taking the highway across the wildlife sanctuary. A small market lined the street and hundreds of local Indians had clearly come here for a getaway. Strawberries and cream along with a new mix of fruits added to the usual wares I had come accustomed to finding in an Indian bazaar.
I tried gooseberries, huckleberries and strawberries and we gave an assortment of what we bought to kids and beggars in the street. We made friends with a family trying to sell us knick knacks and insisted we didn’t want to buy anything but Sarah brought over a bundle of strawberries for them to enjoy instead.
We didn’t linger too long since it would be another early day tomorrow as we drove south into the valley in hopes of finding a ferry to take us across the Konya River and cut off 40km of driving along mountain roads.
As the team slowly stirred awake I turned both tuktuks on and was greeted by Sarah excited to drive down through the valley. The others were a bit slow to start after yesterday’s grueling drive so Sarah and I ventured off to find some breakfast. We decided on a sweet nut brittle and another bucket of strawberries but were sure to grab a bottle of water to rinse the strawberries first.
The drive was thankfully devoid of other vehicles as the roads wound in and out of the hills. Trees loomed overhead creating more than green tunnel for us to drive through and around a few light hearted turns Ben threw strawberries back at Afternoon Delight. They returned fire with a few leftover banana peels in a Mario Kart reenactment when suddenly we burst out of the forest and saw terraced hills below. Perhaps tea, rice or even strawberry fields, it didn’t matter since the view was stunning. Before was you could see the trickle of a river and dozens of house for Konya’s indigenous people.
An old woman bearing a 2 toothed grin walked over to where we parked the rickshaws and was clearly happy to have someone to talk to. She told us the name of her village below but it quickly escaped memory as I snapped a few photos and took in the fresh mountain air. We gave her a few rupees and were rewarded with a grandma-esque cheek squeeze and an even bigger grin, but still only 2 teeth.
Further down the road we spotted a sign for “Strawberry Wine” and it was a joint decision to stop and buy some. I told them to sort it all out while I looked for a viewpoint and happily climbed a rock to get the panorama below.
A quick google search before coming to Konya showed a range of wildlife from elephants to small cats and other Indian critters. Sadly with the dry season it appeared we’d see none of those magnificent beasts but at least the views were incredible!
It was about 25km from Mahabaleshwar to Topola, an even smaller village at a northern fork in the Konya River. Our map showed a ferry going across the river and we were still hopeful about putting the rickshaws on a boat, especially after the disappointment in Khambot. We were told by the hotel that the ferries were running and would cost 120 INR ($2) per person and 300 INR ($5) per rickshaw. We were prepared to pay double those costs or more and were happily surprised when they said it would only be 600 INR ($10) total!
The ferry waddled its way from the other side of the river and picked up what may be its only customers for the whole day. We excitedly drove them up the ramp and onto the massive boats. They were dwarves in comparison to the barge and tall mountains behind us. The boatride took less than 30 minutes as we crossed shores and drove along the remnants of a dirt path before finally reaching the road again.
Driving back out of the valley proved a bit harder than the ride in as both engines were now tired and hot in the afternoon sun. The windy roads dragged by with the rickshaws restricted to 1st and 2nd gear for much of the journey. On more than one hill we stalled out; if the lead tuktuk began to slow, 2 passengers would jump out and give a push hoping to be fast enough to keep the either one from stalling. This maneuver was usually unsuccessful but helped the driver restart the engines after a stall.
Halfway up we took an engine break and refilled fuel. Without fuel gauges it was hard to tell how much you had left but we figured it was down to a few dozen kilometers and we didn’t want to run out on these steep hills. With a fresh tank and a little more power behind the throttle we soon found ourselves at an endless plateau. Lakes were scattered among this mesa along with barren trees. In the distance you could see the suburbs of Satara, the closest big city. We hoped to take a ring road south of the metropolis and put as much distance between us and Konya as possible.
Tomorrow night was a party with 40+ rickshaw teams in Goa that we didn’t want to miss. In spite of our rush we paused as a handful of locals waved at us on the road down towards the city. We couldn’t quite understand what they were saying but it was clear they were hoping to hitch a ride. We looked at each other and happily obliged, the least we could do was pay it forward after so many wonderful locals who had already helped us.
I drove as Ben and Tristan tried to talk with our new passenger. Depending on who you ask, he was either visiting his sister in Konya or on the way to his sister’s in Satara. He had a few kids and was very proud of his job at the water filtration center. He liked to smile and spoke less English than we did Hindi but with a logo on his hat Ben was confident that he worked in a water filtration center. We took him most of the way to Satara and bid farewell as our highway veered south before the city really began.
The rest of our day was spent driving as fast and far as possible on the highway. As dusk neared we began looking for a place to stay. None of the nearby cities had listings on booking.com or Airbnb so we resorted to old fashion stopping and asking. I grew irritated after we stopped at the second place labeled “hotel” only to find out that the Orange Hotel was simply a restaurant.
Hotels in India are very often ONLY restaurants. When looking for accommodation in India look for signs that say “Lodging” or “Rooms”
We spent the better part of 2 hours driving along and looking for anywhere that said Rooms or Lodging (especially if it said AC rooms). Stopping at another hotel we were rebuffed yet again as they offered veg or non veg meals but no rooms. With the sun now far below the horizon and light dwindling we all started getting anxious about driving at night. I had previously offered to drive if we were in that situation and was even voting for it earlier in the day but now that the opportunity arose everyone agreed that the best course of action was to find a place to stay!
At the top of the next hill we spotted Goa Hotel across the street from a random place proudly proclaiming Lodging! I went to Goa Hotel as Joe and Ben explored the lodging options across the road. As expected Goa Hotel was simply a restaurant but Joe and Ben were successful at this no name lodge. They came back down explaining how the monkeys on the balcony convinced them this was the right place to spend the night.
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