Midsummer Day's Dream - The Tale of Two viaducts
by Apurva Bahadur
Two days, two nights and a morning of pure railfanning juice
Consecutive holidays ahead and Lalam was planning!
A trip to Konkan it was, the regional post 40 degree centigrade blaze and extreme humidity be damned. A file bulging with vague documents was gathering evidence. This included innocuous observation over consecutive mornings of a certain Mangaon bound bus, to map the punctuality at Chandni Chowk - Pune has one too, Sir! Hours were devoted studying satellite images of exotic sites with the best alternate connectivity - i.e. how near is it to the road!
Armed with his extreme push, Lalam soon had a convincing case to why we should go to Konkan in this weather, just as "exploration" for a future expedition. The plan was so crazy that only a fool would refuse, and I lent my considerable bulk to give weight to his insane ideas.
Lalam used his expertise in exploiting quotas and special conditions to get good seats for all journeys despite the last minute attempts in the mid-summer rush.
On 30th April 2009, Lalam and I met up at Kothrud at 0730 hrs to catch a bus bound for Mahad, which would leave us en route to our destination, Mangaon. This bus takes the twisty and picturesque Tamhini ghats linking Pune by the shortest possible way to Konkan. At Mangaon, the Konkan Railway poetically intersects our path at right angles, literally at the end of the state highway. Our journey proved that this was the fastest way to get to northern Konkan from Pune.
Being able to meet KR (Konkan Railway) trains at Mangaon by this particular bus opens up new possibilities for Punekars, who can now travel to Chiplun within 5 hours and Ratnagiri with 6.5 hours of journey time! The same impressive timings can be repeated on the return journey except that one is not being able to book bus tickets from Mangaon while sitting in Pune. Else this again is a perfect way of leaving Ratnagiri by 104 Mandovi at 1440 hrs or Chiplun at 1600 hrs and be in Pune by 2230 hrs by the 1900 hrs bus from Mangaon.
This was meant to be a budget trip and we were committed to use only the available public transport. We became the veritable turtles that carry their world on the backs. Our stone heavy haversacks had spare clothes, basic first aid, packs of thepla (which is a dry paratha sort of thingy packed with a dab of pickle), packs of dates (a hint picked up from the terrorists who always carry dates to stakeouts!), two caps, two torches each (KR has tunnels…), sheet and air pillow along with many, many liters of drinking water. Not forgetting toilet paper and hand sanitizer gel - a large part of our outing was spent outdoors!
While my sack had a few rudimentary tools like the electrical line testing screwdriver and a pair of tweezers, Lalam carried an adjustable wrench - perfect for rotating the squared shaft of the master switch and turning on the lights or fans of a coach at will. The duplication of caps and torches is to emphasize the importance of these items. And this trip was about enjoyment of railfanning!
The original plan was-
30th April 2009
- Pune - Mangaon by bus.
- Mangaon - Adavali (two stations south of Ratnagiri) by 103 Mandovi Express
- Adavali to Ratnagiri by a suitable road transport
- Ratnagiri - Chiplun by 2052 Jan Shatabdi Express
- Night halt at Chiplun
1st May 2009
- Leave Chiplun next day at dawn by bus for a photoshoot at the Gad river viaduct
- Walk to Aravali Road station and board KR5 passenger for Ukshi
- Walk from Ukshi to Ranpat waterfalls
- Find road transport from Ranpat to Ratnagiri
- Leave Ratnagiri for Mumbai CST by 110 Karwar â€" CSTM holiday special
2nd May 2009
- Leave CSTM by 1021 Indrayani Express to reach Pune by 0930 hrs.
However this is not how it went - read on…
Ranpat happens to be the largest waterfall near Ratnagiri - it can be viewed between Ukshi and Bhoke on the right side facing south.
Although not very tall, during its peak flow, the Ranpat water fall is as wide as a rail coach and yes, a rail coach would be really nice against this cascade - only if we could find the easy route to the location.
A note about Thepla which was chosen as the edible food for the next day as it does not spoil in the oppressive heat. The food specifications may seem over obsessive but not entirely illogical. The food has to be flexible (remaining intact at the bottom of the haversack), has to be light in weight (of the shoulder lifting type) while filling the tummy. After many hits and misses of various types of trekking food, Thepla seems to fit the bill. Some vital hard lessons were leant from last year, when we ate just dry rotis at the Panval viaduct as the potatoes in the bhaji turned adhesive quality stringy after a day in the humid heat. These problems are expected while contemplating early starts in small towns to reach remote locations.
On reaching Mangaon bus stand, a rickshaw speedily dropped us at the railway station, about a kilometer upstream along the NH 17. Mangaon station is built on an embankment, and one has to climb stairs onto the platforms for the two through lines. We inquired the coach position and the train punctuality at the counter located the lower level before huffing up the steps to the platform 1. We climbed over the footbridge to reach the logical platform for the down line (platform 2) and then realized that all the waiting janata seemed to be on the earlier platform. So I went back to the counter at the lower level and yes, the 103 Mandovi was indeed arriving on the first platform. Climbing the stairs back to the platform started the sweaty, weak feeling that stayed with me throughout this trip.
Travel on the 103 down
Mandovi Express arrived almost on time with its customary WDP4 and we soon found our seats which were in reality facing side berths. The train operates with the rake of the overnight Konkan Kanya and offers both seating and berth facilities. The seats are nothing but the sleeper berths that are marked to accommodate four people for the day travel.
Our tickets were in the "Advanced Tatkal" quota as that was the only one that was available at a short notice. While we were in a sleeper coach, it seemed that every lateral berth had four or more people, thus eclipsing any difference between the S and D class, but then that is another story!
The TTE (Traveling Ticket Examiner) promptly checked our tickets, with bizarre boarding and destinations like Mangaon and Adavali, we must have really stood out in the passenger manifest (he thinks, I really must see these specimens…).
The major attribute defining the Mandovi Express is exhaustive availability of a variety of food. We were in the Rake # 3 and `Care Catering' had pasted A4 sized menus in each sleeper bay listing the 45 items for snacks. The page also included two sub headings for what was available with the vegetarian Thali, including 22 varieties of curries and 7 types of Dal. The thali menu is available on a rotation basis and only one of each would be offered on any particular day. The passengers were requested to check with the waiter about the Dal and Vegetable of the day! What is one expected to do if you do not like Vegetable Kolhapuri or Tawa Gobhi Mutter, that is on offer for the day?
Ever had chicken lollipops on a train? How about a Russian sandwich, fruit salad or fresh watermelon? Mandovi has them all. While we were eating dainty snacks, the catering crew was busy taking orders from other passengers for the main meals. We waited for these guys to look this way but they ignored us. While we were admiring the speed and landscape from the 103 down, the crew soon returned from the pantry. They began disbursing elaborate looking lunch thalis made from dazzling blue plastic, the colour of which one associates with toxic chemical drums rather than food containers. The contents of the thali looked elaborate and exhaustive including the coin sized papad pieces, more apt in a wedding reception than on a train. It dawned on us that we were liable to be left out of the `customer for lunch' group. We specifically caught one of the Care Catering guys and vehemently shoved our order down his barely contained impatience. Soon he came back with the somewhat apologetic news that there were no more thalis left!
However, he did kindly offer us vegetarian fried rice, which at that time looked like a great (and the only) choice. The rice arrived past Ukshi, only kilometers from our declared destination, in a round steel container with a tight fitting lid - a sort of roti box. One touch and we realized that the container was blistering hot and scalded us everywhere we touched! A little bit of fast thinking and the resourceful railfans in us whipped out the handkerchiefs to hold on to the hot metal. We had to then use extraordinary strength with the tips of our fingers to overcome the vacuum that had sealed the lid in! The rice itself was very tasty and a nice accompaniment to the train journey through the grand tunnels north of Ratnagiri.
The Mandovi trip on the first day was done to view the landscape in detail for the next day's events. We needed to get an idea of the viaducts and tunnels including size, vantage points (for photography), nearby habitation, proximity to roads or paths and the number of people working along the line. More the people, more could be the questions about our presence. We also wanted to check the lighting and clearance inside the tunnels. So although the earlier paragraphs might make it feel as if we were totally concentrating on hogging, we were in fact doing a recce for our next day's outing.
While traveling with the 103 down over the Gad River viaduct, we were disappointed about the lack of water and greenery - our mind always paints rich pictures of places that we have never seen, except in satellite maps.
Seeing the drab surroundings of Gad River, we nearly talked ourselves out of the plan of coming here the next day, however with the benefit of hindsight, sticking to our original plans was the correct thing to do.
From the train, we were very impressed by the Shastri River viaduct that seemed to have lots of fresh looking water and could result in many good pictures.
Many of the tunnels between Ukshi and Ranpat waterfall were not illuminated - we were not sure if we would be allowed to walk through them. All these observations prompted us to rethink our original plans - was it worth the flog that we were subjecting ourselves to?
Other memorable traffic - At Khed, we crossed 6346 TVC-LTT Netravati hauled by Erode WDM3D #11113. We also overtook the KR5 DIVA-SWV passenger with Ernakulam's orange WDM3A #14123 in charge.
Some random thoughts
Our destination on the 103 Mandovi was Adavali, which is the second station south of Ratnagiri. We could have got off at Ratnagiri and returned to Chiplun for the night halt, but then, we had the spare time to go further into that extra adventure. More importantly, we wanted to relive magic and the atmosphere of the Panval viaduct visited last year, around this time. Sadly, what took us hours to see earlier was over in a few seconds as the train zipped across the grand viaduct. We noticed a break in the right side wall of the 4 kilometer long Tike tunnel (when traveling south out of Ratnagiri), located immediately after Panval viaduct.
Future expeditions in that area, please make it point to walk about a kilometer inside the Tike Tunnel and figure out what exactly caused the sunlight to suddenly flood into the tunnel at one point. All tunnels on the KR pose a special challenge as the passenger trains run at 100 Kmph; so be VERY careful inside. As there are so many of them, the crew on KR may not honk while entering the tunnels, so don't expect to be warned.
All KR tunnels and viaducts have people fastidiously monitoring the safety of the installation round the clock. So you would be noticed and approached by KR people within no time of your arrival at site. You cannot avoid these people, as they are very good with their jobs, so the authorities must be told of your arrival in advance. Please also bear in mind that most of these guys are well connected with walkie talkies, mobiles or wired phones and can relay the news of unexpected visitors to the control point easily.
Like all places, the KR is expected to be jumpy and tense about the current security situation. However our guiding faith is in the Indian ethos, where a visitor would be accepted and even welcomed once the credentials have been established. As long as our purpose is pure and we have nothing to hide, we should be able to make progress. We would surely be challenged and questioned by railwaymen but our sincerity and openness would be our best referrals. Our genuine belief is this is our country and it is our birthright to visit any places when we wish to do so. The spirit of enterprise has made this country what it is, and those values would always be cherished. All good and bad forces around us are making cowards out of us, wishing that we stay at home, rather than go out and explore the country.
Neither Lalam, with his silver hair nor I, with the leading anterior and the trailing posterior, be mistaken for a terrorist. At the first instance, our aims may seem be bizarre but then what we want to do is what many people want to do. We usually get the empathy especially when we do have the fluent tongue to make others see our point of view.
Railfans have to be good in sincere human relationship management. In India, only the great camera and associated skills does not make the railfan - the ability to make that person of an ally in your quest is equally important for your success.
Last year, after doing the Panval viaduct, we traveled to the Bhoke station by taxi to board our northbound train. Our experience was that we did not come across any other significant road user for the entire 5 kilometers distance from the NH17 till the station. Many KR stations are far away from the road and the only way to leave that place is by another train. This can be a problem in smaller stations which hosts not more than two passenger trains for the entire day. We did not want to get stuck into a similar situation today at Adavali.
So while our 103 waited at Ratnagiri alongside a northbound RoRo rake, we went about trying to get hints about Adavali and its proximity to the road. We had to return back to Ratnagiri from Adavali to catch the 2052 Jan Shatabdi for Chiplun within the next 3 hours or so. The book stall person on the platform1 assured us that Adavali station `touches the highway' - we were somewhat skeptical because the satellite image suggested otherwise. Yes, there is a road, but does it have traffic?
On the way to Adavali, we halted at Nivsar for a pair of consecutive crossings - 104 Mandovi followed by 6338 Ernakulam - Okha Express. Soon, we reached the next station, our end destination - Adavali. After detraining the 103 down at Adavali, we made the station staff's day by asking the way to Ratnagiri. The station master asked "Aap utrey nahi kya?" (Why did you not get off?) - must be thinking of us as a pair of illiterates, drunks, junkies or worse (word generalized for politically correctness!) who overshot the largest station with the longest halt in the section, apparently cozy in stupor. Leaving the station, we found that rickshaws tend to be around when the trains arrive at the remote stations.
The rickshaw driver gestured that he had seen everything, when passengers alighting from a train from Ratnagiri wanted to return to Ratnagiri! Still, that was his opportunity to earn a quick 100 bucks as he took us 12 kilometers to the nearest "road head"* of Lanja.
He took on three more passengers and I was reminded of the time in year 2000 at Maliya Miyana in Kutch when the combined weight of five of us broke the rear axle of the rickshaw - the vehicle just sat flat on the road while the rear wheels folded up!
- A term inspired by the concept of rail head - in case of the KR, the reverse is true, 'only rail, no road'
The road from Adavali to Lanja was beautiful with twists and turns, low bridges with deep water flowing alongside, 1st gear and full throttle quality ghats with equally breathtaking dives, mango, chikoo and cashew plantations; rich red soil with the wind whistling through the spiny Casuarina trees. I forgot to write about the presence of an ancient well somewhere along the way that was supposedly dug by the Pandavs of the Maharbharat fame. Well, the rickshaw driver forgot too, mentioning the fact much later, lest we delay him by demanding a closer look.
Into the Lanja bus stop, visit to the stale urine damped whitewashed loo, reading (and appreciating) the ribald comments carved into the wall and along comes this State Transport (ST) bus that would leave us as far as Hathkhambha phata (branch), which is on the NH17. As you may be aware, Ratnagiri is 12 kilometers inside the Hathkhambha phata and its remoteness to the highway actually helps in preservation of some of the local ambiance.
Ratnagiri, the second time
An hour after leaving Lanja, we were in waiting at another ST stand at the phata for a bus to take us towards Ratnagiri. Our destination was nearer than the town, as we were heading for the Ratnagiri station that is located half kilometer north of the Hatkhamba phata - Ratnagiri road.
Ratnagiri itself was pleasantly cool with nice breeze making everything feel so great.
We paused at a soft drink joint on the station road (in Konkan Plaza - see it on the above map), ably run by a small girl not older than 12 (and her mother, who joined later). Two ice cream cones and a few minutes later, we were talking to folks in KR uniform in the next shop (a hair cutting saloon) about the viability of the going to the Ranpat tunnel. They opined that reaching Ranpat from the Ukshi side is not difficult but leaving the area is quite a challenge as it involves walking out to a loose habitat and hopefully catching the 1700 hrs ST bus to anyplace but this, that bus also happens to be the last of the day. With the 1330 hrs arrival at Ukshi, we should be able to reach this place before 1700, but then KR5 passenger, our steed, was running an hour later almost everyday, thus reducing our window at the action spot.
We ambled along the station road, where the stunted trees on the footpath are bent over resisting a lifetime of stiff, one sided breeze, their wide girth and low canopy forcing pedestrians to walk on the road! We stopped yet again to check with a paan shop, located carefully outside the laxman rekha of station's non smoking zone. The paan wallah too had a similar opinion, and was keen that we went at Ranpat by road, but then, that was something that we did not want to do.
Ratnagiri station is in a pit - even a hundred meters from the place, a casual glance cannot predict that a full fledged station with two platforms exists in the abyss. Not the ones to give up the idea about visiting Ranpat, we went to the platform and met up with the same book store person, whose eyes flashed a look of disbelief on seeing us again in such a short time. He too was not very sure of how to leave Ranpat, the easy way.
On the outside, I was full of bravado; I knew in my heart that this was a risky venture. It is not the jungle that scares me but the fatigue. I am beyond the age of uncertainty and can meet ghosts, darkness or death head on. But not being able to make it just because I am tired is the real worry.
Down the platform, a civil contractor's team was pouring rapid setting grouting compound in the concrete track bed using pneumatic equipment. They could talk, but only while the rapid set mix was being stirred. We stitched the segments of conversation in between several cycles of mixing and spraying to understand that leaving Ranpat would involve a three kilometer walk from the railway track, hitching a ride on a construction truck, crossing a river with a boat and then reaching the main road to flag down a ST. And that would take us only as far as Hatkhamba, while reaching Ratnagiri was yet another step away. All this, after having walked the five kilometers consisting of two long and three short tunnels plus a few viaducts from Ukshi. This was possible only if the station people at Ukshi let us into their tunnels. One also had to keeping in mind that there is no easy exit by road from Ukshi either, so once you step off the KR5 passenger, you are committed to doing some hard trekking to civilization.
This frantic pace is a sample of Lalam's `there a few spare minutes for this activity too' type of planning. Thank god for his obsession and enthusiasm, else the lazy me would have never even thought of visiting these sites. Finally we brooded over our combine ages (well over 89 years..) and decided to do the Shastri river viaduct instead.
Promise you all, the tunnels of north Ratnagiri WILL be done at a later date.
Lalam called up Hrishikesh to find the location and road access to the Shastri river viaduct on Google earth. He replied in detail, including sending an annotated map of the area by email (which we read only on returning to Pune). Alternately, he went about guiding us over a voice call - we got the names of the locations, rest we left to the God of Railfanning and the good people of Konkan.
As the evening fell, we arrived on platform 2 of Ratnagiri to take the 2052 Jan Shatabdi for Chiplun, just an hour away and slightly over 100 kilometers to the north. The northbound RoRo still waited on the up through line while the 2654 Kerala Sampark Kranti arrived on the platform 1. The 2052 Jan Shatabdi arrived almost on time with a Kalyan WDM3D in charge. We tried to go over the shortlisted sites in reverse order and were flattened by the giant sized sea breeze that blew over the Shastri river - no arguments, we were coming here tomorrow.
Chiplun, for the night
We arrived at Chiplun by the 2052 at dusk and took a rickshaw from the south west side. Chiplun station does not have an overhead bridge but is connected across the platforms at the Mumbai end by a subway - broad, well lit with gentle graded curves - very nice! The town is around 3 kilometers away and very quaintly beautiful like the Pune of my childhood.
We were booked to stay in "Deepak Lodge" which was located near to the ST stand to suit the early departure the next day. The concept of staying in a Lodge worried me with visions of bedbugs, sticky bed-sheets, oily bedcovers, dark toilets, flying mosquitoes and crawlies that occasionally fly! But in reality, Deepak Lodge was better than many of the hotel rooms that I had stayed in - clean rooms, fantastic beds, soft pillows, efficient air conditioning and a fully equipped loo - all this for just 600 bucks a day and a unique check out time at 1600 hrs!
The quirky highlight of the very comfortable room was the television set. The remote would not work and all the buttons on the body (volume up/down, channel up/down) did only one thing - turn the volume up. Before giving up trying to make it work, the tiny television was blasting away rock concert level sound, shaking the glass of the window. The people at the lodge were very kind to the extent of replacing the set, but we did not want it anyway.
A new kind of urban tunnel?
After dumping our luggage into Deepak Lodge, we took a rickshaw back to the station. This visit was to meet our contact in Chiplun, who was waiting on platform 1 (north) side, which is away from the town. While outside the pf 1, Ratnagiri end of the station, we noticed that a water stream crosses the station under the platforms and across the lines.
The north east end of the water channel is located at the `+' of the cursor.
Along the deep water channel was a raised `single motorcycle and a person' size of a pathway, guarded with a substantial side railing. Us tunnel rats needed no invitation to choose the dark `subway' to cross the entire station complex towards civilization and Deepak Lodge. While we were inside, a few two wheelers used this path making us cling to the wall while they passed us in the sparsely illuminated passage. The water gurgled deep on one side and mysterious creatures submerged deep in the thick looking goo blew some impressively large bubbles from beneath the surface.
Visitors to Chiplun, be sure you walk this gutter right across, especially at night; for this is probably the most serious fun one can have in this laid back town!
Between the two of us, we had four torches, but did we bring them along during this visit when we might really need them? What do you think?
An exit into from this gutter cum walkway into a wonderful star filled night and found no rickshaw in the station parking to take us back to the town. Just then, in the background, the northbound RoRo thundered towards Kolad causing a huge step in commotion. Hope of getting a ride soon faded and a three kilometer walk through the half lit lanes of the 'ready to sleep' town gave us a tour of the real Chiplun. Thirty minutes after leaving station, we were into town and looking forward to our first real meal of the day. We were in touch with another local contact who insisted that we met at "Deepak Hotel" run by same management as the lodge. This is an eatery plus watering hole is located in a lane at the rear of the ST stand. Fantastic dinner with fresh prawn curry and rice ended the day nicely.
Night at Chiplun
Back to Deepak Lodge, into bed and we were out in seconds. At dawn, we were up for an early start and the other quirk of the lodge became apparent. During the morning hours, the entire plumbing in the bathroom came alive with hot water - all taps, shower, wash basin, bottom wash and presumably the toilet flush too had hot water! The residual cold water in the line was adequate for Lalam and me, so we did not have much to complain about. However, this was a good way to kick start the humour and set the good mood for the entire day.
We checked out of the lodge and sauntered to the bus stop down the road. We needed to get into any southbound stopping bus going towards Ratnagiri. The sign at the bus station asked the passengers to study with the timetable first and ask queries later - akin to the frequent IRFCA moderator's admonition of "read the FAQ first". Looking at the timetable, we found that we did not recognize any of the names mentioned on the board. Add to that, the place we wanted to go to, `Khershet Grampanchayat' was a just a mark on the satellite map, and we were not sure if it was even a proper bus stop.
However, the kind people of Konkan led us to the correct bus and later ensured that we got off at the location.
While at the bus station, we glanced inside the `running room' for the ST drivers and conductors - it was shocking to see that people who work so hard to run buses over long distance were expected to sleep on the floor, using their own bedding. All the rest house offered was a corrugated roof over their heads and perhaps an attached toilet. The railway running rooms by comparison are luxurious with adequate cooling, proper beds with mosquito nets and an attached pantry with the services of a 24×7 cook.
At Khershet and how we got the RoRo picture
On the bus, we were trying to retrace the journey we had done only on the satellite maps. We were counting the hairpin bends on the road and were expecting to see the railway line on our left, but the haze in the air did now allow much sighting. Soon the bus stopped and we were told that this was Khershet Grampanchayat. On the ground, nothing suggested that we were near a railway line. Lalam confirmed with the people inside the Grampanchayat building that there was indeed a railway bridge in that direction and we started our walk on the beautiful country road. The satellite maps do not tell you about the climbs and descends of the path! A few kilometers of walking and we were in sight of the grey 420 meter long Gad river viaduct towering over the tree line.
We left the path and trudged through fields to reach the location faster, when we heard the urgent rumbling from the north directions. Out came the cameras and we were able to get the once in a lifetime shot of a loaded RoRo on the viaduct, even before we had properly arrived at the spot. The sun was beating down on me and instinctively I stood in the shade of the leaves of a tall tree while the camera was on my eye. That's how the `against light' shot saw the literal light of the day. So while people have complemented our `patience', in reality, we got the shot the instant we landed up.
Had we arrived even ten minutes before this moment, we would have definitely moved to the east side of the viaduct to position in the best of the sunlight. Pictures from the east side would be technically better but the spooky quality of the current image would be missing. Sometimes, being late can be a good thing.
We missed the first bus out of Chiplun and consequently missed the sighting of 2202 Garib Rath, but we got all the other "exotica" of the KR during the day - RoRo, Rajdhani and Jan Shatabdi, Lalam's detailed planning ensures such sightings. This includes a study of the train position applet (http://www.konkanrailway.com/website/visual/train_position.html) on the KR site to map the `trend' of a train in the section over several days. While on an outing, Lalam also asks friends to regularly update the current position of running trains over the mobile phone. However the applet was not working for many days prior to our visit and we were left to our own resources like the actual observations, timetables, experience and guesswork.
Under the tall viaduct and on the other side, Lalam and I spread over the area to cover the trains at different angles. The pillars of this viaduct are apparently hollow. For some reason, the pillars have a circular opening (covered by a steel mesh) just above the normal flood level. Mind you, the flood level in this case is a good 6 meters from the ground!
First in from the Aravali Road side was the 2617 Mangala express with its customary Ernakulam power, WDM3A # 18558 - this loco was with Erode earlier. This was followed by a pair of northbound Erode WDG3As (#14649 and #13145) running light. Lalam concentrated on getting the train's reflection in the placid waters of the Gad river. A result of this pursuit is the spectacular image of the two locos perfectly in between two pillars and reflecting in the water.
A lull between train movements allowed us the luxury of eating dry Thepla so famously brought from Pune. As we consumed food and water, at no time did we feel our sacks getting lighter!
The last sighting of the day at this location was the 2051 Jan Shatabdi with Erode's WDM3D # 11113. The fast running but tiny 12 coach rake fitted fully on the Gad river viaduct. It was around 1000 hrs and we had to get ahead to another location in time for shooting the Rajdhani due at around 1430 hrs!
Out of Gad river
We walked up the embankment to the rail level and onto the road that runs over the tracks. As seen in the movies, we reached the road and just then a convenient rickshaw came along to drop us to the main road. A satellite view of the curvy road crossing the railway line-
The rick already had three ladies sitting on the rear seat. Slimly built Lalam got in with them while I sat with the driver, literally hugging him close to keep the vehicle's center of gravity within limits as it went up and down the curves of the country road. At one point the rick halted on a steep upslope while one lady fetched a kid from a nearby house - one more passenger now! We went past the Gram Panchayat and got off at the Aravali village where we could get a better chance of getting a bus for our journey ahead. We had some time and unwound a little on rickety chairs and tables while drinking sweet and chilled mango juice, watching the traffic move past on NH 17.
We decided to move on and boarded a horribly crowded red bus for the next stop, Sangameshwar. While it was hot, stick, cramped and uncomfortable, the footloose nature of our decision making process was highly enjoyable. The bus threw us around in high speed curves and the grab bar from the roof came off!
20 kilometers south and Sangameshwar ST stand at last. We walked around in the hot sun without a clue to the next course of action. We asked around, first to a STD booth guy who would have no vested interest in our plans. After getting some hints, we then asked idle Rickshawallahs and they knew where the Shastri river bridge was. They had even heard of Kurdundha Batla - which till then was just a name that Hrishikesh had sent to us by text message on the phone. Soon we were barreling along the NH17 in a rickshaw to reach Kurdundha to take a boat, yes, a boat to reach the Shastri river bridge.
In this particular trip, we calculated to have used 24 different travel movements in the two days, two nights and a morning. We moved on foot, by motorbike, by rickshaw, by bus, by truck, by train and by an `eight souls plus captain in a tight squeeze' sized outrigger boat - all in the name of railfanning, of course!
The rick driver was so engrossed in conversation with us that he overshot the dirt road turning off the NH17 to the Kurdhunda Bandar (no Pygmy or Delhi connection here, Bandar = port in Konkani).
From the Bandar, the Shastri river bridge on the Konkan Railway could be seen some one and half kilometer distant - we now desperately wanted to go there, but lacked the clear idea of how we would achieve our aims.
Two men in a boat
We got to see a different type of life here - fishing communities and people whose business was to transport passengers a few kilometers along the Shastri river (which in reality is an inland creek) to other villages. At a few places along the river, the transportation business was limited moving people 100 meters from one shore of the river to the other using the cement jetties on both sides. As we descended the slope to the jetty, a boat with few passengers was seen leaving in the distance. This was low tide time and the craft got stuck in an underwater sand bank - the boatman promptly jumped overboard and pushed it clear, demonstrating the shallow draught of the river at that point. Soon the diesel engine was started and the slow, smoky `put - put - put' receded in the deeper stream.
As we had literally missed the boat, the people kindly offered a 'special' trip to the area with another boat for a sum of 60 rupees. The other crafts at the jetty included an enormous sand dredging barge that was embarrassingly marooned out of water by the shallow low tide. Our wooden boat was simply constructed with a raw, furry mango wood plank for seating. The lower part of the boat had the expected few inches of bilge water and although the craft did not have much decoration, it did have a registration number from some local authority.
These crafts are powered by a single cylinder diesel engine that lacks a silencer as well as cooling system. The sooty exhaust ejects straight out of the manifold while the hot water just dumps overboard. The outrigger keeps this boat upright in the moderate swells and when clumsy people try to stand in the narrow shell. I casually checked with Lalam if he could swim, and his assurance was the only life saving tool we had on board.
We moved slowly downstream, along pebbles and clay of the shore with row of glossy black cormorants sunning with their wings open. A pair of agile, jumping fish led the noisy boat and soon we were under the enormous railway bridge. It was 1240 hrs now and we edged towards one bank to be dropped off. At places, the river bank was pretty steep and it would have been impossible to climb out to the shore at such places. Intriguingly, we observed streams flowing into the river from the parched shores, where was the water coming from? At other places, the shore consisted of flattened reeds merging into the water suggesting an impressive high tide mark to this creek. Our own shore connection was a finger of dry rocks that kept the boat in the water but allowed the passengers to get off.
It was clear that the boat was the only easy exit out of this place while roads looked miles away. We requested the boatman to wait until 1430 hrs when the Rajdhani was expected to pass. The boatman had other ideas; he promise to return at 1430 hrs to pick us up.
Railfanning on the Shastri river
Patience is one of the basic attributes of a railfan. Being left alone at this remote place was a good thing giving that special peace of mind aiding the quality of patience. Lalam decided to spike this situation up by asking the boatman to drop me on one shore and him on the opposite.
Soon, I was standing all alone on the gravely flood plane without an iota of shade while my buddy was on the opposite shore - yes, the grass does looker greener on the other side!
As he was getting off at his end, I shouted across the river to Lalam asking him to tell the boatman to come at 1500 hrs rather than 1430 hrs. This extra half hour would compensate for any later running of the Rajdhani. Lalam apparently heard me and shouted back something, which I did not follow, but I am not sure if the boatman understood either of us!
Waiting in the still heat, flies buzzing round the head, without the benefit of any shade, miles from civilization can get lonely; one needs a railfan's disposition to convert the apprehension into enjoyment. I tried Ashish's trick of placing a hand towel over the head and then wearing a cap on top - it works well to reduce the heat going to head and channels the small air currents cooling the face, though it does cut the peripheral vision and sound level somewhat.
The 360 meter long viaduct has the 1.29 kilometer long Bhirkond tunnel at Sangameshwar end towards the north and the magnificent 2.63 kilometer Parchuri tunnel towards Ratnagiri in the south. Trains traveling through the deep holes give very little warning of their approach and often run at 100 kmph. As mentioned earlier, trains on the KR may not honk before entering or leaving the tunnel or while going on a viaduct.
A few seconds of whoosh and rumbling of warning and the first train of our session shot out from Ratnagiri end through the Parchuri tunnel. This was the northbound KR6 passenger to Diva hauled by Ernakulam's WDM2 # 16673. After this train, I thought it wise to flatten the viewing angle with respect to the bridge. Thus I needed to get further away and reach higher ground, at the same time avoiding an electrical line which could spoil the images. Half an hour later from the last train, as I was reaching the edge of the flood plane, a southbound BCN rake rolled by headed by WDG3A pair #13500 and #13494, probably homing to Kalyan.
At the north corner of the viaduct is a convoluted state highway and an ST bus stand (Khadewadi) is located at the spot - the frequency of vehicles is low here and a bus comes along every two hours or so. This road could be an alternative to the boat ride.
After two trains and an hour at the place, I wanted to sample the verdant side that Lalam was apparently relaxing on. So I walked to the road and climbed onto the Shastri river viaduct to walk towards the Parchuri tunnel. From top of the viaduct, I could see a vigorous bubbling amidst of gravel beds - the tide was rising…
Lalam had seen me coming on his side and also decided to go to other shore - like I said, the grass appears greener. We met briefly as we crossed at the Ratnagiri end of the bridge and again, I was alone on this side but at a higher altitude. I was in line with the tracks and being able to see the tall bridge piers clearly. A different sound this time and sure enough, the 103 Mandovi arrived from Sangameshwar end with the WDP 4 # 20046. This was followed by the southbound KR5 passenger with the Ernakulam WDM2 # 17108. I watched the D1 coach go by, we were supposed to be on that train - blame it on the charming breeze of the Shastri river!
Rajdhani at last
Although we could occasionally see each other across the river, Lalam and I were not in touch due to lack of network coverage. We had an agreement that to leave this location after sighting the Nizamuddin bound 2431 Rajdhani.
After a lull of the afternoon, the boat traffic under the bridge had started. With every passing craft, I checked from my high perch whether this was our boatman returning to pick us up. If he did not find us where expected, he may go back leaving us (temporarily) stranded at this location. I say temporary because as optimistic railfans, we would find an alternative way soon. Lalam was now invisible in the forests, climbing ever higher into the surrounding hills to get a shot of the trains clear of shrubs and the trees.
As I waited, I sunk below the shade of a shrub after making sure that the rocks I rested on did not hide any stingers. This was the rich Konkan country, home to myriad snakes and scorpions, even the dark, fat centipedes here could give you a very nasty bite. The heat was forcing the eyes shut, at the same time, gusts of cooler air passing over the waters was bringing respite. A mosque down the river was conducting recitation, bringing a deep sense of peace to the moment.
From the corner of my dream, I heard rhythmic beating - I was the downed fighter pilot in the jungles and the chopper was coming to get me. Swimming into the less than pleasant rebirth of consciousness, waking up I could guess what this was. It was our boatman, still some distant away, now riding much higher in the tide. Just then, the reassuring hum from a generator car broke through and I swung into involuntary action. The Airtel rocket just burst out of the tunnel, smooth as silk with the power cars making more sounds than the green and cream Golden Rock WDP3A # 15501. A few seconds on the viaduct and it was gone, taking my breath with it…
Return to civilization
Mission accomplished, I slid down the steep sides of the embankment using all fours, clutching at the loose caustic soil and the dragging the bum on burning ground. I reached the river bank just when the boatman was beginning to look worried. Soon, I was on his craft heading for the other bank. Lalam was nowhere in sight and I had to wait on the other side for a few moments before he appeared from the fields. We put-putted back to the Kurdhunda jetty to find that the dredging barge and a support boat were now freed by the high tide and were waiting with idling engines. We paid the boatman his due of Rs. 120 and were on the dirt track climbing towards the NH17 for our next leg of adventure.
As we moved, the dredging barge and the sister ship was swept along by the tide, the crew desperately trying to stop the drift by snagging the river bed with an anchor. The barge moved more than 100 meters within a few minutes, giving an idea of the speed of the inrushing water. Once the barge's position was stabilized, the support boat gunned its engines and towed the rusting monstrosity back to its original position upstream.
On the NH 17 and no traffic would pay heed to our request for a ride out of here. We were told by a passerby that we were standing in the wrong place. The 'right' place was about 150 meters upstream, before the steep ghat that we were waiting in earlier. No vehicle would stop on a steep gradient!
At the correct place and a few minutes later we were in the cab of a Lanja bound truck (with an incommunicable driver) who agreed to drop us a far as Hatkhamba phata. The NH 17 at this point runs for many kilometers along the idyllic creek formed from the Shastri river. This deep channel allows boats to navigate inland for some distance. At one point we found an interesting looking bridge that had "Ukshi" in its name -
Please find the railway line west of the bridge.
After getting dropped off at Hatkhamba phata, we now waited once again for a bus to Ratnagiri, only this time, we went all the way into the town which is 12 kilometers away.
The first thing to do at Ratnagiri was to find a good place to eat, we were running the entire day on the few theplas, mango juice and precious nothing else. We asked a riskshaw wallah to lead us to a "good place" that serves wholesome Konkani food - we had visions of crisp fried fish, succulent mutton cutlet, tangy solkadi - you get the picture. We were dropped a kilometer away to a place called Mithila. After settling down, we realized that this was only a regular Idli-Dosa style place - good food but not serving the specialty of the land. Having to eat Pav - Bhaji in Mithila and a cold Batata Wada later in the train was a monumentally wasted opportunity. Our accumulated fatigue may have something to the lack of spirit of culinary adventure.
After eating, we visited the tourist oriented jetty at the Mandvi beach, being showered by the spray from the waves while the sun dipped over the Bhagwati fort and the lighthouse.
Post sundown, another rick took us to the market. We were deep in territory of the fruit during the peak season and folks at home would not take us back unless we brought something substantial called Mango. The street consisted of a row of street sellers who were selling identical fruits at identical price. We must be looking really lost until a disgruntled looking banana vendor guided us to the "new vegetable market" and meet a certain Devidas Sheth who sold in bulk at substantially lower prices. Soon, we left the market with heavy cartons of the juiciest fruits and considerably lighter wallets.
Back to comfortable environs
With this much of weight, the correct thing to do was to get into the final rickshaw ride of the day and move 8 kilometers to the railway station. While I waited on a rocking concrete bench at the platform 2 (don't lean too far back…), Lalam went over to the other side to meet our buddy for the last time during this trip, the bookshop keeper!
The success of this trip is evident from the fact that while I was dozing at Ratnagiri waiting for 110 Up Karwar - CSTM special, I was dreaming of the events of the day. Normally visualization of pleasant recollections occurs only a day after the end of the event, right now, I was still in the event! The 110 Up arrived slightly late with a Kalyan WDG3A in charge. We boarded the coach reserved for the Ratnagiri passengers, so in effect, the all the passengers on the platform boarded just one coach. We were very tired and love sleeping on trains. This combination meant that we were gone to the world as soon as we lay on our lower and middle berths. Sometime early in next morning, the train stopped a station and the PA system announced that our train had arrived on platform 6 - I asked Lalam in half sleep about which station on the route had six platforms? He replied that this was Panvel. But then, that had only 3 platforms, leading to the linear realization that the platform count includes the suburban station also.
Next stop was Thane and we were up and packing, as were most of the passengers. After a stop at Dadar, we ran fast through the Mumbai tracks towards CSTM, arriving slightly late at 0430 hrs. Even at this time, the station was packed with humanity. While having a cup of coffee in the concourse, I was sobered by the sight of a luggage trolley with a coffin carrying as the `human remains' of a person with a proper name - an ex human being.
Morning ride to Pune
We moved over the platform where 1021 Indrayani Express was waiting to take us to Pune. We had odd seat numbers, 2 and 12, but they were on opposite sides of the bay which suited us well while talking. The train blasted through most of its journey, keeping good time with a WCAM3. The passengers filled slowly and by Kalyan, even the standing space in the coach was full.
Waking up at very early mornings can do exciting things to people, but not me. While Lalam in the window seat could sleep with the wall for support, my neighbour, a young guy with a strong perfume in the seat opposite to Lalam, had to often field (and throw off) my dozing bulk. The optimist in me sees this embarrassment as a godsend, as the person on my other side was a petite lady!
A fast thrash into Pune and we were amongst the last to leave Shivajinagar due to the large horizontal spread - mangoes, remember?
While Lalam caught a city bus direct to his place near Chandani Chowk, I had some difficulty in getting a rickshaw as the city was in the midst of a strike by these guys - welcome to Pune!
Lalam and I had a great time doing this trip. We were highly organized and disciplined like the best of professionals, yet totally wayward in our acts like aimless youth. We saw a lot, experience many things, tested our strengths and reviewed our planning skills. We realized that hardships can be overcome only by optimism, a positive attitude and an overdose of humour.
Was the trip expensive? Well, no. The entire trip cost us just Rs. 1600 each, - including an overnight stay in an air-conditioned hotel, all tickets, all food, all transportation and minor sightseeing. What we gained and experiences is invaluable and will enrich us for the rest of our entire lives.
Days after the fatigue is gone and aching has stopped, I have trouble concentrating on work. In my minds eye, I see the tall gray structures with a foundation of silver streams. I see into the shimmering depths of infinitely long dark holes - they frighten and fascinate me with equal measure.
Even the people who have conceived and constructed the Konkan Railways do not realize the enormous magnitude of work that they have done and the immense courage that the task required. They were just following orders, procedures and doing an honest job - that is how the KR was built. Not enough praise has been expressed about the KR, the nation has not thanked them enough, not many paeans are sung about it. We have come to accept this as just another railway line.
Dr. E. Sreedharan, the Ex-CMD of KR, is now known only as the person who brought the Metro to the capital. No one in the public conscience relates him to the grand line anymore, a project that was a million times more difficult that making the DMRC. Not even a fraction of this massive railway line has been discovered, documented or portrayed in the public domain. That, dear friends, is our job.
All of us who love railways should visit the KR, not from the train, but from the ground along the line. That is the only way to experience the uncharted grandeur of the line that is just not be visible from the train. We cannot stay away from Konkan, nor should you.