Doodhsagar: Monsoon... Magic... Mystery

by Karan Desai


Prelude: The fateful day mentioned in the narration that follows was the culmination of a long standing desire of my friends - Akshay and Apoorva (and myself of course) to visit the Dudhsagar Waterfalls during the monsoons.

All characters mentioned here are purely real and any resemblance to any person or event living or dead is purely intentional. Some names have been changed to protect identities.

The day started rather early, at 6am to be precise, with a heated argument between Apoorva and myself. While he was adamant that our passenger train for Kulem departs at 8.01am from Madgaon, I was sure that the time is 7.48am. Finally Akshay had to intervene and we decided to leave our hotel in Colva so as to reach Madgaon station before 7.45am.

We finished quickly with the daily chores and had a heavy breakfast because we were told by well-wishers that Braganza Ghats is a completely desolate part of the world and we would struggle to find even drinking water en route. Our taxi driver Mr. Menino (from his name, I doubt the Portuguese left him here when they left Goa for good) was ready with his Qualis at the hotel gate. We stuffed our luggage in the car and were dropped at the Madgaon Railway Station in around fifteen minutes giving us plenty of time to explore the place.

Before we go ahead, let’s go back in time and look at the events that laid the foundation for the adventurous day ahead. Our original plan was to take the Vasco-Howrah Express departing Madgaon at 8am to Castle Rock. The Braganza Ghats and the mighty Dudhsagar Falls were to be enjoyed from the comforts of the train. From Castle Rock, we were to take the Amravathi Express in the afternoon back to Madgaon, thereby enjoying the Ghats and the Falls once again while descending - again from the cozy comforts of the train. We had even booked confirmed tickets for the same a fortnight in advance. But fate had other plans for us. Ten days before our scheduled trip date of 3rd July, torrential rains lashed Orissa and West Bengal and railway tracks were washed away at many places. As a result, the Vasco-Howrah Express and the Amravathi Express were both cancelled right upto 10th July! This happens only in India - a natural calamity occurring two thousand kilometers away had put our trip in jeopardy!

Of course this could not dampen our spirits. After all we had come five hundred kilometers from our homes in Mumbai especially to enjoy Braganza Ghats and savor the Dudhsagar Falls in full glory. We were not the ones to give up easily. We got in touch with a local who suggested that we take the passenger train upto Kulem, which lies at the base of the Ghats and from there he would arrange a trip to the Waterfalls for us. So we bought unreserved tickets worth Rs.6 each for the Kulem Passenger when we already had confirmed e-tickets costing much more in our hands and entered a quiet Madgaon station with only a freight train standing on one of the lines and a little 3-coach DMU which had just returned from Karwar occupying the main platform. We walked upto the platform where the Kulem Passenger was to arrive and joined in the wait with other passengers - all of them locals and tribals. Only we - with our jeans and t-shirts were looking the odd-men out!

After a considerably long wait, it turned out that Apoorva was right about the timings. In fact, even he was wrong - for the passenger was due to arrive only at 8.20am, not even 8.01am as suggested by Apoorva a few hours back. During this one hour at the platform, a brief shower of rain dampened our spirits a bit. We did not want the Ghats lashed by heavy rains with visibility next to zero when we reach there. But our wish was granted soon and bright sunshine was out as the Vasco-Kulem passenger finally pulled into Platform 2, led by a bright looking WDG-3A locomotive from Gooty shed. We rushed and caught the very first coach after the loco. This passenger had an unusual arrangement of coaches - instead of having the SLR coach at both the ends, it had only one SLR coach right at the middle!

The coach was pretty empty and as we started getting trigger-happy clicking greenery all around us, the locals first eyed us with amusement but soon turned away in disinterest. Myself, Akshay and Apoorva had settled on consecutive windows on one side while Mom and Dad occupied two windows on the other side thereby ensuring we do not miss any action on either side of the tracks. At a small station called Sanvordem, five school children and their equally stupid mother decided to show off their bravery (read: stupidity) and crossed the tracks with our train only around fifty feet away from them. A loud hoot of horn from the terrified Loco Pilot probably provided the catalyst and they somehow managed to clear their way out on the other side just a second before the loco crossed them. This entire scene was captured by Dad since it happened on his side of the train. The entire run from Madgaon to Kulem which took around fifty minutes had the loco providing constant background score of chugging and honking.

At Kulem, everybody got off and left for their respective destinations except the five of us and another three youngsters who were also dressed in our kind of attire and could be clearly distinguished as tourists. As we wandered around the quaint little station for a while, we saw that the three youngsters were hurrying towards the station building. I decided to go faster then them and reached the Station Master’s Office first. Our local contact (referred to Mr. X henceforth) was to meet us here. It turned out that he had very good relations with the Station Master of Kulem and he used to spend a lot of time with them. I enquired with the Station Master about Mr. X but he said he had no information about his whereabouts. Just as I came out of his office, I saw a man asking the other three youngsters, 'Are you Mr. X’s guests?' Dad immediately intervened - 'Sir, not them, WE are Mr. X’s guests.'

All this time, I was trying to reach Mr. X on phone. Mobile network at Kulem, we were told, was very unpredictable and I was hoping to get through atleast once. I connected to Mr. X’s landline number at Castle Rock and was told from the other end that Mr. X had left from Castle Rock for Kulem to meet us. The gentleman introduced himself as Mr. Y, a friend of Mr. X. It turned out that since Mr. X was going to be late, he had sent in his friend Mr. Y to receive us at Kulem station. Sensing that there was no means to go to Dudhsagar Falls from Kulem station, soon, the other three youths decided to walk all the way to the Falls from Kulem along the railway tracks - a trek of around 13km!

After a brief talk, Mr. Y got busy in his work and we, in getting our stomachs full. Kulem is a quaint little station with just one platform with old covered sheds retained from the MG-era. The lone platform is dotted with half a dozen huge rain trees giving the entire place a very serene look. Besides the platform, lies a track used as a siding by idle locos, followed by a single Main Line track beyond which lies four or five siding lines used to accommodate freight trains as and when they arrive from Vasco side or Castle Rock side. On the other side of the platform lies a terminating loop line on which now the Kulem Passenger was resting peacefully, its loco reversed and neatly attached at the far end.

We found a decent cement structure on the platform to serve as makeshift breakfast table. The platform had a solitary tea-stall which in its heyday used to make brisk business but now lying devoid of all its saleable commodities. Looking at the empty shelves we never expected to get anything from there but a young man came out on the platform and asked us if we would like to have some snacks and offered to look after our baggage in return. We ordered tea and decided to have the breakfast we had brought with us to reduce the burden in our bags! We promised the tea-vendor to have samosas from him in the evening and this got him excited. When he came to know that we were Mr. X’s guests, he exclaimed - 'Yeah! I know him! Whenever he is here, he has tea from my stall only!' Yeah right! As if he had a choice!

Finishing the breakfast, we set out to explore the station and the surroundings. First, did a thorough study of a pair of Gooty WDG-3A bankers basking in the sun, followed by a trip onto the Foot Over Bridge which probably saw first human footsteps in months when we climbed onto it, took some photos of anything and everything that caught our eye and returned back to the platform. By this time, the tea-vendor had started distributing his knowledge. He was telling Dad, 'These engines here are kept running since 5 in the morning. They will be attached to Chennai Express in the evening,' pointing to a pair of WDG-3A bankers idling away on the first line. He continued, 'Earlier, these goods trains used to get seven engines attached here to climb the ghat, but now that the American engines have come, only five are enough.' Sadly, there was not a single freight train today since morning to substantiate his claims.

We decided to check out the Station Master’s office. A very rude man in his fifties, he flatly refused to entertain any queries. When asked as to when was the first downhill freight train expected, he just replied with 'I can’t say anything as of now. It has not left from Castle Rock.' Just when he was done, a phone call brought more bad news - a loco had derailed inside Marmagao Port and as a result all freight trains leaving Marmagao towards Kulem were held up! Great! As if to add salt to our wounds, the Station Master commented - 'Yesterday, by this time, we had sent four freight trains up the Ghats!' Dejected, we walked out. Now we had to make a choice - either take the Kulem-Vasco Passenger leaving at 12.20pm and head back safely to Madgaon or wait for a freight train (and Mr. X) to arrive. The tea-vendor, who was the only other human present at the platform besides the half dozen odd Loco Pilots all waiting for their duty, came up with a new idea - he suggested that we wait till evening, and if it got too late, he would arrange for a jeep to take us back to Madgaon. Knowing that there is at least some transport available, we decided to wait and watch.

Sensing a good business opportunity, the tea-vendor came up to us with a new plan - he was to take each of us on bikes upto a place called Sonaulim from where the waterfalls were a 20-minute walk away. The price he quoted was astronomical but that was not the main deterrent. The main problem was that if Mr. X was arriving, we had to wait for him. So, we enquired with the Station Master if any freight train had left from Castle Rock. His answer, again - 'I don’t know anything yet.' I decided to take matters in my own hands now and called up Mr. X’s landline. The person on the line informed that a freight train had departed from Castle Rock fifteen minutes back with Mr. X onboard it and would reach Kulem in an hour and half. I purposely announced this news loudly and the Station Manager, now probably realizing that we were well-informed nuts and not 'just some other irritating tourists', quietly turned his back and hurried off into his cabin.

In the meantime, Dad heard the first good news of the day from a Loco Pilot - a loaded freight train was arriving at Kulem from Madgaon side soon. This lit up our faces - we would soon have atleast some train to go up the ghats. How do we travel in a freight train was ofcourse another matter! Me, Akshay and Apoorva rushed to a scenic spot outside the station to get some snaps of the arriving freight.

After a fifteen minute wait, from behind the curve, came two WDG-4 locomotives, roaring at full power, hauling a long cement-filled BCNA freight train. Even before we could adjust ourselves, came the most awaited moment of the day - from the other side of the station, one-two-three-four-five WDG-4 locomotives entered with a thunderous roar, with a long iron-ore filled BOXN freight train in tow. For a couple of minutes, we stood still enjoying the sight and sounds but soon realized that we had a job at hand - we needed to look out for Mr. X who was to arrive by this freight train. We looked at the five locomotives - one by one dozens of people emerged from the driver’s cabins of each of the five locomotives. Apparently the locals use these locomotives as their 'local trains' for travel up and down the ghats!

We scanned the crowd for Mr. X, whom we had never seen or met before. Thankfully, Mr. Y came to our rescue and introduced us to a young well-built man - Mr. X. He assured us that he would take us up the ghats in one of the locomotives of the freight train - just like how the locals travel. Out of the five locomotives that brought the iron-ore freight down the ghats, the first three were to be detached at Kulem and attached at the rear end of the cement freight as bankers to assist it in climbing up the steep ghats. This process was to take an hour according to Mr. X and in the meantime we freshened up and decided to inform the Station Manager about our further plan. He was a bit shocked on hearing the plan and even tried to frighten us with a, 'But, how can you go up the ghats in a freight train?' and a stern look. We simply walked out, leaving Mr. X to do the needful. After all, he was the local guy. He signaled us to start walking towards the locomotives of the freight train which were way ahead of the platform due to the huge length of the train.

As we were walking along the tracks, a downhill freight train came screaming down the ghats with five powerful WDG4s at its helm and had I not ducked at the right moment, I would have been upstairs by now! Once at the lead locomotive, Mr. X talked to the Loco Pilots in their native tongue (I did not understand a word of it) and asked all five of us to board the driver’s cabin. The cabin already had the Loco Pilot and his assistant and a couple of locals inside. It was impossible that with this crowd already inside, six more of us could fit it. So, Mom, Dad and a local were asked to move to the second locomotive while the remaining made place for ourselves in the cabin of the lead loco. Just as we were about to leave, the LP got some message on the Walkie-Talkie and he and his assistant started packing off their belongings and soon got off the loco and walked away! For a minute, I felt as if my dream of going to Dudhsagar would remain just that - a dream. But soon, a new set of LP and his Assistant came and took charge.

Fifteen minutes later, we were given the green signal and the two WDG-4s started with a deafening roar of their 8000hp worth of combined might, slowly pulling the 5000 tonnes of cement loaded in the wagons behind. Just out of the station, we encountered those three teenagers who had decided to walk upto the falls returning tired as hell. Within a few minutes, the Assistant Loco Pilot and Mr. X doubled up as our 'tourist guides' and directed us to move out of the cabin onto the catwalk of the loco to get a good view of Dudhsagar Falls. And the first view that we got - it just can’t be explained in words. You gotta see it to believe it. Amidst the ear-splitting sound of the motors, we managed to stand on the catwalk for five minutes - just enough time to take a few pics. Immediately we were called in by Mr.X for further instructions. The route on the ghats is such that after the first view of the waterfalls, the tracks take a complete 180 degree turn along the hillside and finally pass right through the waterfalls! We were instructed to move out on the catwalk on the other side and we managed to do that just in time to witness the most spectacular natural beauty I have ever seen in my life! The mighty Dudhsagar Falls - up, close and personal!

After crossing the falls, we decided to be inside the safe confines of the loco cabin. At Caranzol station, we found a penta-WDG-4 headed downhill freight waiting in the sidings. After the initial excitement died down, it dawned on me that this is the freight we were supposed to take from Castle Rock! But, it is already on its way and there is nothing we can do about it! Half an hour of tedious effort by the twin WDG4s upfront and three more bankers assisting from behind and a lot of sanding later, we finally arrived at Castle Rock - a quaint little station which once served as the gateway into Portuguese-controlled Goa from British-controlled India.

We got off at Castle Rock to find a totally deserted station with a huge empty freight yard. Just as we were worrying about how to go back to Madgaon, a fully loaded freight train entered Castle Rock from Hubli side. Wow! This is called luck! That was such a huge relief! We were wondering what we would do if no freight train came into Castle Rock for a couple of hours or more since it was already close to 4pm and there was no passenger train to Madgaon that day! Mr. X assured us that he would talk to the Loco Pilots of the freight train and ensure that we get a ride back home - not to Kulem, but right upto Madgaon! We spent an hour at the platform filling our tummy while the freight underwent mandatory checking before starting its downhill journey. Mr. X accompanied us upto the five WDG-4s at the far end of the yard, talked to the Loco Pilots and announced - 'Select which loco you guys want to sit in!'

This was like showing a child five chocolates and asking which one he wants! We admired the five huge beasts for a minute and thought - the first three locomotives are the bankers (or rather brakers for the downhill run) and would be detached at Kulem. So, no use sitting in them. The fourth loco would be the leading loco from Kulem to Madgaon and have the LP and his Assistant in it leaving no place for all of us. So, we finally decide to get into the fifth loco - where we would have the entire cabin to ourselves! The Assistant LP came and turned on the lights and fans inside the cabin and said with a warm smile 'Please make yourselves comfortable in here.'

We perched ourselves at various vantage points inside the cabin and within no time, we were given the starter. With an even more deafening roar than the one in the afternoon, all five WDG-4s sprang to life at the push of one button by the LP. The 20,000hp of effort started the huge freight train with 58 BOXN wagons filled with iron-ore with a jerk and immediately the last two locos were turned off. Taking a freight train downhill is challenging because the steep slope of the ghats ensures that the train keeps moving downwards even without applying any effort from the engines. The brakers have to ensure all the time that the speed does not cross 30kmph and the entire downhill journey was to be done only on dynamic brakes with zero tractive effort required!

The entire downhill journey was spent in admiring the figures popping up on the digital display inside the cabin of the loco. To our good luck, it was not cloudy and there was no rain so we could admire the Dudhsagar Falls once again on the way back and this time since the heavy train was moving at a restricted speed of 30kmph, we could admire the beauty for a much longer time! Even when the falls had disappeared from view, we kept on looking back - the sight is such that you can never get enough of it! After a clinically perfect run by the experienced ghat pilots, we entered a totally blacked-out Kulem station. There was a power failure and not a single light - not even the signals could be seen. This was as scary as it could get! Thankfully the backup generators could provide enough power to start the signals and we got the permission to go ahead soon.

The run from Kulem onwards was through flat terrain and the Loco Pilot unleashed the full 8000hp of raw power from the twin WDG4s and we were blasting through Goan countryside at 60kmph! And remember - this was not your ordinary passenger train - this was a freight train with 6,000 tonnes of iron ore filled in it! An open Level Crossing gate at a wayside station made us wait for a good twenty minutes. This probably irked the Loco Pilot a lot and the moment he got the green, he accelerated the train at full throttle, going into 5th notch right from the start! This is something we least expected - a fully loaded freight train is started carefully in the 1st notch and slowly taken to further notches.

Finally as we entered Madgaon station, the LP, as a kind gesture made the freight train stop at the platform first so that we could get off comfortably before taking it into the darkness of the yard ahead. Even before we could thank the Loco Pilots for their kind gesture, they notched up the monster again and the Good Samaritans roared away into the darkness, never to be met again!

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