by Shanx, Vivek Manvi and Bharath Moro
Photos from this trip can be viewed here: Vindya Adventure
Mumbai to Itarsi - Vivek Manvi
After a lot of planning, including hours of chatting on Yahoo Messenger, ruffling through various timetables and even referring to satellite imagery, the plan was finally made. We were to trek the 13 km ghat section from Dharakhoh to Maramjhiri on the Itarsi - Nagpur section. We pleaded with our respective bosses to sanction leaves, bought tickets and explained to our families the concept of "railway trek"
Day 1: Kandivli to LTT - by three different EMUs!!
After a lot of waiting, the day finally arrived. Bharath Moro and I were to travel on the 2161 LTT-Agra Lashkar Express to Itarsi. There, we were to rendezvous with Shashanka, Meenal, Bharath Vohra and Vikas Singh who were traveling on the 2616 GT Express. The GT would take us to Dharakhoh, which was the starting point of our trek. Bharath arrived in Mumbai by the Valsad Fast Passenger in the morning and decided to rest at my place. We left home at around 1PM with enough buffer to board our train which was to depart at 1620. The three of us - Bharath, me and my wife Kanchan headed to Kuku's, a tiny restaurant in Borivali which serves the most delicious Chinese food I have ever tasted on this side of town. Kanchan was headed to Kalyan to spend the weekend with her parents and decided to tag along with us till Dadar. After having our fill and resisting the temptation to pack some more food for the journey, we arrived at Borivali station. Bharath bought a first class ticket to Dadar and we boarded a local to Dadar. The run was pretty uneventful and we reached Dadar in 40 minutes. It had just drizzled sometime back and the weather was hot and muggy. Kanchan bid us farewell and proceeded towards platform no. 4 to catch a fast Titwala local to Kalyan. We searched high and low for a coupon-validating machine (CVM) in working order to stamp our coupons to Tilak Nagar. After trying atleast four different CVMs across CR and WR, we gave up and decided to buy tickets instead. We waited at platform no. 1 where the indicator displayed that a Kalyan bound slow local was to arrive. True to CR's tradition, the local arrived on platform no. 2 instead of 1. Thankfully, it was an island platform and we boarded the train easily. We reached Kurla in no time and we headed to the harbour line platform to board a third (and thankfully the final!) local to the next halt - Tilak Nagar. After a never-ending wait, the crowded local finally arrived and we managed to push and shove our way into one of the compartments. We departed soon and negotiated the almost 90 degree curve towards Tilak Nagar. I noticed that the speeds over this curve had increased as compared to a few years ago. Soon, a young-college-hero-types guy tried to push his way between Bharath and I to stand at the door. Sure, we looked like tourists with our luggage and all but after hearing a string of unmentionables in choice Bambaiya from me, he got the message and decided to stay where he was. We arrived at Tilak Nagar and walked some 200 meters to Lokmanya Tilak Terminus (LTT), formerly known as Kurla Terminus.
LTT has four platforms - actually two island platforms with tracks on either sides. The waiting hall has improved a lot since the last time I saw it. There are actually rows of benches for people to sit!:-) The waiting area was not crowded as it was off-season. The Lashkar Express rake was parked at platform no. 3. We were booked in coach S- 6 - both of us getting lower berths as requested. However, the general condition and location of the coach was unappealing to both of us and we headed down the platform to take a look at the loco. Doing the honors that day was WCAM-3 #21886, the sixth loco in the WCAM-3 series.
Day 1: LTT to Itarsi by 2161 Lashkar Express.
The Lashkar rake was around 17 coaches long - no big deal for the 5000HP monster at the head. After checking out the loco, we headed back to our coach. One look at the AC coaches and a 40watt bulb suddenly glowed in our heads. We decided to upgrade our tickets to 3AC! We checked out the reservation charts and were happy to see that there were atleast 7-8 berths vacant and around 4-6 more were BPL quota. It was around 1600 at that time and the next fifteen minutes were spent in hunting for the TTE, who was nowhere in sight. At around 1618, we finally decided to board the 3AC coach and deal with the TTE later. We plonked our bags on one of the vacant berths and decided to check if the TTE was in the 2AC coach. Eureka! We found not one but four TTEs chatting away in one of the compartments. I explained to the AC TTE that we wanted to upgrade our SL tickets to 3AC but he thrust a vague rule passed by the Railway Board into my hands, which mentioned that one needs to possess a first class ticket in order to upgrade to 3AC. After repeated explanations by us and head scratching by the TTE, he agreed. We paid him the fare difference and after collecting the receipt happily headed back to our coach. Meanwhile, we failed to notice that the train had started moving. We slowly negotiated the points and came to a halt at the exit of the LTT yard. Bharath and I had been assigned side upper and side lower berths - which if you are not too tall - are a good bet in a cramped 3AC coach. We soon got the amber light and we were on our way. As soon as the entire rake was on the main line, the driver let loose a looong blast of the delightful low tone of the WCAM-3, which my camcorder was happily lapping up. We accelerated in no time and the eastern suburban stations of Mumbai whizzed past us. In no time, we arrived at Thane - our first halt. Hardly 4-5 people boarded our coach. We started again in a couple of minutes and accelerated swiftly. The Parsik tunnel was negotiated at a speed of around 70kmph. We spotted a KYN WDG-3A led container rake just ahead of Diva. A continuous drizzle forced us inside and we decided to rest for some time. This gave us a chance to observe the junta in our coach. Most of the crowd consisted of families and elder people traveling to the north of the country. There were only a couple of PYTs in the entire coach!! What a contrast to our journey on the Gitanjali a couple of months ago. Kalyan came and went and we were now traveling through some spectacular scenery on the Kalyan - Kasara stretch. The rain had made the area a lot greener and really beautiful. Even the tiny rain soaked stations looked neat and charming.
The most enduring image, which I remember clearly even today, is that of a beautiful hill surrounded by low monsoon clouds. One had to be there to experience it.
After a series of long twists and turns and some fast running on straights, we reached Kasara. Two WCG-2 howlers were waiting for us as usual. The entire process of attaching the bankers at both Karjat and Kasara always amazes me. It takes only five minutes for the entire job to be done before you hear the "praaaaam" from the WCAM-3. We started from Kasara and headed into what looked like the entrance to heaven. There were clouds all around us and one could hardly see 200 meters on either side! Bharath and I were clicking away to glory and taking in the fresh, cool and moist air in the ghats much to the amusement of the AC attendants who had joined us at the door. The Mumbai bound Gitanjali Express crossed us somewhere in the ghats but we were busy taking in the view. After negotiating the usual curves and tunnels, we approached Igatpuri. The approach to IGP was again surrounded by beautiful white clouds and both of us vowed that we would do this stretch again soon. We sprinted across to the front of the train as soon as it halted, as we wanted to catch the loco change. Bharath and I had debated long on which loco would haul us from IGP and we had finally narrowed down to three contenders - BSL WAM-4, ET WAM-4 or a JHS WAP-4. The WCAM-3 was soon de-coupled and moved away to a siding. We could see a brown rust colored loco waiting in the distance. So - it was going to be a BSL WAM-4 after all!! For the first time in my 6-8 visits to Igatpuri, I actually saw the traction change happen right in front of my eyes. About 20 metres ahead of the platform, there is a knife and wedge like switch on top of an OHE pole. The switch rotates 180 degrees to switch from DC to AC and vice versa. Anyway, the WAM-4 arrived and we suddenly remembered that we had to buy Sprite for you-know-what! It was around 1900 and we called up Bharath Vohra to enquire about the whereabouts of the Delhi gang. They would've departed at around 1800 by the GT Express. BV and gang were on the outskirts of Delhi. They complained about the pathetic ride quality of their two month old 3AC coach on the GT. We then called up Alok, who said that he would be taking the Chattisgarh Express from NGP to meet us at Itarsi. Soon, we got the signal to proceed and the driver sounded the melodious twin tone of the WAM-4. What a difference as compared to the harsh "praaaam" of the WCAM-3. We stuck around at the door as we passed the AC Trip shed, which was overflowing with a variety of locos as usual. We also spotted an ERS WDM-2 - which was obviously for the Mangala Express. Our dinner had already been loaded at IGP and we headed back to our berths to indulge in the famous Igatpuri biryani, which turned out to be barely edible! Disappointed, we somehow gulped it down with the help of some transparent "stuff" which we were carrying. Damn! - How we regretted not packing some Chinese from Kuku's with us!! There was some pretty fast running thereafter and we were amazed at the performance of the WAM-4. Within 40 minutes, we reached Nasik Road - five minutes before time! This meant an extended halt at the station. I decided to take a nap as soon as we left NK. I woke up with a start to hear and feel some harsh braking. I rubbed my eyes and saw that we were at Manmad - again 10 minutes before time!! Bharath, who had been standing at the door told me that the driver had entered the station at around 60kmph and had braked hard, sparks flying and all to halt exactly at the starter! He must have been a Type 4 driver for sure.
We looked around the station, which looked pretty deserted at that hour. Quite a contrast from the hustle and bustle we had observed during the day time just a couple of months ago. We waited at the door for some time talking in pure railfan lingo while a pretty young girl kept looking at us. Bharath then told me that while I was sleeping, she had actually asked him whether we were journalists. He had told her that we were actually travel writers and that's why the look of admiration! Well, it was not entirely untrue with the only exception that we did the writing as a hobby ;) We departed from MMR right time and decided to hit the bed...err.berth as we had a long day ahead.
I woke up at around 0345 and quickly freshened up. It was then that I saw an SMS from Shanx mentioning that they were stuck at Agra Cantt because of a rail fracture with no idea when they would depart! We tried contacting him but could not get through. There was no option for us but to wait! We calculated that we were somewhere around Itarsi, but there was no way to find out as it was extremely dark outside with not even a single light in sight. The WAM-4 was still going great guns though. Soon, we could make out a glow on the horizon. We guessed that it was Itarsi. The conductor appeared and confirmed our guess. We slowed down as we approached the yard and the electric loco shed. We finally entered platform no. 1 at Itarsi at 0355 - five minutes before time!
Vindhyan Adventure - Shanx.
It took a long time coming, but finally we made it! The plan to trek the Dharakhoh - Maramjhiri ghat section on the Itarsi - Nagpur line had been in the works for nearly a year and it was more than a childhood dream for me. As a child, I used to wonder why a majestic train like GT had to stop in the middle of nowhere and take on two more locos to help it climb the hills. Weren't the two magnificent beasts upfront enough? As the train wound through the dense forests, the then unlit tunnels used to scare the daylights (literally) out of me! Exiting the tunnels onto the tall deep viaducts, I couldn't help but recall the story my mom related as to how her coach was stuck within the tunnel for hours with an infant me after the train suffered a derailment. The abandoned sheds in the deep valleys invoked visions of evil spirits roaming in the valleys with tigers & hyenas for company. With each passing trip, the resolve to trek this entire line grew stronger and finally on 22d July I was at New Delhi station waiting to board the familiar comforts of the venerated GT Express.
For company, I had intrepid IRFCAns Bharat Vohra, Vikas Singh & my close friend Meenal who isn't a railfan in a strict sense, but is extremely fond of train travel and never the one to miss out on an adventure. The previous day, Bharath Moro had travelled down to Bombay from Atul and at 1840 in the evening, he was aboard the Lashkar Express along with Vivek Manvi destined for a rendezvous at Itarsi (ET). The Seventh Samurai, Alok Patel from Nagpur had to bow out at the last moment due to a bad knee, but nevertheless he promised to meet us at Maramjhiri (MJRY). PVS Praveen from Hyderabad was also to join us, but he too had to cancel at the last minute owing to work pressures.
The preceding months had seen an unprecedented level of planning going into the trip; all of us had been scouring every bit of available information to chart out the trek. Choosing connections and booking the tickets to co-ordinate the movements of all the members was perhaps the easiest part. The toughest challenge was to identify and eliminate elements of risk. For those unfamiliar with the geography of this region, the Ghat section lies in a very desolate stretch of forest miles away from the nearest road. The only habitation within those forests was the temporary shelters of railway employees and the occasional woodcutter or a cowherd. Beyond that, we would have been totally on our own in a track lined by 4 tunnels and 2 viaducts over trunk line traffic!!
A recce trip was made by Alok Patel on his way to Bhopal to check out possible danger points, clearances in tunnels & viaducts and also the location of the nearest road. More help was sought from high definition maps from the US Army (yea, no Indian sources were available) and of course, the excellent satellite imagery from Google Earth!!
So there we were, in coach AS1 of the 2616 waiting for our departure. The coaches, shipped in May 05 by RCF Kapurthala looked spick and span with all the latest bells and whistles, but conspicuous by their absence were the electricity points for charging mobiles etc. At exactly 1840, the starter turned amber and Erode's WAP4 #22550 let out a sharp toot and we were on our way. The moment we hit the first point in New Delhi yard, it was apparent that the ride was not going to be smooth at all. The bogies groaned, grated & shuddered violently over each point and we wondered if we would even clear NDLS yard without derailing.
We settled down in our seats as Bharat Vohra regaled us with his tales from his recently concluded trip to the North East with Mohan & Samit. For hors d'oeuvres we had Chicken Burgers (from the Wimpy counter at NDLS PF12), Veg Cutlets, Dal Wadas while the entr�e consisted of excellent Dal, Egg Curry (in the non veg meal), mixed veg, rice, curd & pickle cooked up by the New Delhi base kitchen. The quality of food aboard the GT has gone up dramatically ever since the pantry management was given to IRCTC instead of SR Catering.
All this while, the speed of the train hardly went beyond 90kmph and we steadily lost time. We reached Mathura 35 mins late, and kept losing more time towards Agra. The culprit as we found out was a derailed goods train near Farah Town. An accident relief train (ART) was on the spot hauled by a WAG7, and a blue WDM2 from Bhagat Ki Kothi was also spotted at the site.
Bharat had packed up for the day by the time we reached Agra, and remaining three trooped out on the platform to stretch our legs a bit. The halt at Agra extended much beyond the stipulated 5 minutes and about half an hour later, Vikas too made himself scarce. Meenal and me then had two very pretty Austrian ladies (I fell in love with the tattooed brunette) and a boisterous band of college students for company. The college kids were making quite a racket shouting mock slogans in the praise of a departing classmate and unable to bear the wait, I sauntered off in the direction of the loco to find out the reason. The cab was stark empty, and sprawled on trunks lay two figures in blue and navy. A walkie-talkie crackled incessantly by their side and further enquiries revealed that the drivers had gone in for a nap as a rail fracture beyond the yard was holding up traffic.
At about 2315, the typical drone of a generator car appeared on the horizon and pretty soon, the waist mounted headlamps of Lallaguda's WAP4 #22316 pierced the darkness and slowly the beast rumbled through the yard overtaking us with the Rajdhani to Bangalore in its wake. A few minutes later, the starter turned amber and we too were off, an hour an 40 minutes behind schedule.
Vikas & Bharat had already turned in for the night while Meenal and me were busy chatting when bright lights lit up our bay and for the next 40 minutes the TTE and two waitlisted passengers were the subjected to a barrage of muttered abuse from us. As an aside, a few chilled kingfishers were waiting for to be devoured and we did so with gusto as the Grand Lady tore through the night illuminated by a bright moon. The Chambal Valley was sheer ecstasy with the light & shadow indulging in hide & seek through the deep ravines. The river itself was a shiny ribbon of silver as we thundered over the mighty steel bridge spanning its width. In a dream like state we returned to our berths overawed by the beauty of this once dreaded land, and soon were snoring blissfully as the blue snake slithered constantly southwards.
At the crack of dawn I was back at the door again, watching the sun struggling to break through the heavy cloud cover and the sky was an painted eerie blue. Speeding past the legendary Sanchi Stupa, we crossed Bhopal, Habibgunj etc. before heading further south where the mighty Narmada awaited us in full spate at the outskirts of Hoshangabad. As we slowed down to a halt at the platform, another WAP4 hauled train entered from the opposite side. To my shock & delight it was the CST-FZR Punjab Mail!! For long this train has had to make do with WAM4s and WAP1s, but it seems now that NR is giving its due. Doing honors was a Kanpur power and as it rolled to a halt, I could visualize the delight of many CR fans as and when the news broke.
All night long though, I had a fitful sleep courtesy the RCF bogies. As I had mentioned earlier, the bogies had this annoying habit of hitting every point with a loud bang and a heavy sideways lurch. No matter what speed we hit the point the result was the same!! The ride quality was equally bad and there was quite a bit of body roll as well. The fit and finish in the coach was of not too great either and it lacked the electricity points as well for charging mobiles, laptops etc. that I had seen in 04 built coaches from the same factory.
Beyond Hoshangabad, was the first of the delights for which we had traveled this far. The Barkhera - Budni Ghat section was spectacular in the post monsoon beauty. Miles upon miles of deep forest & steep hills ringed us from all sides as all of us stayed rooted to the door drinking in the beauty laid forth by Mother Nature. Arriving at Mid Ghat catch sidings, we saw the age-old carcass of a WAG5 way up on the hill as the opposite line took its leave and climbed up a ridge. The line became visible just before Budni from where we could see the famous loop and the tunnel set high up on the cliffside.
Budni to Itarsi was a short fast run, and at the platform, we were met by the waiting pair of Bharath Moro & Vivek Manvi who had arrived earlier in the morning. Curving away from the mainline towards Mumbai, we gorged on our breakfast of bread-omlettes & pongal-vadas and started packing up. Water supplies to the tune of 15 liters were procured from the pantry, and at 0920 we got off at Dharakhoh (DHQ).
This station marks the beginning of a 13km long Ghat section, which culminates at Maramjhiri (MJRY). This section, falling under CR's Nagpur Division is operated under special Ghat working rules, which entail banker operations for all passenger trains of more than 17 coaches in length. All freights get bankers as well. The only exception here are empty freight rakes. This too is done only in the case of through freights. Any freight stopping and then starting from DHQ gets mandatory bankers.
Just as we got off, a waiting pair of WAG5s (rear loco dead) attached itself to the rear of the rake and minutes later, it started pushing the 24-coach behemoth up the gradient. Almost immediately, the most amazing sight greeted us... a fully loaded container rake came down the hill with no less than 4 WAG5s heading it. The lead pair was that of Bhusawal WAG5s which were acting as 'brakers' (if I may use that term) providing extra braking power to the original WAG5 pair hauling the train. The bankers are preferred for braking duty as well since they are fitted with Rheostatic Brakes as well.
After taking a few shots of the incoming freight and the yard, we spoke to the station staff at who were trying hard to figure out why on earth had someone traveled all the way to Dharakhoh (DHQ); after all the place barely existed even on a map.
After taking some tips from the station staff about things to do and route to take, we set off. Settling down in a single file on a trail running next to the tracks. We were very grateful for the trail, which made things much more than comfortable as walking on ballast & sleepers for 13 km wasn't going to be easy. The valley was resplendent in monsoon greenery and thick dense forest stretched as far as the eye could see.
This section of the Vindhyas was the biggest barrier in the construction of the Delhi Madras rail-line. The line connecting Hoshangabad to Nagpur was built somewhere in the early 1900s. Tunnels on this line were laid in 1914 or thereabouts but completed much later. The Ghat remained single line till 1966-67, after which the second line (now used as the line towards NGP) was commissioned. The new line charts a slightly different course through the hills after separating from the old line about 2.5km from DHQ. The new line has 4 tunnels and 2 viaducts while the old line has 5 tunnels.
The initial going was easy paced, with a lot of banter going across. For the first 2 kilometers or so, we didn't come across a single soul. We stopped enroute to click pictures of passing trains as well as some of the beautiful scenery. Our major halt was that at a gang man's hut who had been posted there specially to watch out for landslides obstructing the track. We chatted with him for a while and he revealed that he had been working on this line in the permanent way department for about 35 years. Now that's an awful lot of time to spend in these desolate jungles. We also picked up advice from him on train movement behind our backs, which would help us negotiate the tunnels safely.
On the way, we also encountered a WAG9 hauled BOXN rake going downhill, assisted by twin WAG5s upfront. Watching 13800hp of raw power delicately balance the rake over the steep slopes was quite a sight. Moving further up, we reached the spot where we had to decide between the Dn & Up lines. We chose the new (Dn) line simply because it had lesser number of tunnels thereby lessening the risk albeit by a fraction.
The first tunnel was about 470m in length and we negotiated it by splitting into batches of two with Bharat Vohra, Vikas Singh & Vivek Manvi heading in first. No sooner than they had entered, we heard the sound of an approaching train, and quickly shot off warnings, which enabled them to reach the nearest refuge with ample time to spare. The oncoming train was actually a twin WAG5 consist running uphill to help bring down another rake. We followed the locos into the tunnel as the next train was not expected unless the bankers had reach MJRY (The Ghat is an absolute block with only one train allowed at a time in either direction). The next tunnel, much shorter in length (about 170 odd meters) was quickly dispatched. This tunnel opens directly onto the first viaduct after which the track disappears into another tunnel.
The view of the valleys from the under slung trestle viaducts was amazing, but for some strange reason, we could not spot any water. All through the trek we crossed numerous streams & rivers, but there was hardly a drop of water in them despite the fact that it bad raining pretty well all this season. It is from the viaducts only that the remoteness of the locale hits you. Hills ring you in from all sides and the post monsoon greenery blankets everything in sight. The jungles stretch for as far as the eye can see and the nearest motorable road is a couple of klicks to the west. Human habitation is sparse, now sparse is probably a very conservative word to use because on the 13km trek, we came across less than 20 fellow specimens of the species homo sapiens sapiens, out which an overwhelming majority belonged to the subtype 'Indian Railways employee'.
We did meet a family of woodcutters who were busy tying their load using ropes fashioned from strips of bark and further conversation with them revealed that they dwelled in a small hamlet at the edge of the forest. They were preparing their load, which they would carry all the way to Betul (about 13km from where we met them) and after selling them in the market there, walk all the way back. We asked them about the kind of wildlife that dwelt in those forests to which they replied that nary a wild animal ventured into this side of forest as the rail traffic serves as a major scare factor.
Sitting there watching them made me wonder a lot about my own life and the woodcutter's. I couldn't help but ponder on the fact that why men are created unequal? What deeds have we done to deserve the air-conditioned homes, the soft downy beds and the latest gizmos to earn our daily bread, while this man still continued like his stone age ancestors hacking down trees with a rudimentary axe and sleeping on the bare floor in his thatched hut. Does he work any less hard than me? Then why does he walk barefoot on the ballast while I have rugged FILA boots to protect me? I probably come across more poor people in the city, but for a weird reason in the middle of the jungle, the gap between us and them looked too wide to be able to bridge.
Taking their leave, we rambled on and fatigue began to set it. The relatively warm day and high humidity began taking its toll on us and I was really thankful to the carton loads of water that we were carrying despite the extra weight. We took rests every now and then. More trains scurried past us, notable amongst them were the up and down Dakshin Expresses headed by brand new Lalaguda WAP4s, Deekshabhumi Express to Gorakhpur hauled by an Itarsi WAM4 and the eternal favorite - the Tamil Nadu Express which shot past me like a bullet out of a rifle as the flaming red WAP4 screamed out of tunnel #4.
We had cleared this last & longest tunnel barely minutes ago, and we were catching our breath as the TN appeared. #4 is an S shaped tunnel, which allows for very poor cross ventilation and halfway through the tunnel the air was stale & stifling and it was a real effort crossing this one. The remainder of the route to Maramjhiri was perhaps the most difficult of the trek. The sun beat down mercilessly over the last mile or so and there was no sign of a breeze. Our not so high fitness levels (deskbound warriors that most of us are!!) weren't helping either.
Close to 1500 hrs, we finally spotted the MJRY home signal, a sight, which was akin to the sighting of an oasis in a desert to our weary legs. One half of our trekking party had already made it to the station and rendezvoused with Alok who had gotten off the Deekshabhumi that had crossed us earlier.
Stumbling on the platform, Bharat and myself gave impromptu French kisses to the station board. After all, it was a dream come true for me. Strangely, as with all physically demanding challenges, the first reaction after overcoming it was that of relief than joy. To be able to walk on the tarred and smoothed platform surface after spending hours on ballast was an experience in itself.
But slowly, the whole thing sank in and but by then we learnt that an RPF search party was scouring the Ghats for us!! Apparently some staffers didn't take too kindly to the presence of a battery of cameras and strange looking people in the wilds. Hence a search party had been dispatched from Betul outpost for us. Now the last thing we wanted after all this was trouble with the Khaki so we decided to dunk the idea of taking a passenger train to Betul (8km) away and head there by road. That meant an extra 1.5km trek through fields, barns and country roads to the highway.
Transport from there wasn't easy, as flagging down trucks didn't help. Buses too seemed to head in the opposite direction to that desired but help finally arrived in the form of a Mahindra Commander Jeep. The local cab service was already carrying a few passengers so our luggage went on the roof carrier while we all piled in the rear. Still there was no space for yours truly's big fat posterior, hence I spent half of that bumpy ride hanging on for dear life on the footboard!! When I could not take if anymore, I simply plonked myself on top of the rest and may the good lord be kind on Vikas and Vivek who bore the brunt of my 200 lbs deadweight!
20 or so minutes later, we arrived at Betul and were dropped off at the 'best hotel in Betul', which won't be giving competition to the Burj-al-Arab anytime soon. Neither was the kitchen close to getting a Michelin rating, but for our starved stomachs the aloo parathas & curd, followed by bread omlettes and chai was perhaps one of the more satisfying meals of our lives.
Showers and naps later, it was time to say goodbye to each other. The adventure didn't end there though. Vivek headed to Bombay via Gondia - Nagpur - Surat - Jalgaon (now its upto him to tell the tale), while Bharath Moro headed to Valsad via Indore (and that is another story!). Vikas & Bharath Vohra saw me and Meenal off on perhaps the shortest super fast express in India, the 8 coach Nagpur - Jabalpur Express, while they caught the Chattisgarh Express to Delhi later in the night.
So then, that was the end of the Vindhyan Adventure. but the call of the wild still beckons me and I am wondering, how about a repeat this time? Maybe on a full moon night.....
Vindhyan Adventure Continues - Bharat Moro.
Indeed! I had orginally planned out the trip thinking the boss would allow me to take a couple of extra days off work. But a week before the trek, he let me know in a stern voice that he needed me in office by 0800 on Monday(the trek was on a Saturday). All attempts to get back to Valsad via Bombay failed, either because of lack of confirmed tickets or lack of convienient connections. I was even planning on going to Mathura by the Chattisgarh and catching the AK Raj from there. Talk about a loop! But being the genius he is, Shanx told me to check out connections from Indore. Luckily there were enough tickets in the Bombay bound Avantkia and more importantly, almost the entire 9318 NGP-Indore express was empty.
So...here I was waiting at Betul station along with Vivek for my train's arrival. We had reached the stn around 2115 to find that it was buzzing. Literally!. Mosquitos and flies were everywhere and if not for the Odomos cream that Vivek had bought along, I would have had nasty bites all over my body. The only signficant sighting we got was of the Thirukkural express(towards NGP) with the barbie doll AJJ WAM-4 #21320 doing the honours. It soon started raining and Vivek made a dash towards Pf1 where his train was expected. A few min. later my train too pulled in, with the dirtiest looking ET WAM-4 I had ever seen. The entire body was brown muck with only the number 20500 showing!
We got going soon after a two minute halt. I had no energy to hang around at the door and catch some action. The rock hard upper berth would have disappointed me on most occasions but not now. It was as good as any five star hotel bed! The TTE check over, I slumped off to sleep. I woke up a few hrs later with severe chills and a nasty cold. After that I slept fitfully till Dewas, where I got down, had a cuppa and decided to stick around at the door. Fever be damned! The line to Indore from Dewas is single, unelectrified and governed by MACL's. With miles of soya and tomato fields, steady drizzle and a rising sun, it made for a lovely setting. Adding to that was a lightly smoking diesel!:-)
We got into Indore more or less on time. I caught a glimpse of a few MG rolling stock on the other side of the station and immediately decided that I need to take a ride. I couldn't care less for the fever that was slowly creeping up. A 5 min auto ride later, I checked into an over-priced,smelly and crappy hotel. And about an hr later I was out of there and walking towards the station. Reaching the MG side, I found out that a passenger train to Mhow had just left and the next one wasn't due for an hour. Cursing myself, I stepped outside and went to the bus stand deciding that I would ride MG atleast one way. No sooner than I put a step inside, I was stopped by a loud call of "Mhow. 8 rupiyaa". I followed the guy and was slightly taken aback at the choice that was being offered - a three wheeler tempo popularly known as "Ganeshji". Soon, I was regretting the decision. The driver apparently was celebrating his birthday and the entire vehicle was decorated in shades that hurt my eyes. To compound the matter, he drove like a drunken maniac. Twists and turns, straight runs towards oncoming traffic and last minute braking!
Nevertheless he dropped me right at Mhow station's entrance a hour later. Feeling nauseous, I bought myself a bottle of water and made my way inside. It was a very simple station, with three platforms and a generous five line yard. I could make out the diesel shed's outlines on end towards Khandwa. Once I found out that my train was due to leave at around 1100, I made my way towards the shed. However, just 100 meters into the walk and sudden thundershower cut me short. Already feverish with a nasty cold, I was in no mood to walk the rest of the way. Beating a hasty retreat, found a dry seat in the parked Indore bound passenger and parked myself. With rain lashing, the noisy YDM4 from Phulera(can't remember the no!) pulled out with the 11 coach passenger. It was slow going for the first 10 min, after which the driver opened up. Quite a sight the YDM4 made with smoke and rain:-)
After two halts, we picked up speed quick rapidly and just as quickly came to a shuddering halt. I initially thought we had hit something but a quick peek outside didn't reveal anything. We waited for about five minutes and then got running again only to stop again. By this time I knew there was something wrong with the loco or one of the coaches. My thoughts on the loco going kaput were proven right when the driver and guard had a very animated discussion mid-train. There were lots of arm-waving and shouting into the walkie-talkie. All this had taken thirty minutes and I was feeling jittery. I needed to get to Indore, rest a while and get back to the station to catch the Avantika at 1500. Just then, the driver walked past me and upon being asked what was wrong mumbled something about a relief loco being sent from Mhow. Hearing this, I decided that my train ride was to end. But the question was how to get to Indore. The entire Mhow-Indore stretch is quite densely populated but not where we were standing! There was a small cart road leading to a small village about a km away and around the road were soya and tomato fields.
Just as I beginning to think about walking to the nearest road, a tonga came into view. I jumped off the train and told the tongaman my plight. He listened patiently but told me that he was going only to the next village and that I needed to walk the rest of 2km to get the main road. Sigh! With tired legs and a fever that was starting to bite I had no choice. The next ten minutes were spent in the tonga and the only thing I can say is this - if you have a chance do it. There isn't anything on the planet that comes close to entertaintment!!:-) I thanked the guy and got off at the village cutoff and slowly trundled the two km to the highway. My legs were starting to hurt real bad and with no water, I was on the verge of passing out. Luckily, I found some shade and rested for 15min before hitting the home stretch.
Another crazy and wild bus ride later I was at the hotel. I slumped on the bed and was snoring away almost immediately. Rest of the story is plain routine - reached Indore station around 14:30, located my coach, plonked the rucksack and made a quick tour of the platforms. By the time, Avantika left at 1500, I was contentedly sleeping on the upper berth dreaming of doing the trek again on a bright night in winter!
Vindhyan adventure: The Big scare!!! - Vivek Manvi
After checking out from Betul's finest hotel as described by Shanx, Bharath Moro and I took an autorickshaw to Betul station. The station itself was a major disappointment considering Betul is a district headquarter! There are three platforms in all, one island platform (PF 2&3) and an isolated platform (PF 1). Platform 1 houses the waiting room, stationmaster's office and the booking office. The station was pretty quiet at that time i.e. around 2100 hours. Bharath was supposed to board the 9316 Nagpur Indore Express to Indore. I was to board the 2808 Samta Express on my way to Dongargarh from where I would be taking the 8403 Puri Ahmedabad Express to Surat and finally the 2904 Golden Temple Mail to Mumbai. Bharath's train was scheduled to arrive at 2150 but even at 2130, there was no announcement about the train's status! Meanwhile, a couple of freight trains passed through at a great speed. The approach to Betul station from the Itarsi side is pretty spectacular with trains taking a sweeping left turn before approaching the station. This spot is highly recommended for taking videos of passing trains in daylight. Anyway, at about 2140, the CR authorities decided to have mercy on Bharath's poor soul and finally announced that his train was expected to arrive at Betul, about 30 minutes late. With nothing else to do, we strolled along the length of the platform to kill the time. A sizeable crowd had built up by then and there were hardly any places on the platform to sit. Finally, an announcement was made regarding the arrival of the 9316 to Indore. I bid farewell to Bharath and proceeded towards the waiting room on platform no. 1. The 9316 finally arrived behind an Itarsi WAM-4, 40 minutes late. Meanwhile, I was busy leafing through the latest issue of Outlook Traveler, which had some nice write-ups about "Classic Train Journeys in India" My train, the Samta Express was expected to arrive at 2245, and so I had about twenty more minutes to kill. Finally, the announcement about the arrival of the Samta was made and I made my way to my coach position on the platform. The train arrived at 2300 behind an Itarsi WAM-4. There was a slight drizzle around Betul at that time and the headlight of the loco piercing the light rain created a nice effect, which I was too tired to capture!
I boarded my coach, S-4 and was pleasantly surprised that my coveted lower berth was un-occupied even at that hour. I had half expected that someone would have grabbed the berth and I would have to wake him/her up in the middle of the night to reclaim my rightful place :-) In fact, the entire bay was empty and I was thankful as I could fold down the middle berth and sit peacefully to stare out of the window without having to hunch. We departed after a halt of two minutes and the Itarsi WAM-4 notched up quickly. We hit MPS soon and were cruising through the lush green fields of Madhya Pradesh, which looked pretty eerie at that hour. Amla was crossed soon and we were approaching the next ghat section - Teegaon - Chichonda. We simply blasted through Multai, horns blaring and this reminded me of the videos Swaran has taken here of trains ripping through at MPS. We slowed down on the approach to Chichonda and kept a steady 50kmph down the ghats. As soon as we picked up speed again, I decided I had enough and decided to retire for the night. Overcome by the tiredness due to the long trek, I fell asleep soon. I woke up to see that our train was entering Nagpur at around 0150. This meant that we were bang on time. Nagpur station was pretty quiet at that time with no other train except us. Too tired to get down from the coach, I decided to go back to sleep. I vaguely remember us departing Nagpur after reversing and picking up speed on our way to Dongargarh (DGG).
Suddenly, there were blood red WAP-4s and air-braked expresses all around me. I was waiting at a station, which looked suspiciously like New Delhi. Just then, I heard a sharp, loud blast of a WAP-4 HT horn and an express train passed me at great speed. I woke up with a start and soon the express train was gone! It took me all of ten seconds to realize that I had been dreaming and I was still sitting on the lower berth of the Samta Express on my way to DGG What else would a rail fan dream about apart from trains?? Anyway, it was about 0310 and I saw that we were standing at a desolate station. I strained my eyes and found out that we were at Bhandara Road. This meant that we were doing right time. So far so good, but my sixth sense told me that there was something amiss. My fears were confirmed when we did not move even after half an hour. I got down from the coach and saw that there were a couple of RPF constables sitting on a bench along with a TTE. I soon discovered to my horror that a goods train had derailed just before Gondia and no one knew when we would move. Damn! I had just an hour's margin at DGG to board my connecting 8403 Puri-ADI Express to Surat. I still had the luxury of boarding the 8403 from Gondia. That would give me a margin of about two and a half hours. I quickly freshened up and had a nice hot cup of tea to clear my mind. By the time we finally departed Bhandara Road, DGG was out of the question. We were around 45 minutes late at Tumsar Road. We maintained a good clip thereafter till we came to a halt at Tiroda. It was not a scheduled halt and we halted bang on the mainline. Five minutes passed, then ten, fifteen, twenty and the train showed no signs of moving. I could see my margin at Gondia evaporating as well. The entire coach slowly woke up to the reality but no one else appeared alarmed except me. Of course, who else apart from yours truly was about to catch a connecting train to Surat on his/her way to Mumbai at 0600 hours!! After a wait of 30 minutes, I grew restless and was seriously considering abandoning the train! A Tata Sumo pulled up next to the platform and the driver got down and walked towards the water taps on the platform. He spoke something while gesturing towards the track ahead. I got down and asked him where exactly the derailment had happened. He told me that a goods train had derailed two stations down the line and there were two express trains ahead of us stranded at various points. There was no way we would move for the next couple of hours. Great! I was stranded here in the middle of nowhere with a connecting train to board, that would soon streak past me if I did not do something! The driver told me that Gondia was some 30 km from that place. He was a CR employee who had come down to pick up some CR bigshots who were traveling on the Samta. He agreed to drop me till the highway, which was about a kilometer from the station. From there, he said I could get on to a bus, which would drop me till Gondia. Thus began my adventure!
The Sumo dropped me till the highway, which was as deserted as Mumbai streets are during an India Pakistan cricket encounter!! In addition to this, there were flies everywhere. I don't know why but every place we stopped during the entire trip was infested with flies!! I must have swatted atleast 20-30 in two days. There was no vehicle in sight and the only people out were early risers out for a morning walk and yoga. You heard it right! Yoga! There were people doing all sorts of asanas right next to the road. One misjudgment by a speeding truck driver and they would get run over!! I saw my chances of making it in time to Gondia evaporate like spirit on a hot frying pan!! Just when I was about to give up hope and make plans to hitch a cab to Nagpur, I saw a Tata tempo approaching me from a distance. A sense of d�j� vu descended on me, as this was the second time in two days that I was flagging a vehicle down. The driver was kind enough to stop and readily agreed to drop me till Gondia after I told him about my predicament. I was on my way - finally and the time was about 0615. The speed of the tattered old Tata tempo hardly went over 60kmph as we trundled along the apology of a highway that links Nagpur with Gondia. I spotted atleast 100 odd people doing Yoga next to the road, and some of them on it!! The clock was ticking away at the double the speed that day and so was my heart!! However, the driver was up to the task, as he not only covered the distance quickly but also dropped me right next to the FOB at Gondia railway station. Having experienced such "lifts" often, I asked him how much should I pay him. He meekly told me that it would be fifteen rupees!! I was astonished at hearing this amount as with fifteen rupees, you can hardly travel 5-7 km in Mumbai these days and here I nearly traveled from Churchgate to Borivali ;) I gratefully handed over the amount and rushed up the stairs of the FOB. A red WAP-4 hauled express train was just pulling out of Gondia. On closer inspection, I saw that it was the Gitanjali Express towards Mumbai. Whew! I had made it in time!! With a mixed sense of jubilation and tiredness, I made my way to the Head TC office at Gondia to change my boarding point from DGG to Gondia so that the TTE would not give away my berth. However, the staff there told me that the train had already left DGG and there was no way they could contact the TTE. However, they also asked me not to worry saying that the berth would not be given away. Yeah right! Dejectedly I plonked myself down on the bench as dozens of flies attacked my rugsack and me! I was feeling really hungry, as I had not had a decent meal since the past fourteen hours! The stalls at Gondia were only serving hot tea and biscuits. This made me all the more desperate to board the train! To add to my misery, it was announced that the train was expected 20 minutes late! With absolutely nothing to do and feeling extremely tired and hungry, I remained seated on the bench till I saw the welcoming sight of a Bhilai WAM-4 bringing in the 8403 Puri - ADI Express. With anxious anticipation, I walked to my coach, AS-1 and spotted the TTE. My tiredness magically disappeared as I explained my story to the TTE, who told me that he had not given away my berth at DGG and it was all mine...
Vindhyan adventure: The journey back home! - Vivek Manvi
After claiming my rightful berth in the 3rd AC coach of the Puri-ADI Express, I started hunting for the Pantry guys, as I was feeling really hungry and there was absolutely nothing to eat at the railway stalls at Gondia. One of the reasons I chose to travel by this train was because it has a Pantry Car, which means a constant stream of food keeps coming your way! Anyway, I ordered the staple non- vegetarian IR breakfast consisting of buttered bread and omelette, which was pretty decent. The two slices of bread and omelette vanished in no time and I ordered another one. The train showed no signs of moving even after 15 minutes. Meanwhile, an announcement regarding the arrival of the Samta Express was made. This was the same train I had abandoned about an hour and a half ago. We finally departed Gondia after a halt of 30 minutes. We picked up speed soon but slowed down as we approached Gangajhari station - the site where the goods train had derailed. Our train passed the derailment site slowly and I saw that a BOXN wagon had derailed after its bogie had come apart! A Raipur WDM-2 was doing the job of hauling the remaining wagons away from the site. The Bilaspur bound Chattisgarh Express, headed by a BIA WAM-4 was also stranded here.
After Gangajhari, there was one train stranded at almost every station. The ones that I spotted were the Nagpur-TATA passenger, ADI- HWH Express and the Jnaneshwari Express. It was raining intermittently, so I stayed indoors watching replays of the videos I had shot so far. The run from Gondia to Nagpur was pretty fast with hardly any stops in between. The arrival at Nagpur was at 1100, an hour and twenty minutes late! The station was buzzing with activity at that time. The 2809 Mumbai Howrah Mail arrived behind a SRC WAP-4 #22600.
We departed Nagpur at 1115 amidst some really heavy rain. There was absolutely no way I could stand at the door and so had to retreat to my berth. We crossed the ADI-HWH Express somewhere near Sewagram. After a really fast run, we reached Badnera at 1340, one hour late. The driver had made up twenty minutes in the 175 km run between NGP and BD. Here, I met with our `Type 3' IRFCAn Zubin Dotivala, who had braved the heavy downpour to come and meet me at the station. The halt was just for five minutes, so we couldn't talk much. He showed me his newly acquired GPS unit though! The signal turned amber at 1345 and I bid farewell to Zubin. Soon, the pantry folks started serving lunch. I had ordered for a non-vegetarian lunch, which consisted of egg curry, rotis and rice-dal. This was one of the tastiest meals I have ever tasted on IR including the Rajdhanis and Shatabdis. The egg curry was simply delicious with just the right blend of spice and tomatoes. The dal was thick and well made and not watery like the ones normally served on IR. The entire thali was devoured in no time at all. We were soon approaching Akola Jn and I decided to stand at the door for some time. The Poorna-Jaipur MG line crosses over the CR BG about a kilometer before the station and then runs parallel to it. Spotted a really long BOXN rake headed by Ajni WAG-9 #31070 parked in a siding at the station.
We arrived at Akola Jn at 1445. I had hoped to catch an MG passenger but there was none at that time. Just as we were departing at 1450, announcements were being made regarding the arrival of the 2859 Mumbai Howrah Gitanjali Express. The Gitanjali blasted past us, headed by a blue SRC WAP-4 a few kilometers out of AK. After having a hearty meal and very little sleep at night, I couldn't stay awake any longer and decided to take a nap. I woke up as we were approaching Bhusaval. Spotted a couple of cream-red colored BSL WAM-4s parked inside the electric loco shed. These look quite similar to the cream- red WCAM-1s from a distance and for a minute or so; I really thought that a WCAM-1 had strayed and landed up at BSL. The arrival at BSL was at 1645, which meant that we were now only 35 minutes late! The Puri-ADI Express enjoys some really generous amount of slack time and I was pretty confident that we would reach Surat on time. Departure was at 1700, and we were again doing MPS in no time at all. The MAS bound Navajeevan Express crossed us then and it was surprisingly headed by an AJJ WAP-4 instead of its usual Erode WAP-4. I could not make out the number as both trains were doing more than 100kmph. The rain had stopped now and I decided to stick around at the door till the light lasted. We arrived at Jalgaon at 1745. The LTT - Gorakhpur Godaan Express crossed us, headed by an Itarsi WAM-4. Just as we departed, an announcement was made regarding the arrival of the NDLS bound Karnataka Express. Five minutes more and I would have caught the 24-coach superfast in action behind the twin diesels.
We now entered the single line electrified Jalgaon - Udhna section. This is WR territory and I was looking forward to the crossings. I didn't have to wait long as a long tanker rake headed by a WAG-5 crossed us at the first station out of Jalgaon. The light had really started to fade now and I headed indoors. I had ordered for the non- vegetarian dinner again, which was served just before Nandurbar. The dinner consisted of egg curry again but I wasn't complaining! The only difference was that the thali consisted of a banana as well. The arrival at Nandurbar was at 2052 and the departure was at 2102. After dinner, everyone in the coach started dozing off and I had no other option but to do that myself as I had three and a half hours before we arrived at Surat. I woke up as we were entering Udhna Jn. We finally arrived at Surat at 2352, two minutes before time!
I was to take the 2904 Golden Temple Mail to Borivali. I had chosen the Golden Temple Mail, as it was a fast, convenient train, which would drop me at Borivali at around 0500 and I could simply take an autorickshaw ride home! The scheduled arrival was at 0148, so I had two hours to kill. The wait wasn't boring due to a continuous stream of early morning trains towards Mumbai. The Trivandrum bound Rajdhani Express, headed by GOC WDP-2 #15515 passed at a speed of 10kmph. The 2904 arrived at 0205, surprisingly headed by WCAM-2P #21877 instead of the usual WCAM-1. As expected, someone who was traveling on an unreserved ticket had grabbed my berth and was sleeping peacefully. After re-claiming my berth, I made my rugsack into a pillow and lay down on the berth. I could make out that we were doing top speed as I fell asleep. I woke up with a start as one of the coach bogies hit a point hard. The train was traveling at a speed of 10kmph. To my horror, I discovered that almost the entire coach was empty and we were entering Mumbai Central. I had overslept and had failed to hear the alarm on my watch! The Ahmedabad bound Shatabdi was pulling out as we entered the platform. With no one else to curse, I made my way to the local platforms at BCT for a 45 minute EMU ride back to Kandivli! I was glad though that the train terminated at Mumbai otherwise I had no idea where I would have landed!
Thus ended three days of intense action, adventure and surprises. I couldn't wait to reach home and go over the videos again and again!