Like human version of sardines squashed in a can, Mumbai’s crowded streets are overflowing to the brim. The high-rises far outnumber the trees, or so it appears. And while forced interactions on streets, chosen communications in person or frivolous contact via social media may lead us to believe we’re connected, loneliness isn’t too far even in this age of over-communication.
Solitude, on the other hand, is far more difficult to achieve as we solder on in our desperate attempt to be more, achieve more and feel more connected 24/7. But there are places in the city, certain experiences, that are just a car ride away—reminding you that walking the tightrope between loneliness and solitude – and disconnecting might be the best way to connect with the most important person in your life – you. And one of those places is Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai.
The terrain: Formerly known as Borivali National Park, it is 104km large protected area in the northern part of Mumbai city. Being one of the major national parks existing within a metropolis (India’s most populous) limit makes it one of the most visited parks in the world. And 27 years after living in the city, I finally traipsed down there. Resplendent in flora and fauna, it’s home to Vihar and Tulsi Lake, more than 1,300 plant species, a range of reptiles, wild mammals that include hare, hyena, spotted deer, the lone sambar and even the infamous leopard while bird watchers can find everything from the Whitebellied Sea Eagles to the Paradise Flycatcher. That’s right, fellow Mumbai citizens, you don’t have to fly to Gir or Ranthambore to get a whiff of nature. Or trek to Kheerganga to get your juices flowing. All you have to do is find a trek, book said trek, book a guide and get on your merry way (early in the am if you’d like to miss the waterfall loving, transparent t-shirt wearing crowds).
The trek: While there are a number of trek routes within the park, we decided to aim for the top. A trek that went from the historic Kanheri Caves all the way to the highest point in the park. According to our enthusiastic guide Jagdish Vakale, (biology professor for 11th-12th graders, so much adept at dealing with teenagers with short attention spans and a propensity for silly questions, or 20-something year olds who refuse to grow up and spend the trek comparing hiking stick lengths) these Buddhist carved caves are allegedly the largest in the world to be carved out of a single block of stone. This group of caves and rock-cut monuments contain Buddhist sculptures and relief carvings, paintings and inscriptions, dating from the 1st century BCE to the 10th century CE. From the caves, the top is an easy 2hour walk uphill, where you’re likely to stumble upon all variety of spiders, anthills, birds, the odd monkey and a somewhat uneasy sense that no matter where you going you’re being watched by the predatory leopard. While a bit slippery in the rain, the clouds rolling in every few feet make the uphill walk easier. Once at the top, you climb a watchtower and marvel at the sublime view of the two lakes and the silent stillness of being surrounded by foliage while in the maximum city of Mumbai.
The taleteller: Trails can be found via the SGNP website, and guides can be booked via the NIC (Nature Information Center). Since we trekked in the monsoon, a busy period, we booked a guide in advance (recommended) and got lucky with Mr Vakale. A father who worked in the forest department meant he had fostered 26 cats, 6 owls, one cuckoo and a leopard cub named Krishna (who lived with them for a year and a half) that loved dairy milk chocolates and was petrified of one of the older cats. Vakale also spent a few years tracking leopards within the park, and spoke of the wild cats as a friendly neighbourhood puppy, trekked in slippers and mimicked bird calls so adeptly that the birds were fooled enough to reply. While Mumbai is well-known for its chaotic night life and endless range of city-related activities (monuments, heritage walks, bar crawls, the famed human-traffic), there is a whole new world closer to city limits — while from the second highest point you can still see high rises emerging from the clouds, if you turn your head to the other side, you’ll find endless skies and the kind of stillness that hills tucked far away from humanity offer up. A testimony, perhaps to Mumbai’s dichotomy – and the promise than no matter how well you think you know the city, if you let it – it will surprise you, and envelop you in that solitude you so desperately seek.
- Getting there: car, bus or train ride to Borivali
- Kanheri Caves are a substantial walk up from the main gate (approx. 6km), so you can rent a car from the NIC office, catch a BEST bus or cycle your way up and down from the caves.
- Summer isn’t ideal to trek in, as it gets terribly hot. The monsoon season (June-Sept) will give you misty clouds to trek in while Mumbai’s short, mild winter (Nov-Jan) is ideal to trek in
- Make sure to carry a change of clothes, a rain-cover for your bag and be prepared for no phone coverage for most of the trek
- The NIC organises nature trails, bird-watching excursions, butterfly watch, treks and overnight camps led by experts, so reach out to them in advance to select a trek. Book a week in advance – approximate rates are INR 300/person
This article is part of our series on Mumbai. Follow the link to read on our winter visitors: the flamingos