Dahanu Madness

We’ve spent 7 hours on the road so far. Through highways, crowded towns and unbelievable traffic, 3 bikes, all with pillions and the customary luggage sets – saddle bags, tank bags, and other types of bags tied with bungees – had just crossed probably India’s busiest and most crowded area. And we still had a long way to go.

We left the beach town of Dahanu at 4.30 in the afternoon. That was because the working ones amongst us wanted to reach home and sleep before midnight. Good luck with that now.

The tea has come, and we are waiting for the bread & omelettes we had ordered. As we sip our tea, one of the riders goes to answer Mother Nature. The owner of the joint got curious with our attire and paraphernalia. He came and sat on our table and started asking the usual questions we riders face everywhere we go. Are you professional riders? Where are you coming from? Which way are you headed? Is this a hobby? Are you a club? Do you do this often?

Ride In

It all began when Sagar suggested Dahanu as a riding destination. None of us had even heard of that place, so we immediately agreed – how many times do you expect us to ride to Mahabaleshwar and Lonavla?

After a few weeks of deliberation and preparations, the ride began early morning on Saturday. Everyone was asked to meet up at the Talegaon tollbooth at around 4 in the morning. At around 4.30, there were only 3 bikes there including mine, but by 5 we had the full quorum, and we started riding west.

The gang comprised of a motley set of riders: speed hungry veterans, riders who wanted to enjoy the slow thump, bikes with new block-pistons whose running in restrictions ensured that they could not cross a certain magic number on the speedometer. As a result, we hardly rode for long stretches, and the distance which should have been covered in 4 to 5 hours, took us eight!

But it hardly felt like a burden. For the fast ones amongst us, it meant stopping at eating/smoking/tea joints and waiting for the rest, and for the slow ones it meant stopping where everyone else was waiting for them, get a quick bite/fag/sip and getting back on the road without even catching a breath.

Riding in our patent chilled way, we reached Dahanu in clusters – the fast ones first, and the ones who had flat tyres or dry tanks the last.

Dahanu finally!

Once you reach Dahanu, all you see are uncluttered expanses of clean, good roads, with a minimum of people on them and a vast beach beyond tall trees on your left and grand looking resorts on the right.

We had bookings in a resort called Pearline. However, each of us was under the impression that we had to look for a certain ‘Pearl Resort’. Close enough! So most of us kept searching the beach road for an hour, and every time we looked at the board that said Pearline, we wondered how close these two names sounded and had a quiet giggle. We finally stopped when we saw familiar bikes parked in their parking lot and wondered some more.

After fighting with the resort’s receptionist, manager and the owner regarding our bookings and availability and rates of AC rooms, we settled in, had lunch, and crashed for a nap. After which, we did the most obvious thing – we headed to the beach with our cameras and bikes.

The beach is quite unlike anything I have seen before. The sand is a dark shade of grey, and the waves are docile, almost as if marching in files under a strict leader, coming to submerge our feet ever so politely. And with these waves come the tiny hermit crabs – those parasitic crabs who invade the shells of molluscs for protection and grow into them. All of this adds up to the serene & pleasant sunset experience.

Further up north from where we were put up, there was a small village market, where you get fresh sea fish amongst other things. And on the seashore, there were groups of fishermen working on their fishing boats behind the fishing nets which divided the beach from the road. I started wondering if this is the same place, same beach as the quiet and peaceful one I was shooting away in half a kilometre before.

While shooting the beautiful scene of fishing boats through fishing nets, I heard the familiar thump of a gang of Bullets riding by and turned. The gang had started on a hunt for a famous sea-food joint called Crazy Crabs. They went ahead and I saw them disappear in the darkness beyond the market, which evidently was defining the limits of the Dahanu village. A couple of minutes later, one of the riders called me up to apprise me of their plan. So I followed them.

But even after riding for around 20km I didn’t hit any decent patch of civilization or anything that looked like an eating place. So I stopped to click the beautiful row of coconut trees against the moonlit blue sky. I decided to ride further ahead to look for my friends, when I met up with some other Bullet riders, also from Pune, and got to know that this Shangri-La called Crazy Crabs is in fact in the next village, which is quite some distance from where we were. By then news was in that the gang also broke up, got lost individually in chunks, and were returning in chunks to the resort, prioritising the needs of the moment – hunger over taste.
And so we returned to the resort and had our fill under the starlit skies.

The next morning a couple of the guys wanted to go see the sunrise on the beach. After wondering for around half an hour where the sun was, they realised that Dahanu is on the western coast, which meant that their pursuit was absurd even conceptually! The disappointed lot returned to breakfast, and began planning the return. There were a bunch of students who had no worries in the world, so they wanted to stay back another day to catch another sunset. But the majority of us were eager to get back and catch a good night’s sleep in Pune before we went back to the Monday grind.

We broke up in chunks again. A few left Dahanu just after breakfast, while the final bunch of six decided to head back at 4.30 in the afternoon after a sumptuous lunch and a little bit of lazing around.

Head Home

So we did. The ride back from Dahanu till Ghodbandar was smooth as expected but we, being what we are, stopped even then for refreshments twice in that stretch. And then, we reached hell: traffic at around 6 on the road from Ghodbandar to Thane/Mulund is nothing short of hell. It took us 3 hours to reach Thane! By that time we were getting hungry and impatient. And we couldn’t agree on a place to eat at 9 in the night!
Anyway, we decided to ride’l on, get rid of traffic, reach Panvel and think only after that.

By the time we reached the Panvel end of the expressway, even a dinner at McDonald’s sounded like a gourmet meal. So we headed into uncle Ronald’s, unloaded our bags, helmets, jackets and the likes on an unoccupied table and went bazinga on the choicest of mass-manufactured burgers and iced tea.

When we started heading back, Nipun on his Classic 500 just took off on the expressway without even waiting for us. We waited for him in front of the McDonald’s, lest he realises his mistake and turns back, or he catches some trouble on the prohibited highway. But hardly ten minutes had passed when I got a call from him – he had reached Khopoli! Wow! I asked him to stay there and wait for us. We headed on the NH4 route, but on the circle at Panvel’s entrance we lost another rider: Yogesh didn’t bother following us towards the cleaner and simpler route towards Uran, and went directly towards Panvel town instead, despite our continuous honking, calling out, and calling on the phone – he conveniently ignored all of it.

So the remaining two of us went ahead on our planned route, resigned to our fate. But just where the roads merge again after Panvel, we chanced upon Yogesh, who was bewildered with the realisation that he and his pillion were riding all alone through the town! We went on to Khopoli to find Nipun waiting for us in front of a small restaurant. We went in, and ordered a round of tea for everyone.

And it hit me: we’d spent 7 hours on the road so far, and we are still around 90km from home!

Every minute spent in the restaurant was now making me irritable – I wanted the warm feeling of my own bed and my daily dose of Eagles to lull me to sleep – and it was getting pushed further and further by the minute.
We finally finished our tea, bread, omelettes, Nature’s calls, and Mr. owner’s questions and hit the road again.
Khandala, the Khandala Ghats, Lonavla, Talegaon and Dehu Road – all went by without any stops or eventuality – and we hit the last leg of our journey home.

Our last regroup was at the Wakad Bridge, where we exchanged pillions on the basis of proximity to our destinations, and parted with a promise of exchanging the ride’s photographs as soon as possible.

Pictureless Travelogue: First Time on the Slopes of Hell

First up: there are no photographs for this post. Apologies for that.

After some 20 minutes of riding the bike on what can hardly be called a road, full of gravel and hardly any traction, I saw the bikes that went ahead of me and their riders waiting for me, and the others behind me. “Whew!”, I felt, “This must be it”, and got off the bike. A moment of realisation – I have been here before. In the last monsoon, we drove BlackHawk and the White Monster up this hill. But back then, there was some semblance of a road. Not this time.

Another moment of realisation, everyone present was not relaxed or unwinding. They seemed to be preparing for something more. They were looking up a steeper slope that went up. “I can hardly walk up this slope”, I thought, “how will I take the bike up?”

I was standing before the Slopes of Hell. At last. Like a pilgrim before the Holy Land. Like a devotee before the altar. Humbled, nervous and charged at the same time.

Ever since I started meeting other riders in Pune, I have been hearing about this legendary place, where all riders fall, where once you are on the slope, you can’t stop, and where your real mettle as a rider and your rapport with your machine is tested.

Numerous times I had missed coming here. Maybe because I was afraid every time. But Friday night when Kishore sir said that we will ride to Slopes of Hell on Saturday night and whether I will join in, I decided that I will face my fear this time. That I will do whatever I know I can to make sure the bike is in a decent enough condition to go up. And, for once, I will do just riding: no camera, no photography, no videos, just riding.

Now the fear was coming back to me. I was scared while riding through the trees on the road I just travelled: what if I brake at the wrong time and the rear-tyre skids? What if I miss a turn and fall into the dark ditches? What if I lose my way? I would not be able to turn my bike around on these roads! And now I heard people saying “Now the real fun begins”. If the real fun is going to begin now, what was happening so far?

All the bikes and the car reached where we were standing. And then Tinu and Kunal decided to walk up and do a recce. They came down with news: the track has worsened since the last time they were here. There was now a one-foot step on the track, which will kill your bike if you took it from the wrong side, which would be on your right. And it’s more bumpy now. It was good news for some, who now wanted to take their bikes up as soon as possible (yes, I’m looking at you Nipun). But for me, it was scary. Not bad news. Just scary.

Kunal and Tinu then rode their steeds up, one by one. We saw Kunal cover that slope like it’s his backyard, with his wife riding pillion with him! “500cc!”, we admired. But the fact is that you primarily need balls of steel and an amazing rapport with your pillion in order to pull that off. The bike is secondary. After Kunal reached, Tinu rode up. Then they both trekked back to brief us.

“Don’t leave the throttle, don’t touch your clutch, don’t brake.” “If you stop or hesitate for a moment, you will be stuck, and then 5-6 guys will have to bring you down, with you sitting on the bike all the while.” And first gear is the answer to the question that was looking down at us. I could hear my heartbeat clearly.

“Should I opt out?”, I thought, “I don’t think anyone would realise I am this scared, if there were just two more guys who wouldn’t ride up, or maybe if I said my bike wasn’t ready, needs servicing; Kunal knows that there is a clutch problem in my bike.”

While I was contemplating all this, two riders went up one by one. We saw Nishant braking just when he got on the cobbled slope, and we had to pull him back down. There were riders going up, covering the cobbled slope and braking or pressing the clutch just when they crossed the 1-foot step, and coming back after having their bikes turned around with the help of the 3-4 guys standing there. Their names and order are all blurred for me: they were obscured by my loud heartbeat.

Tinu came down, and told us that we are all making the same mistakes – we’re braking when we’re not supposed to. It was just panic, nothing else, but we’ll have to overcome the instinct to “gain control” on the bike through brakes and the clutch. It was just the steering and a consistent throttle that was needed.

After another of the riders was sent up, Tinu asked “who next?”. Nishant wanted to go, but Tinu insisted that his bike should cool down before he attempts it again. And in the short silence that followed, I heard my voice: “I’ll go”.

Tinu agreed. I brought my bike up at the starting point. People asked me to pull my bike back, away from the slope, so that I would get a start, just the way we were all briefed. But Tinu confidently let me go, saying that I will be fine.

In a gush of adrenaline, I pulled the throttle and released the clutch, bidding the clutch lever bye bye for at least the next 10 minutes. I was determined to follow all the instructions – no letting go of the throttle, no over-revving, no clutch, no brakes, no gear shift.

I rode up the cobbled slope, cleared it. Then the rocky patch began. And I was on the lookout for the 1-foot step that was deeply ingrained in everybody’s psyche by now as the monster to watch out for. I think I went over it, right when I heard Kunal shouting “keep going! keep going!!”. So I kept going. No braking, no stopping. The bike went up in the air a few times, but landed back straight. Then another steep left turn, and I was amongst friends who were waiting for me. I finally parked my bike and gave out a loud yell of victory.

I had come up the Slopes of Hell without a break!

As people kept coming up, we started settling down. Then a few of us trekked down to the car to bring up the “essential supplies”. Walking back up with all the stuff was tougher than anything we had done that day!

And once we were back up on the hill, all settled and huddled around the bonfire (made of waste plywood and petrol over a period of one hour, no less!), the Firelords type ‘fun happened’. Puns, jokes, one-liners, tee-shirt slogans, silly songs, anecdotes, stories from previous rides, and a silly game that kept us all thinking for atleast half an hour (Thanks to Vijay and Dhruv). And then there were the mushy couple and the lonely hearts – it was 14th already!

After having a stomach-full of biryani and beer and a couple of hours of full-on masti I tucked myself in the sleeping bag and went to sleep under a sky full of stars at around 4.

We were woken up by Tinu’s bike thundering away at 6! He rode down on his own till the car, just to see how easy or tough it was. I woke up to find the world around me painted in myriad hues of blue, purple and orange! And there was mist between the hills. It would have been great if my camera was with me, but as I had decided before, this was about the ride and not photographs.

We decided it would be wise if we all left together instead of lazing around, lest we get stuck alone on our bikes with no one around to help. So we all packed up, tried to freshen up, collected the unopened bottles, unburnt wood, and empty bottles and packets, and took them down to the car one by one.

And then we fired up our bikes and waited for a briefing from Tinu with bated breath. And he tells us “there are no tips guys” with a weary and sheepish smile. We were on our own. Just try to keep the bike steady. You can’t ensure that your bike would not skid, but if it did, you can try keeping it on the path.

So we started descending one by one. People at the bottom were calling up people on the top whenever a bike reached down, and until then we sat on our bikes, revving, waiting for the signal to go ahead, and hearts pumping. I was just after Nishant. When he reached, Kamal gave me the signal to go ahead. And with nervousness driving me, I let go of the clutch. I was doing good, until I reached the rocky decline, around the 1-foot step. There I lost my senses, panicked, and braked. The bike stalled. So I kick-started the engine again, but did not have the courage to let go. All this while Tinu kept seeing me from where I was standing and kept gesturing to me to let go and come forward. But I could not. So after a few attempts he came and held the bike from behind, asking me to let go now. I did, tentatively. But for the whole rocky patch, Tinu had to hold my bike and I had to be brave and let go, a bit at a time. Once on the cobbled path, we decided that I will ride down on my own, but the steepness of the slope and the wide-open fall at the curve kept my adrenaline levels off the charts. And finally I managed to stop the bike on the curve, all on my own. And then got off and started breathing again. 🙂

Some other riders came down without a hitch, some fell once, some twice, some thrice, and one rider’s bike got damaged – the headlamp and front brake lever now needed to be replaced once he reached Pune.

Then we took off down the bushy trail one after the other, till we hit the highway for cutting chai – which was more doodh than chai, and then we took off toward our respective homes.

On the highway, it felt like I had cleared a rite of passage as a rider. I felt bigger. I felt prouder. I felt more complete. I have a Slopes of Hell experience under my belt now.

And I realised once again why I have chosen to be a Firelord. It’s because of the camaraderie, the bonding, the all for one and one for all attitude, and the mindless fun we have whenever we are together.

I think I will get a calling from my Holy Land again. And I pray that then I would complete the ride better than I could the first time. And I will ride it again with my Brothers.

Solo Saturday Ride: Nighoj

A lazy Saturday and no friends around – what’s a rider to do? Ride of course. Solo.

So I did. 90km from Pune on the Nagar Road (SH 27), a certain SH 51 branches off to a village called Nighoj, beside which flows a river through giant potholes. I had heard about this place from Joseph, who showed me its pictures on flickr by other people. The ones that stayed with me were clicked by Suhas Desale and some other P@P members.

And ever since I had seen those photographs, I wanted to go there.

So this lazy Saturday afternoon (the 26th of December), after grabbing a bite at the FC Road Subway, I just rode off on Nagar Road. After around 70km of riding on the awesome 4-lane highway, which included a bit of ghats and loads of beautiful corners, I reached Shirur. Just when I crossed the Shirur town, there was the Ghodnadi river and its bridge which were my landmarks. I crossed the bridge and kept an eye out for a left turn. It is a sharp left turn, that comes just when the SH 27 is turning right, and can be easily missed.

So I took the turn, and realised that not all state highways are made equal. From a 4-lane Nagar Road, I was now on an almost one-lane “State Highway” to Nighoj. It took me another 20km of a mix of okay roads and almost off-road patches to reach the Nighoj village. The highway turns right when leaving the village. On the turn I thought it would be wise to stop and ask for the place I wanted to go to. The only problem was that I did not know what the locals called it. And I cannot speak Marathi! Luckily the two construction workers I asked seemed to be well-versed in Hindi, and they guided me in the general direction of the place, and advised me to ask for “Kundaa” (कुंडा).

When the road turns right, on the left you can see two big facades – the kind you see at the entrance of a locality or as entrances to “holy areas” surrounding temples. The roads beyond these gates are as good as dirt patches, so I braced myself (I forgot to wear my back-support when I left home!). I drove in to the second gate, and took the most obvious turns and corners, and conveniently got lost in the fields, all the while wondering if I was on the right track. I stopped on the way twice to ask people where the “Kundaa” was, only to realise that they were speaking such a dialect which even my Marathi flatmate would have trouble understanding. As a last resort, I brought out my phone and decided to do some googling. Now the phone I have, the Samsung Marine, is an excellent conversation starter, is very good with the waterproof, dustproof and shockproof thingie, and is good with the voice and decent with the messaging, but it’s not built for data connections. Three times out of four when I try opening a webpage on its primitive browser the message I get is that the file being loaded is too big for its teeny-tiny memory. Of course it’s a tough phone, don’t expect brains from it. But I digress. With my fingers crossed, I googled for Nighoj on it, and managed to load a post on a blog just enough to catch the necessary keywords – Kundaa Devi and Kukdi. So I asked another local, who spoke to me in Marathi, and I gathered from whatever I understand of the language, that I had to turn back, almost till the Nighoj village. So I turn back, and stop to ask a shopkeeper in the village, who literally walked me to the obscure looking exit on the left which would take me to the destination. This by-road made the road I was travelling on so far look like the Autobahn. Who would have thought that you would have to take such a road to reach such a popular spot? That too without any signage. Anyways, it took me another 3-4km before I saw another gate welcoming me to the Kundmauli (कुंडमाउली) tourist area. Another couple of kilometres, and I reached a plateau-like clearing, with a couple of temples. So I parked my bike, took off the bag from the tank and walked forward. And was amazed by what I saw.

The locals call this area Kundmauli (कुंडमाउली) or Kundaa Devi (कुंडा देवी), and there is a temple called Malganga (मळगंगा) over here. There is a temple on either side, and there is a narrow bridge that takes you across.

After I spent around an hour exploring one bank of the river and clicking pictures, I realised that I was losing light – it was sunset time. Since I wanted to catch up to SH 27 as soon as possible, I packed up, and rushed back to the bike. Then it was half an hour of almost off-roading, followed by an hour or so of smooth highway riding, and then another half an hour of moving through city traffic, before I had dinner and landed up in Aundh, drinking with a couple of Firelords. A perfect end to a day well-spent.