When a foolishly last-minute plan to witness chaotic and colourful Calcutta in all its glory during Durga Pujo failed miserably (and quite expectedly, considering every single Bengali in the country was in a delirious rush to get home at the same time), we decided to settle for, what we figured would be, an easy-breezy and pleasant short journey to the Kaas Plateau. Just 348-odd kilometres from Goa, this quick trip, going by the hours of research on the interwebs, promised sights of rolling hills coloured in bright purples, vibrant pinks and happy yellows. Well, what we didn’t realise is that most of the travelogues were written by shiny, happy people, who made a fun, road trip to the Kaas Plateau. But when two backpackers who have decided to dedicate their days of unemployment to slumming it out across the country in its wonderfully rickety and dirty public transport, decided to attempt the same trip, the result, or the journey rather, was quite interesting.
Step 1. A bus to Satara, which happens to the closest town to Kaas. Booked a ticket online, packed for three days worth of travelling in and around Kaas and we were good to go. But what was to be a snappy six-hour bus journey to Satara, decided to set the tone for the entire trip ahead. A breakdown at midnight, a total of three bus changes and 10 hours later, we were greeted by Satara, a dusty little town, the landscape of which was dotted with stray animals in all shapes and sizes, a busy market area, grumpy people and a bus stop with very questionable cleanliness standards. But who were were to complain? The great Indian adventure had begun.
So, after a quick breakfast and an attempt to freshen up in a dingy roadside tiffin centre, we were all set to catch our bus to Tetli, a village beyond the Kaas Plateau. But what we were in for was a lesson in the ways of the grouchy Maharashtrians from this town. Forget about friendly smiles, no one had even a single useful piece of information to share. And since all the buses were equipped with only Marathi display boards, we had no choice but to approach the rude man at the enquiry counter, who barked something incoherent in rapid-fire Marathi, despite letting him know in Hindi that we don’t know the language. Proving to be equally unhelpful were the conductors and drivers of every mucky red State Transport bus that drearily made its way to the bus depot. Having missed around two buses to Tetli in this whole confusion of not knowing which bus goes where, a change of plan was in order. We decided to chat up some auto guys and strike a deal. Luckily enough, the first chap we spoke to was willing to drive us on the 24 kilometre ghat route for 350 bucks, which we thought was a decent bargain, considering he first quoted Rs 750.
And then an amazing thing happened. As it often does when you travel away from civilization. Just 10 minutes away from the ugly hub of the city, the landscape started transforming rapidly and by the time we reached the foot of the ghats we were about to climb, the air started becoming cleaner, the roads less crowded and we felt a nip in the air. As the auto struggled its way up, bringing us some breathtaking views of the ridiculously flat table top plateaus of the Sahyadri range, I couldn’t help but wonder how civilization consciously transforms everything that is beautiful into filth. All it took were some unimaginative and greedy humans to change part of this dreamy hilly stretches into the stripped-of-all-charm-and-downright-unpresentable Satara.
As we climbed higher, we gawked in awe at all the beauty around us. Clues of what lay ahead of us greeted us in the form of tiny flowers dotted across the entire landscape, peeping at us with their pretty heads, everywhere we looked. After a blissfully serene auto ride (words that I never thought I could use in the same sentence) that lasted for an hour, we were at Kaas plateau, which is strangely enough, titled as the Valley of Flowers by the Maharashtra Tourism board.
I took a second to breathe in the fresh hilly air and turn a complete 360° to take in the view, I was delirious with the fact that I could see nothing but rolling greens and open skies around me. Us city people are easily pleased. A building-less view is enough to make us feel like we are experiencing a spiritual moment. Plus, there was hardly anyone else around, since we had the luxury of picking a weekday to be there, you know, being unemployed and all.
Everything was ridiculously idyllic. The weather just right. Delicious-looking clouds overlooking the state of affairs. A pretty lake with a symmetric border of flower beds all around. Unbridled views of the Western Ghats. Swallows soaring to, what has to be choreographed synchronisation — Kaas is a picture postcard come to life. Even though we were at least two weeks too late to the actual party when the violently purple and pink flowers famously overwhelm the landscapes, we saw enough patches of flowers, especially ones in cheery yellows and whites, to be pleased as those proverbial plums!
As we ambled around, I ended up doing everything I didn’t want to do in order not to look like those crazy tourists. The sight of beds of happy flowers snugly cushioning the lush green slopes was enough to make me squeal in delight, point excitedly at everything and stick the cellphone camera right in front of the faces of the beautiful blooms. I couldn’t help but imagine the jaw-dropped amazement that the first few explorers would have experienced as they set foot on this botanical marvel of a land — a single plateau, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, home to more than 850 varieties of flora!
The trick is to not be in a hurry. Just like if you look hard enough at the night sky, more and more stars begin to reveal themselves to sight, the fun in the Kaas plateau stroll lies in observing long and hard at every patch of grass you pass by. There’s a surprise spotting waiting for you everywhere you look, if you battle the fact that the miniscule flowers can sometimes be hard to detect unless they exist in large numbers. Such incredible beauty exists in tiny details. A single petite bloom as tiny as a ladybug, flaunts multiple colours. Dazzling hues fade away into gentle whites at the centre or the other way around. Exquisite strokes adorn every petal. Flowers in all sizes, shapes and textures. Each kind with their own unique beauty like snowflakes. It sure makes you believe that evolution can’t just be a happy accident. Whatever be the forces at work can take pride in their aesthetic sense.
A few kilometres later, we stepped to the edge of the plateau to get a view of the Kaas lake right at the bottom, and determined to walk all the way down there, we took a short Parle-G and cloud-gazing break, after which we were back on the road.
“Sarovar sirf ek kilometre mein hai, madam,” said the friendly local, suggesting the lake was just a negligible walk away. But it ended up being a 2.1 km-walk under the scorching sun, which saw many an overexcited bunch of road-trippers “yaaay-yaaaying” (a phenomenon where 20-something mostly-male and urban specimens scream and shriek in shrill, high-pitched tones to express their enjoyment, especially on spotting water bodies or any “naice sceneries”) as they made their way past us with their stereos in full blast, giving us two lone walkers on the winding downhill road, some seriously puzzled looks.
As we walked down the highland, guided by the squeals of, what we presumed were, the same gang of road-trippers, we figured we were close to the lake. Clue #2 came in the form of a string of ‘vada-pav and other meals-wallahs’ who strategically placed themselves there, offering deliverance to the super hungry tourists from the plateau.
Before we gave into the seductive allure of Maggi noodles and Maaza, we walked our way through the eateries, right past a dilapidated British bungalow (which some nature-loving Englishwala would have built as a winter retreat, complete with a fireplace), and straight to the lake. Enveloped by rolling greens on all sides, the cool, serene waters of the lake, was enough reason for us to want to just stop, sit down by the shore with our feet dipped in, enjoying the brief moments of silence that came few and far between the excited screeches of hyperactive tourists who were jumping into the water with their pants and shirts on. Sigh! You can’t have everything, can you?
A hearty lunch later, we were determined not to go back to Satara for the night and instead find accommodation at the nearest village — Bamnoli. Armed with no information whatsoever if there is a place to stay there or what to expect when we reach, we decided to take the gamble and wait for the local state transport bus that hurtles all the way down the plateau every few hours or so. And thereon, began an unplanned week-long journey across multiple cities in mostly rural Maharashtra. But then, that’s a whole new story.
This Kaas travalogue was published in the Sunday travel section of the Mail Today (pages 32 and 33), dated November 10, 2013.