Adrenaline junkies ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go over the edge for some waterfall rappelling down Maharashtra’s 120 ft cascade Vihigaon
We didn’t want a lazy weekend. Enough ennui had been injected into our bones by the grey clouds hanging heavily over the Mumbai skies, too weary to rain. It was time to step out of our cave and get wet. Piqued by the loud whispers floating about monsoon treks and weekend rappelling expeditions in the rains, we decided to find out. We were in luck – the adventure group Offbeat Sahyadri had an upcoming canyoning trip to Vihigaon waterfalls.
As we set off early on NH3 via Mulund and rolled our windows up and down in the intermittent rain, the tall buildings in the skyline redrew themselves into strange-shaped mountains. At first, the Sahyadris or the Western Ghats looked like a broken row of gargantuan green teeth and alien fingers before gradually transforming into a heady contrast of dark rocks and slopes of iridescent green. Every now and then, fields of freshly planted paddy would shock us with their brilliance; amplifying the bizarre proximity of pastoral charms to the mayhem of city life.
It was pouring when we halted for tea at Star of Highway Dhaba in Kasara, incidentally the nearest place for a meal or a decent washroom! Making the most of the early hours, several vehicles swished by on the highway at top speed raising fountains and clouds of mist at their wheels. The road was slick and shone like gelled hair. In minutes, we were cruising towards Vihigaon, a small hamlet 13 km from Kasara, set amidst paddy fields surrounded by hills. We parked among other mud-spattered vehicles in a clearing as the road ahead was a sludgy track that narrowed into a thin thoroughfare.
Thankfully, our travels had taught us to wear the right footwear and to carefully negotiate wet terrain, potholes and slush to avoid slipping; but few others weren’t so lucky. We watched helplessly as they slid elegantly like ice-skaters in a rink, limbs splayed, only to suffer the ignominy of a clumsy fall. We hiked past a cluster of tiled houses and huts, a small school and nondescript structures. A shepherd guided his goats to the side and we heard cows mooing in darkened sheds as roosters crowed and floundered along the walls, unaccustomed to early guests. At the threshold of a rustic home, an old lady with a toothless smile gestured the way towards the dhabdhaba (waterfall).
Shortly, the unmistakable crash of water filtering through the greenery drew near. The path had petered out. To the left, a stream tumbled down the mountain into a small bund, which overflowed into a tiered cascade plummeting 120 ft off a precipice on the right. A bunch of unruly boys thrashed about like orcas on a hunt under the small 15 ft cataract, doing their best to drown out the sound of the crashing water.
A trail of crude stones ran drunkenly towards the edge – this was where all the action took place. Some gingerly peeped over the cliff; others sat in the shallow waters looking at people disappear down the ropes. We watched the scene from a slight elevation. The instructor divided us into groups of ten, allotted a number to each and after an exchange of hand signals with the main crew, asked us to wait.
Soon, we strapped on our harness and helmets, wondering if the thunderous sound was really the waterfall crashing on the boulders or the chorus of our hammering hearts. The same manic glaze of excitement in the eyes and the cheesy nervous smile was mirrored in everyone’s faces. There is really nothing that compares with the rush of blood in adventure or extreme sport. One by one we clambered down cautiously towards the stream, grabbing at branches and rocks to avoid slipping. Some kicked off their shoes and paddled around in socks for better grip while others felt more comfortable barefoot. ‘It doesn’t matter, you’re going to slip anyway’, remarked a cheerful tourist from Deolali.
A large boulder in the middle of the brook was wrapped with ropes that swung over the cliff. Every rock was smooth and slick with slime as we crossed the stream and slithered towards a small overhang. An expert hooked us to the rappelling device, locked the carabiner and proceeded to give a crash course on how to rappel, right at the edge!
“Keep your legs comfortably apart and lean back using one hand to grip the rope in front and the other behind your back, which you must release to lower yourself. Don’t bend your knees, keep it straight. Don’t touch the safety line. Don’t worry and don’t look up!” he instructed, his voice barely audible in the cascade. That was it. Deep breaths. More deep breaths… and clinging on to the rope we made a slow descent of the first tier, until our feet were literally on the edge.
From there on it was an endless sheet of moving white that battered us from all sides. Suddenly, one felt lightheaded. Visions of Spiderman flashed as feet danced down the rock wall like Christopher Walken in Weapon of Choice and the trainer’s advice “Lean Back… lean back” played like an old hip-hop track in our ears. Or, maybe it was vertigo.
Hanging by a string, 100 ft off a wide vertical rock face, wrapped in the diaphanous veil of water with one’s feet searching for a foothold every second, does things to you. And 100 ft is a long way down. After a few minutes of intense concentration, the other senses kick into action. The water feels cool and tastes sweet. Voices filter in over the roar – shouts of glee, collective “omigod”, and hoots of encouragement ride up and down the cliff.
There are people at the base, some swimming and others watching those rappelling down, taking pictures, seated on rocks or standing. But the one hanging by the rope is focused only on where or how to place his or her foot. One misstep could result in a nasty graze to the knees or elbows. In under 10 minutes, it’s touchdown.
There’s someone grabbing your hand, unbuckling you and helping you wade across to the bank. You’ve made it… and you are already wishing you could do it again. But the next guy is waiting for your gloves, harness and helmet and you have to trudge up the hillside to return it. We lolled in the shallow waters as others awaited their turn to rappel down.
The sun came out briefly at lunch time. While most visitors preferred to carry packed lunches and snacks, a few decide to have some local food and a kind villager obliged. He quickly rustled up a simple meal of dal and rice. There were strict instructions to carry back all the trash and plastic. The Offbeat Sahyadri website made it amply clear – ‘Absofreakinglutely no littering!’
A late afternoon stroll around the village took us across lush rice fields and deposited us on a curving road to Jawahar. Beyond a chipped milestone was a metal railing on the side of the road to prevent people from falling into the dense wilderness. It proved to be the perfect viewpoint to catch the majesty of Vihigaon waterfall, crowned by a scenic range of hills in the distance. Yet, we weren’t the only ones there. Passing vehicles and villagers, too, slowed down or stopped to watch with bewilderment and awe, the strange breed of people running down the waterfall.
Aaditya Mahadik, our young guide from Offbeat Sahyadri explained that rappelling down waterfalls was a relatively new adventure sport in Maharashtra. Apart from being the first canyoning site explored in 2007-8, Vihigaon outscored other waterfalls like Bekare at Bhivpuri near Karjat, Dudhani near Panvel and Dudhiware near Lonavala.
The 30 ft wide rockface was large enough for three to four ropes to rappel down, which meant less waiting. At most other sites, there wasn’t much to see apart from the cataract. But the small dam, cascades and scenic plateau at Vihigaon ensured that visitors had enough to while away time after their turn was over.
Being monsoon waterfalls, the season was short, lasting from mid-June to Sep end. Weekends saw nearly 80-100 people each day. Five years ago, this sleepy corner of Maharashtra must have only seen a few trekkers pad across to the mountains or a trickle of tourists cooling their heels by the stream.
Over the last three years, with the waterfall open to rappelling, monsoons and weekends at Vihigaon have never been the same as outdoor outfits from Mumbai, Nashik and Pune lead their groups to this hidden adventure paradise.
Contact: Offbeat Sahyadri, Priti Patel 9987990300, Rajas Deshpande 9664782503 email@example.com
Getting there: Vihigaon is 124km (2-3 hr drive) from Mumbai. Take NH3 towards Igatpuri/Nasik via Mulund. Cross Star of Highway Dhaba and just before climbing Kasara Ghat, take the first diversion to the left. The road goes under a railway track and reaches a fork. Get on to the road towards Jawahar/Khodala to reach Vihigaon (13km from Kasara). Park near the village school and walk for 15-min to reach the waterfall.
Itinerary: Meet at 6am, Swami Narayan Mandir (Gate No.4), Opp Railway Station, Dadar East. Depart by bus for Vihigaon, Breakfast on board, Introduction/demo at Vihigaon followed by rappelling, depart for Mumbai at 5:30 pm
Fees: Rs.750/head (includes to/fro travel by private bus, rappelling/instructor/gear charges, breakfast and evening snacks), Rs.400/head for those joining directly at Vihigaon.
Pack: Rain gear and waterproof cover for phones/valuables, ID proof, 2L water, lunch, snacks, change of clothes
What to wear: Windcheater, shoes/floaters, socks, close neck T shirts, scarf/rubberband to tie long hair
Nearby attractions: Tribal king’s palace at Jawahar, Igatpuri with its famous Vipassana centre for meditation, Kalsubai the highest peak in Maharashtra, Bhandardhara Dam and the spiritual hub of Nashik, also famous for its grapes and vineyards.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways magazine.