• Kuldeep Dhankar's idea of linking the Sahyadri - from the north near Panchvati to the south in Kanyakumari - draws parallels with the Pacific Crest Trail in the United States. Intrigued by the potential of the extensive mountain range, we dive further to understand the possibilites and how you can be a part of it.

    The summer months give Kuldeep Dhankar the blues, the moment he realises that the hiking needs to be put on hold. It’s the time of the year when the Sahyadri range is a furnace. The streams are down to a trickle, the mountainscape dry and barren. Then, comes the rain. It brings with it a magical green hue that is unique to these mountains, comforting for the eyes as well as the soul. This is the time Kuldeep comes alive, much like the verdant foliage around him. And every weekend, the 43-year-old is off to revel in the company of nature and luxuriate in a sense of comfort that she offers folks like him.

    On the first few occasions that Kuldeep stepped out on the trail, he returned home miserable.

    But it wasn’t always this way. As an 11th grader, he recalls getting lost in heavy downpour, forced to stay the night at Dodhani near Panvel alongside his classmates. Then, around nine years ago, he took on the 100km Oxfam Trailwalker, but had to drop out two-thirds of the way with an injury. “The pain in my leg acts up even now, especially when I drive too long. Those aren’t the best memories I have of the outdoors,” he says.

    But in spite of the suffering, there was something about those experiences that Kuldeep kept with him. It was enough reason to go back the next year to finish the 100km walk. And today, the old milk route from Dodhani to Matheran remains his favourite hike. It took some time to find his comfort zone, but in the outdoors, Kuldeep has now discovered perfect happiness.

    “I come from a technology background. Odd working hours and a stressful existence hampered my state of being. I was overweight, running was certainly not fun and I felt this need to engage my body physically, though in a more pleasurable manner,” Kuldeep recalls.

    Hiking turned out to be the perfect release for Kuldeep. Having grown up in the quaint settings of a village in Jhajjar in Haryana, Kuldeep knew a thing or two about engaging with nature. Once he switched base to Navi Mumbai, he noticed a glorious setting, right there in his backyard. “Living in the city robs you of your sense of physicality. The moment I am on the trail, all the chaos and noise of operating in an urban environment vanishes,” he says.

    Dotted with magnificent pinnacles of basalt rock, the Sahyadris run parallel to the west coast of India.

    The Sahyadri, a section of the Western Ghats, runs in a north-south direction, parallel to the west coast of India. It is dotted with magnificent pinnacles of basalt rock and lush plateaus and valleys that are home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Ancient temples and strategically located forts built by Maratha kings dot this landscape, drawing pilgrims and adventurers alike.

    For cities like Mumbai, Pune and Nashik, the mountain range is a stone’s throw away. While the region is parched during the scorching summer, it transforms into a hiker’s paradise come monsoon and lasts right through the winter months. “While camping in the wild, you realise how loud nature can be. Every sound is amplified under the stars. That feeling is really grounding. Everyone should get to experience it,” he says.

    Long Trail Goodnight

    Long Trail Goodnight

    As he started spending more time in the mountains, Kuldeep took on the lesser known trails. He would pore over guidebooks and refer to previous documentation carried out by other hikers. High resolution prints of Google Maps helped him understand the technicality of the terrain and locate nearby villages to gain a sense of familiarity with the region.

    Over time, he observed that he had done small sections of major routes that connected landmark destinations in the Sahyadri. For instance, he figured that he had walked the entire stretch from Nashik to Lonavala, albeit in parts, besides a 34km trail on the Lonavala-Bhimashankar patch. He soon started toying with the idea of linking the entire mountain chain from Panchavati in Maharashtra in the north, to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu down south - a distance of about 1,600km. “The logistics need to be figured out for a long trek like this. But I don’t see it as a challenge because you’re never too far from civilisation in the Sahyadri. The altitude isn’t too much and the worst weather that one is likely to face is extreme heat. So it’s possible to travel light and fast if you venture out at the right time,” he says.

    The concept of walking long distances is a popular activity around the world. In the United States, the Pacific Coast Trail and the Appalachian Trail offer these grand adventures, while New Zealand has the Te Araroa that runs down the country.

    The concept of walking long distances is a popular activity around the world. In the United States, the Pacific Coast Trail and the Appalachian Trail offer these grand adventures, while New Zealand has the Te Araroa that runs down the country.

    The best waterproof shoes are the ones with holes in them.

    Kuldeep wants to get his plan underway by attempting the 200-odd km between Igatpuri and Lonavala. However, what is missing at the moment is the infrastructure to support these adventures. For starters, each time he is out shopping for gear, the sheer lack of options is a glaring anomaly. Most of it is unsuitable for the terrain and weather conditions of the Sahyadri.

    “The struggle is primarily because the gear is designed by foreign companies for their own environment. For instance, I’ve bought all kinds of waterproof shoes, but that’s not really going to work when there is more water coming down from above than there is on the ground. Eventually I realised that the best trekking shoes are the ones with holes in them, so that the water can drain out. Or even sandals, ” Kuldeep says.

    Another important step would be to involve locals from these mountain belts with the outdoors. It would not only create livelihoods through guiding and camping, but they could also become guardians of these wilderness regions and reduce the margin of risk, as well as keep the trails clean. “Personally, I have found the mountains to be really safe. I’ve met friendly villagers, who are more than willing to dish out a meal or host you for a small fee. But there is still an element of the unknown when you venture out. As a result, not many women or elderly people want to go out and enjoy nature,” he says.

    More hands

    If this tribe of like-minded enthusiasts grows, the idea of linking trails could transform into a collaborative effort. And in the time ahead, it could be the start of an inclusive movement, where more folks take to the trails. “It’s the small things that make it possible. For one, the lack of camping sites often frustrates me; nor do we have trekking huts to replenish supplies. There’s surely an opportunity to create these facilities on the trails. And once provided, there will certainly be takers,” he says.

    On his part, Kuldeep has been making the effort to spread the hiking bug. Some join him gladly; with others, he experiences resistance. “Unlike the West, we lack the culture of being outdoors. It is restricted to a chosen few, which has a lot to do with how accessible things are for anyone who wishes to step out. This is why a few hesitate the first time and some simply never come back again,” Kuldeep says, grinning.

    The First 30 Mins are always going to be uncomfortable.

    There’s a lot that Kuldeep has gained from the outdoors, which he now wants to share with others. The time spent in the mountains has made him fitter and wiser. Even today, he knows that the first 30 minutes are always going to be uncomfortable until he finds his rhythm. But he is also aware of the many highs to be experienced on the trails. And the joy of enjoying the smaller things in life like a cold beer or a hot shower at the end of it.

    “Each time I hit the trail I ask myself why I’m doing it. But there’s no better place to reset yourself. Trekking for me is the ultimate dopamine high - not as an adventure, but just to spend some time amidst nature,” he says.

  • Comments on this post (3 comments)

    • Pranav Khanna says...

      Reading this sets off a longing. .
      to be walking on the trail

      Brilliant and I am sure a bunch of us will join in this endeavour.

      On April 05, 2024

    • Anand Jain says...

      Love the write up, it instantly brought back many memories of hiking the trails with Kuldeep. Can’t wait for the monsoon season!

      On February 17, 2024

    • Gaurav mann says...

      Brilliant effort by Kuldeep, I would really like to contribute to his effort.

      Kuldeep if you read this, I am a fellow technologist who’s travelling all the states of India. Doing such adventures.

      On January 09, 2023

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