This post is the first of a two-part series.
Part I describes our monsoon trek to Sondai fort & part II chronicles our trek to Matheran via Rambaug point, attempted later that day.
#52: Trek to Sondai fort and Matheran via Rambaug point
Strong winds were blowing across the hill face. Suddenly, the blanket of fog around us cleared out to reveal a lush green landscape, freshly coated with a layer of dew, shimmering in the diffused light. Farther ahead, a bright beam of sunlight was streaking through a tiny window in the clouds to illuminate a patch in the brilliant blue waters. The reservoir, resembling the South American continent, was blending into the sky at the horizon.
We stood there mesmerised by the scene playing out in front of us.
How often does one come across a sequence of events that no degree of eloquence or sophisticated gadgetry could possibly do justice to? In the Sahyadris, turns out, quite often!
Folks, come along with me on another enchanting trek from the archives of ‘A Season of Mountains’!
Type: Hill trek
1. Sondewadi- 18°56’53.34″N, 73°17’20.44″E;
2. Pokharwadi- 18°56’25.53″N, 73°16’44.52″E
Nearest railway station: Karjat-11 km
Best time to visit: Monsoon (July-September) & Winter (November-February)
USP: 1. Sondai fort: Beginner-friendly short trek near Karjat;
2. Matheran via Rambaug point: One of the lesser known trails to Matheran.
Difficulty: Medium; prior experience of easy treks is recommended.
Endurance: 4; long distance (10-20 km) trek with an average gradient.
Risk Factor: Low …Read more about the grades.
Our Route: Karjat – Sondewadi – Sondai fort – Sondewadi – Pokharwadi – Burujwadi – Rambaug pt.-Matheran – Neral
GPS trail link: You can also download the GPX files of the treks from my Wikiloc & Ramblr profiles.
Total distance: Approx. 15.5 km
Total time: 9.5 hours
Total active time: 6.45 hours
Max. Elevation of the trek: 2637 ft. / 804 m above MSL
Min. Elevation of the trek: 276 ft. / 84 m above MSL
Total Elevation Gain: Approx. 4200 ft.
Total Elevation Loss: Approx. 2300 ft.
How to reach Sondewadi/Pokharwadi using Public transport:
- From Mumbai, board any Karjat/Khopoli-bound local train and alight at Karjat. You can also travel by any Pune-bound Express scheduled to halt at Karjat.
- From Karjat ST depot, board any ST bus passing through Chowk (Panvel, Chowk, Rasayani or Murbad) or hop into a shared TumTum and alight at Borgaon phata. Either mode of transport will cost you ₹15 per seat. From Borgaon Phata, it’s a 4 km walk to Pokharwadi & 6 km to Sondewadi along the metalled road.
- Alternatively, groups of 3 or more trekkers can hire an entire cab or 6-seater auto (locally known as TumTum) for the base village. One way fare is usually between ₹ 250 to 400 depending on the day of the week (weekends see greater footfall and consequently, higher fares) & your bargaining skills. This will save you an hour of walking before the trek.
Note: There is no direct ST bus service for Sondewadi/Pokharwadi village from Karjat ST stand.
Directions from base villages:
1. Sondai fort trek from Sondewadi: From Sondewadi, turn right along a kuchcha road heading in the fort’s direction. About 300 m from the hamlet, look out for a broad trail forking out from the right side of the road. This trail climbs up a gentle plateau before turning left towards the fort. An easy rock patch is followed by a slightly exposed traverse across the western face of the fort. A U-turn after the traverse leads to the shoulder of the hill. Two sturdy ladders installed over tricky rock patches near the top make this is an ideal trek for beginners. Descend by the same path.
2. Matheran via Rambaug point trek from Pokharwadi: From Pokharwadi, walk past the concrete bridge over Katwan stream and climb up a trail on your right side. This trail merges with a kuccha road that extends to Burujwadi. A trail originates from the paddy fields opposite wadi and joins the trail from Borichi Gaani (Dhangarwada) at the base of Rambaug spur. Turn left and climb along the spur to reach Chowki, a tiled bench on the periphery of Rambaug forest. From Chowki, the trail cuts through dense forest to gently climb up the cliff and end at the Rambaug point viewing gallery. You can board a narrow gauge train for Aman Lodge from Matheran or walk all the way to Dasturi Naka (approx. 5 km) from Rambaug Point.
|0815 hours||Reached Karjat|
|0900 hours||Hired a Cab for Sondewadi|
|0930 hours||Reached Sondewadi|
|1030 hours||Reached top of Sondai fort|
|1200 hours||Descended back to Sondewadi|
|1415 hours||Reached Burujwadi after lunch break|
|1620 hours||Reached Chowki|
|1745 hours||Reached Rambaug point|
|1900 hours||Reached Dasturi Naka|
|Two-way ticket between CSMT & Karjat:||₹ 50/head|
|Breakfast at Karjat:||₹ 50/head|
|Cab (Eeco) fare to Sondewadi from Karjat:||₹ 400/4|
|Lunch at Pokharwadi:||₹ 40/head|
|Cab fare for Neral:||₹ 80/head|
Food and Water: Food and water are available at Pokharwadi, Sondewadi and Matheran. Water cisterns on Sondai fort may or may not have potable water. Note: Purify water before drinking from natural sources.
Accommodation: Overnight accommodation can be arranged in the schools or houses in Sondewadi, Pokharwadi and Burujwadi. Alternatively, you can stay/camp in Matheran after the trek.
Wavarle gaon to Sondai fort: There exists another slightly longer trail to the fort from Wavarle gaon, 2 km south of Sondai. From the village, walk down to Wavarle dam and continue north to reach Wavarle Thakarwadi. Cross a small hillock and a seasonal stream to reach the clearing where it joins the trail from Sondewadi.
- Hyperlinks are highlighted in blue and open in a new tab.
- You can also download this section as a PDF for easy offline reference
2.1 Sondai fort-Information PDF
2.2 Rambaug point trek-Information PDF
- All the pictures used in this post have been clicked by my friends or me, unless stated otherwise.
After an abrupt end to the 4th Season Of Mountains due to my recurring ACL injury, I took a 6 month-long break from trekking to help my knee recover completely.
A couple of moderate-grade treks into the 5th Season and I was itching to take things a notch above but the question remained — would my troublesome knee ever be able to stand up to the rigours of a demanding trek again?
This two-part series narrates one of the most significant & beautiful range treks of mine; one that laid the foundation for an epic Season down the line — Sondai fort & Matheran via Rambaug point!
The Gang: Abhishek, Manish, Tejas & Me
The Aftermath Of Chanderi Trek
On our way back from the Chanderi fort trek, I could barely stand without wincing, such was my knee’s condition. Now trekking with niggles is almost unavoidable, but to trek with a barely healed Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) of the right knee was imprudent, even by my usual foolhardy standards.
The constant fear of aggravating the injury took the very joy out of the experience. That, coupled with the grim realisation that it could cause long-term, irreversible damage made me sit up and take notice. ACL injuries are notorious for their slow healing and recurring nature. However, with the perils of a rushed recovery still fresh in my memory, I decided to focus on the process instead of the timeline and on this note, began the long, arduous journey to complete recovery.
Six Months Of Perseverance
Before I started my physiotherapy sessions, I knew they were going to be painful but nothing, I repeat, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer torture they actually were! Simple, repetitive motions seem easy until one adds muscle imbalance, a history of injuries and a general lack of flexibility to the mix!
Exercises I struggled to complete a set of, workouts that left me with aching muscles I didn’t even know existed and stretches that made my eyes tear up from sheer discomfort—it was a humbling experience, albeit a necessary one. It made me appreciate the gift that is the human body and how one should not take the simple pleasures of life like walking pain-free, for granted.
After countless sessions over 5 months, my knee was finally strong enough to do most activities without inhibition. The temptation to rush things was strong but I held back. It was May, the peak of summer in Mumbai. “Another month and even the rains would be back. What an experience it would be to trek in monsoons after so long!”, I told myself and kept persevering.
The 5th Season Of Mountains!
A couple of weeks into June, Monsoon finally arrived in the island city and we, like the proverbial frogs preparing to come out of hibernation, started looking for an easy-moderate grade trek to get the 5th Season Of Mountains going.
After careful consideration, we decided on Manikgad, a beautiful fort atop an expansive plateau in the Chowk region. Its unique location, overlooking the strategically important stretch from Karnala to Prabalgad, made it an important stronghold for armies looking to control the region.
Manikgad trek, at roughly 16 km to and from Washivali, was on the higher side of endurance but my knee wasn’t the least bit sore. Encouraged, I started planning for another one with the Gang and a couple of weeks later, we were off to Takmak fort— a moderate grade trek in the Palghar region.
With a couple of treks under my belt and the knee feeling even better, I was toying with the idea of doing a slightly more challenging trek. A multi-day outing was out of question due to our jam-packed schedules and closer home, there weren’t many long, single-day treks left that we hadn’t already attempted.
I was at my wits end. Everyone was doing their bit and suggesting treks one after the other but none seemed feasible or exciting enough.
Frustrated, I was scanning through my archives for a potential trek we might have overlooked when I came across a decade-old video at Rambaug point from my very first trip to Matheran!
How did I forget the Rambaug point trek? It was there in plain sight! Maybe it was time to get the trek names tattooed on my body…
The Matheran Quest
Matheran was first explored in 1850 by Hugh Poyntz Malet, then District Collector of Thane (Thana, back then) [2a] and was subsequently developed as a hill station. The name is supposedly derived from how the tribals described it to Malet— ‘Mathe par Raan hai’ (There’s Jungle at the Top) [2b].
I first visited Matheran in the winter of ’10-’11 with Hitesh and Sudarshan. Back then, Aman Lodge had only one platform, most hotels were only a couple of storeys high and one could still walk around the hill station without bumping into someone for hours on end.
As I kept returning to Matheran over the years, the swelling crowds pushed me away from the mainland and towards the isolated trails on the periphery, commonly used by native people from the valleys. The more I explored these trails with my friends, the more I fell in love with them, ultimately leading to what has now become ‘The Matheran Quest’.
There are over 30 designated viewpoints all over the hill station, of which about a dozen-odd have non-technical trails connecting them with the valleys. Each of these trails serves a different purpose— the gentler ones like Dodhani-Sunset pt. trail are used to haul up goods from the villages; the steeper ones (Umbernewadi-Pisarnath ladder trail) provide a quicker way to reach the hill station while some others (Postman’s shortcut) have extensive history behind them.
Rambaug pt., located on the eastern cliff of mainland Matheran, is famous for providing a splendid view of Garbett plateau at sunrise. The Rambaug trail, originating from Pokharwadi in the Katwan valley, was one of the handful non-technical Matheran trails I hadn’t ever attempted, until then.
But there was a caveat— while tracing the route on Google Earth, I realised that the trail from Pokharwadi to Dasturi Naka is barely 11 km long. The 3000 ft. of elevation gain put this on par with Manikgad trek in terms of endurance and I was looking for something slightly more testing. I voiced this dilemma to the Gang and Mansi almost instinctively suggested combining it with Sondai fort!
Sondai fort, situated in the same valley, rises to 1601 ft. above MSL and was used as a watchtower by the armies to keep an eye over the region along with Irshalgad. The distance between base villages & the trail to and fro Sondai would add another 5 km and 1000 ft. of elevation gain and loss to the overall stats. Bingo! We had another range trek on our hands. 😀
I worked out the finer details after going through a couple of books and blogposts and the following Sunday was agreed upon for the trek. A couple of friends had to back out due to personal commitments, leaving the four of us (Abhi, Manish, Tejas & me) in the final lineup for the trek while Shardul was going to be the all-important backup*.
*Backup- A person not part of the trekking team but well versed with the region and the tentative schedule of the trek.
Regular readers of the blog would be familiar with these crazy fellows, having featured in Gambhirnath caves trek & Garbett pt. trek posts, amongst others. A quick lowdown on them and other frequent partners-in-crime of mine can be found on ‘Meet the Gang’ page.
The evening before the trek, I went about my usual routine— creating a trail map, packing enough food to last an Apocalypse, jotting down emergency contacts and explaining our schedule in minute detail to Shardul, before hitting the bed that night.
The typical pre-trek excitement had me up till late and I don’t exactly remember when I fell asleep, but I sure as hell remember waking up to a clear sky in the morning— always a good omen when it comes to treks! 😀
Manish, unlike other times when he would stay over at Abhi’s place before a trek, was going to travel all the way from Vasai. If he missed his train in the morning, the entire plan would go askew. So the first thing I did was to check if he was up and about.
He answered my call in a low tone and for a second, I feared if he was still sleeping. Far from it, in fact! He was trying to reach the rly. station without waking up the ferocious packs of dogs who are always on the prowl to attack anyone who dares step out at ungodly hours.
“Aah, that’s all?” I said, relieved.
“And here I was worried you would sleep through the alarms and not make it to the trek on time! See you in the train.” and hung up. Yeah, that’s how our conversations usually go. 😛
With that out of the way, I packed up and left my place grooving to 90s Indipop songs around half past 6. By then, Manish and Abhi had already boarded our usual coach— second from the CSMT side, of the Karjat-bound local from Dadar & Ghatkopar, respectively.
The train was fairly crowded when I boarded it and I just about managed to find myself some space to stand while we caught up with the developments after Takmak fort trek. Over on the other side of the city, Tejas had already boarded a bus for Karjat from Panvel ST depot. Clockwork perfect!
The crowd thinned out gradually and I grabbed one of the coveted window seats as the train curved round the green landscape of Neral. I looked out of the window and saw the familiar hills passing by— hills I had called home over the last 5 years, the Five Seasons Of Mountains 🙂
The Rendezvous At Karjat
The train ambled into Karjat railway station at a quarter past 8 and we alighted on platform 2, only to be hypnotised by the aroma of spicy coconut chutney and batata vada of Karjat. Tejas joined us 5 minutes later and the gluttons that we are, breakfast in the railway canteen was a foregone conclusion!
A short while later, we walked out of the station from the east side and were immediately swarmed by drivers trying to almost manhandle us into their cabs. Barely 100 metres from the Khopoli-side exit, there’s a taxi stand lined with Autorickshaws, TumTums (6-seater autorickshaws) and Cabs.
Karjat being a hotbed for trekkers, drivers often quote exorbitant rates, especially on weekend mornings. Based on our previous travels, the fare for the 11 km drive to Sondewadi is usually between ₹ 250 to 400, depending on the vehicle and day of the week. That day being a Sunday, we had to settle at the higher end of that range and at exactly 9 o clock, we were zooming past the traffic in a Maruti Eeco.
The route to Sondewadi passes through the Karjat-Murbad road and turns right at Borgaon Phata. Barely 300 metres from the phata, the road climbs up to pass over a short bridge. If you are a RailFan like me, you just cannot afford to miss this sight— a single track of the Karjat-Panvel railway line cuts through the terrain & under the road bridge, creating an amazing frame! Every time we pass through this stretch, we try and get down for a minute or two to capture the sight.
Once we passed Borgaon, the Matheran range, draped in clouds, started rising above the landscape. The metalled road passes very close to the Morbe Dam reservoir at a number of places and at such one turn, we were so smitten by the sight in front of us that we asked driver kaka to stop the cab right there. The tires mustn’t have even skidded to a halt when Manish slid open the door and the two of us bolted out before Abhi and Tejas could even comprehend what was happening!
Maybe it was the patch of green stretching into the blue waters or the hills mirrored in the reservoir or maybe it was just plain ol’ craziness which doesn’t have a rhyme or reason, but the next instant, two nutheads could be seen streaking across the grassland, towards the edge until… we realised that our shoes were sinking deeper in the soil with every stride!
Underneath the striking green grass, was a shallow marsh and it required tremendous coordination from our ungainly limbs to somehow make it to the solid ground near reservoir. We looked back at the patch but there was no way we could have known there was a marsh without running into it. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. Our backsides, from neck down, were completely covered in mud, leaving us looking more like hippos than humans, albeit happy ones! 😉
Left in a fix as neither of us had a spare set of clothes to change into (lesson learnt), we went full desi and walked over to the shallow edges of the reservoir to clean our tees and trackpants!
And just when we were admiring the mess we had got ourselves into, appeared Tejas like one of those actors from the Tide Detergent ads with his sparkling white tee. Having seen us kick up a storm of mud, he carefully avoided the marsh and very innocently asked us to click a picture of him. *facepalm!*
Nevertheless, armed with another interesting tale to recount, we walked back smiling to the cab where Abhi, who had stayed put in the cab along with driver kaka, shook his head in resigned amusement as we clambered into the back seats with soaking wet clothes.
A short distance before Pokharwadi, the metalled road splits into two— the straight one proceeds to Ambewadi, base of the One Tree hill trek while the right one climbs uphill to Sondewadi at an elevation of 650 ft. The cab turned right and grunted up the steep winding road to reach the wadi surrounded by towering hills.
We usually plan and choose our treks to avoid huge crowds. In short, no popular treks on weekends. Unfortunately left with no alternative this time round, we had braced ourselves for a bit of a crowd but nothing quite like what we actually saw at Sondewadi that day. A group of 20 standing close to us, getting instructions from the the leader of a commercial group was just one of the several waiting in the wadi!
A little dejected, we got off the cab, paid ₹ 400 to driver kaka and thanked him for being patient with our antics during the drive. Determined not to be bogged down, we looked up at our destination for the first half of the day— Sondai Fort and started the trek.
A kuchcha road turns right from Sondewadi and proceeds east towards the fort. The initial stretch was flat and we started off with a good pace, weaving in and out of large groups walking leisurely towards the fort.
About 5 minutes from the wadi, the road took a gentle U-turn to the left. On our right side was a broad, rocky trail climbing up the plateau. This rocky trail turns into a mini stream of sorts during heavy rainfall and the jagged rocks can be a handful during slippery conditions, hence caution is advised.
The trail is lined on either side by a dense stretch of trees that eventually gives way to a big clearing with an unimpeded view of the Sondai fort. At the centre of the clearing stands a tall tree and the trail from Wavarle gaon merges here with the Sondewadi trail.
It had started drizzling lightly by the time we reached the clearing. Considering the number of trekkers behind us, we thought it best not to spend too much time there and quickly turned left towards the fort.
The trail climbs up sharply through a thin forest section and disappears into a steep, smooth slab of rock with footholds. These footholds are what remains of the rock cut steps that must have been carved into the hill during its yesteryears. The rock patch is easy but flexible shoes with a soft, lugged outsole (Trekking shoes by Action & Coasters, for example) would be an asset on this section of the trek.
The group in front of us was fairly large in number and from what I could make out, a little apprehensive, given the conditions. If we had waited for our turn, it would have taken another 15-odd minutes at the minimum, so we started climbing up slightly away from the main trail, using the natural notches and tiny crimps in the rock instead.
The rock patch was followed by a steep mud trail with earthen steps on steep sections made specifically for monsoons, when increased footfall deteriorates the trail quickly. The trail continued to climb straight up the hill before turning right to traverse the western face.
We had been climbing at a fast clip all this while and as soon as the trail levelled out, stopped to take a breather.
An instant later, strong winds started blowing across the face. The fog around us cleared out to reveal the lush green valley below, coated by a fresh layer of dew, shimmering in the diffused light while a bright beam of sunlight illuminated a tiny patch of the brilliant blue waters. The reservoir, resembling the South American continent, looked like it was blending into the sky at the horizon.
We savoured the magical sight for a fleeting second before dark clouds moved back in from the left, slowly eclipsing the window in the sky and a short while later, the valley itself.
A distant chatter interrupted the silence around us. We looked back and saw a few trekkers appear round the corner— this was our cue to start moving again.
The trail continues along the face to reach the southernmost edge of the hill, where a sharp U-turn over an easy rock patch leads to the shoulder. On the left of the rock patch is another sign of fortification— water cisterns. It is said that the locals used to fetch water from these cisterns during peak summer before Morbe Dam was built.
The Ladder Saga
I looked up from the rock patch; a horde of trekkers was bustling around the narrow shoulder of the hill and beyond them, were the famous orange ladders of the fort.
Now, I’d like to address something slightly controversial here— in recent times, many treks have been permanently altered by the installation of ladders by authorities. Don’t misunderstand me— I have absolutely no objection to making trails safer but what pains me is seeing a number of ladders installed on benign, easy rock patches— the kind where the only thing that can get hurt is someone’s ego!
We have already lost some beautiful, challenging treks to this inane safety drive and if more discretion is not used while making these trails safer, we’ll be saddled by treks with no diversity and a generation of trekkers who never got an opportunity to learn elementary rock climbing.
With this thought in mind, I went around the first ladder to take a look at the rock patch underneath. The uneven holds and steep incline would have been a handful for anyone during descents, especially during monsoons— a rare, happy instance where the ladder was a necessity! 😀
Ecstatic, we climbed up the first ladder and over to a small ledge on its right. A couple of steps over the ledge stands the second ladder, which is actually two ladders joined midway to work around different inclines of the patch.
The second ladder leads to a vertical slab of rock with two caves carved into it. The cave on the right is relatively small, most probably used as an overnight shelter by guards manning the fort during its heydays. It is separated from the other cave, a water cistern supported by rock columns, by a thin rock wall. There’s a hole and thin slit carved into the wall, which must have been used to hold mashaals (wooden torches).
The trail continues on the left and climbs up parallel to the western precipice of the hill. A short, easy walk later, and exactly an hour after starting from Sondewadi, we were at the top of Sondai fort!
The top of Sondai fort has a lone tree, under the canopy of which numerous idols have been placed. One of these idols is of Sondai devi, after whom the hill is named. The tree is considered holy by the locals and in accordance with their beliefs, it’s advised to remove one’s footwear before paying respects to the Goddess.
We took a walk around the tiny hilltop and then sat down by the edge overlooking the col it shares with the taller Bhivpuri hill. Shortly afterwards, it started raining and we spent a few moments enjoying the muffled patter of raindrops as more trekkers streamed in.
It was a quarter to 11 when we started descending. A railing (and a shaky one at that) has been placed on the short exposed stretch of the trail along the precipice. Right below the railing is a flat, stable rock overlooking the valley. It made for a great frame and Tejas gladly volunteered to pose while Manish and I clicked pictures, fervently praying he doesn’t go tumbling down the valley. 😛
The rainfall meanwhile picked up in intensity again and we were soon in the midst of a whiteout. Big, fat raindrops carried by strong winds needled us as we descended the ladders and further down to the trail.
Continuous rainfall, coupled with the tremendous footfall since morning had nearly wiped off the grippy top layer of the soil; the sections we had breezed through while ascending, were now demanding utmost caution. We carefully negotiated this stretch by leaning on the hill to brace against strong winds.
About halfway through the descent, the weather improved and we sat down on the trail to play with the numerous trickles running down the hill. Meanwhile, a few trekkers climbing up at that rather late hour and visibly struggling with the humidity, approached us and popped the universal trekker question- “Aur kitna time lagega?” (How far to the top?)
We looked at each other. Every seasoned trekker worth his salt knows that there’s only one answer to this question, no matter where it is asked. “Bas 5 min aur!”, I lied through my teeth.
Rejuvenated, off they went up the hill with a newfound zeal; one that I was sure, would last for all of 5 minutes! 😉
The trekkers very well knew the top wasn’t 5 minutes away but they chose to believe it nonetheless. The interaction made me wonder if we wilfully choose to believe lies? Not because the truth is too harsh to handle but because life, is sometimes more bearable without it? Sigh. We’ll never know. Or we perhaps we will and choose not to believe that as well!
Anyways, back to the trek! With the trail to ourselves and no rain to impede us anymore, we literally ran down all the way to the tree in the clearing.
From there, it was just a simple stroll to Sondewadi, where we reached at the stroke of noon.
The sky was overcast and a gentle breeze was blowing through the wadi but it wore a deserted look, save for a few kids playing amongst themselves.
I opened the note app on my phone— so far, we were keeping up with the planned schedule and more importantly, my knee was feeling good. But we had barely done 3 km. Dasturi Naka was another 13 km from there.
I looked back at Sondai fort, standing sentinel over the wadi.
Across the valley stood Matheran, enveloped in clouds.
I did a quick stretch.
One down. One more to go.
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1. Trekshitiz website
2a. Illustrated Handbook to Matheran, Dabake V.B, 1924
2b. Trek The Sahyadris, Kapadia Harish, 6th Edition, 2018
3. Matheran — A Mountaineering Manual, Dr. Mehta, Mrs. Mehta, Ms. Mahajan, 2017
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