Three stations before Karjat on Mumbai’s Central Line lies Shelu, the kind of village where two SUVs cannot run next to each other. Ours definitely did not, and my friend I had to back down to make room for a loaded truck before making it across the village to Moonstone Hammock, a secluded luxury campsite parked right next to the river Ulhas—our den for the weekend. Ask Athang, my partner-crime, and he’ll vouch that trekking and camping in the hills around Nashik has been our quick-fix stress-buster these past few months, ever since the pandemic put a lock on most pubs and restaurants. This time however, we were looking forward to the outdoors experience sans our tired limbs, cold packed meals, and the mildly disappointing campfires that we had grown accustomed to.
Spread out over five acres of what was formerly an orchard, Moonstone Hammock, an easy weekend’s drive from both Mumbai and Pune, offers three kinds of accommodation. While purists can opt for the ground tents devoid of all luxuries, glamping tents come with amenities like a bed and electrical sockets. Guests who are visiting for the lush surroundings and not necessarily for the camping experience can shell out a little more and opt for jungle cabins fitted with an air conditioner and an attached bathroom. Life outdoors has an inherent novelty for most city slickers, but Moonstone Hammock’s charm lies in the fun-packed host of activities and experiences it offers—truly a case of the whole experience being worth more than the sum of its parts.
Our day really kicks off after snacks at around 4:30 p.m. when some guests set up games of carrom, UNO and Monopoly at the common recreational space, while others gravitate towards the glimmering river. I go with the river. The sun sits low in the sky as I push off against the current in my kayak, gliding slowly towards a hill-shaped silhouette in the distance—which I later learn to be the reaches of Matheran. Its darkening frame also acts as an indicator of the time; after a few minutes of excited paddling, I resort to resting my arms and floating aimlessly, as the sky changes cloaks from blue to orange. By the time I get back to the campsite, it is pink. This is the closest I have ever come to sailing away into the sunset, and for the time being, it will have to do.
As evening simmers into night, the small swimming pool in the middle of the campsite emerges as the nerve centre of activity as guests strike up conversations over cold beer, and frolic in the water to beat the residual heat from the last of the sun’s rays. When the temperature drops further and a steady night breeze sets in, the party moves closer to the river, where Mumbai-based band The Young Drug is warming up. The band is a regular fixture at Moonstone Hammock on weekends and specialises in innovative covers of popular Hindi songs that get the audience grooving. The band starts playing, tuning out the gurgle of the river temporarily. Suddenly I realise how persistent a part of our backdrop the sound has been. Like the outdoor version of a droning refrigerator, whose hiccups are only apparent once it stops—but far more pleasant.
After multiple encores and requests, the concert comes to an end and a dinner is served. Over mouthfuls of butter chicken, and later, phirni, Athang and I finalise our plan for the next morning. Given that we are in the lap of the Sahyadris, it would be wasted opportunity to return without a good trek. We freeze on a short hike to the nearby Kondana caves, but adventure junkies can instead choose to make their way to Vikatgad, Matheran, Rajmachi and Sondai, all located at a comfortable distance Karjat. A night spent in the agreeable outdoors of Moonstone Hammock, insulated from the elements within a glamping cocoon, is the perfect breather ahead of any rugged adventures you may have in mind.
The next morning, a bumpy, hour-long drive takes us to the starting point for the hike to Kondana caves. Though the morning sun is beating down on us, it feels markedly cooler once we begin ascending through the jungle. Our spirits are further buoyed when we spot a stall selling nimbu paani and cucumbers near the entrance to the caves.
Gratefully sipping from our glasses, we spot the cave system from a distance, and it appears far more grandiose than I’d imagined. The vendor tells us that a waterfall cascades down the front of the caves in the monsoons, making for a pretty sight. The water has however, likely contributed to the weathering of the rocks over time, evident from the somewhat ruinous beauty of the caves today.
Trudging along, we are informed that the sixteen caves were first excavated to serve as shelter for Buddhist monks and as a monastery. The centerpiece of the complex is a prayer hall that houses a disfigured stone stupa underneath a high ceiling. The hall is held up by a series of restored pillars, but its still-impressive facade bears the original detailing and carved sculptures, along with a short Brahmi inscription alluding to the person who had commissioned the excavation of the caves.
A designer, Athang geeks out over the architectural elements of the hall and its facade, while I wander towards the living chambers to the left. Rows of small cells with rock beds are carved along the three walls, while the entrance to the cave bears remnants of what could have been a verandah facing the forest outside. I crouch near the entrance and take in the view of the dense forest that surrounds the caves. I wonder if a getaway to the caves may have been a welcome change from the drudgery of daily life even in first century BC.
After all, an escape to the great outdoors—be it a cave filled with silence or a camp packed with rollicking fun—tends to be timeless.
Moonstone Hammock is a 80 km/2 hr drive from Mumbai and 121 km/3 hr from Pune respectively. (moonstonehammock.com; Doubles from Rs 5,230, including meals)