Spread over 103 sq.km. Borivali National Park (also called, Sanjay Gandhi National Park) is the largest park in the world located within the city limits. Just to give a perspective, the Central Park in New York is 3.41 sq.km. There has been a lot said and written about Borivali National Park, but not enough. The park claims to have 2 million visitors annually which seems like a good number but its less than the number of visitors a 12000 sqft mall gets in Mumbai. While we love and hate many marvels of our city, lets not ignore one of the city’s biggest blessings. Come monsoons the joy doubles, the variegated flowers and hues of greens spread all over the park are so cheerful, you do not need to apply any #filters.
Kanheri Caves, 6 km from the park entrance are one of the main attractions. It’s easy for you to access them and easy for them to enchant you. To begin with the caves were chiseled out of volcanic rock, as early as 1st century BC! The beautiful carvings of Buddha, Pali inscriptions, and the play of light and shadows make for spectacular pictures. The many small chambers called viharas used to be the cells for monks and the deeper chambers known as Chaityas were used for congregational worship. I like to visualise the life when the monks were still living in caves, meditating, praying, carrying on their daily errands. (I once had lunch with three extremely friendly monks in Cambodia and after that Monks seem so ‘normal’ in the sense that I can imagine them carrying on errands, before that I couldn’t have). Two very impressive caves right in the beginning are, cave #3 an arcade of ornately carved columns and cave #11 an enormous dining hall. Yes, all the caves are conveniently numbered. Visiting each cave can get tedious and repetitive since most are viharas.
So after feeding your history craze, heading up through short flights of stairs is a good idea. There is a small water collection tank atop, that was cut into the rock of the hill. I would recommend spending a lot of time plonked near the edge of a rock, soaking in the greens and enjoying the most unreal, concrete free views of Mumbai.
Hiking trails such as Shilonda, Nagla trails or log hut trails can get one addicted to Borivali National Park. On a regular Sunday morning in the hustling bustling Mumbai, could you just chance upon a spotted deer four meters ahead of you? Both you and the deer freeze momentarily and before you reach for your camera it disappears into the thicket. This happens often on such fairly secluded trails. A very small part of the national park is open for public, one can access the restricted areas with with official permission on the condition that you take a forest guard along. One should generally obtain a permit a couple of days in advance at the entry gate. Sometimes you get lucky though, three of us had not planned ahead and one of us was on his last day in Mumbai before he flew back to the US.
We were desperate to explore one of the less-touristy trails and Nandini a nature photographer, (with a month long permit for Shilonda trail) saw us whining and came to our rescue. Not only did she take our responsibility on her permit, she made the whole experience so much more interesting and educative. The regulars at the trail have identified the right spots for getting a glimpse or more of leopards and migratory birds. We hung around near that pond for some time while Nandini enthusiastically helped us identify the plants and the birds and bird calls AND the insects, specially spiders. Interestingly, she was publishing a photo book to showcase the variety of spiders found in Borivali National park. Through her camera lens, for the first time I realised how beautiful something as seemingly insignificant and seemingly dangerous as spiders can be. For a guided trail this is great I hear.
Cycling is my favourite ride for exploring Mumbai. Due to the chaotic traffic in the city, I don’t always recommend cycling on the city roads but to enjoy the expanse and serenity of Borivali National Park a bicycle is undoubtedly the best option. Cycling paths are constructed all over the park. Pedal all the way up to Kanheri caves or just wander aimlessly while catching a glimpse of the wildlife that dwells in the park. However, be careful of the potholes and inclined lanes. I have a permanent scar on my left elbow owing to great bicycle fall at the park. I was riding back from the Kanheri caves, after a steepish incline after which I would land on a bridge that was lined by no less than 30 monkeys of different sizes! My eyes were fixed on the monkeys instead of the road and Bamm! I hit a pothole and fell flat on the road. For a moment, I visualised the monkeys surrounding me from all sides and nibbling on me for breakfast but to disappoint my dramatic imagination, the monkeys remained unperturbed by my thud and carried on with their vegetarian brekkie. I was not far away from the park entrance and the very kind staff equipped with a first aid box cleaned and bandaged my wound as we all laughed at the incident.
I still do strongly recommend cycling in the park (don’t get carried away like me), they rent out bicycles on an hourly basis beginning at 7:30 am. It is best to reach early, specially on weekends when all the cycles are quickly taken. Spend sometime checking brakes, comfort on seat, air in the tyres. The thing you need to fuel up is your own energy to ride long and curiosity to discover more.
Rock climbing is a brilliant self-challenging sport, you don’t compete with anyone but yourself and umm.. gravity. Taking on a hill or even a boulder with the strength of your arms and legs must be so rewarding. One Sunday, my former boss, an inspirational climber and outdoor lover offered to teach the basics of rock climbing to a bunch of us at Borivali National Park. 4 highly determined students and two dedicated teachers reached the destination at 8 am. The seemingly small rock that we had to conquer first was appropriately called ‘Nursery’ (the regulars have given meaningful names to all the rocks they climb). We learnt to traverse (climb horizontally) and after a lot of cheering each other and getting our bums pushed up by the teachers we managed to reach the top. We borderline passed Nursery. With slightly dampened spirits we looked up at the next boulder named ’21/42’ (named after the half and full marathon). 21/42 officially marked our downfall. We spent the rest of the time watching the experienced lot climbing up swiftly. We appreciated the sport a lot more, knowing how the rock scrapping feels on bare skin and wondering how much effort they must have put in the past to make THAT look so effortless.
For anyone wanting to rise up to the rock climbing challenge, Borivali National Park is a perfect destination. They have boulders in the range of 10-60ft in Tekdi hill area, where we went. And the Rock cut caves at Kanheri also make for great natural walls for beginners and experienced climbers.
Old-school family fun, perfect picnic spot for all levels of activity. Sitting by clear lakes, peddle-boating, riding a single-gauge toy train, climbing tress, hanging on branches, I am not sure if this is the idea of fun for most kids nowadays but it definitely brings out the kid in me. The children park with slides and swings and a cute tree house is the chirpiest part of the Park. Another popular spot is a Jain temple called ‘Trimurti’ Which refers to 3 idols of the Jain God called ‘Adinath‘, ‘Bahubali‘ and ‘Bharat’. Gandhi Tekdi is a memorial made in the honour of Mahatama Gandhi, visited often by the morning walkers.
People usually criticise the lion and tiger safari of the park but the key is to not have very high expectations, it is a glorified zoo. These big cats are kept freely in a restricted zone and visitors are taken in a caged bus and driven across that zone.
The ride lasts only about 15-20 minutes and they guarantee you will see one lion and two caged tigers. Some people have been lucky to see more tigers wandering but that’s very rare. After all, it is a National Park within city limits and the leopards who roam freely have already caused trouble to the residents of nearby areas. So, I am not complaining about the lack of man-eating animals in Borivali National Park.
Camping at the park has been my itch seen quite a while but the national parks’ plans to have makeshift tents keep turning on and off. The presence of a high number of leopards in the forest, who are active at night has been a cause of worry for the forest department. However, I believe that the national park is now launching a camping programme. It begins at 7:30 pm, with a stargazing session and on a clear night one may see Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn and the Orion Nebula! Followed by a nature walk with an expert in the forests’ flora and fauna, dinner at campsites while identifying the sounds of animals on the prowl. The next day, another nature trail early in the morning, before the regular visitors to the park can arrive. I can’t wait to join one of these!
If doing nothing is your thing this is the ideal getaway, just breathe-in breathe-out and realise why this is called the ‘lungs of Mumbai’. 40 spices of mammals, 250 species of birds, 65 species of reptiles and amphibians, 5,000 species of insects and over 1000 species of plants reside in the same city as 12 million humans.
To get here, take a train on the western line to Borivali station. The entry fee is Rs 20 for an adult, an entire day here will cost less than a fancy cocktail.
The photographs have been taken on different trips by different people. Thank you Angie, Yashesh and Kristin.