It’s a forest out there, deep dense and wild, with many unique trails and a main road cutting through it and plenty of inner roads to enable anyone to explore the corners of Aarey, a running hotspot for the running fraternity of Mumbai. Especially for runners who stay in Andheri– Borivli belt, for them it’s their backyard where they just take in the fresh air, the crispy coolness, pollution free atmosphere, scenic views and enjoy the lush forest with views of egrets flying by and the rustic charm. The terrain is hilly covered by thick forests with dense undergrowth, grasslands, emerald green fields of paddy, smoking ponds, cattle sheds, “tabelas” and the Aarey milk factory tucked in between.
Aarey Forest, the green lungs of Mumbai, home to some of the oldest trees in the city is a lush green patch covering 3000 acres in the suburbs of Goregaon. With a wealth of more than 20000 trees, it supports a rich diversity of flora and fauna- 76 species of birds, 86 species of butterflies, 13 species of amphibians, 38 different types of reptiles, 19 spider species and 34 different types of wild flowers.
It’s a place where adivasis, the original inhabitants have been staying for centuries, connected to the urban lifestyle but still keeping their traditions alive, co-existing with nature and co-habiting with leopards that roam these parts. Leopards are not a danger for runners, but these adivasis have to be alert as leopards are active in the night, but they know very well know the ways of the jungle. I have heard runners spotting leopards here who say that leopards never attack standing humans, leopard being a shy elusive creature, but it’s my dream and fantasy to come face to face with this creature or at least spot it a distance. Running with the leopards or maybe beat them !!!
Technically it may be called Aarey, but the fact is that its directly connected to the Borivali National Park. So it’s actually a part of this 100 square km urban jungle in the world, and we Mumbaikars are blessed to have this piece of heaven to experience and enjoy. For runners, it’s especially a big blessing to run in this only urban jungle in the world, experiencing the wild on the run. A trail that starts from Aarey, in 30 minutes leads directly into Borivali national park and touches the massive Vihar lake, a kind of back door entry. Cyclists and trekkers enjoy this jungle trek along the periphery of Vihar lake deep inside Borivali national park.
Before the advent of the running culture in Mumbai, Aarey was known for its Aarey milk factory with sophisticated machinery to produce milk and cheese. Also it has Chhota Kashmir, a boat club with a nice lake to do boating and a massive garden nearby.
But after the running boom started somewhere around 2005 onwards, running inside the Aarey Forest has become a totally soothing experience. Whilst running through this beautiful patch of nature, you pass along winding roads flanked by 150 to 200 year old tress and see the gentle sunlight filtering through as the first rays of the sun pierce the white mist. It’s a veritable feast for the eyes and balm for the soul. Yes, misty mornings at their best and wonderful to see the darkness slowly fade away into light. This early morning thick mist and the freshness of dew invigorates and refreshes. The best moments are when it’s just starting to be bright, the gentle mellow morning light, the mist and the jungle and the amazing greenery all round put a joy in your heart and a spring in your stride as your feet burn the tracks.
The typical scent of the wild woods, the rich flora and fauna forming a rich tapestry, trees covered with creepers and wild red flowers blooming create ideal settings to make anyone feel like just running forever. Actually it’s better to say that anyone would feel like gliding and floating here, not very fast but at a pace where you could really get one with this lovely jungle and feel its beauty and sounds and aromas.
Over the years, I have seen hundreds of runners in a trance here, totally enamoured by this perfect natural setting to enjoy ones runs, a blissful expression on their face. It’s a place where you just feel connected and relaxed and de-stressed and fall into a beautiful, graceful rhythm as you run, something like floating, gliding or rolling, deep inside your own thoughts, in your own zone, your legs having a mind of their own turning over in a rhythmic fashion to the tune of nature. Very soon you might find a deep sense of deep calm taking over you, a “Zen” kind of feeling, as you find yourself wafting through at a pace that is meditative and gentle. Aarey is a kind of place where you might not want to set a pace to run, but allow your legs to just roll over as fast or slow as they feel like.
It’s during rainy season that Aarey turns even more enchanting, turning a deep dark shade of green with ponds and streams dotting the landscape and the smell of mud and earth filling you with delight, to make your run more worthwhile. The landscape totally transforms during rains and the forest becomes much denser where you cannot even see the forest floor. When it rains heavy and you run here, it will be an unforgettable experience and you will feel totally refreshed, the times when you feel you can and would love to run on and on and on and never stop as fatigue won’t even touch you. Feeling the rains lashing against your face, drenching you totally, putting a new energy and the fabulous thick jungle all around are the perfect ingredients for a sweet memorable run.
The best part of running over here is that there are many quaint trails to explore, with plenty of inner roads, some narrow winding clearings in woods leading to some hidden mesmerizing spots. As a runner, it provides a great opportunity to explore these many corners of Aarey, tucked away from civilization, deeply enticing remote and virgin tracts. Running can be more fun when you set out to discover new trails here. Even people running here for years totally look forward to uncover a new trail and experience a new running experience. There are sweet spots here where you can get a perfect sunrise and the sun slowly comes up over the hills in the near distance and the deep valley below is carpeted with greenery.
The more popular of such trails is the NZ hostel route with a tough incline leading through Gaodevi mandir and Chhota Kashmir. It touches the main road connecting the highway on one side and Marol and Powai on other. One end it touches Chhota Kashmir and at other, it leads up the slope to Forest rest house. This Forest rest house slope has a charm of its own, with its own distinctive flora. From the top you can look down on the jungle and the road cutting through it.
For people who race and prepare for ultra-marathons such as Comrades, marathons such as Mumbai and half marathons such as Satara, Aarey is a perfect place to train as the terrain is undulating with elevations ranging from gentle to steep, a perfect place to do hill training. Hill training is what builds power, strength and speed and lung capacity, so while some routes are rolling, there are some pretty steep inclines where you can test your mettle and challenge yourself to become a better runner. You can hardly find 250 metres of straight, flat path in Aarey Forest, It is undulating territory throughout.
Many running groups train here regularly and other groups make it a point to come at least once in a month or two to train here, as the inclines and slopes offer the perfect opportunity to do so.
All said and done, if you want to run free, with glee, in abundant nature, and truly experience the joy of running where it’s meditation in motion and the runners high takes over, Aarey is the place that offers this slice of running heaven. It’s in the heart of the concrete jungle, but you will feel you are running far away in a different place where your heart is on song and your spirit is free and running becomes your connection with peace and tranquility.