Khaki Tours' Urban Safari: A New Way of Seeing Mumbai

  • 01 of 06

    An Urban Safari? What's That?

    Urban Safari.
    Khaki Tours.

    The sight is unmissable. A khaki-colored open-top jeep. Unlike in the depths of the jungle, the jeep is stark against its city surroundings. This an Urban Safari, an offbeat and unique new tour in Mumbai.

    The safari is conducted by Khaki Tours, an organization on a mission to rediscover and popularize Mumbai's heritage. It was founded by Bharat Gothoskar, a mechanical engineer who's passionate about old buildings. With palpable enthusiasm, he describes himself as a "heritage evangelist". The extent of this enthusiasm is such that he devoted his final year MBA project to heritage marketing. Ideally, he aims to provide a self-sustaining platform to educate people about heritage and the importance of preserving it.

    From Heritage Walks to Urban Safaris

    It was a visit to the cold drinks house in Girgaon that Bharat inherited, in 2010, that inspired the idea of an urban safari. The shortest route there was through the nostalgic old neighborhood of Bhuleshwar, home to many intriguing historical places that were rarely acknowledged and appreciated. Exploring them by open-top jeep would change the way people see the city, he thought.

    Khaki Tours initially started out with heritage walks (including the Banganga Tank Parikrama). Local interest was phenomenal, and more than 20 different walks are now being offered across the city. Yet, not everyone can go on long walks, and it's not possible to cover a wide area for tourists. Enter the Urban Safari.

    Tours of Mumbai by vehicle are not new. Maharashtra Tourism runs a comprehensive Mumbai Darshan sightseeing bus tour to popular attractions in the city. However, the Urban Safari differentiates itself from this by focusing on bringing buildings alive with stories that are otherwise untold. Bharat, a great gatherer of random information, has personally collected many of these stories from people he's connected with.

    Urban Safari Details

    The #FortRide was the first Urban Safari to be launched, in November 2016. It's a 15 kilometer, 2.5 hour journey through Mumbai's Fort district, commencing at the Town Hall and covering more than 100 heritage sites.

    The #BycullaBylanes Urban Safari covers one of Mumbai's original neighborhoods, with attractions ranging from the oldest museum in the city to the city's only Chinese temple. A longer four-hour #YeOldeMumbai Urban Safari also runs, showcasing the evolution of the city over centuries.

    Many other Urban Safaris are being launched as well. More information is available from the Khaki Tours website and Facebook page.

    The cost of a private Urban Safari is $150 for up to five people.

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  • 02 of 06

    The #FortRide Urban Safari

    Mumbai Town Hall.
    Sharell Cook.

    It's hard to believe that Mumbai wasn't always a major metropolitan city, one that's among the largest in the world. When the Portuguese came to power in the 16th century, it was merely a cluster of rural islands separated by swamp, situated to the south of their headquarters in Vasai Fort. The King of Portugal gave the Bombay islands to the British as part of a marriage dowry in 1662. However, King Charles II was so unimpressed that he rented them to the British East India Company for a pittance.

    The #FortRide Urban Safari fittingly begins at the Town Hall, from where the Fort district and Mumbai grew. On Naval property behind the Town Hall sits one of the oldest structures in the city, the closely-guarded Portuguese Manor House.

    Prior to departure, an informative 15 minute introduction on the Town Hall steps retraces the tumultuous birth of Bombay, from the establishment of Bombay Castle and British trading post, to Siddi attack, and the Great Fire in 1803 --  which destroyed much of the Fort district, and forced the joining of the Bombay islands and expansion of the city center.

    In testament to Mumbai's diversity, we learn that during the time the Fort district prospered, it attracted settlers from numerous communities including Parsis and Jews. At its center, was an open space known as Bombay Green, where merchants met and traded. The Parsis thrived in the opium business, generating substantial wealth that helped build Bombay.

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  • 03 of 06

    British Development of Bombay

    Elphinstone College, Mumbai.
    Sharell Cook.

    As the Urban Safari starts to roll, the jeep sets out past the Naval Dockyard and Lion Gate, and along the leafy Rampart Row of the Kala Ghoda Arts Precinct. Eyes are peeled to spot hidden heritage treasures.

    There's the K R Cama Oriental Institute. It was originally an ice house, used to store slabs of ice shipped in sawdust from America.

    And, see the Silk Route Restaurant on the corner of Rampart Row? It used to be The Wayside Inn, where Doctor Babasaheb Ambedkar drew up the Constitution of India.

    Soon, all attention is on the Gothic-looking Elphinstone College, which looms imposingly across the road from Kala Ghoda.

    It's impossible not to notice that many streets bear a striking resemblance to those in London. Stately Colonial architecture is pervasive throughout the Fort district. Construction really took off in the mid 19th century, during the height of British rule in India, with the extravagant Gothic Revival style being popular. It was used to make a conscious political statement (the Bombay High Court resembles a German castle!), and has resulted in the Fort district having some of the finest Victorian Gothic buildings in the world. This includes the widely-photographed Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) and adjacent Mumbai Municipal Corporation building, which are also seen on the Urban Safari.

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  • 04 of 06

    Watson's Hotel (Esplanade Mansion)

    Watson's Hotel (Esplanade Mansion).
    Sharell Cook.

    The jeep turns a corner where a decrepit building, which would normally not prompt another look, stands. Perhaps, except, to note how run down it appears.

    Astonishment is a common response upon learning that this eyesore was once one of the finest hotels in India. What's more, it was the country's first prefabricated building. Made out of cast iron in Scotland, its structure was shipped to India, where it was assembled in the 1860s outside the Fort walls.

    Watson's Hotel, popularly known as the "bird's cage" because of its all-metal structure, was a whites-only hotel. This included all of its staff, who were British. Mark Twain stayed in a suite on the top floor. The hotel even witnessed the birth of the Indian film industry, when the Lumière brothers debuted their cinematographic technology there, showing the world's first motion picture in 1896. 

    Sadly, the hotel's decline was rapid after its owner passed away and the Taj Mahal Palace hotel was built in Colaba. It closed in the 1960s and has since been converted into office space. If you look closely, you'll be able to see the "Ws” on the grills of the balconies, which still hint of the glory days.

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  • 05 of 06

    Mumbai's First Bhel Seller

    India's first bhel seller.
    Sharell Cook.

    In comparison to the grandeur of many surrounding buildings that we see, Vithal Bhelwala appears unassuming in its modest premises. Yet, this legendary business was started by Mumbai's first bhel seller -- Vithal Khadawala who came from Gujarat and opened a chaat stall. As the sign says, its been in existence since 1875.

    Around the same time another migrant from Gujarat, Parsi industrialist Jamsedji Nusserwanji Tata, founded what went on to be India's largest conglomerate, the Tata Group. The iconic century-old Tata palaces, where the family lived, are evidence of its early success. One has now been taken over by an multinational bank, while the other (Esplanade House) has been magnificently restored with painted ceilings akin to the Sistine Chapel in Italy's Vatican City.

    However, the real insight into the Parsi and Iranian Zoroastrian community comes towards the end of the Urban Safari, when we head through the heart of the Fort district's Parsi microcosm.

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  • 06 of 06

    The Parsis of the Fort District

    Inside Yazdani Bakery, Mumbai.
    Sharell Cook

    The jeep draws to a halt outside beloved Yazdani Bakery, which opened in 1950 in the Parsi-populated Bora Bazaar precinct at the northern end of the Fort district. We disembark. It's a stop for chai with crusty brun maska (buttered bread roll) dipped into it, and hearty apple pie -- both freshly baked in a traditional wood-fired oven.

    An unexpected highlight is the eccentric elderly proprietor, who's as much a treasure as his cafe is. A boxer back in his youth, he readily strikes a pose (and encourages others to do so). As well as antique grandfather clocks, the cafe's peeling vintage walls are graced with old pictures of bodybuilders and wrestlers, and a well-deserved Urban Heritage Award. 

    The Parsis are renowned for their bread, and intriguing stories of Mumbai's past also come from around Bread Market Street in the Bora Baazar precinct. Here, the fish market used to be a bread market, where the bread supply was stopped as a way to starve and weaken the British.

    Old Parsi homes and the second oldest Parsi Fire Temple in Mumbai are other places of interest in the area.

    As the jeep slowly moves along, we peer down lanes that apparently used to all have gates into the Fort walls. We also see the last remaining part of the fort wall, to which satellite TV dishes have now been affixed in a startling juxtaposition.

    By the time the Urban Safari concludes back at the Town Hall nearly three hours later, we've been well and truly immersed in Mumbai's past, and have newfound appreciation for how the city has evolved.

    As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.