Since my childhood I was always fascinated by train journeys. The sight of an engine pulling the coaches thrilled me. I was exhilarated by the mere thought of traveling by a toy train to the hills of Ooty! In fact we chose Ooty over other hill stations only to experience the famous Nilgiris mountain railway. This train journey was much more than just a mode of transport for me, as the journey through the scenic valley and hills made it awe-inspiring and brought back the memories of my carefree days. We were transported literally and figuratively to another world!
We flew down to Coimbatore and took a bus up to Mettupalayam, a small town at the foothills of the Blue Mountains. We were astonished when we learnt that the fare for a 5 hr train journey was just 25 rupees! Incredible isn’t it? With just 4-5 coaches, The Blue Mountain train was very narrow like our city bus as it runs on a narrow gauge line. It is the only rack railway in India which uses ratchet & pinion track, starting from Kallar, near Mettupalayam.It wends its way through many hair-raising curves and tunnels, chugging alongside deep ravines full of verdant vegetation, gurgling streams and tea plantations. We noticed a remarkable change in flora as one goes from Kallar to Coonoor. At Kallar it is tropical and at Burliar it is sub-tropical. Near Coonoor, it gets humid with pines, eucalyptus and cypress trees. Traveling from Ooty to Gudalur, the change is striking. What a splendid interaction between climate and vegetation!
At noon we arrived at one of the UNESCO world heritage sites…The quaint and clean Ooty Station. It was constructed by the British who came to explore these hills in the early 1800s. They constructed the first railway line in the area and made it the summer capital of the then Madras Presidency. Ooty is situated in Nilgiri Mountains near tri-junction of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala state. It is the only hill station in India which has built up fame as the ‘all-seasons-hill resort’. Ooty is at an altitude of 2240 metres, summer temperature is rarely higher than 25°c with a minimum of 10°c and winter is distinctly cooler with a high of 21°c and a low 5°c.
After a refreshing cup of Nilgiris tea, we strolled through the lush green well manicured lawns of the Botanical gardens. Encompassing exotic trees like the cork, paper bark, the ornamental monkey puzzle tree etc. it is enhanced by the distinctive presence of an Italian style garden and fern house with vast range of ferns & orchids. We were awed to see a 20 million years old fossilized tree trunk. The garden hosts a flower show every year in May. Being a paradise for bird watchers, variety of birds both seasonal and year-round residents were sighted. As we are ardent rose lovers, we dashed to the rose garden laid right in the heart of Ooty, with its largest collection of roses in India. With beautifully laid out terraces we saw hybrid tea roses, miniature roses and more than 2,500 varieties in unusual colors like black and green roses.
We booked ourselves for a conducted sight seeing tour arranged by the Government Tourism Development Corporation as they are reliable and economical than hiring a cab. Fully equipped with our cameras, raincoats, water bottles etc. the next morning we boarded one of the mini tourist buses for a sight seeing tour to Ooty and the neighboring hill station Coonoor. Accompanied by a hilarious guide who spoke English with a heavy Hindi accent, enacting the scenes from all the romantic bollywood movies shot at some of the spots, we had a ball of a time! Our driver first wheeled us to Ooty Lake, an artificial lake with a wide range of boats. For kids there were snack bars, pony rides and mini train rides. On our way to Coonoor, we stopped by Ketti – 2nd longest valley in the world offering enchanting views for miles extending to the plains of Coimbatore and Mysore plateau. From this spot we saw a cluster of tiny villages belonging to Badagas, one of the predominant hill tribes of this district. Speaking about the hill tribes, originally Ooty was inhabited by Todas, Irulas, Kurumbas, Panias and Badagas. Of these, the Todas, who are vegetarians, tall and fair, have dwindled in number. The Badagas, who speak a mixture of Kannada and Tamil are said to have migrated from Mysore about 400 years ago. The Panias and Irulas are confined to Mudumalai sanctuary. Though the Badagas were essentially agriculturists, like Todas they too are socially, educationally and even economically advanced now. As these tribal areas are hard to access we managed to meet only some Todas, in their own habitat with the help of a great auto driver, Mani. He was friendly and was very good at driving on the steep, curvaceous roads of Ooty. He took us to this tiny village inhabited by the Todas since centuries. We visited their temples, did photo sessions and had a nice chat with them which was a truly memorable experience.
After lunch we ascended to an elevation 2,623 mts, the highest point in Nilgiris, the Doddabetta. This mountain range which is the junction of the Eastern and Western Ghats was christened Neelagiri by its inhabitants 850 years ago, because of the blue haze of the clouds enveloping its slopes. Nilgiris is India’s first biosphere that has been declared as one of the 14 ‘hotspots’ of the world because of its biodiversity. At Doddabetta we could use a telescope for just 5 rupees but as there was a long queue and each one gets only a minute. I managed to get glimpses of an ancient church, a tribal village, the surrounding dense shoals and a panoramic view of the hills and plains.
Did I tell you that while on the road we drove through miles and miles of rolling hills of tea estates? You can also take an appointment at a tea estate and watch the entire process of tea brewing. We stopped by at one estate to taste some of their exotic varieties. I bought loads of it, cardamom tea, spice tea, orange flavored tea and even chocolate tea. And yes, lots of home made chocolates. Ooty is as famous for its tea and spices as its home made chocolates; chocolate fudge, white chocolate, strawberry chocolate, nuts & fruits chocolate and slabs of bitter chocolate.
The Nilgiris are a trekker’s delight landscaped by nature. Well equipped with trekking gears and ample time we have planned to come next summer as treks can be full of adventure and a way of seeing and enjoying nature in all its beauty and splendor. We found a base camp at Parsons valley, from where one can start to various points. Trekking pamphlets were available with the Nilgiris Wildlife and Environment Association (NWLEA). We met some guides who had sound knowledge of trekking in these areas. The Tourist Information Office at Charring Cross was quite helpful. For our next summer’s adventure we found out also about the hand-gliding courses organized by the Department of Tourism at Kalhatty hills. Taking off from this exhilarating point, one can fly over dense sholas, beautiful water falls and streams. For our friends interested in angling we found out that goad trout, carp and mixed water fishing is possible in various streams and lakes of Ooty. The Assistant Director of Fisheries issues the fishing license for it.
At dusk, we reached the Sim’s park at Coonoor’s gorgeous botanical garden full of ethnic trees, shrubs and creepers co-habiting with many unusual species of foliage brought in from various parts of the world. Queensland Karry pine, a handsome ornamental tree and Rudraksha- the bead tree were the main attractions for all of us. In summer tourists come to see the annual vegetable and fruit shows held here. We returned to our room thoroughly refreshed. For dinner we freaked out on the authentic south Indian hot dosas, vadas and sambar.
Next morning we woke up by the aroma of fresh coffee from the next room. After a sumptuous breakfast of toasts, cereals, fresh fruits and coffee, we set out to explore some water falls and Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary. As the bus stopped around a corner of a hill for us to get down and walk to the Pykara falls we could hear the sounds of cascading waters and gurgling streams which instantly soothed and mesmerized us. The lake surrounded by the Blue Mountains was extremely serene and boating on this lake was enchanting. To top it all we feasted on the hot roasted corn cobs while soaking in the drizzle and the mist surrounding us.
Next we drove to the most awaited part of the trip – the Madumalai Wildlife Sanctuary situated at an elevation of 1140 meters and spread over an area of 321 sq. kms. We were given a ride along the designated visitor’s route inside the jungle. We came across some spotted deer, a wild boar, some peacocks, bison and lots of monkeys. This ride was a bit disappointing as we had hoped to at least catch a glimpse some exotic animals. Suddenly there was commotion and we learnt that a leopard was spotted killing a deer. We hurriedly got down from the bus with our cameras and found the leopard sitting on a branch of a tree with its kill. This visual treat made the bumpy ride of 67 kms worth while. We reached Theppakadu elephant camp on time to watch elephants being fed big lumps of a mixture of rice & jaggery cubes. Thoroughly satisfied we returned to Ooty and crashed out in our room.
The last morning in Ooty we went on a shopping fiesta. We bought some aroma oils and spices, eucalyptus oil, honey, cinchona products. A must buy in Ooty is the handicrafts made by the Toda tribes. So I picked up the red, black and white Toda shawls and silver jewelry from the shops at Charring Cross. Bringing back the fun-filled memories of our enchanting voyage we concluded our journey by once again riding on our favorite Blue mountain train. How did I forget to the mention the endless cups of steaming masala teas we drank while munching on the cashews? Coming down hill it took just 3 ½ hours as compared to journey uphill that took 5 hours. By sundown we reached Mettupalayam well on time to catch our flight from Coimbatore to Mumbai.
Now as I sit in my balcony, sipping my cardamom tea brought from the Nilgiris, I reminisce the rolling grasslands, dense sholas, waterfalls, lakes, vast expanse of tea gardens, an amazing range of flora and fauna, spectacular view points, spell binding sunrises & sunsets, fabulous trekking trails, pollution free air, mist, clouds, star studded skies, serenity. Ooty presents a truly breathtaking kaleidoscope of visual treats and soul stirring experiences. We welcome you to go to the Nilgiris and discover it for yourself!
> Getting there: The nearest airport is Coimbatore which is very well connected to the rest of India.
> Road Journey: From Coimbatore a good network of roads and national highways connect Ooty with all major cities. Driving distances: Ooty to Bombay- 1320 kms, Bangalore- 290 kms, Calicut- 178 kms, Coimbatore- 89 kms, Chennai- 535 kms, Mysore- 160 kms, Trivandrum- 498 kms,
> Train journey: Ooty is on the narrow gauge railway, connected to Mettupalayam (47 km). Train costs Rs. 25 per person and takes 5 hrs to go up and 3.5 hours to come down Mettupalayam is connected to Chennai by a nightly train (The Nilgiri Express).
>Accomodation; A wide range of hotels are available right from a bed in a dorm to luxury suite in a star hotel. Tariffs vary depending on the time of the year. Best hotel booking guides are available on the net.