“… The BurntMap™ travelogue of one of the most celebrated hill stations of India – Ooty a.k.a. Udhagai, as the natives called it – resting on top of the ever blue, Nilgiri hills… “
Somewhere in the very early hours of Friday, I woke from my deep slumber to see a sms on my phone, “we are planning to go Masinagudi tonight. Do you want to join?”. It all began with friend’s urge to go somewhere and relax. He had been going through a tight schedule for some time now n was forcing all of us to plan a trip. But no one keenly tried on fixing one though few suggestions were on. Finally all my friends planned a trip. It was the result that I was reading on my phone. After having missed the Gopalswamy hills ride & Wayanad trip due to illness, I was in no way going to say no to this plan. Above all having bought a Canon DSLR recently, I was longing for a maiden trip. For a moment, I felt it was me who wants go on a trip badly now. After enquiring everyone who could join, we finally confirmed with 6 of us. But I was not so okay with Masinagudi. Trip was few hours away from start and destination was checked at again. Finally, at 5AM on 1st October, after a small delay as usual, I was travelling in my friend’s Innova, with other 4 to Udhagamandalam aka Ooty, the queen of Nilgiris.
After burying in the delicious thatte idlys at Bidadi and having the spare tyre fixed, to be on a safer side, we were heading out of Mysore around 8AM. It was in between this, one of my friends with a hangover from 1 beer, popped a chewing gum on another’s head while trying to bubble. The distraught friend of mine had his hearts out when we had to cut few strands of his hair to remove the sticky gum, since his scalp is already under threat of being exposed directly to the UV rays! The road to Ooty from Mysore via reserve forests of Bandipur, Masinagudi itself is a delight. The deafening silence of wilderness makes you feel great. We were lucky, spotted a baby tusker grazing alongside the road. I tried clicking few photos and was trying to get my best shot when that young calf suddenly made a move ahead and warned me. May be he was smiling at the scared me speeding away in the car!!
We passed through few scenic places and Tamilnadu – Karnataka border before reaching the foothills of a cloud covered hill. We were about to begin ascend into Nilgiris via Kalhatty Ghats
The board saying ‘Hair pin bend 40/40’ gave a mild swing to two ‘motion sick’ friends of mine. One has to be extremely careful while driving through this ghats section. Vehicles zooming down and blind-sharp curves may have you in trouble. But the landscape and valley view is not to be missed. You can spot the Kalhatty falls from here, though I could see only the dry black slope even in this late monsoon season!
Gradual but noticeable drop in temperature after every hair pin bend & view at Thalakundha junction after a steep climb, told us we were close to one of the tourists’ paradises. Grazing cattle on wide green meadow made Thalakundha look like a slice of Scotland that I’ve seen in pictures. In few minutes, around 12 pm, we were entering the 18th century British constructed hill station, Udhagai. Yes, finally we were here at an altitude of about 2,240mts above sea level, slightly beginning to shiver in the cold that was unusual to us!
Mist covered hills at 12 noon, various colored houses on the hills looking like stacked up playing cards, majestically raising colonial structures and Anglican churches, buzzing street, green landscapes that’s what one sees as we enter the ‘Charing cross’, heart of Ooty. She looked indeed like a queen!!!
Unplanned, suddenly fixed trips are fun & adventurous; you get it to taste it throughout your trip. The place which we were supposed to be staying was a cottage by name ‘Tea Club’, but to our surprise it was not better than a sleazy lodge. Don’t they know the difference between a cottage & lodge? Thank Heavens; we had an option of searching for another cottage since we hadn’t paid any advance. After 2 hrs of search, talks & driving around through narrower than narrow streets in our Innova, with a local broker by name ‘Pyaari’, we were told that none of the cottages were available. Finally we had to settle for a 2BHK in a residential layout at 2.30PM! This was the sight outside our room!
We were all cribbing about the precious time lost and it was then the rain gods decided to have some fun with us! It started pouring down so heavily as if we had reached closer to the skies. We were stuck at the ‘residential cottage’ without lunch & fear of being deprived of sightseeing at least by evening. The climate was really really cold that we could not even keep our bare foots on floor, touching tap water was distant dream. The soft drink bottles we carried had become like the ones we get out fridges in B’lore, I am not exaggerating at all. Our first day of two-day trip was at stake!
We had to act and do some damage control. I, with another friend wore our coats and went out in the rain to get food parceled. ‘Dhabba Express’ near RTO office has amazing food. Though they charge few extra, concerning bucks as tax & packing charges, Malai Kababs, Punjabi Chicken Masala and Dum biryani in that freezing climate was really a treat to our taste buds! When I saw their plastic free packing of every item and a beautiful cloth carry bag, I agreed with their packing charges. Yes, one of the best things about Ooty is it is entirely plastic free and localites including shop keepers, hotels try hard to keep it so. Good job, people!!
After a tasty meal and few minutes, things started to fall at their place. Rains subsided slowly & skies were clear again by 4.15PM. Our trip was so unplanned that we did not even know where to go in Ooty! We had no time to waste thinking now, with some gyaan from our stay caretaker uncle; we headed towards Doddabetta peak, our first outing in Ooty.
On the way to Doddabetta is the famous tea museum of Ooty. The tea factory & museum here offers a short presentation on tea powder making process and a detailed walk through the factory at Rs.5 per person and Rs.10 per camera. Here one can see the tea leaves transform from leaves to powder, after passing through various phases.
The aroma of tea around this small factory is sure to make you long for a tea and they even give a complimentary tea to every visitor. One can even buy various flavors of tea powders at this place. This factory also has a small chocolate factory & view point, but we could not fight out a huge group of school children to see those two. Almost all tourist places here close by 5 and hence we had to rush if we had to make it to Doddabetta peak.
Doddabetta peak is the second highest mountain peak in southern India. At an elevation of 8,652 feet, it offers a magnificent panoramic view of the entire Ooty town and glimpses of Coonoor and Mettupalayam. Ascend from tea museum is through a thick cover of Nilgiri trees, where sighting of wild animals is a common affair. At the gates of Doddabetta, we were welcomed by two guards & a local guy, only to say, ‘time aayiduch, thirumbi ponge’ (time’s up, please return). We were late by five minutes!! I somehow requested in the Tamil I knew and suddenly came up the deal, ‘give 50 rupees’! The board read ‘four wheelers: Rs 15’. But I was not on the bright side to argue, I tried to negotiate, suddenly one of the guards got arrogant acting as if he did not even ask money to let us in. The next minute, he was not ready even for 50 bucks. Two minutes of negotiation with me had made him Mr. Clean. But after travelling over 260kms, I was in no mood to return just at the door. Further requesting & pleading followed and after 5 more minutes, that angry old man settled for Rs.50.
Further few kms and we were at Doddabetta peak, the highest point on Nilgiris. The board here claims Doddabetta is the highest peak in south India, which is not true. We even got pics clicked with this board as background. But few seconds back Google Uncle enlightened me that Anaimudi is the highest peak & Doddabetta is second only. Another Rs.5 per head entry fee without tickets & we were in. There came the view! Uninterrupted sight of Ooty town with a back drop of the Blue Mountains, the Nilgiris. The other side view was of the foothill town, Mettupalayam
Soon we realized that the 50 buck of bribe was worth it, though it was against conscience. We clicked few photographs around and then it happened, the sky slowly started changing colors & Sun showed up behind the remaining clouds and Blue Mountains.
Yeaaa, we were up for a mind-blowing sunset. Every few seconds the tint kept on changing. From clear to light blue then darker, then to mild red, then deep orange, then the orange got deeper and deeper. Every fiber of my creative being was yelling at me to get out and start snapping, to get that perfect shot! Hurry up; you have maybe 5 minutes left! Suddenly somebody blew whistles! The guards where sending out all the people screaming, time’s up. What????? Sun hasn’t set yet and we have to leave?? Yes, we had to.
The sky looked like the canvas of a little girl who was painting black clouds in her painting of blue sky and suddenly her younger brother had spilled orange color on the clouds. Seconds away from Sunset we were sent out along with few other tourists. Security & wildlife concerns, we understand.
Climbing down the hill we could see the Ooty town beautifully lit in the night lights
We went straight to commercial road, aiming for some shopping and ended up buying some really tasty homemade cookies, straight from the factory of a distant friend. Cold was seeping into our skin through the jackets we wore.
Our day one at Ooty was almost over and we had to plan an eventful day two. So the plan was to have a quick dinner & crash to wake up early. Now do not laugh at the next thing, 260kms away from B’lore, we were eating Domino’s pizza for our dinner! I know that is the worst thing a traveler could do.
Day two had to be utilized to the max. I was woken up at 5 AM by. The temperature seemed to be somewhere around 8-9 degrees. Steaming hot water from the heater was filling my bucket. But water was steaming hot only when it left the tap; water was turning warm as it reached the bucket, so much was the intensity of cold. After a quick bath, I started collecting information from Salim kaka, the caretaker of that home. Gathering all possible details and planning a maximum utilized second day we left the home at 6.30 AM in search of breakfast.
Our first itinerary for the day was boarding the highly famous mountain train of Nilgiris. The tickets would be available at the railway station from 8.30AM onwards, for the 9.15 train to Coonoor. But getting a ticket wasn’t so easy. We had to stand in a queue atleast from 7 AM and moreover today were a Sunday. We had very little time. People in Ooty do not wake up so early, so does hotels. We roamed in search of a good hotel but then had to settle a Bread-Omelet shop opposite tourist information centre near Charing Cross. Trust me, the hot omelets and bread was a delight. We fed on it like hungry souls and rushed to railway station, complimenting the shopkeeper.
We were at the famous Udhagamandalam Railway station at 7.15AM. The same little, early 19th century, station which is sought out by most of the film makers in our country. We parked our car at the railway station parking and reached the counter. Luckily there was only one couple who had reached before us for the ticket. The spine chilling cold of Ooty may not have let people wake up so early, ahem ahem!
The Ooty-Mettupalayam passenger train departs from Ooty at 9.15 AM and takes an hour and half to reach Coonoor which is half way and approx. 4 hours to Mettupalayam, which is at the foothills of Nilgiris. This heritage railway ascends more than 6000 feet from Mettupalayam before reaching Ooty via Coonoor and hence it has the steepest track in Asia. UNESCO conferred its World Heritage Site status to this stretch in 2005. Recently the steam locomotives were replaced by Bio-Diesel powered engines. Reservations for first class seats can be made from anywhere in India (though I did not notice any difference between 1st class seats and General, apart from waking up early morning & waiting in a queue for general ticket) and general tickets are available at the station counter for the same day. One needs to have a reservation done if they need to travel to Mettupalayam as general tickets are given only till Coonoor. Usually the train is full hence make sure you have the reservation done or be ready to wait in the queue for general ticket which can take you only half way of the stretch, till Coonoor. A queue is formed on the platform as soon as you show the general ticket and one would be entering the train only in the queue which means the quicker you get a ticket, the chances of getting a seat of your choice on the train is more. If you are travelling from Ooty to Mettupalayam, make sure you have a right side seat (the opposite side when you board the train from platform) since most of the scenic valleys come on the right side while travelling from Ooty.
So that’s all about the train time & reservations, I already mentioned, ours was supposed to be a suddenly planned, adventure trip and we had to wait in the queue for an hour more before getting ourselves a ticket. By 7.45AM the queue swelled into a big crowd and many returned without tickets. Finally standing in the queue to board the train, we saw the locomotive engine chug into the beautiful railway station of Udhagai. We were right behind that couple as we were the second in queue to buy the ticket, a very fair idea, first to buy ticket – first sit! Unknowingly I chose the right side window (the non-platform side!) and was ready with my camera. Tick 9.15AM and I was living one of my dreams. I was travelling in the heritage mountain railways of Nilgiris; I was in a UNESCO world heritage site.
The train travels through a scenic valley and crosses 2 or 3 tunnels, 4 small stations and 1 bridge before reaching Coonoor. The view on the right side looks as if though a post card or wallpaper.
Houses of different colors stacked up on the hill, green tea plantations at the slopes & bottom of the deep valley, Sun rays covering portions of the valley & lighting up the other, long grown Nilgiri trees all the way, abundant stretch of variety of Flowers.. It would just go on. I’m confident you’ll discover a whole new appreciation for whatever seen it is that you’re experiencing.
Enroute Coonoor, train crosses 4 small stations, Lovedale, Ketti, Aruvankadu & Wellington, which is an army base. Beside one of the stations, I spotted the most beautiful railway level crossing I had ever seen. Few vehicles were waiting amidst a picturesque fenced garden and flowering plants on a narrow road, which was a real sight! The train chugged ahead through mountains opening up small villages & glorious landscapes. Just before Wellington station, we crossed over the famous Wellington Bridge
After filling some vadas & tea from an IRCTC vendor at one of the stations, we reached Coonoor at 10.30 AM.
Our next goal was to get the right cab for a limited sightseeing in Coonoor. I happened to enquire with a railway employee and that turned out to be of great help. He introduced us to Mr. Murugan, who is a driver cum guide and has an 8+1 seat Tata Sumo. Murugan had different packages and we chose the biggest one with all the sights which cost Rs. 850 for 2.30hrs, it was also within our schedule. Murugan’s Tata Sumo was a good one and also this person seemed to be very humble & have good knowledge about the place. He also lets us take our own time and did not rush as we were clicking photographs everywhere.
Our first location was Singara tea estates. The drive itself is an amazing experience as it climbs steep ghats amidst tea plantations and valleys. Singara tea estate lets the tourists walk on the slopes of plantation for free. Ladies & kids can even dress up like tea worker woman with the costume and basket available there for Rs. 50. The view on both sides from this point reminds you again to thank the almighty and his masterpiece called nature.
We moved ahead taking curves through tea plantations and next stop was Lady Canning’s seat. From this point we can see a panoramic view of the Blue Mountains, plains of Mettupalayam, the ghats that climb to Coonoor from Mettupalayam and the railway track. A British lady, Mrs. Canning, is said to have sat at this point and painted the overlooking mountains which look like a sleeping pregnant lady. It indeed looked like one. The Blue Mountains was shaped like a pregnant lady lying on her back
We moved ahead and next sight was Dolphin’s Nose. The view-point is shaped like a Dolphin’s nose and that’s where the name derives from. This place is one amazingly built view-point at the edge of the hill, with a deep valley & mountains rising beyond the valley on one side and slopes of tea plantations on the opposite side. The sight that you cannot miss is the roaring Catherine Falls on the hills beyond the valley. The 250 ft high, double cascade water fall is clearly visible from the Dolphin’s nose point and since there is no obstruction in between, one can even hear the roar of the falls.
The Surrounding tea & coffee plantations add a charm to the view. You can buy beautiful flowers here which are sure to impress any woman. The vendor thaatha gave me a bunch of yellow flowers called ‘Ever last’ and claimed it can remain fresh for almost a year. The petals felt like paper but they were real. Each bunch cost Rs.10 and we bought all bunches he had.
We had few more points remaining on the sightseeing package. Lamb’s rock which overlooks Coimbatore plains is approx. one km trek from road and we did not have time to cover that. Sim’s park is a beautifully maintained botanical garden near the city. We had to skip both as we had to head back to Ooty and we had to travel by bus as the car was parked in Ooty railway station. We finished our Coonoor sightseeing by 12.45PM and paid Rs. 750 to Mr. Murugan without much bargain.
Next was the most treacherous part of our trip. We waited for buses to Ooty until 1.15PM, skipping all the buses that were overflowing. Slight drizzle started to scare us, finally when it seemed we had no time & no option left, we boarded a Tamilnadu State transport bus to Ooty, which already had 2 buses of people in it. The one hour journey climbing uphill to Ooty, standing in the filled bus took a toll on us. We weren’t in the comforts of our car but standing in a slowly climbing state bus, we weren’t amidst tea plantations but among different people who were swinging & swaying every time the bus braked or took a turn and finally when we reached Ooty and sat in our car, we were exhausted.
We bought some amazing homemade chocolates from ‘Kingstar’ on commercial road, near Domino’s and packed our lunch from A1. Reached our stay by 3PM and everybody had food to our heart’s content. Lunch from A1 restaurant on Railway station road was not as great as Dhabba Express but it was good. Heavy lunch & tired bodies were about to fall asleep before we reminded ourselves about the last point on the way, Pykara Falls and the gate closing time at Bandipur forests, 9PM. My friend was tired and was reluctant to drive, but we had to leave, no option. Finally we were waving bye to the queen of Nilgiris at 4PM. The sudden planned adventure wasn’t over yet.
7kms out of Ooty, at Thalakundha junction we have to turn left to Pykara. Pykara has a shooting spot; locally called as Filmy Chakkar, vast lake with mountain backdrops, boat house etc. We had 25 minutes to travel 13 kms before they closed entry to lake and boat house. My friend drove the best he could on those unwinding roads between thick forests. Then the unwanted but not unexpected happened, right side rear tyre of our Innova had stopped breathing. Puncture amidst thick forest, between two blind curves from both sides. Adventure continued…!!
Two of us stood to control the traffic at the blind curves on each side. Other two went with removing the spare tyre that we had luckily got fixed yesterday morning at Mysore. Myself & another set up the jack and loosened the punctured tyre. Traffic was zooming past us and then appeared a huge group of monkeys from the wild. They all surrounded our vehicle and some climbed the nearby trees, staring silently. We all told each other not to pay attention to them else they might get violent. Twenty minutes and we had become a super pit crew. We were on road again but now we had just 5 minutes to cover over 9kms on that spiraling road & zooming traffic. Few more kilometers and we were overlooking a high green slope with many tourists and horses; we were at one of the most sought out shooting spots of the south, Filmy Chakkar. We knew we would not be able to make it to Pykara Falls, it was getting darker too. So we decided this green meadow to be our last sightseeing.
Shooting point is a small hill of green lawn that looks like stretching in to sky. The green blanket covered hill has very few trees and offers a magnificent view from the peak. There are little other grassland, meadows, green plains and even a scenic lake that is visible from the top of this green hill. Tourists can enjoy short horse rides as well. Few of us were puffing as we climbed up the steep. After clicking few photos, we got back on road.
We had chosen a different road than which we came up, as to cover Pykara Falls, but you know the adventure!! Now we were climbing down the ghats via Gudalur and as if to compensate yesterday’s loss at Doddabetta, the sky opened up. With tea plantations on the slop and Blue Mountains in the background, signs showed up that there was going to be another magnificent sunset again. It became evident as we climbed down the hill; once again a glory was viewed and cherished.
After tea at Naduvattom around 6.30pm, we climbed down singing and laughing through thick jungles and hairpin bends. We were told that the Bandipur gate closes at 9PM and we were there by 7.45PM. My friend was all tired having driven over 150 kms on the ghats. All were sleepy and right then we spotted an elephant family beside the road. From there on till Mysore everybody were awake expecting some more wildlife but our night safari ended with a tea at Mysore around 11.30PM, with no other animals apart from us!
I picked up the steering from Mysore since my friend had no more energy. All of them snored except one who was up talking and guiding me. By 1AM all of us were at Banashankari saying bye to me . Thus ended our Ooty adventure trip that was planned in few hours. But Queen of Nilgiris has still lots to be explored and I’m sure to come back… VERY SOON..!!!