In today's fast-paced world, travelling at a speed of less than 13 kilometre per hour seems like an exasperating crawl. But, in the world of the "Blue Mountains", through which the Nilgiri Mountain Railway passes, the slow and easy paced world of chuffing steam and diesel engines, elegant wooden coaches, tunnels and bridges linking mountains and valleys, and a unique gauge track that meanders over the hills across some of the most exotic and picturesque sights that the country offers is the eloquent sign of a great holiday.
Situated at a height of approximately 2,500 meters, the Nilgiri Mountain Range, or the "Blue Mountains" is at the junction of the two ghat ranges of the Saharvadi Hills in Tamil Nadu. With Kerala on the west, the state of Mysore on the north and the Coimbatore district on the east and south, Udhagamandalam forms the headquarters of the Nilgiris, popularly known as Ooty.
My journey to Ooty began from Mettupalayam Railway Station, as I stood early one morning awaiting the beginning of my holiday after what seemed like an eternal nine-five chore. Looking at the wisps of smoke rising behind the station, I was reminded of a giant Englishman with huge whiskers sitting with his pipe and puffing away. The difference was that the smoke didn't reek of tobacco, but a Swiss-made X-class steam locomotive.
With a gentle tug, the train is off, on the dot according to the station clock. Leaving the terminus, it heads into the open, along shimmering tracks, shooting past suburban stations, factories and buildings. True wanderlust strikes as the plains start to fall away, the track twisting and turning. You can feel the privilege of being away from the buzz of cell phones, honks, neon boards and blinding city lights. The first view of the landscape is indescribable - a grand vista of grasslands, tea gardens lined symmetrically, a glacier river flowing gracefully and its bank covered with mountain ferns and plentiful flowers, the sharp silhouettes of mountains against an azure and powder blue sky with shadows of racing clouds. It's nature's artistry at its best.
As the train chugs with a soporific gentle rhythm, the countryside changes in colour, the sparse palms and small hamlets give way to thickly wooded forests displaying a preview of the dark, enchanting beauty of the destination. Botany lessons come back as you pass through forests comprising of eucalyptus, pine and wattle. The tracks begin to get steep, the pace slows down and you can feel the strain of the engine as it huffs and puffs up the grade. The crisp fresh air, cool climate, a soothing contrast to the plains, and rolling miles of so many shades of green made my heart lurch with joy. The narrow iron and stone bridges, many more than a century old, carry you over gorges, rivulets and raging streams. Every now and then, a piercing whistle followed by a spell of inky blackness announces yet another tunnel. Sixteen tunnels were carved through these rugged mountains to permit the line to pass through.
Not only a photographers delight, the Nilgiri mountains are hypnotic in their appeal and transport you into a different world altogether. It is the 19-km stretch from Coonoor to Ooty that promises the most scenic stretch of the line. Forests are elixir of natural beauty, the sloping hillocks are replete with verdant tea gardens and beautiful vistas pop up from every corner, each dramatically different from the other. The lush green tea leaves swaying gently in the cool morning breeze are suddenly lost and found amidst the chaotic and colourful confusion of the brightly clad tribal women who further liven up terraced fields and add a splash of variety to the landscape. I sat back to enjoy the stunningly beautiful section, quietly thanking the men who laboured to open it up. Pressed to the window, I take in every sight, and gulps of fresh cool air. If only this section could last forever. Soon, the train slowly moves downhill, it gradually picks up speed and three shrill whistles announce the arrival of Ooty- the queen of the Nilgiris.
Ooty is a typical Indian hill station in many ways, with long meadows of lavender-blue flowers, orchards of peaches and plums, terraced coffee, tea and cardamom plantations, funnel shaped blossoms, swaying eucalyptus trees covering its hills... not to forget the sunsets of molten gold that dissipate to reveal a star studded sky. The abundant vegetation and the purple gleam of the mountains promise a sense of peace and wellbeing. The cascading waterfalls, sparkling brooks and pristine natural beauty offered my tired soul a chance to rediscover nature. Single-story cottages and bijou fend flower gardens can be seen all throughout the quaint streets of Ooty. Small villages are situated all over the hills and many Hindu temples are seen. Fascinated by the first impression of this charming town, I was delighted to be here.
It is tempting to spend time just rambling along, taking long walks or treks among tea estates and forested areas. But it's also worthwhile to look at the usual sights. This 'Queen of hill stations' boasts of an exotic spread of sightseeing options. The elaborately landscaped Botanical Gardens with its annual flower show, the Doddabetta peak with its incredible panorama of the Nilgiri hill ranges, the beautiful lake where you can tandem in pedal boats, the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary where you can see elephants being fed are one of the many attractions of Ooty.
I visited many interesting places in and around Ooty, one being the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. A dense forest with mostly bamboo, teak and sandalwood, it offers a shady serenity only enhanced by the rustle of the wind. One can often see a large population of elephants, deer, monkeys and gaur. The forest floor is littered with bushy undergrowth, a profusion of ferns, thin-leaved, thick-leaved, scallop-edged, all intermingled with other creepers. Dewdrops glisten like diamonds on the petals of colourful wild flowers and the stands of delicate spider webs. The birds are in full song- seemingly wanting to outdo each other in pitch and melody. A sweet, moist smell, the characteristic flavour of the wild, wafts in the air. Home to tigers, wild boar, sloth bear, red squirrels and peacock, the forest is a treasure trove of natural beauty.
The first animal we saw was a massive male sambar, India's largest deer, browsing the leaves of a tree. We stopped to admire its noble visage and huge antlers before continuing on, enjoying the thrill of a whole herd of spotted deer grazing among the forest. They watched us warningly until we passed, before resuming their breakfast.
As we moved on, we saw a flame-back woodpecker working its way up a tree. A peacock wandered by, while a thrush fluttered among the bushes. We tried to make our way as quietly as we could, feeling like we were trespassing on their territory. We spied flycatchers and barbets, and the trees resounded with the fluty tones of a multitude of birds. We spotted more signs of wildlife - a Nilgiri langur leaped through the branches, a giant squirrel, its fur the colour of dark mahogany and the clawings of a tiger on a tree.
We were lucky to see a tiger, an impressive, full-grown specimen, around 12 feet long. The big cat gazed at us with disgust, and soon strode away into the forest cover, its gold and black striped tail swishing as it disappeared. Seduced by the distant views of wild elephants, fattening themselves on bamboo shoots and moseying up hillocks, I let these sheer delights seep into my imagination and capture it forever.
The true wealth of this forest lies in the richly diverse bird population, further enriched by migratory visitors that choose the winter months for their visits. Ooty is a veritable gold mine for birdwatchers, and one must carry binoculars and bird books in order to track some rare and endangered species.
Lolling around the forest, we watched kingfishers dart like bright projectiles, the sunset painting the sky in myriad colours. Lady luck travelled with us, as we spotted four new species of Purple Heron, Little Ringed Plover, Purple Swamphen and Pheasant-tailed Jacana. We also saw the Large Grey Babbler perched majestically high, preening and posing, ignoring our rude voyeurism and the whirring of focusing of camera lenses. We also saw an impressive troop of Niligiri Leaf-Monkey perched on higher branches. A serpent eagle circled overhead, its keen eyes looking for anything that wriggled and slithered, to put on its supper table. The Yellow-footed Pigeon, Wire-tailed Swallow and the Eurasian Hoopoe left us captivated with their calls and plumage display.
Travelling further into the forest, I had never seen so many shades of green in my life- from the peacock's tail to the bamboo fronds; algae mantled water in a waterhole to the lush grass on the forest floor. As evening set in, I gazed at the mountains, the diffused sunlight, and the refreshing greenery all around. The sensuous scent of night flowers drifted in the air coupled with the tantalizing mist, and I knew it was time to bid adieu and return to my hotel.
I had many more memorable experiences in the Nilgiris - a place where nature is hushed in awe of its own beauty. Untouched by the ugly hands of industrialisation, the Nilgiris retains its old-world charm and is a perfect destination for the frayed nerves of city dwellers. My urban ears battered by high decibel living woke up to the rare pleasure of birdsong every morning, the sound of rich raaga. My eyes rejoiced to the soft morning rays of the sun that sketched dimpled patters over velvety green bushes, the clouds of mist still hanging on to the distant hills. Life couldn't get better than this! There was still so much to explore in the Niligiris as I looked back at this inviting destination, resolving to return soon.
Getting there: By air to Coimbatore and then about 110 kms by road to Ooty. 40 kms by train from Mettupalayam Railway Station.
Staying there: There are a number of hotels in Ooty. One that stands out is Hotel Sinclairs, which is a little away from the clutter of the main town and affords a beautiful view of the Blue Mountains. It is located on the way to Dodabetta peak.
Activities: Trekking, bird watching, mountain biking, visiting wildlife sanctuaries, camping and boating.
Pooja Suchanti completed her graduation in Business Management from University of Surrey and pursued a Masters in Marketing from University of Nottingham, UK. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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