Well, 2013 had dawned upon us and having travelled to Yercaud, Hampi, Chikmagalur, Belur, Halebid, Bijapur, Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal in the past 6 months, there was an ardent desire to kick in the new year with another trip. None of us had ever been to the Nilgiris and off-season is, I feel, always a better time to visit popular tourist destinations. The Nilgiris, so named due to the mist induced bluish appearance and also due to the blue kuranji flowers that bloom once in 12 years here, can get terribly crowded as the summer months spring closer. Any time right after the new year would be a good time to visit these places as the partying crowds have already departed and only the faithfuls as well as the locals are left over.
Here is what the itinerary I had planned look like:
Day 1: Take the Nilgiri Mountain Railway from Ooty – Coonoor, roam around in Coonoor and take in the tea estates, a few famous view spots, drive back to Ooty and visit Dodabetta and the Botanical Gardens if time permits, check in to the hotel and stroll around Commercial street.
It is advisable to book tickets for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in advance from the Indian Railways website, as tickets can be difficult to obtain on weekends and holidays. The first class seat at Rs. 110 each is the best option, as the second class ticket though cheap, is unreserved and can get extremely crowded. Ooty to Coonoor is around 18-19 kms and it takes almost 30-45 minutes by road. The same journey by train takes 1 hour and 15 minutes but is a vastly different experience. The Nilgiri mountain railway is one of the few existing routes on which relics of a bygone era, the steam engines, still ply regularly. The steam engine driven train runs between the Metupalayam – Coonoor section and is taken over by a diesel loco between the Coonoor – Ooty section. The former section has one of the steepest railway ascents in the world, surmounting which is only possible through a rack and pinion system which in turn, can only be used by a steam engine.
Day 2: Get out of Ooty and visit Avalanche and Emerald Lakes, then go to Pykara lake and Pykara falls and depart for Bangalore from there.
We hired a non-ac Indica cab bangalore (a horror story waiting to happen) and decided to hit the road late on Friday night. This particular cab driver however, happened to be the slowest guy behind a wheel that I’ve seen in modern times. It was a surprise when we reached the Bandipur forest check post by 06:15 and Ooty in another 2 hours from there where a major shock awaited us. The driver didn’t know how to ride on ghat roads. Why the hell would the cab company send in a driver like that beat the hell out of us. I’d almost made up my mind to pay the cab company in sodexho coupons just to avenge this lapse on their part. Nervous laughter, cautious driving and 36 hairpins later, we reached Ooty and the Tamil Nadu state RTO check post. Here, we were to find out that the driver did not have the necessary papers with him. Obtaining the state permit without these were out of the question but some arguing, pleading and frantic phone calls to the cab company office and a miserable attempt to hire another vehicle later, we finally got the RTO official to let us into Ooty without a permit on one condition – the driver would drive down and obtain the permit as soon as he got hold of the permit number and validity date.
Our train was supposed to depart at 09:15 from Ooty railway station and with the driver driving at breakneck speed (I did not want to use the word ‘surprise’ again, but what the heck – surprise), we managed to catch it just in time. We settled into a relatively empty carriage and were on our way a few minutes later. The train turned out to be a welcome antidote to the frustration induced by the cab driver earlier. It snaked through lush green country sides, rolling tea estates and woods full of pine and eucalyptus trees. Some of the sights are so endearingly beautiful, it is no wonder a lot of Indian films filmed this romantic journey as a major element of their narrative.
Coonoor, though not as crowded as Ooty, was also founded by the British circa 1819 and is famous for its tea estates, more so than Ooty. With an average literacy rate of 82%, we shouldn’t have been surprised when the parking ticket attendant at the railway station spoke to us in unfaltering, perfect English. The dolphins’s nose viewpoint, around 12 km from the railway station was our next destination and the road meanders through refreshing views of tea estates on both sides, canopies created by overhanging branches of trees and mist covered hills in the not too distant horizon. Once you reach the viewpoint (watch this, from 03:48), you will be surrounded by views of a vast valley covered by forests in every direction and can see as well as hear the massive Catherine waterfalls, distant though they are. Just try not to be distracted by the vendors beckoning you to try out their teas – (chocolate, mint, various other flavours) and you’ll do fine. The little bits of land that are not under forest cover are guaranteed to be tea estates. As far as tea estates themselves are concerned, I do not think I’ll ever tire of seeing them – I have seen plenty in Wayanad over the 2 years I spent studying in Kozhikode. There must be something innately rejuvenating about the sight of green, manicured tea estates that keeps me enchanted every time I see them.
After bidding adieu to TTDC, we were on our way to Avalanche and Emerald, some 18-20 km to the west of Ooty, places that enjoy a reputation, very well deserved too, of being untouched by the maddening crowds that flock to Ooty – Coonoor. Blogging about their beauty is a bit of a paradox though – if you decide to visit them after reading this, you know what not to write in your blog.
The winding roads to Avalanche will lead you to a forest check post where the sentry will write down your names and contact numbers and let you in. Drive on the narrow road infringed by the forest and look for a small opening on the right that throws open this stunning view:
Have you ever imagined a little slice of heaven, all to yourself ? Picture the serene blue waters of the lake above, surrounded by a tea estate on one side, dense forests on the other 3 side; all nestled in the midst of hills.
After spending around 2-3 hours at Avalanche, we made our way to Emerald Lake. Emerald dam itself was closed to visitors but Emerald lake is every bit as beautiful as Avalanche is except for the fact that it is a little more crowded – with locals, a few tourists and grazing cows dotting the banks.
Our next destination, Pykara lake and Pykara falls was delayed due to a brief halt at a place called the Shooting Meadow and another one on the Ooty-Gudalur road. This stretch of road (near a place called Sholur if my memory serves me right) is a dream. The beauty of this stretch was accentuated by scattered rays of light penetrating through a canopy of overhead branches, something like this:
Pykara, for those who are ignorant of the phenomenon called Mithun Chakraborty has a waterfall which features prominently in a lot of his movies.
With Pykara lake getting closed around 0530 pm, we had nothing much to do, except hit the road back to Bangalore. There was a scary moment when our cab started emitting a strange noise in the middle of the Bandipur tiger reserve with 13 km still remaining to exit the tiger reserve and only 20 minutes to cover that distance before the gate would be closed for the night. Some nervous silence pervaded the car for a couple of minutes but we made it through safely and were back in Bangalore by 3 am.
A word of caution on our experience with the mycabsbangalore service though. After our journey was completed, aforementioned troubles notwithstanding, the cab driver demanded 450 bucks for the Tamil Nadu state RTO permit issual (which, he never did get in the first place – we traveled for two days in Ooty without a state permit). When we refused to give in to his demands, he argued for an ad-hoc raise in the driver allowance from the initial amount (150/day) to 250/day. We didn’t give him a penny more than decided and sent him on his way grumbling. Reckless, cheats are the terms I would use to label this car company’s services, the only smear on an otherwise wonderful trip.