Ooty: Charming Queen of the Nilgiris
The best ‘official’ season for visiting Ooty is between April and May which is the core summer season with flowers in full bloom at the Botanical Gardens and the annual flower show, writes Shyamola Khanna.
We pay scant attention to the little jewels in the Nilgiris in the heart of South India, that innocuous hill range that connects the Eastern and Western ghats.
My first trip to Ooty was a delightful eye opener – an experience of a lifetime! The best 'official' season for visiting Ooty is between April and May which is the core summer season with flowers in full bloom at the Botanical Gardens and the annual flower show. Unfortunately, it does get quite crowded because everyone descends on it. And to top it all, that is when all the hotels/resorts make a killing; prices are high compared to mid-June and later, at the advent of the rainy season.
But then Ooty in the rainy season is the place to be if you wish to commune with nature, refresh your lungs with the cool mountain breeze and build up an appetite walking the steep hill slopes as often as you can. If you are adequately protected, you can really enjoy the cold. I was travelling from Hyderabad where the mercury had been touching 44-45 degrees in May in spite of the intermittent showers. I was told that temperatures were hovering between 10 and 12 degrees with rain. And believe me – that is cold!
My flight from Hyderabad to Coimbatore was comfortable and since my friend was waiting for me with his brand new Nissan micra, we set off on the 96 km drive to Ooty. The drive was beautiful and as we entered into the ghats roads, it started drizzling – a fine spray mist came on and the temperatures started dropping. I guess it is not easy for an inexperienced driver to negotiate the curves and bends of the hills – this stretch has some 14 hairpin bends – but since I was not in the driving seat, I was happy clicking pictures and admiring the sturdy Eucalyptus and Pines on both sides. Any open patches were covered with green tea bushes. It sure was a feast for sore eyes!
Ooty may be a bit hectic for some tastes, and the town centre is a mess, but it doesn't take long to get up into the quieter, greener areas where tall pines rise above what could almost be English country lanes. Ooty, 'the Queen of Hill Stations', mixes up Indian bustle and Hindu temples with lovely parks and gardens and charming Raj-era bungalows, the latter providing its most atmospheric (and most expensive) places to stay. The town was established by the British in the early 19th century as the summer headquarters of the Madras government, and memorably nicknamed 'Snooty Ooty'.
Development ploughed through a few decades ago, but somehow old Ooty survives. You just have to walk a bit further out to find it. The journey up here on the celebrated miniature train is romantic and the scenery stunning.
Even the road up from the plains is impressive. From April to June (the very busy 'season') Ooty is a welcome relief from the hot plains, and in the colder months (October to March) you'll need warm clothing, which you can buy cheap here, as overnight temperatures occasionally drop to 0°C. The train and bus stations are at the west end of Ooty's racecourse, in almost the lowest part of town. To their west is the lake, while the streets of the town snake upwards all around. From the bus station it's a 20-minute walk to Ooty's commercial centre, Charing Cross.
Our hotel appeared to be the last couple of buildings up on a steep slope – there is an uninterrupted view of the mountains and the pine trees in the distance. The clouds have not dissipated and the mists from up on high are coming down with the gusty winds and slowly covering the distant pines – only the tops are now visible like ghosts! My windcheater is on and it is cold! We walk down the steep slopes and have to struggle to come up! The restaurant provides us a decent dinner and we are all set for our explorations tomorrow.
The Botanical Gardens of Ooty have a definite history and a defining presence. Set up more than 150 years ago, the basic idea of setting up this garden was to supply fresh vegetables to the local English residents. Soon, it became a well laid out garden with flowers and ornamental trees which encouraged the residents to 'take the air' (to go out for a stroll).
Fortunately, the local government has taken enough pains to keep the place clean and inviting so that more visitors come in. For me, the greatest attractions were the ancient trees which have taken on some fantastic shapes over the years. The other impressive factor is the series of washrooms – 'Swachh Bharat' making an impact! The washrooms are not state of the art but they are clean and the all pervasive smell is not there!
On one of the many boards is mentioned 'Toda mundi' which roughly translates to 'village of the Todas' – a tribal group considered to be the original inhabitants of the Nilgiris. So we started walking through the upper reaches of the Botanical gardens in the hope of getting to meet some of the original todas. Unfortunately for us – but fortunately for the todas – there is only one toda hut there, kept as a sample. The other homes are all brick and mortar with colorful blue and pink painted outer walls.
We walked into one of the homes and met Muthuvalli, the matriarch who was sitting and wrapping wool around her knees. She agreed to wear her tribal shawl, which had been woven by her. She made quite a picture with her smoky grey eyes and long silver locks and the stern straight look – she must have been quite a dominating and impressive figure in her heyday! Her grown up daughter who spoke a little Hindi and understood money admitted that she never wore the tribal dress anymore even though her mother made the shawls by hand; they were sold to raise money for everyday living!
We walked back through a comfortable pathway heading for the Ooty railway station. There we parked the car and got into the station. Incidentally, parking costs Rs50/- while a ticket on the toy train costs only Rs10! We are to go for a ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway which is more than a hundred years old and has a UNESCO Heritage tag to it. It is the slowest train in India averaging 10 kmph. After crossing the Bhavani River, it climbs Asia's steepest tracks and travels 40 kms through 208 curves, 16 tunnels, and 250 bridges.
Kudos to the state of Tamil Nadu and Southern Railway for maintaining this toy train – it seems to be a major tourist attraction because right now the carriage is chock a block with standing room only. There is one carriage for Mettupalayam and one for Conoor which we reach after traversing some very beautiful natural landscapes.
The final day is our trip to Doddabetta peak which is the highest mountain in the Nilgiri Hills at 2,637 metres (8,650 feet). There is a reserved forest area around the peak. It is 9 km from Ooty, on the Ooty-Kotagiri Road. After a typical south Indian breakfast at Adyar Anand Bhavan we set course. The drive to Dodabetta is another treat altogether – the continuous drizzle has added another dimension to the forests on either side. The air is redolent with the smell of eucalyptus – it is as if someone has sprayed some Vicks into the air!
Very soon we are at the observatory at Doddabetta. There is a very strong wind blowing and the mists have covered the peaks. Climbing up the iron stairs of the observatory, I feel I could easily topple over with the gale force winds tripping me up! Like the others waiting to take a peep, I also stick my neck into the telescope to see if I can see the peak , but the mists make you feel as if you are looking at a wad of soft cotton wool – no visibility at all! Krishnan then points out the three peaks which look similar to 'the three sisters' of the Blue Mountains of Australia.
We head back to the city and park ourselves at the Lake and the boathouse, watching people go for rides in covered boats as the fine drizzle has not abated. The paddleboats lie abandoned, while squealing groups of teenagers and adults step into the boats and start out for the long ride around the lake.
When we head back to the car, Krishnan points out four shops which are run by eunuchs (hijras), a special drive to empower them and to take them away from begging in the streets. To be honest I loved the place and I hope to come back again, soon.