TRAVELLING ON A "TOY" TRAIN
Welcome to the Blue Mountain Nilgiri Railway
The dawn sky is flamingo pink as my cousins, Noelene and Lionel and I, board a miniscule carriage at Metapullayam station. Even at this early hour the platform is bustling with eager vacationers.
Metapullayam Station Platform
The Blue Mountain "toy" train is bound for the town of Coonoor in the Nilgiri Hills of South India. This is one of only two steam-powered locomotives in India, the other one being the Darjeeling Mountain Railway. From Coonoor the journey to Udagamandalam (formerly known as Ootacamund, and popularly shortened to "Ooty"), is powered by diesel-a more prosaic engine than this coal-fired little Puffing Billy. The entire railway line from Metapullayam to Ooty covers 26 km. The train will negotiate 208 curves, 16 tunnels, and cross 250 wooden trestle bridges in about four hours and ten minutes along one of the steepest tracks in India.
Tucked into our miniature compartment
We have been looking forward to this trip for months, as it completes a foursome of mountain railway journeys we've done together over the past couple of years. The Siliguri-Darjeeling train and the Kalka-Shimla train both traverse the lower ranges of the mighty Himalayas, with spectacular vistas around each curve of the track, while the Matheran Hill Railway, a short distance from Mumbai climbs up to a flat topped plateau. For us, the Nilgiri ranges of Tamil Nadu in South India are unexplored territory.
The little train jerks into life, pushed by a steam engine from the rear. A railway conductor perches on the platform in front of the carriage in front of us to check out the track ahead for any obstacles; herds of wild elephants have been known to stubbornly block the train. We have window seats overlooking the narrow gauge track as it winds sinuously through tropical forests and dense bushes, green and lush. At this stage the terrain is relatively flat, so we move along quite briskly, but on the horizon the Nilgiri ranges lie against the sky like azure smudges, giving rise to their popular name, "Blue Mountains".
An onlooker with a top-knot at Kallar Station
At Kallar station, we clatter over points, and the train engages with a rack and pinion rail that runs along the middle of the narrow gauge track. Then, as the climb begins in earnest, the little train clicks and clatters as it pants uphill along a gradient of 1:12. The scenery changes to rugged gorges and silvery waterfalls plunging over jagged rocks. The train rides along the rim of canyons, and we gaze out at chiffon scarves of mist wreathing the summits of peaks. Wild flowers and feathery ferns line the route, and as we climb ever higher, we chug over several wooden trestle bridges across yawing chasms.
We begin our ascent
This is thirsty work, and the locomotive is replenished with water at stations with very English names like Adderley, Hillgrove and Runneymede. At Hillgrove passengers dismount to sip chai and click their cameras at vistas of the Nilgiri mountains folded range upon range, reaching skywards to heights of 7,500 feet or more.
Blue Mountain Ranges
After Runneymede, the scenery gives way to rolling hills with tea bushes like knitted shawls sprawling down their slopes. Houses, painted bright primary colours of orange, green and purple are like children's blocks dotting the hillsides or stand tucked into tree-shaded valleys. The air is fresh and cool now and the breeze carries the scent of pine and wild flowers. Like us, passengers don cardigans and woolly toques. We dismount at Coonoor and bid farewell to our carriage companions who will be continuing on to Ooty.
Colourfully painted houses
The scene around Coonoor station is busy with scooters, taxis and buses beeping and swerving their way through narrow, winding roads flanked by small shops and sidewalk vendors.
The Coonoor Club
We are booked into the exclusive Coonoor Club as guests of a friend who is a member. The Club has seen better days, but there is a shabby dignity in the lounge with its leather chairs and photographs on the walls that hark back to a long gone colonial era. The garden is alive with phlox, sweetpeas and marigolds, and our rooms flank a verandah overlooking a pleasant valley.
We hire a chauffeur-driven car and explore our surroundings over the next few days. First up is Coonoor's Sim's Park, its terraced botanical garden with gracious old trees and lawns, a haven of tranquility.
Sim's Park Gardens
Small towns like Wellington and Lovedale which we drive slowly through, are reminiscent of colonial India: Wellington boasts an Indian Armed Forces college modelled on British lines and, according to our friends who live here, private schools in Lovedale and Ketti still adhere proudly to English public school traditions.
View of the valley from the lookout at Doddabetta Peak
Lookout points at Dolphin's Nose Lamb's Rock and Doddabetta Peak (at 8,650 ft.) encompass sweeping views of tea plantations, craggy rocks and cascading waterfalls. In the little village of Kotagiri, we browse delightedly through a warren of colourful stalls selling fruit, vegetables and flowers as well as fish and fowl, later dropping into a wayside restaurant that serves us cups of creamy aromatic South Indian coffee.
The colourful fruit, flower and vegetable market at Kotagiri
"Snooty Ooty" as it's often labelled, is a sprawling town with a congested shopping area. Lunch beckons and despite several swanky air conditioned restaurants on the main drag, we try Indian-Chinese fusion cuisine at a modest little bistro. Excellent!
Laying it on a bit thick-Sign outside the Thread Garden
We stumble on the intriguing Thread Garden and are drawn in by the billboard at the entrance, touting the attraction in hilariously fractured English. Notwithstanding the hype, the display is impressive. Fifty specially trained artists used over 500 shades of coloured thread and wire to craft this unique and meticulously detailed collection of hand-woven flowers and plants over a period of twelve years.
Real flowers and plants are on display at the well-tended Botanical Garden in Ooty which sprawls across 22 hectares. A stiff uphill hike from here leads to a tribal Toda village with its distinctive barrel shaped huts.
Lawns of the Botanical Gardens in Ooty
Back at our lodgings in Coonoor, we sit on a verandah sipping our happy hour drinks. A cool evening breeze rustles the trees in the garden, and the sun sinks to rest in a blaze of glory. It is our last evening here, and as the twilight fades to night, it brings our Nilgiri interlude to a tranquil close
IF YOU GO:
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PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
1. Sign at the Train Track
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