We reluctantly set off from the Jungle Hut, continuing our journey through the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, heading for Ooty. The road starts to twist and turn as we rise higher, and we negotiate a tight hairpin bend. Biju points out that it is bend 36 of 36, and signs at each one record our progress as we ascend.
The views become more spectacular. We stop at a viewpoint and look down over the valley deep below, and the forests of the Tiger Reserve through which we’ve just travelled. It’s verdant land, and it extends further than the eye can see.
The roller coaster ride continues, and gradually the views recede. By the time we reach hairpin one, we’re on the outskirts of town.
Ooty is a typically frenetic Indian town, although at over 7,000 feet it’s much higher than most. It’s also evident that tourism is a big driver here. We stop at the Government Botanical Gardens, one of Ooty’s top attractions. In contrast to the street scene outside, the Gardens are ordered and clean. It’s a large site with a variety of areas, including an Italian Garden, Cactus House, Rose Garden, Conservatory and the like, all well tended and colourful.
The Gardens were laid out in 1848 by architect William Graham McIvor, who had been drafted in by the East India Company from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The Fern House is dedicated to him, and a plaque proclaims that the building is “a jewel of Victorian architecture.” It’s basically a large wooden greenhouse and potting shed.
We find our way back to our car and make the short journey to Ooty Railway Station, stopping en route for a cappuccino at a Cafe Coffee Day outlet. This is the third one we’ve visited, and their coffee is excellent, as good as anywhere in the world we’ve tried.
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is a 46 km track from Ooty Station down to Mettupalayam over 6,000 feet below. It was built by the British in 1908, and it passes through quaintly named stations such as Lovedale, Wellington and Runneymede. Its narrow gauge of 1 metre has led to it being known as the Toy Train, although it seems fairly full sized to us.
We get there early and wait for the train to arrive. Our ticket says it departs at 2pm, but in typical Indian fashion it appears that the time is flexible within an hour or so.
Eventually the train arrives and we find our allotted seats in coach F, 7 & 8. Immediately another couple get in to the carriage with tickets for the same seats. Our driver, Biju, takes up our case with the uniformed man on the platform, busy with his clipboard, and we are reassigned to seats 1 & 2. Everyone seems satisfied as we get under way.
We are sitting right at the back of the train, next to the guard’s compartment, and as we progress he is busy working the brake by frantically turning his red handle on the steeper bits. Apparently this is India’s only rack railway, so it’s equipped to tackle the sharp gradients ahead.
The views are spectacular as we proceed further, with the railway clinging on to the hillside in many places, overlooking the valley far below. We pass tea plantations, neatly coiffured in the distance.
At Coonoor seats 7 & 8 get off, and a couple get on to replace them. They’re from Essex, and he tells us that his family came from this area. He grew up knowing the names of the places we’ve passed, and he’s sad that their tickets from Ooty were cancelled yesterday due to a rockfall on the track. His mother was from Loveday and he’d love to have visited it’s station, but it’s not to be.
It’s an enjoyable ride but at nearly 4 hours it’s a long time to sit in a hot railway carriage. We emerge at our destination station to be picked up by Biju who has driven down, as do our Essex friends who we discover are also travelling with Audley and staying at the same hotel as us tonight.
It’s another 2 hours to our hotel through Coimbatore, known as the Manchester of South India because of the predominance of the textiles trade here. It’s a busy commercial city, and travelling through it’s centre at night brings yet another dimension to our Indian traffic experiences. Along the way Essex man and wife pass us in another lane, and we play a game of tag through the chaos, eventually pulling into the hotel behind them. They check in at the next desk, but after that we don’t see them again.
The Residency Hotel is modern and well appointed, and an utter contrast to last night’s stay. We check in and opt for the Chinese restaurant on the first floor, one of its three options. Our meal is really good, and we retire early. We’ve got a long drive tomorrow and we need to make an early start.