There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 29 February 2016

Across the Palakkad Gap and up to Munnar: Part 6 of India's Deep South

For all its charm, we were happy to leave Ooty. Our imperialist forebears might have appreciated the cool and even, apparently, the drizzle but we had arrived straight from a British winter and craved warmth - and I would not be too upset if I never saw drizzle again.
Ready to leave Ooty on a chilly morning

We left a chilly Ooty at 8 o’clock, retraced our steps through Wellington and forty minutes later reached Coonoor, also a hill station but 400m lower and noticeably warmer.

Wellington, Nilgiri Hills
Driving down from the misty heights of the Nilgiri Hills we reached Mettupalayam, the terminus of the Blue Train and gateway to the Tamil Nadu plain.
The misty Nilgiri Hills
Unlike Ooty, the plain is unequivocally hot, and I have no doubt the incomprehensibly overdressed apparatchiks of the raj, cooled only by the efforts of an underappreciated punkah wallah, must have suffered indeed. Speeding across the plain in an air conditioned car made it easy for us, though perhaps not for the toiling agricultural workers we passed.
Agricultural workers in the Tamil Nadu plain
Unlike the hill stations and the rather neater towns of Kerala, the Tamil towns and cities of the plain are endearingly scruffy. India is densely populated and sprinkled with huge conurbations unknown to most in the outside world. With 2 million inhabitants, Coimbatore is the second biggest city in Tamil Nadu (after the better known Chennai, formerly Madras). Once called the Manchester of Southern India as both were centres of the cotton industry, it has now diversified into IT and manufacturing, in particular being well known for making half of India's pumps and motors. Despite its 2000 year history there is little in Coimbatore to detain the tourist, apart from traffic jams that delay everybody indiscriminately, and we passed through as quickly as we could.

Unfortunately not all Coimbatore’s citizens are participating in its impressive growth. Begging, even in opulent surroundings, is still begging.

Beggar, Coimbatore
Coimbatore stands at the eastern end of the Palakkad gap in the Western Ghats, and once through the city we turned south west towards the next section of that mountain chain.
A long day's drive from Ooty to Munar
A couple of hours later, still on the plain, we stopped for lunch at the much smaller town of Udumalaipettai. Again we relied on Thomas’ ability to choose a good local restaurant, and again he picked a winner. Although relatively up-market (it had air-conditioning) this was not tourist food dumbed down for perceived western tastes; this was local food for local people – and at local prices. Lunch for three and a bottle of water cost under £3, a fraction of the price for two in a tourist restaurant - not that Udumalaipettai had such a thing. There was one drawback, only tourist restaurants have drinks licences but the food was worth sacrificing a beer.

Like most small restaurants it specialised in ‘meals’, which can be ‘veg’ or ‘non-veg’ and are served on a banana leaf. Thomas had a 'non-veg meal', which meant unlimited rice - and we were always amazed at Thomas' ability to absorb rice - a selection of vegetable curries and pots of spicy chicken and mutton gravy, no actual meat was included (this is normal in Tamil Nadu but it is different in Kerala). They also offered an á la carte menu, from which I chose pepper chicken, which was excellent, while Lynne had vegetable biryani, a touch dull, she said, but greatly improved by a splash of Thomas’ chicken gravy. They offered forks and spoons, but everybody else was eating with their fingers, so we did to.

One non-veg meal and one pepper chicken, Udumalaipettai (Lynne's finished the biryani)

From Udumalaipettai the road started to rise gently through the Indira Ghandi National Park. Entering the park we registered and received an instruction sheet. ‘Do not park and get out of your car’ it said, though we passed a group of pilgrims walking the other way. In the intense heat they had spread out into groups of three or four across a couple of miles of road. Apparently nobody was worrying about them being attacked - maybe tigers are repelled by the odour of sanctity.

Indira Ghandi National Park - with no pilgrims (perhaps the tigers did eat them)
 The route became more scenic as we climbed into the Anaimalai Hills.

Anaimalai Hills

Somewhere along the road the Indira Ghandi National Park turned into the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and we left Tamil Nadu and entered Kerala.

Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary

Eventually we emerged into the Kannon Devan Hills, which Include Anamudi, at 2,695m (8,842ft) the highest peak in sub-continental India. The Jacaranda were spectacular….

Jacaranda, Kannon Devan Hills
…but this was largely a land of tea plantations….

Tea plantation, Kannon Devan Hills
…sometimes stretching into the far distance.

Tea plantations Kannon Devan Hills
The hill station of Munnar is the centre of the Kannon Devan Hills tea industry. At 1700m (5700ft) it is over 500m lower than Ooty and has a warmer and, in my opinion, pleasanter climate. We arrived late afternoon on Monday but although these photographs of the town were taken on Wednesday morning, they fit the narrative better here. We took no pictures in the town on Tuesday as all the businesses were on strike and there was nothing to see.

The town sits among the hills at a point where several rivers meet - the name is believed to mean 'three rivers'.

A footbridge over one of Munnar's rivers
 Like most Indian towns there is a shrine in the main street…

Hindi shrine, Munnar
 …but this being Kerala, there is a strong Christian presence. And being India there are plenty of tuk-tuks, too.

Churches and tuk-tuks, Munnar
Thomas had never been here before and found our hotel using the sat nav on his smart phone. I am always amazed by the way India flip-flops from the third to the first world and back again. Comfortable and modern, the hotel stood on a hillside out the town. The view from our balcony could have been magnificent had it not been so hazy.

View from our balcony, Munnar

The location meant we had little option but to eat in the hotel. Lynne had chicken korma and I opted for a fish fillet and there was salad, rice and chapattis to share. It was fine, if not overly exciting and there was only water to drink. We were in a very new hotel and Kerala has introduced a form of rolling prohibition.  [We later learned we had misunderstood the prohibition. It is spirits that have been banned, with most of the old state drink shops now closed and the rest closing soon. Spirits will still be available in five star hotels - apparently it is all right to drink if you are rich (how does this make sense?). Beer remains widely available and smart new ‘Beer and Wine Shops’ are opening throughout the state - not that Indians drink much wine. That said, this hotel was indeed dry, and it was not the only dry hotel we were to encounter in Kerala.]

The view from our balcony at night, Munnar
We retreated to our balcony, to sit in the balmy night air, take in the view - good even in the dark –  and a glass or two from our dwindling supply of Dubai Airport duty free booze.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Nilgiri Blue Train to Coonoor: Part 5 of India's Deep South

We were up early and after a breakfast of overcooked fried eggs and undercooked toast in a freezing restaurant, arrived at Ooty station in time for the 9 o'clock train to Mettupalayam. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway, also known as the ‘Blue train’ or the 'toy train' is a narrow gauge railway which runs 46km from Ooty down to the Tamil Nadu plain, a descent of almost 2,000m. The lower section is rack and pinion and hauled by steam, but sadly we were only travelling the upper section to Coonoor where, despite a pro-steam campaign, the trains have diesel engines. It is a trade-off; there is little to do in Mettupalayam except take the train back, while Coonoor is another hill station, lower and warmer, than Ooty and a major tea growing centre.

The Nilgiri Blue Train in Ooty Station
 The first class compartment was hardly luxurious but all 16 seats - two pairs of padded benches each seating four – were occupied.
The first class compartment, Nilgiri Blue Train
It was a pretty ride, the land dropping sharply away on our right, while to the left was a scatter of villages in gentler valleys.

Villages and valleys beside the Nilgiri Mountain Railway
 We trundled slowly through cuttings...

Nilgiri Mountain Railway
....and woods….
Nilgiri Mountain Railway

… pausing as stations with names like Lovedale and Wellington.
Lovedale Station, Nilgiri Mountain Railway
This was our fourth Indian train journey; all have started on time, but this was the first to also arrive on time, travelling 18km in a little over an hour.

Coonoor station where they connect up the steam engines and engage with the rack and pinion
Thomas picked us up in the chaos that was Coonoor station car park.

Coonoor Station - photographed at a quieter time when no train was due

Noticeably scruffier than Ooty, a more downhill and down market hill station, Coonoor felt livelier  - and warmer. The town divides conveniently into a lower town with the bazaar and the railway and bus stations...

Coonoor, lower town
... and a smarter upper town, where we headed next.

Outside Sim's Park, Coonoor upper town
Sim's Park is another botanical garden built on a slope, but this time we started at the top and worked our way down.

Sim's Park, Coonor
Not, perhaps, as impressive as Ooty's garden, but it was a pleasant and shady place, with a pleasing rose garden and a boating lake at the bottom. Standing on the bridge over an outlet stream Lynne spotted a snake dangling from a drain. I raised my camera but it dropped into the water, swam a few metres and disappeared before I could locate it in the viewer finder. Behind us on the lake families piloted their pedalos unconcerned. I later learned that none of India's freshwater snakes are particularly dangerous - which is not the same as harmless.
Rose garden and boating lake, Sim's Park, Coonoor
Being on the edge of the scarp Coonoor is blessed with viewpoints, though reaching them required driving several kilometres along narrow roads through the tea plantations. Lamb's Rock, named after a 19th century ‘Collector’, is 8km from town, just beyond a chocolate factory which sits incongruously amid the tea bushes. There was a fee to park beside the road. All over southern India people are paid minimal amounts to collect tiny fees for parking or sometimes for just driving into town along a certain road. It provides employment for some and irritation for others, particularly Thomas who has to collate dozens of scruffy little receipts at the end of the trip to claim his expenses.

Driving through the tea estates on the way to Lamb's Rock

We walked up to the viewpoint….
Lynne and Thomas climb up to Lamb's Rock
…. which was not at its best with a hazy mist hanging in the valley.
Looking down to the Tamil Nadu plain from Lamb's Rock, near Coonoor
 Apparently, Lamb’s Rock is a favourite location for filming the big dance numbers that are mandatory in any Indian* musical. We failed to spot any of these famous locations, hardly surprising given our ignorance of the subject.

The view from Lamb's Rock near Coonoor
A stall in the parking area was an outlet for the nearby chocolate factory. Chocolate may grow in the tropics but chocolate bars are largely consumed in temperate latitudes, in usual Indian temperatures they soon forget they are supposed to be bar shaped. Only in the cooler uplands is chocolate made and sold. We bought a tub of mixed pieces dark, milk and white, with and without sprinkles and/or nuts. 'Watch for the monkeys,' the young man warned us as we handed over our money.

The place was seething with macaques, and macaques like chocolate as much as any primate so Lynne stuffed the plastic tub into her handbag as we walked back to the car. The customer behind us was a young Indian woman who would, I assumed, have more monkey savvy than us foreigners. Hearing a scream we turned to see her battling a macaque that had leapt upon her. She fought it off, but monkeys do not take 'no' for an answer. At its second attempt it wrested the tub from her hand and it fell to the road, spilling its contents over the tarmac. Now it was macaque chocolate not people chocolate.

Dolphin’s Nose was a further drive through the tea.

More tea, near Dolphin's Nose
Stands of eucalyptus lined the road and populated the few tea-free patches and on the way we passed a small factory producing eucalyptus oil. When I was very young my mother used to take eucalyptus oil to the beach in South Wales. Back then oil tankers in the Bristol Channel regularly deposited tar in the water and more than just the odd globule found its way onto Rest Bay. Eucalyptus oil was the most effective way to remove it from skin and clothing. Tankers have cleaned up their act and apart from feeding koalas, which are thin on the ground in southern India, I had no idea what use eucalyptus is. I looked it up; it has applications in pharmaceuticals and, perhaps surprisingly, in the production of flavourings and fragrances. 

Eucalyptus oil factory near Dolphin's Nose
Dolphin’s Nose was a better view point...

The dolphin's Nose at Dolphin's Nose, near Coonoor
...and the best place to see the full 80m drop of the Catherine Falls.

Catherine Falls from Dolphin's Nose, near Coonoor
A line of stalls led up to a viewing area and although we did not see monkeys steal anything here, there was a moment when they all ran clattering across the corrugated iron roofs like a marauding gang of unruly if abnormally nimble teenagers. It is quite easy to dislike these creatures, but when most of them had collected noisily in a tree at the end of their run, I noticed two new mothers, sitting quietly in a tree away from the others nursing their babies.

Maternal macaques, Dolphin's Nose near Coonoor
 We returned to Coonoor for lunch. Thomas thought the Hyderabad Biryani House opposite the bus station looked promising so we climbed up the outside steps. It was certainly popular and, being a little late for lunch, we found the last available table right under the television screen. There were four of us for lunch, Lynne, Thomas, me and a large and loud David Attenborough – not to mention several hundred penguins and a pod of killer whales.
Hyderabad Biryan House, Coonoor. Highly recommended
They had a full menu but biryani was the speciality so we ordered three ‘individual’ mutton biryanis; the waiter suggested we share one ‘medium’. This advice not only saved money but provided enough food for four or five. They also offered a ‘large’ which feeds an extended family - and the bowl can be converted into a studio apartment afterwards. I had never thought much of biryani before, but this was so good they made me revise my opinion.

After lunch we returned to Ooty. The drive up was not generally as scenic as the train ride down, but we did get a good view of the town of Wellington.
Wellington, Nilgiri Hills
Doddabetta Peak, at 2637m (8650 ft) the highest mountain in the Nilgiris, is 9km east of Ooty. As all the land around is high Doddabetta is not as prominent as most mountains of its size and it is possible to drive to the summit, indeed people do in their hundreds, perhaps thousands, every day. We walked the short distance from the car park to the view point in the company of several busloads of Indian tourists. As viewpoints go it is not that spectacular. In a topological sense it was the high point of the day, indeed of the whole trip, but seemed an anti-climax after the views and marauding monkeys at Dolphin’s nose.

Ooty from Doddabetta Peak
It was cool at this height and as Ooty is not much lower it was cool at Ooty too when the sun went down.

Just a reminder of where we were. On this scale map Coonoor is too near Ooty to mark separately
 We arrived back at beer o'clock and as the Savoy Hotel, a member of the upmarket Taj group, was at the end of our road we strolled up to check out the bar.

The hotel is a low, rambling mid-19th colonial building which the Taj web site describes as having ‘a cottage like atmosphere’. If you can imagine a cottage with a hundred metre frontage, then that is the sort of cottage it is. We had beer and a chat with the young barman who was on the Taj management training scheme and had been sent on placement from his native Assam - about as far away from Ooty as you can be and still be in India – and the second Assamese we had met in the last three days.

We left promising to return later for an aperitif and dinner and in due course we wrapped up warm and made our way the short distance back up the road and the slightly longer distance through the grounds to the hotel.

'Nilgiri Veg' Savoy Hotel, Ooty
There was a roaring fire in the dining room but it was not quite enough to persuade Lynne to remove her fleece. A pianist in the corner entertained us with what was probably a selection of popular melodies but it was hard to tell as his idiosyncratic phrasing was enlivened by a Les Dawson-like feel for the right notes. We had eaten the Nilgiri non-veg platter at our guest house the previous night so we went for the veg version here. It was good without being memorable, but surprisingly reasonably priced considering where we were.

* I wrote 'Indian' rather than ‘Bollywood’ as Bollywood is not India's only film industry. Locally ‘Kollywood’, the Tamil film industry produces more films than Bollywood, and ‘Mollywood’ the Malayalam language film industry of Kerala is close behind. Each state has its own language, so each has its own cinema.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Road to Ooty: Part 4 of India's Deep South

The mist had cleared long before we left Kabini for Ooty, heading south towards the apex of the Deccan Plateau. Some 600m high, the Deccan is an inverted triangle within the larger inverted triangle that is southern India. Two mountain ranges, the Eastern and Western Ghats separate the plateau from the coastal plains. At their southern tips they almost meet.

A last look at the Kabini River
We passed through agricultural country, rice, sugar cane and cotton being the predominant crops. A temple under construction caught our eye near Gundlupet. The town, with 27,000 inhabitants, was the largest of the morning.

Temple being built near Gundlupet
We paused for lunch at Coffee Day, one of a chain of smart, clean and relatively expensive coffee houses that lurk beside main roads in the places you might expect them - and in several others besides. Lynne had a cheese and chilli toastie while Thomas and I shared some vegetable samosas.
Todyas journey: Kabini to Ooty

After lunch we crossed the Bandipur and Mudumalai National Parks. At the park entrances we registered and received a list of instructions including 'do not park and get out of the car.' Apparently the tigers might mistake us for a packed lunch.

In the event we saw no tigers, nor leopards nor even elephants, though we did see piles of elephant dung - when elephants do a pile they really do a pile. The only animals in sight were the inevitable monkeys and some domestic cattle. 

Langur, Mudumalai National Park
We did, though encounter several jacarandas in full bloom. Easier to spot than tigers and less likely to run away they are nonetheless a spectacular sight.

Jacaranda near Gudalur
The road rises gently through the parks and had climbed to 1000m before we emerged at Gudalur. The remaining 50km to Ooty involved 36 hairpins as we climbed a further 1,200m into the Nilgiri Hills. Etiquette on hairpins in India is not the same as in Europe. Trucks and buses have to take the bends wide so come over to the right hand side of the road for a left hand bend, cars going the other way just swap over and drive past them on the right. It works fine – provided no one is undertaking on the blind bend.

Up the hairpins to Ooty
At the top we stopped to photograph where we had been….

Looking back down towards the Deccan
….and an even higher village. The houses, built on terraces and painted in pastel colours are typical of the Nilgiri Hills. Green tea bushes covered some of the agricultural terraces, though most were brown and uncultivated; the Ooty tea industry is struggling.

Village in the Nilgiri Hills
Outside Ooty Thomas stopped at a check point. We had entered Tamil Nadu some miles back and he needed to register that he was taking a commercial vehicle from one state to another. The check point stood beside a cattle pasture with a noticeably alpine look.

'Alpine' field beside the Tamil Nadu check point
We soon reached Udhagamandalam, formerly called Ootacamund, and generally known, even on road signs, as Ooty. A hill station and tea production centre, though the fertile soil produces many other crops, Ooty was founded by John Sullivan in the early 19th century and soon became known as ‘Snooty Ooty’, the Queen of Hill Stations. The Club, the social centre for sahibs and memsahibs escaping the sweltering plain, may no longer be Europeans only but standards are maintained - gentlemen dress for dinner and ladies do not enter the bar. Last year we stayed in the Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya, the Sri Lankan equivalent and found it an interesting experience, but not one we needed to repeat. Why some Indians and Sri Lankans feel the need to perpetuate a British way of life the British themselves abandoned over half a century ago is a mystery.

We drove through Ooty's centre known as Charing Cross...,

Charing Cross, Ooty
….past a not very attractive hotel with an interesting name….

Weston Holiday Inn, Ooty
I think its one of the Sheratin chain
....and St Stephen’s church, built for the British community in 1830, using timbers looted from Tipu Sultan’s palace.....
St Stephen's Church, Ooty
Church of South India (an alliance of Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists)

….before reaching the colonial quarter.

Ooty, colonial quarter
Our guesthouse was in a British built nineteenth century house along a street which could have looked English but somehow did not.

Guesthouse, Ooty
It was a fine old building and we were given a cup of tea as we sat in the entrance hall, before being shown to our room.

A cup of tea in the hall, guesthouse, Ooty
The door in the far wall opened onto our room
 The House may have been nineteenth century, but the decor, plumbing and electrics had clearly been updated – in the late 1940s or early 50s.

Our room in Ooty. The television apart nothing has changed since the 1940s
We did little more than park our cases before driving the short distance to the Botanical Gardens.

India in flowers, Ooty Botanical Garden
Laid out by experts from Kew, the gardens were also a 19th century British creation, but one that has been well maintained and updated.

Ooty Botanical Gardens
Walking up the hillside laid out with a variety of gardens was good exercise but much easier than it would have been in the heat of Mysore or Kabini. Late afternoon in Ooty was like the end of a fine English summer’s day.
Ooty Botanical Gardens
Indian authorities love ‘do not’ signs, ineffective and sometimes counterproductive though may be. Without the sign Lynne would not have thought of touching the hedge, but behind her back…..

Rebellious Lynne surreptitiously interferes with a hedge

And these guys cannot even read, though they would take no notice if they could.
Can't read, don't care anyway, Ooty Botanical Garden
The gardens are a popular Saturday afternoon excursion and was teeming with visitors. Sometimes in India the crowds are as colourful as the flowers.

Ooty Botanical Gardens
 After the gardens Thomas drove us down to Ooty Lake, the drive giving us a good view up from the lower part of town. The soil and climate suit market gardening very well.

Ooty from near the Ooty Lake
The boating lake is a centre of family fun, while horse riding is popular among those who can afford it. Neither were of great interest to us as the sun started to set and the temperature seemed set to plummet. We did, though, like this stall selling palm nuts. Closely related to coconuts, these are the fruit of the palm from which toddy is tapped. We encountered toddy in both its fermented and distilled form in Myanmar while arack, a more sophisticated bottled distillation is the national drink of Sri Lanka.

Palm nut stall, Ooty
Finding no alternatives in the immediate surroundings we choose to eat in our guesthouse, as did the two other couples staying there. At 2,240m (7,350ft) the warmth of the day soon leaks away and the unheated dining room became uncomfortably chilly. We chose the 'non-veg platter', a variety of curries that turned out to be very good. Although the food was hot, both in temperature and spiciness, we were shivering by the time we finished. The only drink offered was water and we retreated early to our bedroom for a nightcap of Dubai Airport Duty Free.

Lynne eventually retreated to bed wearing her fleece. I thought the blankets were adequate for the temperature, but did not particularly enjoy lying on a bed as hard as a door.