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…..

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.

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