Chennai Journal
Sunday, January 08, 2006
Inauspicious Ooty.....

Marty and I spent the weekend in Ooty, a hill station located about 3 hours from Coimbatore, south of Chennai but still in the state of Tamil Nadu. Despite the beauty of the place--depicted above--our journey seemed frought with misadventure, which has inclined me to consult an astrologist before we travel again!

We took the sleeper train from Chennai to Coimbatore, sharing a compartment in second class with two Indian businessmen, one of whom snored loudly enough to be heard over the train noises (and louder than Marty!) We stayed on the train until Mettupalayam, a stop near Coimbatore which hooks up with the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, otherwise known as the toy train. In colonial days, the Railway was used to transport tea from the Nilgiri hills for domestic and export consumption, but now it exists solely to ferry tourists to and from Ooty.

On most days, anyway. We suspected something was up when, moments before departure, we saw workmen laboring frantically over the engine with welding guns. Also, the train is supposed to travel with two engines--one at the front and one at the rear--but this one had only one. We got about an hour and half up the route, which takes between four and five hours, when the conductor stopped the train, evidently to let the engine cool off. He did this a couple more times and finally gave up, and we went back to the station where the mountain railway, famous for its center gears in the track to keep the train from slipping backwards, officially begins. Below you can see the disgruntled passengers alighting the train (Marty is next to a man with a blue backpack.)

The train authorities had arrived at the stop, and said they had arranged a bus to transport us to Ooty, but it "would take some time." These are ominous words in India, and we and most other passengers took this to mean "every man for himself." Cabs were also organized for those who wished to pay themselves, so we and 4 other passengers--a middle aged Indian couple and two Dutch women--piled into an old Toyota Qualis with an enterprising driver who was asking 1200 rupees (about $30) for the ride, to be split among us. A few minutes later two other guys piled in and we were up to 8---cozy to say the least. The two guys, evidently known to the driver, got off in Conoor which is about 15 km from Ooty, and one of the Dutch women and I saw each of them peel off a 100 rupee note to pay the driver. Doing some quick figuring, the Dutch woman announced to the rest of us that our fare was now down to 170 rupees per person.

When we got into Ooty--at roughly the same time the train would have arrived---the driver had other ideas. He pitched an absolute hissy fit at the notion that we were not each going to pay him 200 rupees. Shouting from all parties ensued, and the two Dutch women and Marty and I got out--the Indian couple refused to budge until he dropped them at their hotel 5 km from Ooty. Marty and I hopped into an autorickshaw (our first I might add), and went to our hotel for an additional 30 rupees, thereby bringing us back to the original 200 for the ride.

The road to Ooty contains fourteen hairpin turns and several thousand potholes, but had there been sufficient visibility, the scenery clearly would have made up for the rough ride. Unfortunately, both going and coming back, the weather did not cooperate. It began raining as soon as we arrived back at the head station for the toy train, and visibility was poor. On Saturday it cleared, but on Sunday when we returned to Coimbatore to fly back to Chennai, it was very foggy and at points visibility was down to less than 20 feet---a scary prospect considering the narrow roads and hairpin turns, not to mention aggressive drivers.

Still, while we were in Ooty, we got to do some sightseeing including a climb to Dodabetta Peak (below) and a visit to the local botanical gardens, as well as to a tea factory, which was more automated than the one we saw in Sri Lanka but equally fascinating. And there were some interesting crafts places as well. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Gem Park, which despite lackluster food (the Chinese place was okay, but the 24 hour cafe was marginal) had fabulous views. Time did not permit much more sightseeing than this, but Ooty is conveniently located to Bandipur National Park, a well known nature preserve about 80 km away. The park can also be reached from Mysore, so we may try to visit it from that direction --but checking for auspicious timing first!

I did my schooling at Coonoor for a few years and loved the Nilgiris (the district). This was 15 yrs ago and even then I thought the place was getting crowded.

If you do go back, do not miss Mudumalai (in Tamil Nadu) and Bandipur (in Karnataka). They are both adjoining National Parks and are on the way from Mysore to Ooty.

I think there are also 'eco-tourism' places around those two parks. If you're interested in staying at a tea garden there are a handful of companies that facilitate that as well. You can Google them.

Oh and love your blog.
Thanks, we definitely want to get to the parks! Is it better to go from Mysore or from Ooty???
If you haven't been to Mysore, it might be worth your time to go to Mysore and then drive to the parks from there. (You can fly to Bangalore and then drive or take the train to Mysore).

If you're a bird watcher, there's great place near Mysore named 'Ranganathittu' on the Cauvery river. Also, Kabini River Lodge is a very popular eco-tourism joint near Mysore.


Very interesting! I went to school in Coonoor many years ago (late 60s), and revisited the area in 1999. Ooty, which is where my school (Hebron) has relocated to from Coonoor, had changed considerably for the worse, especially the part around the lake. But it was enormously interesting to be back, and the shola forest still feels and smells the same as I remember from my childhood.
Good comments. But, I do not agree with most of them. People sure have a lot of time on their hands.
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