A birthday gift can't be better than this according to me - a ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway miniature train munching homemade chocolates, with my soul mate. We took the ride from Udaghamandalam (Ooty) to Mettupalayam. The train runs on diesel engine from Ooty to Conoor and changes to steam engine at Conoor. Not only the ride but the scenery too gets fascinating Conoor onwards. The chugging and puffing of the steam engine takes us a few years back, with the hot white puff of steam giving a fairytale effect. The huge mountains, numerous tunnels and the breath-taking bridges - increases the level of excitement and the adrenalin rush. Little past Conoor, we were lucky to spot a wild elephant running ahead of us on the track bewildered by the screeching horn of the train. It was surprising to see the steam engine run so fast, when it reached the plains. The ride is something to be experienced and not possible to express merely in words. The concept of Mountain Railways is flabbergasting!
It is easier to get the tickets for the downward journey (Ooty-Metupalaiyam) than upward (Metupalaiyam-Ooty). As the train takes the same route uphill and downhill it is not disappointing travelling downhill. Second seating costs you Rs.25, starting at 2:15pm and reaching Mettupalayam before 6pm.
Apart from Nilgiri Mountain Railway and homemade chocolates the reason to go to Ooty was to visit Keystone Foundation (www.keystone-foundation.org) in Kotagiri. In Ooty, Raja Lodge (0423-2443512, #5, Mannuvel pillai st, main bazar, near bus stand, opp railway station) is a good option with double rooms ranging from Rs.300-600, former with shared bathroom and the latter with private bathroom and water heater. While in Ooty, we were obliged, faute de mieux, to stroll through the Botanical Garden - very popular amongst Bollywood as well as south Indian movies for romantic song sequences. Thanks to the rains and low number of tourists, for proving the following sentence from Lonely Planet about the garden wrong - "Look out for a fossilised tree trunk believed to be around 20 million years old, and on busy days, roughly 20 million Indian tourists".
Nilgiris comprise of three popular hill stations - Ooty, Conoor and Kotagiri. Kotagiri being the oldest of the three stands at an elevation of 1800m amidst tea estates. The road to Kotagiri passes through one of the highest points in the locality of 2400m. Keystone Foundation in Kotagiri is an NGO working for betterment of the indigenous communities. The unique talent of few indigenous communities is honey collection. The organisation mainly focuses on honey collection and related products. They encourage indigenous people to collect honey the traditional way and keep a watch on ecological balance through experienced environmentalists. They market all products made my indigenous people and sell through the marketing label Lastforest. They have Green Shops that sells the products like honey, soap made out of bee wax, locally grown organic spices etc. These shops are to be found in Kotagiri and Ooty. They also run a Bee Museum in Ooty, which apart from having interesting facts about bee also showcases informative and educational movies (not commercial movies). The ride to Kotagiri from Ooty itself is interesting which takes a little more than an hour. Unlike Ooty, you will not be disturbed by touts or guides here and you can wander on your own in this clean town.
The pleasant weather and the welcoming people of Kotagiri made us stay in Kotagiri for a day instead of Ooty. Kotagiri enjoys a climatic advantage over Ooty in that it is protected by the Doddabetta mountain range from the onslaught of the south-west monsoon. Restaurant next door dishes up delicious Tamil Nadu style meals, but no dinner. Interestingly Kotagiri has got a lot of schools ranging from Government to International Boarding Schools. The main income of the place is from tea and agriculture, tourism has not picked up in this hill station of Nilgiris. Next morning we set off to Ooty to board the long awaited Nilgiri Mountain Railway miniature train. Stay at
Ramesh Vihar Hotel, HRM Buildings, Kamaraj Square (Tel : 04266 271346, dbl Rs 825), better than a few cheapies on the same road.
Did you know Laurie Baker lived at Vagamon before he moved to Thiruvananthapuram circa 1960? Well, it was a serendipity for us when we reached Asha Sadan at Kurisumala.
After the novelty of monsoon showers, it was not a very good idea to ride a motorcycle to Vagamon from Cherthala. There is a shorter route from Cherthala via Vechoor-Edayazham-Kallara-Kuruppunthara-Kuravilangad-Pala-Erattupetta to Vagamon taking around four hours covering 100km by an old Yamaha RX100. Change gears after Erattupetta for winding, steep, war field like roads. The roads are preparing for a complete 4lane conversion and many blasts tore open the mountains. Few sections of the road reminded us of the roads in Arunachal Pradesh.
Deluge of the monsoon season berained the valleys and mountains. At 982m altitude the three hills - Thangalmala, Muruganmala and Kurishumala at Vagamon were wet and cold requiring some warm clothes. There are frequent KSRTC buses from Kottayam and Pala. A few private buses go to Kumily via Vagamon-Elappara. The old house of eco friendly master architect Laurie Baker was bought by a nature lover and he developed Asha Sadan (Tel: 98479914519, 8281723268, dbl Rs.800, www.econestashasadan.com), simple vegetarian meals are not overpriced and very tasty. You can choose from basic rooms, cottages and dormitory. Sagar, the manager claimed upto 250 people have stayed at once there including many Malayalam movie stars. Strolling around a lovely campus of Asha Sadan watching the lush green slopes filled with a thick blanket of fog is sheer bliss. Kurishumala Ashramam is a short walk away.
Four kilometre away from Kurishumala, at the town centre restaurants and lodges greet the tourist. Love Land Home (Tel: 9961017379, dbl Rs.700) is run by Seban and his brother Joji offering rooms and cottages. They can arrange home cooked food. Their mother Mary Kutty runs a restaurant at central junction, Kurishumala.
Vagamon is frequented by college students and youngsters looking for a cool location to consume hot booze. Film making crew and honeymoon couples throng the meadows and tea estates for shooting. Pine Valley, Thangal Para, Kurishumala Ashramam, Kolahalamedu, Suicide Point and cattle unit are the places of interest for 'sight-seeing' tourist.
Travellers can take a ride to Elappara (15km, 1hr) or Elaveezhupoonchira (22km, 2hr) to soak in the complete experience of the Western ghats. We got soaked in the morning, literally, after a ride to Elappara through the bad roads among the hills shrouded in the mist. Elappara is a medium sized town with petrol pump and ATM thriving on tea estate economy. Two roads in opposite direction take you to Kuttikanam and Kattapana from here. If you are driving from Munnar to Thekkady stopping at Vagamon is a good option. Less touristy and more misty.
The traveler is active; he goes strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes 'sight-seeing'. - Daniel Boorstin