Sunday, February 11, 2024

Ooty - visiting the summer capital in monsoon

Karnataka state garden at Ooty
This marks my second trip to Ooty, the summer capital of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. Ooty, along with Kodaikanal, holds significant sentimental value for many. Decades ago, these two destinations were the most sought after honeymoon spots for a considerable number of Keralites. College life was not complete without a tour to these two locations. Even now, many college tours include a stop at Kodaikanal.

During the era of Raj, Ooty served as a major hub for British, offering a climate reminiscent of their native surroundings. The headquarters of the Madras Regiment, then and now, is situated a short distance away from Ooty, in a place called Wellington.


We arrived in Ooty in the afternoon and checked into the TTDC hotel. Mom and aunt settled into their room, while Divya and I set out on foot to explore the city. Covering various central areas of Ooty by walking, we immersed ourselves in the local ambiance. After navigating through multiple streets, we eventually reached the Tibetan market situated in front of the Government Botanical Garden by evening. Deciding to call it a day, we strolled back to the hotel, taking the opportunity to explore the snack stores along the way. Despite not coming across much street food on the roads, perhaps due to it being a Sunday, we were determined not to miss out. Chilli-bajji and couple of other items were really tasty.

Next day morning, after breakfast, we started towards our first destination. 

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Inside toy train

This is a meter-gauge railway, operated by the Southern Railway, stands as a testament to British engineering from the first decade of the twentieth century. It connects Mettupalayam with Ooty (Udagamandalam), traversing picturesque landscapes. Notably, this rail line features a rack system – a set of toothed rails positioned between the tracks, facilitating the train's ascent up steep inclines. Presently, it may be the sole railway line in India which use rack system. Alongside the Darjeeling Mountain Railway, this rail line also shares the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A crucial tip for those who look forward for this unique rail journey: it's important to book tickets in advance through IRCTC or arrive very early at the station for on-the-spot bookings. Failure to do so might result in an extended wait or, worse, missing out on the journey altogether. Arriving later in the morning, I managed to secure a ticket but had to undergo a long wait for my train's arrival. To utilize the time, we decided to explore other nearby destinations while keeping an eye on the ticking clock.

Ketti station

Ooty lake and boathouse

Ooty lake

Our initial destination was the scenic Ooty Lake. We were not sure about taking a boat ride due to persistent rain; so we parked at the boat house and wandered around, exploring our options. Fortunately, the rain eventually lose the moment and a small window opened up. We booked a boat for 7 people as that was the only one available. Fortunately a newly married Bengali couple joined us, bringing the total to six. By the time we reached half way, rain again strengthened but it only enhanced the overall ambiance and made that journey very memorable.

Karnataka State garden

Karnataka state garden

Following the boat ride, our next stop was the Karnataka State Garden. With the persistent rain discouraged many visitors, but it helped to maintain a serene atmosphere with relatively fewer people. Eager to explore despite the weather, we briskly moved from one point to another, seeking refuge under trees and other sheltered spots. Among all the places we visited in Coonoor and Ooty, this garden stood out as my favorite—a meticulously maintained place which offered a visually appealing respite. Our stroll through the garden eventually led us to a restaurant, where a steaming cup of hot tea became a comforting bliss in the cold, wet atmosphere. The rain persisted, but we were undeterred and continue our walk; this time heading to the opposite end of the park. Keeping a watchful eye on the clock, as our train departure time approached, we had to forgo many attractions and swiftly exited the garden, and drove towards the Ooty railway station.

Mountain railway to Ketti and back

From the window

We arrived a bit ahead of the schedule. While aimlessly walking through the platform found a small yet impressive rail museum and the time there was indeed well spent. It's a good way to explore the centuries-old metal structures if you find yourself with some time at the station

Finally our ride came, a picture from the past, our colonial era blue ride. As the train commenced its journey, the rhythmic sounds echoed, and I, seated by the window, embraced the opportunity to enjoy the monsoon socked valleys outside. Raindrops hung delicately from leaves, gracefully descending towards the earth as if to attach salvation. 

Passing through Lovedale, we reached our destination - Ketti. Although I knew little about Ketti when booked the tickets, I hoped for a quick return train. Ketti, though beautiful, seemed almost untouched by passengers disembarking or boarding. Initially, the railway staff mentioned they couldn't issue tickets immediately, insisting they needed to assess the incoming train first. Surveying the station, I noticed a road meandering around one side, devoid of bus stops or taxis. Sitting, standing, walking we spent some more time and finally they issues the tickets for four and soon the train arrived. This time, there were only a handful of passengers on the train, allowing us to occupy any seats we wanted to comfortably view the scenery. Passing through valleys, vast grounds, and tunnels, we eventually arrived at Ooty station. After talking couple of photos in front of "I love Ooty" sign in the station we left the place.

Pykara Falls and Dam

An interesting walkway

Nice view

After lunch, we embarked on our journey to the furthest destination – Pykara falls and dam. As we traversed the road, old memories came back. It was on this stretch, about 15-20 km further in the Gudalur direction, my bike hit head on with SETC bus going to Pollachi. The impact was so severe that I flew in the air and fell down on the road breaking right hand and left leg. Since I had good helmet; steel elbow and knee guard nothing else happened. Whenever you drove via express highways or mountain stretches always use helmet; and good quality elbow and knee guard along with a good crash guard.

Setting aside the haunting memories, I refocused on the road ahead. Enveloped in the earthy scent of fresh rain, the surroundings exuded a distinct vitality. The atmosphere, cleansed by the recent and still ongoing downpour, carried a refreshing fragrance. Eventually, we reached a point on the highway close to the falls and started our walk towards the falls. The waterfall, though small, was good. After looking at the slow moving shallow water for a while, we started walking back to the main road. This region is teeming with monkeys, so it's advisable to be cautious with any food items in hand. If possible, keep them concealed. Next on the list was Wenlock Downs.

Wenlock downs - shooting point

I've always been drawn to the allure of grasslands, envisioning endless walks through damp grass and hours spent lounging amidst the green expanse. We crossed this pace while going to the dam; then thought of coming here while going back to hotel. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the spot, everyone was tired and the idea of a leisurely stroll seemed a bit too much. Regrettably, I had to forgo the visit this time. That being said, it tops the list for my next trip.

Pine forest

Further ahead we saw the pine forest. However, the story remained the same. Everyone was very tired to get down from the vehicle and walk in the light drizzle. One more place for the next trip. 

Chocolate factory

Ooty chocolates are famous in the region, making them a must-buy for anyone visiting. Following suit, I purchased a few packets from a roadside shop. While I personally didn't find anything particularly exceptional about these chocolates, it seems almost customary for visitors to buy them as a souvenir for friends and family.

Returning to the hotel, the evening concluded with dinner and a well-deserved night's sleep. The following morning marked our visit to the last destination on our list—the Ooty Botanical Garden.

Ooty Botanical Garden

Despite mechanically exploring from one point to another after purchasing tickets, the garden left something to be desired. Although a few spots held appeal, the overall experience fell short. With this, our return journey commenced, this time with the plan to re-enter Kerala via the Mulli check post.

Emerald Lake and Dam

At the top

Our final stop on the trip was this dam, situated about 23 km away from the Government Botanical Garden. The journey, marked by numerous turns, felt like a long trip. Eventually, we reached the base of the dam, where a narrow but well-maintained concrete road led us to the top. We parked our car near by and walk towards the dam.

Surprisingly, there were no restrictions on entering the dam structure, and with hardly anyone around—locals or tourists—we had the freedom to explore at our own pace. Walking back and forth, we took our time to look at the crest gates and the expansive lake behind this huge structure. Notably, Avalanche Dam is adjacent to Emerald Dam, separated only by a road. Even though we didn't try, I think one can walk a kilometer and reach that separation road.

This region boasts an abundance of dams and lakes, with Pykara Dam, Mukruti Dam, Porthimund Dam, Parsons Valley Lake, Sandynulla Lake, Glenmorgan Dam, Ooty Lake, Avalanche Lake, and Emerald Dam being the main highlights.

As the rain intensified, we bid farewell to Emerald Dam and resumed our return journey, passing through Avilanji, Gandhikandi, Yedakadu, Kundah Dam, Manjoor, and navigating through numerous hairpin bends. Finally, by noon, we reached the Mulli Forest Check Post on the Tamil Nadu side. So far good, from here all the problems started. 

Mulli TN forest check post

We reached at the Tamil Nadu side of border forest check post. After that there is a short dirt road and then comes Kerala border check post. However, the forest guard stationed there denied us passage, asserting that three cars, had not been signed at the Geddai Dam power plant check post. I recalled seeing this check post, but it was open and unguarded then, so we didn't stop. The car in front of us was also unaware and reached this point without signing a column in notbook. The guard insisted we all go back and sign at the other check post, located about 15 km uphill. Despite our attempts to reason with him, he adamantly pushed for us to return, threatening legal consequences. 

He also mentioned even Salman khan was not able to escape from a wild life/forest case. Its another matter than more than forest department Bishnoi community strongly stood behind blackbuck hunting case as it was a sacred animal for them. But, I don’t know how its relevant here. We were hungry and its noon. If we leave now, we reach Mannarkkad at lunch time. Finally I took a U-turn and drove towards Canada Power plant check post. This time we did see a guard and this time he want us to go all the way back. Which means I need to drive all the way to Glendale (near Coonoor) then use Mettupalayam - Coimbatore - Palakkad - Mannakkad route. I was shocked, it’s a tonne of hairpins and very long wayl!!!

As per him Mulli road is closed and we are not supposed to go via that road. Laster I found out that the road is indeed closed for private transport by order from TN forest department some time back. But all the way till Mulli no one stopped us or diverted us. We even saw a police vehicle while coming to Manjoor. On the ground it was not like that they stopped the traffic completely. While I was going uphill a lot of private cars having Kerala registration were coming in the opposite direction. When we were standing at Canada power plant check post, a Kerala registered car passed through that check post. A political party's names was written next or at the bottom of the number plate in the car. He looked at the car with respect and let it go. I didn’t see anyone in that car signing anywhere. This guard even told us that, those people are political leaders (well we are not!!!). We talked with him for some more time. Every moment passes he become more and more ballistic and finally without any option we drove back to Glendale and then took Mettuapalyam - Coimbatore - Palakkad - Mannarkkad road and reached home after 10 in the night instead of lunch time.

I never understood what went in the head of those two forest guards. At least they could have let us go with a warning or fine us. After all we reached at the other end of that road. Also ours was Karnataka registered car, so at least they can assume that we were not aware about this restriction. We didn’t see any sign anywhere on the road indicating that its closed. Laster on the way to Glendale, when we finally found a place to eat something I asked the hotel owners whether that road is indeed closed. They told that, if you reach there in the night they don't let go otherwise its ok. They never heard about the pass which these were insisting on. 

I think they did what they did because they could do that. 


PS: Some months after this incident happened I send a letter with details to Coimbatore and Nilgiri district's forest officers, copying forest officers from Attapadi range and Palakkad districts of Kerala. No one replied. 

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