If you’re looking for reasons to travel the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, you could start with the sound of the train whistle. The romantic, mournful, old-world hooting of the steam engine, echoing through eucalyptus groves and tea plantations, captures a great deal about this sentimental journey. Or perhaps I’m just thinking of ‘Mere Sapnon ki Rani’. For this is the thing about the Nilgiri rail — it’s not just a train journey, it’s a slow-motion, toysized version of a train journey against movie-set backdrops and across bridges strung at daredevil altitudes.
It provokes nostalgia I’m not sure for what — perhaps the 19th century, perhaps old songs with steam engines in them, perhaps the bygone rituals of train travel, like getting off every few kilometres at quaintly-named stations like Lovedale and Runnymede to watch sooty men rake ashes out of the engine’s belly and direct hoses into the water tanks. The journey is properly begun several hours or even the day before departure at the Mettupalaiyam Railway Station. Mettupalaiyam town is small and located in western Tamil Nadu (at a height of 1,071 ft). Like all stops on this route, this is a proud and neat little island of a station that acquires a sudden air of self-importance around the coming and going of the hill train, and then lapses back into sleepy anonymity.
However, you only have to advance towards the spare steam engine in its open shed or start inspecting the carriages, and someone will materialise to explain what is what. In our case, Muthu, a porter of twenty years’ standing, who is marvellously fluent in broken English, shows us the many-levered interiors of the engine, the double ‘rack’ fitted in the track into which locks the engine’s cog-like third wheel or pinion, the coaches with stuffed sofas and lacy curtains reserved for use by railway officers. Muthu leaves us with strict instructions to sit on the left side of the carriage during the journey; if you sit on the right you miss the views. The send-off at 7.10 AM the next morning, with brakemen running hither-thither and the collective yell of liberation as the train creaks into motion, includes the most scrumptious idli-sambar on earth, casually wrapped in newspaper by the station canteen staff. In the second class carriages, half the passengers sit facing the other half.
A large group of college students from Kerala sing film songs, dance in the narrow aisles, eat vast amounts of chips, howl through every tunnel, and cheer every time a turn around a switchback bend reveals a new aspect of the softlyoutlined, towering Nilgiris. They sustain the celebration for the threeand- a-half hours till Coonoor, and it’s hard not to share in it. The view is a constant play of perspectives: vistas of thickly forested hills, breathtaking plunges, leafy walls carved out of mountains, so close one can reach out and pluck wildflowers off them (as the students do), and finally, as one nears Coonoor, the neat weave of tea plantations with protective silver oaks standing upright amidst them.
On bridges (the train apparently goes over some 250 of them) you can look down through the window and see the rough-hewn ends of the wooden sleepers sticking out of the tracks and then nothing except the sheer drop below. At Hill Grove, one of the frequent stops on this winding journey, while passengers throw bits of vada at the hordes of monkeys on the station roof, Mahalingam, the brakeman, points out to me a plaque on a carriage that says ‘1931’.
“But it was refurbished in 1965,” he announces, and in fact many of the carriages have engravings marking the date and place of their refurbishment. Establishing dates is important to the NMR staff and everyone agrees that the steam engines themselves, though overhauled several times, are at least a hundred years old. When I ask Mahalingam why we stop so often, he points to the water tanks on either side of the engine. “The train uses up 4,000 litres of water every 5 km. So every 5 km we have to refill.”
A diesel engine wouldn’t be able to scale these heights, he adds with satisfaction. The gradient is the steepest for a railway line in Asia — 1:12.5 (for every 12.5 km that the train covers, it climbs 1 km). Then the comic parping is, for once, taken seriously, cigarettes are snuffed out, final photos clicked, and then everyone clambers aboard and we’re off again, leaving the monkeys to wait for the down train.
The engine sits at the rear and pushes the train up, which seems like a precarious operation but appears to work. Even “the most destructing disaster” of 1993 (as recorded on a board at one of the stations), when a landslide washed away 200m of the track, doesn’t appear to have affected the train except for the suspension of traffic for three months. The station master at Coonoor assures me, when we reach, that on a regular day even I could be station master. He then works the Victorian looking signalling machine, called Neale’s Tablet Token Instrument, to give clearance to a train coming from Wellington. The machine issues tokens, that are handed over to train drivers, signalling permission to enter a station, and only one token can be issued for one direction at a time.
The machine is electrically connected to others at adjoining stations. It seems impressively complicated and I’m not sure I want to be station master even on an uneventful day. Later, I read in the latest issue of The Local, a chatty broadsheet that proudly features NMR as the ‘Face of the District’, that the tennis-racketwithout- netting contraption the staff carry around, is actually a receptacle for receiving and dispensing these tokens. “The circular shape of the bamboo enables easy slinging onto the railway man’s shoulder when receiving it from a moving train that is entering the platform,” informs The Local. Of such delightfully arcane details does the NMR experience consist!
After turning a few knobs on the instrument and speaking into an ancient black mouthpiece attached to it, the station master (who wishes to remain anonymous) sits down to tell me about how the NMR was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005 and how they must do all they can to preserve it. “Just yesterday,” he says, signalling through the window at three modern-looking, dark blue coaches, “we have launched a special train that can be chartered to take 200 persons.” At the Loco Shed, the loco foreman punctures some of the romantic aura around steam locomotives by informing me that three of NMR’s six engines have been converted to run on furnace oil. Coal costs INR 7 a kilo and INR 30,000 worth of it are used up in a single run from Mettupalaiyam to Coonoor. “And we get only INR 2,000-3,000 from ticket sales,” he says. I ask him if they will, all the same, preserve the remaining coal engines. He nods gravely — keeping the ‘toy’ train running is serious business. After many false starts and proposals for railways lines on different sections, the Mettupalaiyam- Coonoor line was finally inaugurated in 1899. Nine years later, in 1908, the line was extended to Ooty.
The Ooty- Coonoor section is less steep than the rest, so the engine runs on diesel. One of the ‘sights’ at Coonoor Station is the shunting of the steam engine and the attaching of the diesel one, with many waves of the green flag to direct the engine into place and screwing on of bolts with giant spanners. On the Coonoor-Ooty section, the view is ambidextrous. Sitting this time in a first class compartment after another meal of outstanding idlis, we have a be-capped brakeman right before us who taps on our window every few minutes, directing us to gaze left or right depending on which tea plantation or small settlement he feels is sight-worthy.
Every coach has its own brakeman, who sits in a little verandah out in front and for whom signs in trainspeak are painted on the coach such as “Apply pinion brake partially while working down trains to avoid pull load on the loco pinion”. The scary jargon notwithstanding, the job seems to essentially involve waving flags at appropriate moments. Perhaps I could start as a brakeman and then work my way up to station master. It makes sense to break journey in Coonoor and take the 7.45 AM train to Ooty the next day. In the offseason, at least, you can have a first class compartment to yourself, and your private brakeman-cum-guide to inform you that you are entering a tunnel, or that “this station stop 10 minutes, eat breakfast”. The next morning, finally, and yet all too soon, we roll into Ooty city.
We have covered a total distance of 46 km at the pace of a jog, and yet the one desire the journey evokes in us is to do it all over again. For NMR belongs to a time when the railways were called the Great Indian Peninsular Railways, when train travel was about taking in the landscape, and when the Toda tribals wrote poetry about trains and christened this one, “a darling buffalo with earrings and loops”!
The secret to getting the best out of a trip to Ooty (7,228 ft) is this: go offseason. The low season is far from desolate here. Every comfort is still on offer, with the blessed addition of elbow room. All it takes is an umbrella and a change of socks to taste the endless charms of these hills on your own terms. This Ooty is a series of piquant montages: the sun lighting up one hill even as the next remains shrouded in green velvet; ponies contentedly chomping grass by the kerbside; the sharp fragrance of ghostly pines lining a mist-laden road; the aroma of hot filter coffee and even hotter sambhar. Walks and rides are probably the best way to enjoy a holiday here.
An abiding delight are the Botanical Gardens, spread over 65 acres, laid out in 1847. Species of a temperate climate, maple, oak, laurel and azalea are planted here alongside fleshier tropicals and rich collections of flowers. The main attraction is the fossilised tree trunk — all of 20 million years old. The 21/2-km-long Ooty Lake with wooded banks to the west of the town was artificially created in 1824 by John Sullivan, Collector of Coimbatore. Boating and pony rides are available. Nineteenth-century architecture persists in clusters, notably near the Collector’s Office, where the Union Church, the State Bank of India and the Oriental Building stand. The picturesque St Stephen’s Church (1829) is the oldest church in the Nilgiris, with modest Gothic arches, yielding cane pews and pretty clerestory windows.
The churchyard rises in steps behind the building, offering distant views and atmosphere in spades. Union Church and Holy Trinity Church, with lovely stained glass windows, intricately carved pews, and tranquil cemeteries, are worth a dekko. There are a number of trekking routes from Ooty. The highest peak in the Blue Mountains, at 8,606 ft — Dodda Betta or Big Mountain — is a mere 10 km from Ooty, offering unmatched vistas of the Nilgiri Range. In clear weather, you can see Ooty town, Ketty Valley, Coonoor and Wellington cantonment, Avalanche Dam and Mukurthi.
Wenlock Downs, Ooty’s most popular picnic spot, is a vast expanse (20,000 acres!) of undulating landscape, which used to be the ground for the Ooty Hunt. Today, the Downs encompasses the Gymkhana Club, the Government Sheep Farm and the Hindustan Photo Films Company; a great walk along grassy knolls and quiet roads. Cairn Hill is about 3 km on the road to Avalanche Lake and really is one of the last original walks. The entrance road to the hill is flanked by dense cypress trees, with a serenity that is only complemented by birdsong. An excellent picnic spot.
Avalanche is a beautiful lake hedged by a shola and overrun with avifauna. In season, mist-wrapped Coonoor (about 6,100 ft) with the emerald green of the tea bushes sharply offset by blood-red poinsettia, purple morning glory and golden sunflowers, is a regal sight. Coonoor has a fresher feel to it than Ooty and is a wonderful option for those who, to some extent at least, want their hill-stations to themselves. Touches of the Raj remain all over: honeysuckle-fronted cottages named ‘The Gables’ and ‘Gorse View’ sit pretty on the side of winding pinehedged lanes; there’s Bedford and Elk Hill; and there are the graveyards where many a Colonel Hughes and Miss Jones rest in eternal peace.
Walking in the terraced Sim’s Park, making the slow descent down to the small lake at the bed of the ravine, marvelling in the seeming ancientness of those 19th and early 20th century trees is among the best things one can do in Coonoor. The park was laid out in 1874 in a deep ravine, with winding footpaths, pergolas, gazebos, a lily pond and a dense shola skirting it. Its marvellous trees — as many as a thousand species including the Burma teak, the rudraksh, mahogany, birch, Spanish cherry — were brought from as far away as Australia, the Canary Islands, Chile, Patagonia…. Law’s Falls, which fall from a height of 180 ft, are on the Mettupalaiyam Road, 7 km from Coonoor. Checking out the history of the town’s colonial establishments can be fun too. The Gateway Hotel, once Hampton Manor, was a priory, a hotel and then a private residence before being bought up on an impulse by a certain Australian serviceman called Cameron who was ‘a law unto himself The Neemrana-run Wallwood Garden was once known as Blair Athol after the home village of the Scottish major who built it.
To one side of Coonoor lies the cantonment of Wellington (3 km/ 10 mins), home to the prestigious Defence Services Staff College. The Wellington Golf Course nearby is hugely popular with film crews. Just beyond the golf course lies the Hidden Valley, a great trekking route. Another Raj relic nearby is St George’s Church, tucked away amidst blue gum trees. En route from Ooty to Coonoor, the road winds high above a lush valley where yellow gorse and lavender flowers bloom in season. This is Ketty (8 km/ 20 mins from Ooty). It has remained largely unspoiled; some remember seeing Shah Rukh Khan atop a train singing Chaiyya chaiyya pass the pretty station here.
By Anjum Hasan
Anjum Hasan is the author of the novel Lunatic in My Head and the book of poems Street on the Hill. She lives in Bangalore and is an occassional contributor to Outlook Traveller.