So.. and having escaped the attention of savage wild tigers or being trampled underfoot by charging elephants I left Mudumalai Park and climbed up through the clouds to find myself at the settlement of ‘OttaikalMandu‘ (Ooty). But it looked a bit crap…
The Nilgiri hills form a low crescent stretching across the three states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. The popular tourist town of Udhagamandalam or ‘Ooty’, at an altitude of 2,240m, is just under 500m lower than Doddabetta; ‘the highest peak of South India’ which is just a few kilometres further to the South. The British, under the guise of the East India Company, took a liking to the area and its alpine like climate. They acquired possession of the land from the spoils of the defeated Tipu Sultan in 1799. Ootacamund, as the British renamed it, was joyfully described as the ‘Queen of the hill stations’ for its natural beauty and pleasant climate. It soon became fashionable as the perfect place to escape the stifling heat of the Indian plains. As the Summer residency for the governor of Madras, wealthy businessman and maharajas, ‘Ooty’ became a ‘little England’ and host to the games, sports and interests of the ruling elite.
Several features of this English aristocratic occupation still endure today in the form of boarding schools and horse racing. The main town encircles a large area devoted to equine sports including a race course. I took a walk across it past the blue striped grandstand and stables. But unbridled commercial development has robbed ‘snooty’ Ooty of much of its charm. It has become an ugly Indian tourist destination of quite frightening proportions.
I have cycled and visited some pretty awesome hill stations in India before and had hoped to find something.. somewhere special secreted high amongst the clouds. But Ooty revealed itself to be nothing less than an oversubscribed high street of commercial opportunity. With the attraction of a weekend in Skegness and atmosphere similar to Luton on a cold wet day I knew that this really wasn’t my kind of place. But, and to be fair, I gather that once off the beaten track the area has a lot to offer. But I wouldn’t find it. A contact who had schooled locally sent me in the direction of the YWCA hostel for accommodation. This proved to be an oasis of calm and the perfect place to land my gear. A guy staying there was trying to arrange to go trekking into more remote parts of the Nilgiri hills. But this was proving difficult as such activities become translated by local companies into guided tours more suited for Indian holidaymakers. However, and given the over development and high population, I would be surprised to find anywhere outside of the national parks that could be regarded as ‘remote’ or unspoilt.
Over the course of my few days in Ooty I walked over much of it. I had hoped the nearby boating lake would reveal another, more tranquil, side to Ooty. But rubbish is piled up on its shores and it is surrounded by hotels. One side of it is dominated by a dinosaur theme park. The ‘Tibetan market’ next to the botanical gardens caught my eye. This turned out to be a row of shop stalls selling cheap chinese toys and clothes. The town is an important centre for trade for the region with an extensive open market and wholesale auction at its centre. The proved to be the highlight of my stay and quite possibly Ooty’s best attraction. I love a good market and this one was huge!
In many respects the jewel in the crown of Ooty is its Udhagamandalam railway station and the terminus for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. Part built with Swiss ingenuity the railway includes a rack and pinion system that allows it to traverse the steepest parts of its route towards the city of Coimbatore. Built by the British in 1908 the railway gained its status as a World Heritage site in 2007.
I woke early and queued for about an hour to get a 15 rupee one way train ticket. But when I was within a few feet of the ticket counter the window shutter slammed shut. All the tickets had been sold. It was slightly frustrating as the queue had turned into a scrum as the train’s departure time approached. It was so unfair! But I returned for a later train having walked across town to get a phone data plan sorted and visited the market. I took the lunchtime train to Coonoor (used as a location for the film ‘A Passage to India’) where I had tea, visited a hindu temple, walked around the market and had a superb masala dosa close to the station. It was all good fun.