Friday, 1 February 2013

Thursday 31st - Steaming in the Nilgiris

R wakes up very early and decides to share the misery. Good job as we arrive 30 minutes early at Mettupalayam where we have to change trains and get the Nilgiri Mountain Railway up to Ooty. We stumble around in the dark for a while until we find the train waiting. We have pole position in the front row of the front coach - it pays to book ahead (120 days ahead). There isn't a great deal of luggage space on this train but we squeeze our stuff onboard and D heads off to watch the men with hammers who appear to be fine tuning the braking system.

The loco for our trip is a Swiss designed oil fired 0-8-2T Indian Railways class X. The unique feature for an Indian line is that the loco propels the coaches uphill from the rear so we lucky types in the front coach get a drivers eye view of the line. The middle section is also very steep - 1 in 12.5 for some stretches - so a rack & pinion system is used to provide the additional grip needed for a steam loco to push a train up this sort of incline.

The train is pretty busy and there is a queue of Waitlisted passengers hoping to get a seat.The TTE manages to get everybody sorted out although some of the tourists jammed into the unreserved coach don't look too happy. They should have visited  IndiaMike when planning their trips. .About 30% of the passengers are non-Indian - the highest concentration of foreign tourists that we have seen anywhere in our three trips to India. Our section of the coach contains ourselves, another British couple and two young Indian couples, one with a toddler - all plus luggage jammed into a space much smaller than a 1AC coupe. Further back a similar sized seating section is supposed to carry 12 people.

In front of us there is a small verandah with a seat for the brakeman who is also armed with an electric hooter, a very feeble searchlight and traditional red and green flags. He is there to spot the signals and any obstructions and indicate these to the driver at the rear of the train. D has discovered yet another ideal job that he missed out on.

When the train gets going we head out through forest and farmland for a few kilometres. The gradients are not too steep but the loco does have to work at times. D is able to get lots of footage (?) on his toy video camera. We come to a station where a couple of chaps join the brakeman on the verandah. They travel a couple of hundred metres and then jump off , apparently to ensure that the loco's apparatus is engaged correctly with the toothed centre rail. Here the spectacular gradients start and the X class has to earn its keep.

As we climb the countryside slowly changes from tropical to more Alpine with conifers and pretty flowering bushes dotted around. The brightly coloured houses and clear blue sky add a Mediterranean touch. The air is distinctly fresher and there is a nice breeze to take the edge off the sun's heat. We start to notice tea plantations on the hillsides. The main intermediate town on the line is Coonoor where the steam engine is removed from the train and a diesel loco with two extra coaches is added to the back. The line from here up to Ooty is still quite steeply graded but is not steep enough to need the rack system. We are soon trundling into Ooty station. In just under 5 hours we have travelled 46 km and climbed from 1069 ft above sea level to 7,228 ft.

There is a bit of a melee at the station where a man as old as Methuselah appears to be touting for work as a porter. He latches on to us as we go to look for a taxi or auto to our hotel. We are quoted 250 and as a knee-jerk reaction D says that is too much. We start to talk to another driver and the price comes down to 200. The autos here are bigger than the Delhi ones and there is a luggage compartment at the rear. Methuselah reappears to claim his tip. We drive off into town, out of the other side and start to climb a potholed mountain road.

This becomes a track by the time we get to the Sherlock hotel, a small place with a beautiful garden and friendly staff. We are shown to our room where tea is served and then D completes the registration formalities. The hotel has a Sherlock Holmes theme and all of the rooms are named for characters in Conan Doyle's stories. Ours is "Black Peter" named for an unpleasant Dundonian sea-farer who featured asn the victim in a story in "The Return of Sherlock Holmes".

The room has its own conservatory looking over the garden, with a table set for tea. Very redolent of the Raj.  In the room itself we have a fireplace , derigueur for a genuine hill station, and there is a television with BBC news. The bathroom is large enough to hold a dance in. An artistic member of staff has created delightful towel sculptures as part of our welcome.

After freshening up we asked reception to order an auto for us.A young man soon appeared with his steed, bringing the precious cargo of cold beers for tonight. These have to be ordered in advance so woe betide anybody who works up a late thirst. The autoist knows the road so well that he is able to freewheel with the engine switched off for much of the trip down into the town centre. We are not too sure where Indian traffic regulations stand on this but soon learned that they all do it.

Ooty town centre is unlike the other hill stations we have visited. It occupies a relatively level spot surrounded by hills as opposed to being on the side or top of a mountain. There is, apparently, great risk to lower appendages. For the newcomer the layout is a little confusing and we walked up to a church in the belief that it was the famous one to discover that we were somewhere else altogether.

The shops in the centre of town are a mixed bunch. In a Kerala Government craft shop where we sought some shade we were greeted with apathy of the highest order. How refreshing. As we were about to leave we even found something that we wanted to buy. We were not popular. There was a very good bookshop as long as you liked P.G. Wodehouse, Jeffrey Archer, Salman Rushdie or Wilbur Smith. The complete Blandings Castle anthology was tempting. We spent a good 20 minutes in a fascinating supermarket that seemed to specialise in stocking brands from 1958. Mindful of the road back to the hotel we made certain that we returned well before nightfall.

We dined in "Adler's" , the in-house restaurant, which is named after Sherlock's ideal woman. Despite having a log fire this was quite a chilly room until our spicy pappads arrived. The beers turned out to be extra strong Kingfisher Reds and this lethal combination gives us today's thread title. We ordered too much food and it was a shame not to finish the excellent dishes provided. The manager has promised R his recipe for Potato and Cauliflower curry. Back in our room the fire had been lit and hot water bottles provided.


  1. I look forward to the video!

    Ummm, if you were in the front carriage how could the driver see where he was going? Silly question, I know.

    Oh and Toe Away Zone means 'Shoes and Socks please, no chappals'

  2. You will just have to wait for the movie to be released.