The orchard dream in Ootacamund

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January 11th 2015
Published: February 15th 2015
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We woke early at 5am, once again beating the 5.30am call to prayer. We had a long travel day (seven and a half hours) ahead, as we were leaving Kochi and travelling north to Ooty (or Ootacamund as it appears on most maps). We sat down to a plate of dosa (thin pancakes made from fermented rice and black lentils batter) with coconut chutney for breakfast at 7am. Bowls of fresh bananas and watermelon were on the table, and I had a pot of masala chai (spiced sweet milky tea) while Ren had a tea. It was a great start to the day.

We left our Fort Kochi homestay (Kaliveedu Lodge) at 7.45am and headed to the Ernakulam train station for the first of our two travel legs to Ooty – a four hour train trip followed by a three and a half hour bus trip. The train station was reasonably small and easy to negotiate. The train was dilapidated with basic toilets, but we were lucky to be in a second class cabin with air conditioning. Wallahs (sellers) carrying coffee, chai (tea), rice with curries and deep fried snacks were walking through the cabins selling their wares, and I acclimatised myself to their incessant yelling of “biryani, biryani, biryani” and “chai, chai, chai” over the next four hours. We left Kochi at 9am and embarked on our long journey north.

I grabbed a masala chai from one of the chai wallahs (tea sellers) at 10.30am and it was fantastic. The gentle rocking of the train was mesmerising, and I began to drift in and out of sleep and in and out of the numerous conversations of people around me until all I could hear was the distant white noise of voices.

We arrived at Coimbatore train station at 1pm, jumped into a minibus and travelled 15 minutes to Sree Annapoorna / Sree Gowrishankar, our lunch stop. It was a fantastic place, and we had unlimited rice and curries for $1.70 AUD (the spicy dahl was the highlight). This is how I’d always imagined Indian food. We ordered the ‘South Indian Meal’, which arrived on a large round thali plate with rice in the middle and a number of different curries in small metal bowls around the outside The curries were dahl (lentils) with ghee (clarified butter), sambar (thin vegetable curry), special kulambu (spicy dhal based gravy), rasam (spicy tamarind broth), kootu (mixed vegetables in dhal sauce), curd (yoghurt), lime pickle and rice payasam (rice pudding with brown molasses, coconut milk, spices, cashews and raisins). The plate was topped with a gigantic appalam (pappadam). The waiting staff walked around replenishing each curry as soon you finished eating it, so you didn’t get the feeling that you were close to finishing your meal. Your plate always looked like you hadn’t started eating. We were in a noisy rest stop on the side of a busy road, and we were the only non-locals. We were in travel heaven.

We finished the meal at 2pm and had to cross a very busy road to get to the minibus. We were crossing together and the majority of traffic had stopped, but one rogue motor bike was speeding through on the outside lane and Ren (who was in front) didn’t see him coming. We screamed, Ren stopped and the motorbike screeched to a halt only centimetres from her feet. Disaster averted!

We jumped in the minibus and started the second leg of our journey to the hill town of Ooty. We passed through highly populated city areas until we slowly transitioned into rural India. The traffic madness began to subside and less and less people lined the roadside. Mountains loomed in front of us, and I knew we had a long and winding road ahead. We’d been travelling since 9am, and I began to wish I was still on the morning train (train travel is far more comfortable than sitting in a minibus climbing a mountain road).

We had a quick stop around 3pm before setting off on our final assault on Ooty. We had another two hours of this spectacular (and at times terrifying) ascent into the greenery of Tamil Nadu’s higher plateau. We met public buses driving at break-neck speeds and we passed slow trucks on blind corners with steep drop-offs and no guard rails. We also had to stop for a wild elephant who had settled down in the middle of the road. The traffic build up was incredible, so a group of truck and bus drivers tried to persuade him/her to walk a few metres to the steep terrain off the side of the road. When our wild elephant finally decided to move, we continued through palm and banana plantations as we climbed to the hill station of Ooty (which is 2240 metres above sea level).

We finally arrived at Hotel Nahar Nilgiris at 5.30pm. It was cold – really cold – and the hotel room was icy. I quickly showered and piled on as many clothes as I could manage. It was hard to believe that nine hours ago we had been sweltering in the morning heat of Kochi.

We walked to Hotel Alagapuri Bar for some very welcome pre-dinner drinks. This was without doubt, one of the seediest bars I’ve ever been in, but it was fantastic. A friendly guy served our drinks and made sure we had finger snacks on our table. It was very dark inside the tiny bar (which was ironically called a family bar), but our eyes acclimatised and we recovered from the day’s travels with lukewarm local beer. We eventually headed around the corner to the ‘Non-Veg’ Hotel Durga and ordered from the ‘Veg’ Spice Restaurant menu, where we shared an aloo gobi masala (potato and cauliflower curry) with naans (leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven) and chapathis (unleavened whole wheat flour flat bread, cooked on a dry skillet). It was fantastic.

We walked back to the hotel in the cold night air and settled into the hotel lobby. A fellow traveller had some whiskey which we all shared, but the night manager informed us that the consumption of alcohol was not allowed in the hotel, so we wrapped up the night and headed to our icy cold room. It had been a long but enjoyable travel day, and we were well and truly ready for bed.

The previous travel day had taken its toll – we slept in! We woke at 6.30am to a freezing cold room. We walked out into the brisk morning air and wandered around the streets of Ooty. A few locals were standing around a tiny street shop, and they called us over. We had a glass of chai on the street at Shri Ragavendra Bangalore Iyengar’s Bakery and Sweets. They were very friendly and the chai was very welcome and warming. We headed back to the hotel for breakfast at Hotel Nahar Nilgiris restaurant. I had the set dosa (dosa with coconut chutney, sambar, tomato and coriander curries) with cardamom chai (cardamom spiced tea), and it was fantastic.

At 9am we jumped into a minibus and headed to the Highfield Tea Factory in Coonoor. On our way were drove through a military training facility, and I was intrigued by the mix of military and tourist advertising banners that lined the road. We arrived at the tea factory at 10am and wandered around the plantation before touring the factory itself. At the end of the tour we sampled a few tea varieties and picked up a packet of premium tea, a bag of ginger sweets and a bag of sugared fennel sweets (often offered in a small bowl at the end of a meal). We jumped back into the minibus at 11.30am and headed to the Coonoor train station to catch what the locals referred to as a ‘toy train’ back to Ooty. We picked up some samosas (fried conical pastries filled with spiced potatoes and peas) and masala chai on the platform while we waited, and they were surprisingly good. We clambered onto the train at 12.30pm for our scenic trip back to Ooty, arriving at Udhagamandalam station at 1.45pm. We walked to the entrance of the Botanical Gardens and had a lemon tea at Kashali Cafe before heading into the gardens. The gardens were a little unkempt, but they were tranquil and had a great family atmosphere. We wandered through the markets outside the garden gates before walking back to the main township of Ooty.

We had a quick drink at our favourite family bar (Hotel Alagapuri Bar) before jumping into auto rickshaws (motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin) and heading out to dinner at the Fortune Resort Hotel. One of our fellow travellers (Damien from Ireland) was celebrating his 50th birthday, so we picked up a cake on the way. Balancing a decorated cake on my knees in an auto rickshaw on a bumpy road with two other people is not easy. The resort restaurant was comfortable and plush. I had the tandoori aloo (potatoes stuffed with cashews, green chillies and coriander and baked in a tandoor oven) and Ren had the kadai ke karishme (Indian cottage cheese, mushrooms and mixed vegetables in spicy tomato onion gravy) which we shared with rice and naans.

It was a cold trip back to the hotel in the auto rickshaw, so we gathered in Damien’s bedroom for a whiskey, as we were unable to drink alcohol in the lobby (which had an open fire). Turning 50 is a big milestone, and it had been great to share it with Damien in Ooty.

It was an early start in Kochi, but as usual the various muezzins in the mosque minarets meant our alarm was not needed. We were leaving the hot and humid coastal city of Fort Kochi in Kerala and travelling north to one of India’s more famous hill stations, Ootacamund in Tamil Nadu. Ootacamund or Ooty is one of the three hill stations in the Nilgiri ranges (Blue Mountains) and has much colder weather.

The Kaliveedu Lodge breakfast of dosas (thin pancakes made from fermented rice and black lentils batter, cooked on a griddle) with creamy coconut chutney and a dollop of spicy pickle was delicious. It was a bit of a rushed breakfast, as I had been too tired to pack the night before and now I only had 15 minutes before we left for the station.

Our packs were loaded onto a convoy of cars for the 30 minute trip from the Kaliveedu Lodge to the train station in Ernakulam, which is on the Kochi mainland. We were catching a train for the four hour trip to Coimbatore. It was a Sunday morning and the station wasn’t overly busy at 9am. The train was already on the platform and we boarded straight away.

We travelled in the train’s second class with AC chair carriage. It was comfortable and clean-ish. Once the train had started moving the aircon kicked into overdrive and I had to do my best impersonation of an Eskimo with my hoodie and scarf to keep warm. What is with Asia's confusion with air conditioning and refrigerant??

The train was full of action – there were wallahs (sellers) constantly walking up and down the carriage aisles offering chai (tea), coffee, cold drinks, vadais (fried savoury lentils fritters), biryani (dish of spiced rice and meat or vegetables) and other snacks. We were still full from breakfast so we didn't buy any snacks, but I was very tempted. We bought a chai which was totally delicious and only 7 rupees for a small cup. After I caught up on my notes, I napped for a little while as the train snaked itself into the hills. Between naps, people watching and the wallahs with their calls of chai-chai-chai and kopi-kopi-kofffeeeee, the trip went very quickly.

We arrived in Coimbatore at 1pm and transferred to a small non-AC minibus for the three hour drive to Ootacamund. We first drove through the outskirts of Coimbatore and the roads were a concrete construction maze.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant on the edge of the city, part of the Annapoorna chain. It was a vast cafeteria, and the service was very quick. We all ordered the vegetarian thali meals, which made us realise we'd been having the sanitised/tourist versions of it in Kochi. This was the real deal. A thali meal involves a large circular tin plate filled up with various versions of dhal (lentils), spicy vegetable curries, curd, pickles, pappadams and rice. We were free to devour the dishes in whatever way we preferred (and devoured we did!). The unique thing about this meal was the waiters who walked around the restaurant, constantly adding more curries onto the plate... and there was also a steady flow of rice. I’d read and heard of thali meals, but no one had mentioned the free flowing food.

Apart from having seafood and fish curries in Kochi (on the west coast) and Mamallapurum (when we get to the east coast), we had decided to be vegetarian on this trip in India. When vegetarian meals are cooked so well, it's so easy to be vegetarian. After that fantastic meal, we continued our journey.

We have been on many scary roads throughout Asia, but comparatively I would have to say that one has not experienced the true meaning of ‘terrifying’ until one has travelled on the roads of India! The roads themselves are not in bad condition; it’s just that the drivers are beyond crazy! The minibus drove through small villages and farmlets as it made its way towards the Nilgiri Hills. The road started getting curvy, and then turned into a tortuous series of hairpin bends up into the hills towards Ootacamund. The view was stunning, but I kept my eyes on the road as the minibus wound back and forth, overtaking trucks and jeeps on blind corners at every opportunity with an ever-present soundtrack of honking of horns. There was a large sign forbidding speeding around corners, and it was dented and nearly bent in two, quite possibly by a vehicle hurtling around that corner. Oh the irony. The trip was exciting, thrilling, downright scary and slightly sickening all at once.

The trip was supposed to take three hours but took a bit longer due to the traffic we encountered when we had to stop for a wild elephant on the road. The poor elephant had probably been trying to cross the hilly road but couldn't due to the constant stream of traffic in both directions. By the time we got to the part of the road where it was, it had gone down an embankment and looked stuck, dazed and confused – but was still munching away on some leaves. We also saw a lot of monkeys – bonnet macaques – who were casually strolling along the road, seemingly not thinking that the cars and trucks were a threat.

Ootacamund is commonly known as Ooty, and when it was a British hill station it was known as Snooty Ooty (it is thought that the game of snooker was named and possibly even invented here). Ooty was a popular summer retreat in the time of the British Raj, famous for exclusive polo gatherings and elite parties (thus the ‘snooty’ in snooty ooty). At first glance Ooty didn’t seem to be an especially pretty town, with the usual crazy traffic, unplanned streets and random concrete buildings in various states of construction. However, there were spectacular looking tea plantations that dotted the surrounding hills, and a cool ‘Toy Train’ (miniature steam train) that ran through the Nilgiri Mountains. There were also (surprisingly) many chocolate and sweet shops. The town’s sales pitch / brochures seem to focus very heavily on its old British Hill Station notoriety, even though its street culture is decidedly Indian. We were in Tamil Nadu now, but Tamil wasn’t the only language I heard spoken, possibly because Ooty sits close to the three state borders of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.

We checked into our hotel – Hotel Nahar Nilgiris, which looked quite grand on approach. The rooms were very comfortable and large, but given it was quite cold here with no in-room heating, marble floors probably weren't the best choice of flooring in the bathrooms.

After we checked in we both had to have hot showers to thaw after the sudden chill of climbing into the mountains. We met at the lobby at 7pm for dinner, but we decided to go to dinner via a bar. Finding a local bar in Ooty was no mean feat. The first one we went to was deemed too seedy, so we found ourselves at Hotel Alagapuri Bar, where Kim and I were the only females in the whole place (even in the oddly named Family Bar area). We had far more pre-dinner drinks than we had planned on having, and by the time we got to dinner at Hotel Durga we were all very happy campers. Andrew and I ordered from the ‘veg’ menu (from the restaurant next door) and shared an aloo gobi masala (potato and cauliflower curry) with naans (fluffy leavened bread traditionally cooked in a wood fired tandoor oven) and chapathis (unleavened whole wheat flour flat bread cooked on a dry skillet and then browned and puffed up on an open flame). The masala chai was one of the best we've had to date. This restaurant offered fantastic food in the most nondescript of spaces. We would never have thought to try it without Karni's inside knowledge. It was a most fabulous night with Karni, Rao, Damien, Brian, Kim and Lee – the perfect way for us to celebrate Damien's birthday eve. We'd had such a good night that we barely noticed the temperature had dropped to about two degrees as we stumbled back down the hill to our hotel.

Damien had some duty free whiskey in his pack and he had the great idea of sneakily congregating at reception for some drinks. We ordered cokes to surreptitiously get glasses and then poured shots of Jameson whiskey into them. We felt like a bunch of teenagers hiding drinks from the adults. However, we clearly didn't do a very good job, because the hotel manager came over and informed us that the hotel lobby wasn't a licensed area and we'd have to move on. It must have been our raucous laughter and thigh slapping that gave it away.

After a cold night huddled under two blankets each, we met Brian in the lobby at 7am, walked the streets and had a chai at one of the many shops lining the street. It was a very brisk morning and the locals were standing in groups wherever there was a sunny patch on the road. The chais were steaming hot and very welcome. We asked the friendly man at the chai shop where he would suggest for breakfast, but none of his suggested eateries opened before 8:30am.

We walked back to the hotel and joined Lee, Kim and Damien for breakfast at the hotel's Garden Restaurant. I wasn't hungry and just opted for two cardamom chais (cardamom spiced teas). They were really delicious. Andrew had a dosa with the usual accompaniments of chutneys and sambars (thin vegetable curries).

We were ready for departure as scheduled at 9am. There were two six-seater four wheel drives to take us around for the day. I was excited, as it was the morning of ‘The Ooty Tea Party Day’! Well, I probably should explain – we were checking out a tea plantation and factory and catching the famous miniature Toy Train from Coonoor back to Ooty... and given my love of Alice in Wonderland-esque fancy, it seemed like a logical name for the day. Coonoor is another hill station, but it looked more densely populated than Ooty.

Our first stop was at a lookout in Wellington, a settlement between Ooty and Coonoor. There were stunning views of the lush green valley spread around us. We got back into the four wheel drives and drove to our next stop, the nearby Swarmy and Swarmy Tea Plantation and Highfield Tea Factory.

Before I write about the tea plantation visit, I want to share something that had astounded me when I read it... India is the top consumer of tea in the world, but this wasn’t always the case. While tea is native to the subcontinent, it wasn’t until after the British had established plantations to supply the UK that the Indian tea plant was cultivated! Apparently for decades nearly all of India’s tea was exported, and it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the Indian Tea Association was formed to promote tea drinking within the country. And they’ve certainly done a good job!

Wherever we have been so far, we’ve never been far from a chai wallah (tea seller) with trays of sweet milky tea in steaming glasses. They say that each Indian region has a different way they like to drink their tea – here in the south they predominantly like their chai with just milk and sugar, double brewed with a fistful of black tea. However, influences from the northeast have brought in the masala chai (spiced sweet milky tea) which can be infused with all or any of the following spices – ginger, clove, cardamom, cinnamon and black pepper. I have also been told that in the north they have a ginger version that is finished off with a sprinkle of pink salt or threads of saffron. I really hope I get to try that!

Anyway, back to the tea plantation visit in Coonoor. Tea plantations are set out similarly to vineyards – on steep hillsides so that there is adequate drainage. Tea plants are actually tea trees that are manicured to remain as bushes (similar to maintaining a bonsai tree but on a larger scale). Scattered among the tea bushes were white oak trees that absorb a significant amount of water during the wet season and release it in the dry season. The oak trees are also harvested for firewood.

When we got there the tea pickers were having their morning break on the slopes close to the factory. They were sitting in the shade of the tea bushes with little silver tumblers of tea. They were very accommodating about being photographed. We learnt about white, green and black tea, including their differences, benefits, qualities and tastes. The factory machinery wasn't operating as they hadn't picked enough tea over the weekend, but we still got a tour of the plant – from sorting to drying to packaging the tea. In the depths of the factory a man was sitting on the floor in the packaging area, and he was covered in the fine orange-brown tea dust that seemed to have settled on everything in the factory.

Finally it was time to taste the products. Tea purists, you may wish to avert your eyes. The teas came in plain, masala (mixed spices), ginger or chocolate varieties. There was an expensive white tea as well, but they weren’t handing out freebies of that one. The chocolate tea was surprisingly good (made by mixing cocoa into the leaves), but the masala tea and ginger tea were not that brilliant. We bought some black tea to take home with us for elevenses. 😊

We were then dropped off at Coonoor Station for the Toy Train ride. There were several small blue carriages lined on the very narrow tracks, looking as if they were waiting for the Fat Controller to arrive. Our little nephew who loves Thomas the Tank Engine would have been in heaven. We took advantage of the platform catering service... one beaming chai wallah was doing a roaring trade in drinks and food out of a little stall. I thought I was buying one samosa (fried conical pastries filled with spiced potatoes and peas) for 20 rupees, but turned out I got a pack of five for 20 rupees! And they were delicious.

The Toy Train is apparently usually packed, but when the little blue train pulled into the station, at least two carriages were completely empty. We settled into the hour-long ride to Ooty with one half of the carriage taken up by a group visiting from Hyderabad. We were as fascinated by them as they were of us, but we stared less (I hope!). They asked to sit and pose for photographs with a few of us, and in hesitant English one of the guys suggested that we should definitely visit Hyderabad because it was beautiful and hot – 'no cold cold like this'.

The train ride was unexpectedly a highlight of the day. This line is part of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, and the little train huffed and puffed and took us on a steep ride through forests and winding tunnels cut into the beautiful mountain side.

After the morning’s excitement, the afternoon was pretty laid back. We were dropped off outside the Botanical Gardens where we had drinks at a cafe before we wandered around the grounds. I don’t wish to be mean, but it was a bit of a stretch to call it a Botanical Garden (especially when I’d paid for a camera ticket and wasn’t inspired to take many photos at all). It would be very fair to call it a beautiful garden/park, and there were many local families who had settled down on the lawns with picnics which gave it a very friendly atmosphere. We then explored the slightly smelly market stalls in the surrounding streets... where there were garlands of green and yellow bananas, piles of carrots, radishes and green mangoes, and corn and raw peanuts ready for roasting on the open grills.

We then walked back towards our hotel with a scheduled stop at Hotel Alagapuri's Family bar to have a few drinks for Damien's birthday. As usual a few drinks turned into quite a few drinks, and we had to hurry back to get ready for dinner.

Later that evening we boarded auto rickshaws (motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin) for the short but cold drive to Fortune Resort Hotel. It was set in a lovely old building with high ceilings, chandeliers and grand staircases. The consensus around the table was that dinner wasn't as fabulous as had been expected, but our vegetarian dishes of tandoori aloo (potatoes stuffed with cashews, green chillies and coriander and baked in a tandoor oven) and kadai ke karishme (Indian cottage cheese, mushrooms and mixed vegetables in spicy tomato onion gravy) were quite delicious.

Before dinner Karni, Andrew, Brian and I had trawled a few cake shops until Karni found a suitably showy white chocolate cake for Damien's birthday. The cake came out of the restaurant kitchen with dimmed lights and candles ablaze. We were so happy to have been able to be part of Damien's 50th birthday in India, and dinner at the hotel was a lovely way to finish our two day stay in Ooty.

We had intended to go back to the Family Bar for drinks but it was closed, so we all ended up in Damien's room to see off the last of the Jameson Whiskey. We hope we didn't keep the whole hotel floor up with our music and laughter.

Next we travel north into the jungle of the Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu.


15th February 2015

Ooty & More
I might get sensory overload on the train with all the attempts to sell chai. We love train travel and agree the gentle rocking is soothing. I'm so glad you were able to avert disaster and Ren not get run over. That was a close call. Yikes. We always love your word descriptions of the food. It makes us feel like we are dinging with you. There is Indian food and then there is Indian food. Glad you found the real deal. The roads in Nepal still make me quiver when I think about them. I'm not sure how we didn't slide off the sides.( many did plus trees and mud slides). We are grateful. I would love to sample the chocolate. If you are going to sneak Jameson's you need to be more covert about your behavior. Happy Birthday to Damien.
15th February 2015

Re: Ooty & More
We loved the train travel in India, and the train chai was delicious. We had a few more close calls on the roads, but we both lived to tell the tale. We tried a lot of Indian food, and had it not been for so many travel days (when we tried to be a bit conservative with our food choices), we would have tried a whole lot more! :)
15th February 2015

Craving Chai now!
`Glad you managed to avoid being run over Ren. I have always been fascinated too as to how macaques work out to stay off the rarely see any squished ones. That chai with saffron and pink salt sounds divine. Very hungry after reading your blog now!
16th February 2015

Re: Craving Chai now!
Macaques are the kings of playing 'chicken' on the road - even the tiny babies! I never got to taste the chai with saffron and pink salt. And now you've got me thinking of chai, so I think I'll make a pot of masala chai this afternoon :D
16th February 2015

Now I'm hungry!
I want thali! Oh to be back in a part of the world where I could feast on spicy dhals and enjoy chai! It all sounds wonderful. Thanks for the terrific descriptions and stay safe crossing the roads!
18th February 2015

Re: Now I'm hungry!
Thanks Roberta and Matt! Those constantly refilled thali plates are dangerous...I would end up looking like a baby elephant :)
28th April 2015

thali; what a mouth watering dish
Never heard of thali before but from your descriptions and pictures I think it is a dish we have been missing out on!
28th April 2015

Re: thali; what a mouth watering dish
I love the concept of a thali meal as you can taste a range of dishes...that thali we had at the rest stop on the way to Ooty was the best on the whole trip!
5th September 2015

Same same...!
Wow - great to read this blog, as you guys and I did pretty much the same trip it seems in this part of India! Glad you had the chance to take the Toy Train, and good to read about it here - unfortunately I wasn't able to do it myself. And I hear you on the curvy, steep and dangerous mountain road up to Ooty - only there was no elephant in the road for my trip, that must have been interesting!! Look forward to the next one :)
6th September 2015

Re: Same same...!
Thanks Alex. The Toy Train was an unexpected highlight - I really thought it was going to be a tourist gimmick but we loved it. The wild elephant on the road was quite distressing, it's sad that they have to brave road crossings and villages to move about their territory. :(

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