Ooty gardens and Coonoor loco shed

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February 28th 2015
Published: February 28th 2015
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Indian hill stations are not what we expected. We had a romanticised mental picture of English style buildings dating back to the Raj, clinging to the hillside in small towns. Well, the houses cling to the hillside all right, but traces of the Raj are few and far between. Coonoor and Ooty are both surprisingly large towns, and the 17km drive between them has few stretches that are not also settled. The houses are brightly coloured boxes of different sizes and shapes, almost filling large sections of the hillside, but often leaving space for a few cultivated terraces in between them. One settlement is, bizarrely, a massive billboard, with dozens of identical homes all painted bright yellow and emblazoned with the logo of a cement company. We are nonplussed to drive past a needle factory – why would you site factory here, of all places? At least the finished product is small and therefore easy to transport, I suppose.

The weather forecast for the next two days is not good. It suggests it will rain from lunchtime onwards, and that the cloud and mist will be more or less continuous. We consider getting up early to make the most of the dry weather, but opt to lie in instead and set off at 9am. But it is sunny as we climb up to Ooty and there is more of a view than we had yesterday. Not that you can take a good photo – it’s not practical to ask Mr Hussain to stop the car, given the narrow road, endless bends and continuous traffic, and most of the shots we take form the moving car feature concrete barriers, trees, electricity cables and other obstructions to the view.

First stop in Ooty is, in fact outside the town. Doddabetta Peak is billed as having great views over the town, and the guidebook says you can walk to the top of the peak. David is pleased he has had the foresight to bring his trekking poles, anticipating a stiff climb to the peak. But this is India, and local tourists don’t expect to have to walk that far. We drive to the top of the peak, and leave Mr Hussain to find a parking space in a heaving car park. A two minute walk gets us to the ticket office, where the fee is a modest 5 rupees per person and 10 per camera. There is a small paved area, with a coffee shop and some stalls selling herbal remedies, and an incongruous children’s playground. It takes less than 30 seconds to reach the ‘peak’. In fact, we are grateful there is not far to walk. The peak is at 2600 metres elevation and we are both gasping and headachy in the thin air. It is mercifully sunny, which means that Sara’s failure to put the sweaters in the bag does not matter as it’s a very pleasant temperature. Many of our fellow tourists clearly do not feel the same way, and are sporting woolly hats that do up under the chin and even, in one case, a hotel towel draped over the shoulders.

Next stop is the botanical gardens, created in 1847 by the Marquis of Tweesdale who brought in a botanist from Kew, Mr McIver, to lay the place out. We spend a pleasant hour walking – slowly – through the gardens. This is much more what we had expected. The trees are mostly not labelled, but the crowds thin out once we walk more than 5 minutes, and it then becomes a very peaceful place. The book tells us the must-see highlight is the fern house, modelled on Kew. Well, maybe, but it is on an altogether smaller scale, more like a biggish greenhouse, and lacks any of the giant varieties that we enjoy when we go to Kew.

Back to Coonoor, and we see the toy train pulling in to the station just as we drive past. We originally planned to take the train up to Ooty, but then realised that a) you cannot pre-book, and need to queue up at 5am on the day to buy a ticket, b) the gradient to Ooty is too steep for the steam engines, so they use a diesel engine instead – much less fun and c) it’s very useful to have the car once in Ooty. We stop to take photos. The engine seems already to have been de-coupled by the time we make it to the platform, but Sara points out the loco shed and suggests we visit. ‘How do we get there?’ asks David. ‘Walk along the tracks like you see everyone doing at all Indian stations’ replies Sara. So we do, and get a warm welcome from the engineers hard at work in the shed. Three of them are in the pit, replacing a wheel, covered in engine oil. Sara, trouser legs rolled up to keep them clear of the oil and grime that covers the floor, locates the only remaining coal-fired steam engine, much to David’s excitement. It will come as no surprise to learn that we take far too many photos. David has not been in a working steam shed since about 1965.......

Back to the hotel for a late lunch in the garden outside our room. Our timing has been perfect. We hear the roll of thunder soon after we sit down, and the rain starts half an hour later. For a while, we stay outside, sheltered by the table umbrella – as we are British a bit of rain is no impediment - but eventually it gets cold and we retire to our room.

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