Ooty in offseason is like a middle-aged housewife, cleaning up after the demanding guests have left for the season. The buildings are rain-soaked, the auto drivers languid in manner and not expecting much business, and the roads are blissfully bare without manic taxi cabs screeching up and down the curves. Seasonal rains threaten to dampen your plans, but plans are only for the well-organised, package traveller whose straight-jacketed ways of travelling I have abandoned for blithe, play-it-by-the-ear ways for long.
On the sunny morning I arrived in Ooty, there was a nip in the air. Talks were rife about a failing monsoon this season. Barring a few sparse thundershowers, rains haven’t been boldly forthcoming this year.
No visit to Ooty is complete without a ride on its iconic mountain train that provides the quintessential visual imagery of the Nilgiris as it trundles along the 46 km extending from Ooty to Mettupalayam. The unpredictability of rains notwithstanding, we set out for a train riding experience that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by the British Raj and still operational. Being a Saturday, the queue at the ticket counter was considerable but orderly. Reservations have to be made earlier and are usually unavailable minutes before the train’s departure. So we settled for `10 general category ticket to Coonoor.
Inside the four-bogie train, the barely two-hour journey prompts a mad scramble by passengers stocking up on water bottles and miscellaneous snacks. And then the eating frenzy begins. Ecological purity has never been an Indian habit: empty wrappers, polythene bags and empty bottles of mineral water get tossed out of the train window. Business was good for the chips-seller—his tray empty, and his pockets full of bills.
As the train lugged itself out of the station, camera-weilders went bananas as the views shift from side to side—valley to mountain and vice versa. Lovedale, Ketti, Aruvankadu and Wellington stations pass by but passengers alight only at Coonoor. The vintage train serves more as a tourist attraction than as a vehicle facilitating local travel.
The next day, we hired a cab to explore the hamlets surrounding Ooty, hunting for views and photo-ops. The tiny village of Nanjanad that is the subject of caste related skirmishes today, is flanked by peaks stroked with all shades of green. Rows and rows of vegetable plantations form a dramatic backdrop. Cabbages are being picked, carrots are being pulled out and beet greens bear violet veins indicating their readiness to be harvested.
The day’s highlight was a mushroom factory visit. Ooty’s pleasing climes offer favourable conditions for mushroom units and many of them have sprouted in the valleys. We were escorted to the factory and explained by a Malayali Nepali named Sukram whose Malayalam put mine to shame. In an urge to assert my conviction, I asked Sukram how he acquired proficiency in Malayalam while living in Tamil Nadu? I popped the inevitable ‘naatil evideya’ question to which he replied briskly that he was raised in Ernakulam. Sure, from a craggy mountain village tea shop in Himachal to the dampness of a mushroom farm in Ooty, Malayalis are omnipresent.
For all its off-season charm, eating out in Ooty can still be tricky. We hunted down the charming, renovated colonial bungalow ‘Kings Cliff’ one night for dinner that bored a tiny hole in our wallets. But all was not lost as we found a day later, when we stumbled into a humble Willy’s Café that served sandwiches and baked eats at reasonable rates.
However, to ‘stumble upon’ Willy’s we walked up and down the snaky streets of Ooty, flanked by tall trees and hugged by colonial structures, looking for something quaint and inviting. It was threatening to pour, but we persisted. It is in the thrill of ferreting for the undiscovered where lies a traveller’s contentment. Ooty’s secrets have been unravelled by generations of tourists since the British left, but rediscovery is the traveller’s ultimate joy.