Getting to the Nilgiris was a fascinating adventure. We’d booked a sleeper bus; basically a coach which has been converted so that along one side are single beds, and along the other are doubles, arranged in two tiers. We’d managed to book a double bed, in an upper bunk right at the back of the bus, hoping to avoid the worst of the driver’s beeping horn. The beds had curtains that pulled across, a light, and plug sockets, as well as A/C vents.
It had been a struggle to get the bus. The only instructions were to wait at the bottom of a flyover outside a garage. It was due around 23:15 and we were stood in the dark waiting, surrounded by other people, and even more mosquitos. Almost no large coaches stopped where we were: they all stopped on another lane, two lanes and a central barrier away, but we thought we should just stop where we’d been told. Just before pick-up time they called Maeve’s phone to check we were there. We reiterated where we were waiting, and it seemed fine. A few minutes later it went past on the other main carriageway. A guy hanging out of the open door spotted us and waved for us to follow, before it eventually stopped about 200m past us. We pegged it down the roadside, but it took ages to cross, and almost as long to get our huge bags and us over the central barrier. But we were on. And we had a bed. On a bus.
The bed itself and it’s surroundings were all gold and shiny. It was a weird sort of coffin-like experience. We imagined it would be like sleeping on a night coach with reclining seats, but it was nothing like that. The bus was very noisy and being at the back it was also extremely bumpy. It was very hard to stay in one place in bed, and you definitely couldn’t lay on your side for any length of time without an epic core strength workout. Maeve stayed up late watching England beat Norway in the quarter final of the women’s world cup, whilst holding on for dear life as the bus careened around corners at high speed.
After very little sleep for either of us, we saw the sky lighten. We were climbing steeply up a mountain side, taking a series of switchbacks and narrow mountain roads at a deeply unsettling pace. It was probably good that Jay couldn’t see much of the sheer drops below us because he would not have appreciated the view! It was with some relief, and a portion of luck, that we finally arrived, tired and grumpy, at Coonoor at 6:30am.
All the tuk tuk drivers quoted ridiculous prices for the journey to our hostel, so we gave up, stubbornly walking instead. It was about 3km and all uphill, and we had an additional 5kg of water and 2kg of beer between us, in addition to our 25-ish kg backpacks. We were tired and hungry, but we thought we’d give it a go. Luckily the heat hadn’t quite risen yet or we wouldn’t have got very far. About half-way, sweaty and aching, we dropped our bags at the roadside and sat in some warm morning sun, sharing peach juice, biscuits, and dried, salted lentils. Incredibly, we were both ecstatically happy, probably from the endorphins.
We found our way to the hostel and arrived before the owners, finding a bunk to leave our things on before sitting out on the back porch. It was high above the main town, relatively quiet, and surrounded by greenery. The breeze stirred the leaves around us but otherwise the garden was still. It was beautiful.
After a nap when we got into our dorm, we headed out into the sunshine to a place called Sim’s Park – a colonial era Victorian arboretum, with a small pedalo lake. All very familiar, except of course for the monkeys. Jasmine clung to the breeze and carp gathered under bridges, hopeful for crumbs as people passed overhead. A monkey troupe foraged, plucking the buds of flowers from their beds, stripping some plants of leaves, but mostly scooping up the detritus left by the people who came to visit. Tiny babies clung to their chests. We’d bought some bread from a stall outside the park so we could make peanut butter and jam sandwiches for lunch. When we went to open it, rodents had got there first, but luckily saved us enough for our lunch! We sat in the afternoon light on a bench in a bandstand. Maeve fell asleep and Jay just watched the bees and birds gently going about their soporific business.
Later, talking with the hostel we were told that there was no trekking allowed this year in the forests due to forest fires last year caused by irresponsible tourists, so no off path running at all. Although later it turned out that it wouldn’t have been a good idea in any case!
The next day we decided to walk to a viewpoint called “Dolphin’s Nose”, about 12km away. It’s a rock outcrop that sticks out of the side of one of the mountains here and is a significant tourist attraction. We made a picnic and set out by 8am. The morning was cool at first, clouds wispy overhead, cirrus, warning of an approaching front from the East. The road left Coonoor and we headed up the hillside above valleys and the famous Nilgiri Mountain Railway. A few monkeys foraged in trees above, one getting quite angry when Jay tried to take a photo. We hurried on.
The manicured carpet of tea plantations stretched as far as you could see across the rolling hills, interspersed with silver oak for shade, and the occasional village – old colonial worker’s cottages. The views were incredible, but we couldn’t make out much of the plain at the end of the mountain range because of the smog that hung over the town of Mettupalayam.
We talked for a while with a woman out for a morning walk. She told us to be aware of bison and to avoid them. She also told us to be back well before dusk, because of “creatures” that came out of the woods. She didn’t elaborate on what “creatures” meant, and we didn’t ask. She said they had to keep their dog in at night or it would get eaten.
We stopped for brunch on a wall, watching workers in the field below harvesting the fresh tips. The smell of the plantation was like incense and the breeze was fresh over the rippling tops of the bushes. Nearby, a woman scrubbed clothes on a rock in a stream bed.
The road had been mainly deserted – it more or less only went to Dolphin’s Nose, and a couple of plantations. But around 10am it became noticeably busier, and that increased as the morning wore on, with buses, coaches, cars, bikes and tuk tuks all plying their way along the narrow dusty road. Jay had some bananas attached to the outside of his bag – the side that had been facing away from the monkeys we’d seen earlier. A motorbike pulled up alongside us and a woman told us to put them in my bag “because the monkeys”. Maeve was carrying one in her hand, worried about it getting bruised in the bag, and literally minutes after the warning and the bike leaving, monkeys spotted it. They followed us, emitting a loud sound that couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than hostile. Although we tried to shoo them away they were getting closer and closer, and as one darted in to take it, Maeve threw the banana into the bushes. Monkeys appeared from everywhere and chased after it, and we pegged it down the road to get away. Luckily, they didn’t follow us to see what else we had. It was a close call: the monkeys here are a reservoir for rabies.
Eventually we arrived at Dolphin’s Nose, in full tourist hell. Coaches and cars honked and people shouted, everyone jostling for the few parking spaces. The platform itself gave no better views than we’d enjoyed on the walk down there, so we didn’t hang around. It wasn’t particularly disappointing though, as we’d really enjoyed the walk and the entrance fee was less than £1 for us both. We beat a hasty retreat, finding a monkey-free spot for our lunch nearby.
On our way back we stopped at a tea plantation where we could try the single-field tea grown right there. It was lovely, sitting in a pagoda in amongst the plantation, sipping tea, watching swifts darting back and forth, skimming the tops of the bushes. The tea was delicious and it was the first time in India it had been clear, perfectly brewed.
We stopped a while later at a tea factory in another plantation. We were allowed to go in and see how the tea was processed. In the drying room the smell of the leaves was sharp and overwhelming. In another room the leaves were crushed and ground, and again the smell changed to something more familiar, but still earthy. In the final room the dry powder and leaves were being funnelled down chutes into jute bags. In that room the air was thick with the dust, making it hard to see clearly. It burned our noses and eyes, and made us cough convulsively. It was shocking to see the workers there, all with faces uncovered, who presumably spend most of their working day in the dusty room. It was reminiscent of the lancashire cotton mills where workers died young from a host of respiratory diseases caused by the dusty environment. When we get back to the UK we’re going to be much more mindful of the provenance of our tea.
Eventually we gave in to the heat and got a tuktuk the last few kilometers back to the hostel, where we spent the afternoon and evening watching the women’s football and relaxing in the garden. It had been a lovely day but we were ready for bed when we finally got there.
The next morning we discovered that a common breakfast item here is something called vada: a kind of savoury donut with onion and curry leaves that was genuinely one of the best things we’ve ever eaten. With such a good start the day could only get better and we headed out for a walk about the hostel. On the top of Tiger Hill was a tea factory and we took the winding dust road out of town, slowly up the hillside toward it. Views opened up across the tea plantations and shola (native) forests, all the way along the ridges and out into the open plain beyond. At the apex, the security guard at the factory let us cut through and take a steep path directly back down the hillside, passing people on their way up to start their day.
From the bottom we took a lower path that contoured the hillside. We’d heard there was an old English Gothic cemetery we could walk to, and curiosity got the better of us. `The gate house was closed but the crumbling wall had fallen low enough in places to allow easy access. Inside the cemetery was calm. The graves were collapsing, broken, overgrown. A dry fountain and decaying angel statue stood in the middle. The place was forlorn, unloved. Old trees threw shade across the whole plot, and flies hummed through the tall grasses. Almost all of the graves were English names, and we were surprised in such an uncultivated place to find that there were also fresh graves, one newly dug. It looked like no one had tended the grounds for a decade, yet still the remnants of the colonisers who had never left insisted on burial in this familiar ground.
Instead of returning the way we’d come, we decided to continue on the track as it completed its circumnavigation of the hill and returned to the town. Rounding a corner, 40 metres away in amongst the tea bushes, was a solitary, fully grown, Indian Guar (bison). This was a lot closer than we’d ever wanted to get to one of these, and we’d been told just to keep walking slowly, and not to make eye contact. Our hearts were in our mouths as it looked up and paused, assessing our level of threat. Luckily for us it decided we weren’t worth the energy of an attack, and quietly returned to munching it’s weeds. We were lucky. We later learned that a lone bison around there had killed people.They are truly enormous, weighing up to 1500kg, up to 10’ long and up to 7’ tall. We’d assumed that they killed by just charging straight into people, but it turned out that they gored their victims to death with their gigantic sharp horns. Apparently someone in the town had been killed by an Indian Guar a few days before, just out for a morning stroll, like us.
That afternoon we were met at the hostel by a guide who was going to take us up into the hills, where it wouldn’t be safe for us to go alone. It was a wonderful experience as he knew so much about the flora and fauna in the area, having spent many years walking in these mountains. He pointed out distant bison, a stunning Indian hare that darted across our path into a tea bush, and many edible and toxic plants. He also told us that bison can jump over a fence from standing, no run-up required. The stuff of nightmares!
We walked out of the town into the hills, along paths and tracks that wound among plantations and shola forests. Cresting a rise we descended slowly through eucalyptus plantations where the air was fresh and astringent as we crunched over the dead, oil-laden leaves. We learned that the “creatures” we’d been warned about yesterday included the bison, as well as leopards (and panthers), tigers and something called a ‘sloth bear’ which we definitely do not want to meet. There were also occasionally elephants, and other smaller wild cats. Boar were evident along the path, their scrapings and dug-up roots a giveaway to their passing.
The most exciting creature of all though (certainly as far as Jay is concerned!), was the Malabar Giant Squirrel, and we were lucky enough to spot two. Over 1m long and weighing 2kg, they are the world’s largest squirrel, and in the sunshine they’re a little bit rainbow coloured! The squirrels climbed like monkeys but jumped between branches in the most ungainly way, crashing and cracking the branches they landed on.
Breaking out of the trees we followed a stream through a tribal village, where swifts flashed around us, swooping so close we could hear their wings beating. From there we climbed to a Hindu temple on the top of a hill, where we were invited in and blessed. We then sat quietly on a rocky outcrop looking out across the valley. Below us was the tea factory we’d stopped at the day before. We’d looked up at the temple from the factory, wondered about climbing up to it, but had decided not to as we were too tired and it was too hot. From our lofty vantage point we could see bison grazing among the plantations, some with calves. As the sun vanished and the temperature fell (to a frosty 24 degrees celcius), we caught a bus from a nearby village and returned to our hostel. It had been a magical and exhausting day, and after a huge dinner, we were looking forward to sinking into bed and having a good night’s sleep.
Which unfortunately we didn’t get. A party of 10 arrived at the hostel and filled the other two dorms, so it was just us in one room and them in the others. Around 2am Jay shouted at them for having loud screaming conversations, but it carried on for a long time. We were woken by them again at 5, playing loud music. Then 5:45. Then 8. Each time it took ages to get back to sleep so by the time 8am came we were absolutely done with it all. Exhausted, we headed into town to try and find breakfast and work out what to do. Luckily our guide from the day before had told us where to go to get really good coffee: we were going to need it.
Coffee was a confusing affair. To start with, it tasted very unusual: a bit peppery and spicy. Apparently this is what South Indian coffee tastes like. It was delicious but a bit of a surprise. Then, there were the implements it came in. The coffee was served in small steel cups that were stood in steel bowls. We were bemused until the shop owner came to show us what to do. You had to pour the coffee between the two receptacles to get it to the right temperature, and then drink it from the bowl. The problem was that holding a steel cup of boiling coffee is not an easy skill. Luckily he was enthusiastic about showing us how to do it so we didn’t have to! Inspired, we headed straight to the market to buy our own South Indian coffee press (very compact so perfect for travelling!) and steel cups which we are now both capable of holding without causing ourselves permanent burn damage.
The market was incredible; it was a maze of covered alleys and tiny stalls on multiple levels, clustered loosely by type of produce. Amongst the butchers was a stall with a sign reading “The Healthy Option!” below which hung raw chicken in plastic bags, moist with condensation in the heat. It looked anything but! Obviously we avoided the meat end and spent our time exploring the rest of the market, enjoying the experience of being in a proper local market, rather than one catering to tourists. The smells were incredible. There were fruit and veg stalls where the produce was carefully stacked in neat pyramids, bright colours in square containers, things we didn’t recognise. The fragrance of the greens was almost overpowering, evoking the pungence of freshly mown grass. There were spices in square trays on counters measured out with small scales. Lentils, rices and flours filled huge sacks, open to passers-by to inspect. Sparrows picked at the produce, flies were everywhere. On one corner were a cluster of coffee stalls, where vendors processed the beans with hand-cranked grinders and packaged up the grounds, heat-sealing the home-made packages while you waited. The aroma was of course amazing.
After lunch we couldn’t resist popping into a “British style” pub that we’d read about online. It was quite surreal – lots of familiar things: Wetherspoons-ish decor, draught beer, and a snooker table in the corner. But when Maeve opened a window to let some flies out the barman came rushing over and said it needed to be kept closed because the monkeys would come in; not something you’d hear in a UK pub!
We spoke to the owners of the hostel about the disturbances last night and agreed that we would leave a day early to head to Ooty to avoid being stuck with the big group for a second night. They were very apologetic and understanding, and gave us a dozen avocados from their tree to take with us! It was a sad end to a lovely stay in Coonoor. As well as the beautiful surroundings and temperate weather, it felt like the friendliest place we’ve visited so far. People would nod and say hello to us everywhere we went, but without the hassle of being asked for photos or the pressure to buy something. It felt strange because there is such a strong colonial history in the area that is still present today – we spoke to many Indians who were very proud of the colonial history and aspired to be associated with the British. This was challenging for us as we’ve obviously been travelling with a mindfulness about the horrors wrought by the empire. We weren’t expecting to meet people who had positive things to say about colonialism, and we didn’t really know how to respond.
The bus journey to Ooty started with an actual scrum to get on – unfortunately we were trying to travel at rush hour – with our big rucksacks we were both pretty slow and ungainly, but we made it on and squished ourselves into the smallest space we could. Most of the journey was too busy to catch a glimpse of anything other than another passenger’s head, but towards the end lots of people got off and we had amazing views out across the Nilgiri hills. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset, expecting that we would then walk to our hostel in the evening light, but this far south there is very little dusk: after sunset it is pitch black in less than 20 mins. Luckily we both had head torches to find our way!
Ooty at night is very pretty; as we made our way up the hill we looked back across the valley at the lights of the town. It sounded like Jaipur though; the steep sides of the valley carrying the beeps and horns up from the bus station below.
Breakfast the next day was a bit of a mission but we ended up on the other side of the town at a cafe that sold real coffee, having various delicious deep fried things to eat! Maeve was over the moon to discover a huge lending library, although most of the volumes had probably been there since the 50s. We still managed to pick up a new book to keep us going on our long journeys.
We visited a tiny arboretum, walked around the lake and went to the botanical gardens, but neither of us were feeling great so we thought about going to see a film. We found the nearest cinema, which has clearly been around for a LONG time, but they were only showing Tamil films with no subtitles. We headed back to the hostel and got some dosa delivered (note to self: dosa do not travel well). At midnight we got cosy in the hostel common room and watched the football semi-final on an actual TV instead of a tiny phone/tablet screen, with the added bonus of novel Indian analysis at halftime.
Our trip to the Nilgiris ended with the famous Nilgiri Mountain Railway. We had fun at the station taking photos with an old train cart and engine (an actual health and safety nightmare, with engine mechanisms exposed and a four-foot drop out of the doors). There was a little museum with various interesting bits of railway paraphernalia. Sadly the train ride itself was a bit of a disappointment, purely due to the volume of people and luggage (ours included!). We were squished in the middle of a 10-seat berth, with a family around us alternately blocking the view or sleeping in front of it. It was a real Indian train experience at least!
Our onward journey by bus was much more comfortable. The AC coach was mostly empty, and we had spacious reclining seats at the back with plenty of room for our bags. Maeve slept through most of the descent down the terror road, waking in time for the expanse of the valley floor to open out. As we reached the plains the temperature and humidity increased significantly, the vegetation turned to palms and bananas, and the roads became clogged with dust.
At Coimbatore we had some time to kill before our sleeper train so we got some dinner and negotiated a cinema with our enormous backpacks. At the station it was roasting and mosquitoes were everywhere, someone vomited on the platform near us and we later stepped over a used tampon. Our sleeper-class train couldn’t arrive soon enough!