According to folklore, “Traveling – it leaves you speechless, and then turns you into a storyteller.” – is what Ibn Battuta had to say when asked why he would travel so much. Well we have got to give it to him since he travelled the known world in his time! I haven’t travelled much, mind you, but I believe I too have a story to tell.
The earliest memory of Ooty is of my schooling days; a two day trip involving few of the must see places like the Government Botanical Garden, Pykara Lake etc. While the memory remains hazy, what I still remember is how good and refreshing the place was; friends, bonfire and booze (yes!)
What sets this trip apart is the appreciation of my own ride, broke-circumstances and good company. With literally 58 paisa in my pocket, I began my journey of 130 odd kilometers.
Leaving college premises early enough would be a challenge and I didn’t disappoint. With a backpack slung over my shoulders, I started the journey at around 8:30 a.m. taking NH766 (Mysore-Nanjanagudu-Begur/Gundlupete-Bandipur-Ooty). The cool weather along with good roads made riding comfortable till Nanjanagudu, where I took a few minutes break, enjoying the view of the lakes on either sides of the roads. Moving on, I reached Gundlupete and with a fifty odd kilometers covered, I stopped for about 15 minutes at the (ever-present) Café Coffee Day for a well-deserved break. Seated at the joint, staring into nothing in particular, I reminisced about the joys of riding, behavior and nature of fellow riders, company etc. while giving my body time to recover.
With the seemingly unending road in front of me, the second phase of my journey started, through the jungles of Bandipur and Mudumalai. The 40 kilometer stretch divided almost equally between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu was, in itself, a study in contrasts. The Karnataka stretch was lined lush with green trees, straight roads. The only pitfall, unmarked and barely visible speed breakers. This resulted in strenuous riding experience and (an ever-surprised) bumpy ride. The Tamil Nadu stretch, on the other hand, we were greeted with armed police personnel who asked routine questions and visibly drier fauna with hot air stinging against the face even as early as 10:30 a.m. The only joy, marked speed breakers. What was striking was the sight of deer (with huge majestic antlers) and fawns (I was literally fawning) in both the stretches, and an abundance of monkeys striking different poses for the fellow travelers. As soon as the stretch got over, I stopped at a local tea shop, ordered a kadak chai and started stretching to get myself ready for the last (and possibly the most exciting) stretch.
The third, and most challenging, phase involved the NH181 with its 36 super-awesome hair pin bends. Ahh, the joy of those bends! I was greeted with the sight of the Majestic Nilgiris and the anticipation of reaching the destination was palpable. Though the stretch is only 20 kilometers, the time is disproportionate; it took me over an hour to reach the first location. The bends were lined with hilarious one liners, my favorite: in case of death, call XYZ Hospital at 0421-9XIL08 for free ambulance! As the altitude increased, the air became fresher and chillier and the horizon was lined with a hazy reddish tinge. The hill slopes were lined with houses with farms few and far between.
The first point of interest was the Government Botanical Garden, where it took me quite some time to find a parking space. The police were unhelpful as none of them spoke any language apart from Tamil. But once inside, I was transported back to the day when I had come here as kid. The lawns were well maintained with a noticeable change of having a “no lying around or no walking allowed” boards; the lawns dotted with ponds. The entire beauty of the place, in my opinion, was the location below the Dodabetta Hills. The map of India, depicted in stones and flowers, was another attraction. It is said that the platform in which the map rested was from a tree which was 20 million years old!
By the time I finished with the Botanical Garden, it was well past high noon. Travelling, sometimes makes me lose track of time and hence, subdues my hunger pangs. But there is only so much I can resist! I found a good joint called Place to Bee, serving a small but very good menu. I ordered a fully loaded Margherita with olives, bacon, mushrooms and what-nots! The taste was, in a word, heavenly. I have had my fair share of pizzas and I got to say, this one came very close to beating the best I have had. The joint in itself famous for its honey which they locally make/source (they have a display of the bees found in the Nilgiris along with pictures of where the honeycombs are located, the equipment required etc.). As such, I ordered a beverage; a honey ginger lemon tea. The tea was just perfect. The honey (which was very good) complementing the ginger tea.
After enjoying the stillness and hospitality of the joint, I moved on to Dodabetta Peak. The eight kilometer uphill ride, beneath the canopy of trees and the sudden chill gives a “kick” to the soul. How I miss it now! The roads, badly tarred and pothole ridden, are a bit slow to navigate and vehicular movement, though minimal, is haphazard. Once on the top, amidst the local traders and food vendors, lies the ticket collection center for the Viewing Zone. The Viewing Zone is nothing but an elevated hexagonal (?) glass “box” which has a view towards Ooty on one side and Connor on the other. In my opinion, even though a lot of people do visit here and more than enough money is collected from the tourists, the Zone isn’t well maintained and amenities like packaged water, washroom etc. are non-existent. That being said, be it a sunny day or a chilly one, the view from atop the peak is simply, breathtaking.
On the way down from the hill, I decided to visit, albeit a short one, the Tea Factory and the Tea Museum. Unfortunately for me, my lack of knowledge about the tea making process proved laughable (in the words of my father, translated from Malayalam: the tea leaves are supposed to be shrunken and withered looking, dumbass). I came out pretty disappointed at the presumed lack of quality standard (or so I thought) and the use of old manufacturing machinery.
To say the return journey was eventful would be mildly putting it. The ride was turning from a pleasant to a more daunting and exciting one. I have always heard going up a hill is hard, but what people forget to mention is that coming down is harder! The rule of the road for a hill ride is: you always give way to upcoming traffic. If maintaining our own side wasn’t difficult enough, the problems were compounded when an ignorant driver comes along (both ways! Overtakes!). Another part of vehicular safety, disc brakes get hot, pretty fast. Even after some calculated stops on the downward ride, I was surprised about how my rear disc brakes failed me due to overheating. Thankfully it was only after I had reached plain footing. Phew! Rolling down the hill, there was noticeable change in how the air turned warmer, the wind drier and the road endless. The monotony of the ride back was broken by the occasional stoppages for drinking water and monotonous philosophical thinking (Bah!). After another 20 kilometers, I reached Mudumalai forest. What I missed on the ride towards Ooty was the state of the forest (both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu). The trees withered and dead, fires (natural or man-made, I have no idea). All dark and gloomy. But amidst it all, we saw nature at its best; deer resting, fawns grazing peacefully, monkeys with their antics and the occasional termite mounds. The simplicity and innocence of the animals wasn’t also lost on me; stop near them for long enough and they would come near you, unafraid and, truthfully, with a spring in their step, greeting you. But all too soon enough the forest gave way to the human constructs; mud houses, creaky vehicles, the list is endless. Not too soon enough, Café Coffee Day in Gundlupete welcomed us.
Sitting there, as I thought back on the day I spent, I realized how correct Robert Louis Stevenson was when he said, “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move”.