Out and about in Ooty, the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’

Ooty is absolutely stunning and we’ve had the best and most relaxing time here – well worth the gruelling twelve hour journey!

Following our adventurous ride from Mukkodlu to Madikeri, we squeezed ourselves and our bags into a rickety old bus to Mysore, before boarding a coach for the very long but very beautiful journey up to Ooty.

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Two very attractive people after twelve hours of buses

We drove through the Bandipur National Park over the border into Tamil Nadu, where it becomes the Mdumalai Tiger Reserve. Lots of warning signs for tigers, leopards and bison everywhere and we passed monkeys, warthogs, deer and even wild elephants on the side of the road! So amazing to see elephants just hanging out in people’s back gardens and we saw one guy attempting to shoo one away with a stick.

Ooty town centre itself is a bit like Madikeri – not the nicest place in the world to spend time but a necessary springboard into the countryside around.

Arriving late, we spent our first night in the City Palace Hotel which, you’ll be surprised to hear, is most certainly not a palace. Probably the most dire place we’ve stayed so far – covered in mould, totally unsoundproof and just a cold bucket of water instead of a shower. It cost us £8 and it did the job but it didn’t help my cold, which I think has been caused by all the long journeys, pollution and lack of vitamins. Weirdly, although India is mostly vegetarian, we’ve had to make a real effort to make sure we get enough nutritious fruit and veg. The veg food is often high on oil and fat and quite light on actual veg, particularly when it comes to the cheap local joints where it’s often just pulses and lots and lots of carbs.

Having said that, while hungry and tired from all the travelling and desperate for some good food after two days of decidedly average meals, we ended up on a lengthy and unsuccessful tour of Ooty in search of something appealing. Ashamed to say we stooped to a new low and got takeaway dominoes in the hotel room… that’ll help the vitamins situation!

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But no regrets, it was amazing!

Up and out early the next day, partly because of the racket outside our room (why is India so loud?!) and partly because we were keen to escape our palatial surroundings. We’d booked into the Zostel, 3km from Ooty in the small village of Lovedale. Another amusing bus journey where, despite the bus being empty, the driver insisted we put all of our luggage on top of us.

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Spending some quality time with all of my belongings

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We soon realised why as the bus went crazy at the next stop and some poor Indian man had to share a small seat with us and all of our worldly possessions. Luckily it was only a 15 minute journey and people are much friendlier here than in Madikeri so we just got lots of smiles and cheerful head wiggles! Getting off from deep inside the carriage was another exercise in team work as our bags were transported at head-height through the bus  before we were ejected after them while the bus was still moving.

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This is Jamie’s face of relief at having made it off the bus with all our bags and limbs intact

The Zostel alone was worth the trip up here – it’s the first hostel we’ve stayed in since Goa and easily the best place we’ve stayed so far. The Zostel chain calls itself the ‘first proper hostel chain in India and Nepal’ and has a series of very new hostels around the country. This one is only a couple of years old – it’s spotlessly clean, with quirky decor, friendly staff, an incredible location looking down over the mountains and is well guarded by the lovely resident retriever, Leo. They used to have another dog too but apparently it was killed by a leopard – eek!

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It’s a small place with space for just 22 people and, as there’s nothing else in Lovedale, it has a real family atmosphere. Because it’s quite small, it gets pretty booked up and we had to sleep in dorms for the first time this trip. Despite being lofty triple bunks, they were the comfiest beds we’ve had in a month and we figured we could probably survive three nights apart. In fact, I think Jamie was overjoyed to escape his usual 7am wake up call (me) as he slept peacefully up in the sky on the top bunk.

Over the last week, we’ve covered 892 kilometres over three different cities and spent 26 hours on buses, so we decided we were well overdue some chill time. Luckily, we had the perfect location in Zostel and spent most of our time here relaxing, reading, enjoying the views, finally getting some laundry done and, in my case, resting up to recover from my cold. We also spent several hours playing Carrom with the two managers, which is kind of like the Indian version of pool. Needless to say, they were both amazing, Jamie was pretty good and, as expected, I was abominable.

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It’s been nice to meet some other travellers after not seeing a single other tourist since Hampi – we’ve spent a lot of time amusing ourselves just the two of us and have possibly been going a little bit crazy (in case you couldn’t tell from our last blog).  We spent most of our evenings here enjoying the home cooked vegetarian food at Zostel, drinking chai and sitting round the bonfire swapping stories of our experiences in crazy India. Reassuring to find other people have made the same mistakes as us and we’ve picked up some helpful tips for the next part of the journey.

As usual, lots of interesting people, including a British guy who worked as a diplomat for ten years all over Europe before packing it all in and becoming a digital nomad. He has ‘no flights’ rule and only allows himself to fly once a year to change continents. Three years in, he’s travelled Latin America and Africa, toured every country in Europe in a camper van and is now tackling India and Nepal.

We also met a couple from the UK, Tom and Martha, who, it turns out, are related to the lovely guys at Khotso Backpackers in South Africa and were there the week after our traumatic Lesotho adventure. Even more bizarrely, they have almost exactly the same route as us planned. They started in SA before Christmas, where they stayed in both Khotso and Mdumbi, before heading to India. Like us, they’re also planning to head to Sri Lanka to renew their visas before flying to North India and making their way into Nepal for the trekking season. Also like us, they’ve quit their jobs and are planning to end by finding work abroad. Quite a weird coincidence given SA to India isn’t exactly a natural route!

Of course, we did manage to fit in a few adventures amongst all the relaxing and chai. On one of our now familiar walking expeditions, we explored Ooty Lake and the surprisingly pretty botanical gardens.

Ooty, which has been re-christened with the catchy name Udghagmandalam, is known as the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’. Back in the day, British people based in Madras used to escape to Ooty as a weekend retreat, earning it the nickname ‘Snooty Ooty’. The town itself is now quite rundown, and the old colonial buildings are mostly dilapidated, but there are there are some impressive mansions in the surrounding areas and some very fancy looking independent schools in beautiful buildings. Apparently people from the Emirates often send their kids here for a good value, high quality education.

We also hired a scooter one day and set off out of Ooty on a scenic ride down dirt roads and through colourful villages, with a soundtrack of drumming and singing echoing from the valley below.

We rode all the way to Avalanche Lake.

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Before heading up to the tea factory and Dodabetta Peak, the highest point in South India (and the coldest!). Sadly it was quite an overcast afternoon by this point so you couldn’t really see anything but it was worth a trip just to see the market stalls selling must-have tourist products on the way into the viewing point. Obviously you wouldn’t dream of taking in the sights without first purchasing some carrots and radishes, a handy tiger mask and, of course, getting yourself a (real ink) tattoo as a permanent reminder of the trip.

The main reason we came to Ooty in the first place was to catch the famous Nilgiri Mountain Railway, an old steam engine service built in 1899 and now another UNESCO heritage site.

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There’s only one train a day with just three carriages and it’s very popular so we’d booked the only remaining tickets from nearby Coonoor a few weeks in advance. In the end, it took us three buses to get there and we made it just in the nick of time. They weren’t amazing seats either and we were wedged in the middle of a large group of ear-splittingly noisy men shouting and clapping each other on the back the whole way.

Luckily, half way down, we stopped at a station for chai and managed to fit ourselves into Tom, Martha and James’ carriage, much more spacious and with much better views of the train winding its way over the narrow tracks. It’s definitely better not to bother booking early – wait until you’ve seen the layout of the train and just get up early on the day to queue for the late release tickets.

Sadly still no pictures of the view but it was well worth the extra few hours it took over the bus – it’s a very very slow train so it took almost four hours to travel 40 kilometres.

A late arrival into Mettupalayam and a painfully long and hot bus to Coimbatore with all of us dressed for the Ooty cold.

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Coimbatore is an in and out kind of place. We spent last night in the dubiously named ESS Paradise hotel which, although not exactly paradise, was actually pretty nice and even did good value room service. Palak Paneer, a delicious and fruity Navrathan veg korma and even a cheeky, very rare, beer.

Not quite as much luck with the buses the next day and we didn’t make it on to the 9am despite queuing from 8. A few hours of chai and pastries and a game of cards (nice to play with more than two people for once!) and we got seats on the 11.30 to Kochi.

I’m writing this from the very hot bus now, while watching the changing scenery as we cross from Tamil Nadu into Kerala, our fourth and (probably) final South Indian state. Palm trees are back, the striking mountains have disappeared and it’s getting hotter and hotter. We were desperate for warmth after the surprising cold in Ooty, but after 5 hours of this hot, dusty bus ride, a night in toasty Coimbatore and the sweatiest tuk-tuk transfer ever, we’re counting the minutes as we get further towards what will hopefully be cooling coastal air.

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This season’s glamorous new look – 5 hours of non-AC bus followed by sweat-pit tuk-tuk transfer

 


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