Steam Train to Ooty
India; October 25th; Day 34; Ooty
We pile out of the hostel at an ungodly hour and hire an auto-rickshaw to carry our sorry selves and our luggage the short distance to the railway station. Lots of people are mulling around and we find a queue for the people that have Reserve Tickets for the Mountain Railway. It doesn’t take long to get to the head of the queue and we are allowed a place on the train. We are shown to our carriage and have it to ourselves for a little while though we are later joined by an English couple, a French woman and a lady from the USA brandishing a blackberry. A fellow from India joins us too to fill up the compartment. He doesn’t say much on the trip but I think he finds us amusing. Several times before departure various other types of riff-raff try and squeeze in, but my years of practise on the school train keeps everyone else at bay.
We’ve paid 240 rupees for the trip and our neighbours, who didn’t bother with the Reserve Tickets palaver, have paid 8 rupees. 240 Rupees is about 3 pounds and that was for two people. We also find out later that we were entitled to a first-class compartment, but as these seem much the same as the compartment we have it doesn’t seem much of a loss. In any case it turns out that those compartments are full of oiks. This is one reason why all us western tourists are huddled together in one place.
As we are here so early I have plenty of time to wander about and do some train spotting. Our engine is steaming up in the distance so I concentrate on the diesels that are around. I photograph two Also AWD2’s which are the workhorse of the Indian Railways. These American Locomotives have been built in India for many years. I also see an Also YWD4 which is the engine normally used on the run up to Ooty. The steam engine only does the run once a day and in fact the diesel always does the last few miles from Coonoor to Ooty.
I have the opportunity to photograph our steam engine which she is brought out and hitched up to our rake of carriages, The station has no information office and it’s impossible to buy any memorabilia about the train. This is a bit shocking for a Unesco heritage site, but it gets worse.
The ride itself is very enjoyable and takes about 4 hours. The train stops at various places for watering where everyone jumps out. At Coonoor the steam engine is swapped for a diesel. Keith and I decide that Coonoor itself looks a bit grubby and decide to travel the whole line up to Ooty instead.
On our departure platform travellers were able to buy breakfasts. These were sold in tinfoil takeaway containers. We were aghast to discover that these were routinely thrown out of the train window when discarded by what can only be described as wealthy middle-class tourists. It was disgusting to see that the track had become one long litter bin. The rubbish could be seen strewn along the whole line. If India is usually covered in a layer of filth and litter and perhaps it is too optimistic of me to expect that these people might respect their own heritage.
I mean the ride was fun and interesting but the litter and behaviour was gross. It amused us that these same people screamed whenever the train went through a tunnel. This gives the impression that they must think it’s a ride in a funfair and nothing else. Weird.
On our arrival in Ooty our carriage mates, apart from the USA lady, decided to shoot of to the YMCA place to try and find somewhere to stay. The lady from the USA taking her cue from her Blackberry, had tried to encourage us to stay on some ranch an hour out of town. I suspected that she could use this to leverage a lower rate for herself. However we piled into two auto-rickshaws and went to the YMCA. It was busy and only had two rooms. We looked but the place was overrun by a noisy wedding party. We extolled our taxi man to take us somewhere else and we arrived at an ancient and slightly rundown colonial bungalow. It was in a flower garden with views over the town.
Even though it was a bit pricey Keith and I decided it was great and we took a room. The English couple, with the French girl in tow (and she’d been in tow for a while) thought it was too much and disappeared to find somewhere else. They came back later and took rooms anyway.
Keith and I wandered into town in an attempt to find some tourist information. We found an office but no information as usual. We found a dingy bar and had a beer but the place was a windowless dive and too depressing for words. We left. We spent a bit of time looking for somewhere to eat in the evening and eventually settled on a small restaurant. In a stall outside Keith negotiated interminably about buying a small knife to replace the one that had been confiscated at the airport. After mucking about for half an hour he didn’t buy one anyway.
We decided to have dinner there and then to save ourselves the trouble of coming out tonight. So we did and then took an auto-rickshaw back to our bungalow. We took care to stop off at a wine-shop to buy our regulation Kingfishers on the way.
Back in our room I was peeved to discover that the TV couldn’t get the channel that was showing the Man Utd vs Liverpool game. Disappointing. We probably watched some crap movie instead. We found out later that we’d lost anyway.
A Hike to the Toda Village
India; October 26th; Day 35; Ooty
We order eggs for breakfast at our lodgings but something goes wrong in the translation and we end up with a double order of eggs each. No worries. The boss here has a friend who does guided walks in the hills around Ooty and he will turn up at 11am this morning.
Before that Keith and I stroll into town. It’s warm and sunny today after the cloud and mist of yesterday. We try and find an internet cafe and eventually we find one tucked away at the back. I only need five minutes and I’m quickly back out on the street, As usual we try and find out more information about things to do but to no avail. We return to our bungalow and wait for this guide to turn up. He’s only an hour or so late.
When he does arrive we are told what he has to offer and the price and we all agree that we may as well do it. That’s me and Keith, the English couple and the French girl. We stroll down the hill to the bus station but it turns out that we’ve just missed a bus so we opt to cram into a taxi. It’s a crowded 40 minute drive out of town.
We are dropped off at a trail that climbs gently through a Eucalyptus forest. I can’t remember now why the Eucalyptus trees were imported from Australia and planted here. When we broke out of the woods we had good views over the undulating countryside with a lake in the distance below us. Shortly we arrive at a small Toda village. Apparently the Toda are an indigenous tribe which still live in the hills and eschew the villages and towns. The temple and house have a particular architecture and is woven from bent saplings. This village has recently acquired electricity so it’s probable that this way of life will not last for much longer as the younger generation leave for the brighter lights.
At the village we examine the temple building and the corrals they’ve built for the livestock. Our guide then gets us invited into one of the homes. I’m reluctant to do this so I wait outside in the sun as they spend a long time inside having a cup of tea in the smoky environment. Outside I get to chat with a small boy and his sister and an old fella who kindly allows me to take a photograph. In the fields the villages seem to be growing only carrots. Our guide seems to be spending an inordinate amount of time here and even when we get going again he seems to be just ambling along. I want to get going and have a proper walk and I think he can sense my frustration. The others don’t seem that bothered and just think I’m being rude.
Just after the Toda village we reach a Fire Tower which we climb to enjoy the views. Our guide claims to have seen a tiger around here once. It seems unlikely but he does say he’s only ever seen a tiger three times in his life; After this we walk down the hill to the lake’s edge and then scrabble around the side of the lake through a wood. On the far side we sit down and have some snap. We’d bought some cakes from the bus station and we shared these out. Out in the lake we watched a lonely fisherman.
We left the lakeside then and walked up through the woods back towards the road. We were lucky enough to see the Nilgiri Langur which is a monkey only found in this area. We also saw some Sambar Deer.
At the roadside we waited for a bus back into Ooty and thanked our guide and said goodbye at the bus station.
Back at the bungalow we ordered a take-away from the restaurant we used last night. Everyone was amused by this and the manager of the place even turned up with the order to make sure everything was correct. It was and we watched another movie to while away the evening.
India; October 27th; Day 36; Ooty
We are up early and head straight down to the bus station to get a bus to Avalanche. Our book suggests that we may find some hiking to do down there. At the bus station we are disappointed to find that the next bus is not until 11am. Instead we find a taxi driver and negotiate a price to Emerald which is a town on the way to Avalanche. The driver is reluctant to go all the way. We agree a price and off we go in his classic Ambassador in the old green colour. Inside it’s beautifully upholstered and he obviously looks after it.
After filling up in a petrol station in Ooty we leave town and pass through the undulating countryside. It’s mostly market gardening country and apparently famous for carrots.
When we are dropped off at Emerald, just a small village, we pick up some lunch things; some cake and some fruit. It’s a 10km walk to Avalanche from here and we set off from town down the only main road going west. It’s more rural around here and we pass several tea plantations. After a couple K we reach a junction and assume that the dirt road to the right leads to Avalanche. Only a couple of cars pass us and we decline a lift that is offered. The road continues to wind around and rise and fall. We stop at a Forestry Lodge and try to get some information but the Rangers know nothing. We sit on the bench and have some lunch before continuing.
Before long we arrive in Avalanche and see that it’s no more than a few house for the Forestry workers. A locked barrier is across the road and two guys are manning the gate. They refuse to let us pass and say that we are not authorised without a valid form. He shows us the form, which is in English, but we are not allowed to fill it in now. We should have done this at the Forestry Office in Ooty. We are dumbfounded. What could possibly be the point of this? This is Forestry country with a couple of dams and reservoirs. We argue for a while but they are adamant that we shall not pass. As a coup-de-grace we are also informed that even if we had the form they would not less us through as we have cameras. Photography is not allowed. I’m flabbergasted and inclined to get livid. But what’s the point? I’ve been in India a month and am quite used to this sort of bureaucratic nonsense. The world’s largest democracy and you are prevented from taking photographs in the countryside. Madness.
Keith and I turn around. We have a 7km walk back to Emerald.
On the way we are amused to see a troop of Nilgiri Langur crossing the road above our heads from tree to tree. Further down the road we tentatively think about bushwhacking our way along a trail but discover it’s following a line of electricity pylons. Further still we walk down to a lakeshore and take a break whilst watching some dragonflies and butterflies. We think again about walking around the lakeshore, but decide against it as we have no proper maps with us.
Back on the road to Emerald we are offered a lift by a group of young people. The girls make room for us in the back but don’t talk to us. They are all students on holiday. They have been beyond the barrier but they haven’t walked anywhere but just admired the view. They drop us back in Emerald and as it’s still quite early we decide to try and walk somewhere else. The girl from the USA who we had met on the train coming up to Ooty a couple of days ago was staying at the Red Hill Nature Resort near Emerald. We thought we could walk there and get some lunch before coming back to Emerald for a bus back to Ooty. I’d checked the website for this place and they claimed to have access to several hiking trails. But first we had to ascertain where it was.
Lots of people were hanging around the street at Emerald but none of them were really clear about where the place was. Eventually it was determined that it was about 5km down this particular road. Within the first couple of K’s we where diverted by visiting two dams. The first was a power dam holding back Lake Emerald and the second was just a holding wall for the same reservoir. At the first one we were surprised to see the remnants of the original company buildings and what must have been well maintained gardens. A man was still employed here and he came over to tell us that no photographs were allowed. What is it with this place? We were allowed to walk out onto the dam though and have a good look around. The dam was built by Canadians.
After the dams we continue walking down the road not really knowing how far this Red Hills place is. At one point we flag down a car and ask for a lift. The driver says sure if we pay 50 rupees, so we walk instead.
The road follows the side of the lake and then comes to a place where there is a sort of isthmus of land between two portions of the lake. We stop here for something to eat. It’s obvious that this is a popular picnic spot for the locals as the place is spoiled by litter.
We continue walking and pass a small village where the paved road runs out and the dirt begins. A local assures us that we are going the right way but he can give no indication of how far. Later up the road we are surprised to discover that the car that wanted 50 rupees from us for a lift is now stuck when attempting to turn around,. All it needs is a push. However I ask the man for 50 rupees to help him which he doesn’t offer. So we leave him stuck in the mud. Keith can’t believe that I’ve done this and probably thinks I’m a right bastard. I am. But what goes around comes around and maybe the fella’s learnt something.
The road continues to climb until eventually we come to the Red Hill Nature Resort which is a surprisingly large lodge complex in the middle of a tea plantation. Our friend from the USA is not here but out visiting something. No other guests are apparent. They don’t have a restaurant but the hosts are kind enough to offer us an omelette. We have a couple of beers too. It was a long way to get here but at least we had an adventure getting here and we still have to walk back the same way to Emerald. After our lunch we are shown some of the rooms. They are fitted out very nicely we luxury bathrooms and fireplaces.
As we leave the host’s dog makes an appearance, a German Shepherd, and escorts us out of the premises. We are shown a short-cut down through the tea bushes down to the road. In fact the dog walks with us all the way back to Emerald which must be a 7 or 8 km walk. The dog entertains along the walk and is instrumental in showing us the Langurs as they scream and chatter when they see the dog and we may have missed them altogether without him.
At Emerald the locals are surprised to see us again and are particularly surprised to see the dog with us. They obviously know where the dog comes from and are aghast that we might be stealing it. Eventually however the dog leaves us and strolls off and we hop on the bus to Ooty. As usual the bus us crowded and the locals are amused to see us. School children hop on and off and some hang out the door between times.
When we arrive in Ooty we walk into town and get an early dinner and get an auto-rickshaw back to our bungalow. Of course we’ve picked up some beers first.
Hitting the Beach
India; October 28th; Day 37; Kappad Beach
We arrive at the Bus Station in Ooty just before 6.30am to catch the bus to Calicut. The bus is already full and we take the last two seats. It turns out that the journey takes about 7 hours and we arrive in Calicut shortly after 1pm. Yesterday when we asked about this bus we were initially told 5 hours, and then later still 6 hours. I don’t think they want to discourage you or maybe the journey time can vary a lot.
The first two hours as we leave Ooty is crazy and the bus stops everywhere to load and unload school-children. The bus is heaving with them and each of them has a huge satchel which they just pile up at the back or give one to hold. Keith had three or four bags piled on him at one point.
At the final bus stop we were gobsmacked by just how many kids appeared from the from the front of the bus, scrambled down the main aisle and hopped off the back. This bus was a veritable Tardis.
The route that the bus was taking was a bit strange as it continued to go north along the edge of the Western Ghats through several small towns at which we stopped for 15 minutes before finally heading west and the Keralan coast. The final descent down to the plains was down through a series of 22 hairpins. We finally left the tea plantations behind and came down to the rubber and the bananas. The views weren’t that good on this descent though as the windows on the bus (Tamil Nadu buses have glass whilst Keralan ones don’t) was grubby and as usual the light is pale and misty.
As we leave Tamil Nadu and enter Kerala the bus becomes emptier and we speed up along the plains to the coast. We are dropped off beside the road in Calicut and decide to get a taxi for the 20km to Kappad Beach. We have an address to go to but we can get no reply at present. We take a highway north and then duck off through the coastal swamps and eventually find our tired little guest house after our taxi driver asks around a lot and backs up and down several dead –ends. The place is grubby and the proprietor seems half asleep. We take it anyway as we suspect nothing much else is about except the posh hotel right on the beach.
It’s hot and sticky down here and so after a brief rest we go for a walk to the ocean and the beach. It’s only five minutes away. The beach has nothing though except a few shacks selling snacks, an ice-cream van and the aforesaid hotel. We have lunch in the hotel and then discover it has a bar too. You have to go out the hotel and then back in another entrance where half a dozen tables are set up under a large open walled, but roofed room. It’s right next to the beach but it’s apparent that the locals are not allowed in. This hotel is big but has a slightly rundown feel. It doesn’t look like many people are here either.
After a couple of beers we take a walk up the beach with the intention of finding some other accommodation but nothing else is here. The sea is calm and the beach quite pleasant but no-one is swimming and only a few are brave enough even to paddle. Back at our dump we snooze for a while before taking a shower.
That evening we walk through the mangroves back out to the main road, away from the ocean, and find a small village. It’s only about 2km but it starts to get dark as we get there and the streets are unlit. Just as we arrive we have to cross a level crossing for the railway. The lights go and the gates close but many people blithely cross over anyway before the trains rushes through at high speed.
In the small town we walked around trying to find somewhere to eat without any success so we hired an auto-rickshaw and ride back to the Kappard Beach Hotel for dinner and a couple of beers. Whilst we are there we talk to the manager and negotiate a reasonable rate for a room for the next couple of nights.
India; October 29th; Day 38; Kappad Beach
On waking we pack our stuff and walk the short distance to the Kappad Beach Resort Hotel. After dropping our gear in reception we traipse upstairs to the open-air restaurant and order breakfast. We are the only ones here.
After the usual pancakes, fruit juice and eggs and coffee we return to reception to get ourselves checked-in. They find a room for us. The rooms are separate from the reception building and are comprised of several small blocks with 4 rooms each. Two up and two down. We take a downstairs room. It’s a good room with a terrace outside with chairs, and a decent shower room.
We laze about all morning reading books and occasionally trying to photograph the butterflies fluttering about the flowering bushes close by. Keith ambles off for a walk along the beach and tells me later about a pop video being recorded. A girl and a boy duet. The boy is wearing an afro wig and struggling to play his guitar in sync. Keith watches the crew get exasperated and the camp followers just laugh and enjoy themselves.
It’s a struggle to hold off on the beers until the afternoon but eventually we succumb and wander off to the bar. Absurdly they won’t allow us to order a sandwich from the restaurant to eat in the bar, and I get a packet of crisps confiscated because I bought them outside in the shacks on the beach. The bar does give us some curried chickpeas to go with the beer.
In the afternoon we laze in the sun and read. We cool off in the outdoor swimming pool and swim up and down amongst the floating insects. A huge sign tells us that it is prohibited to do almost anything in this pool.
Eventually we go to dinner and have a couple of more beers afterwards. This is the way to wind down a holiday.
Hanging Out Again
India; October 30th; Day 39; Kappad Beach
Today was the same as yesterday. We had the same meals and drank the same beers. We read on the terrace and had a short walk along the beach. We cooled off in the swimming pool.
Only two things were different, We spent some time on the internet trying to find somewhere to stay for tomorrow night so that we are close to the airport. More interestingly we had to spend 5 minutes trying to fish a large lizard out of the pool before we could have a swim. Keith eventually snagged it and released it.
India; October 31st; Day 40; Chavakkad
We were packed and ready to leave this morning having decide to go to Chavakkad. We’d located somewhere to stay on the internet yesterday and would start our journey by getting the bus into Calicut at 9am.
Breakfast was as normal except that we saw a bird fall from it’s perch dead. There are no gulls along the Keralan coast and the space they occupy seems to be taken up with a species of crow. These crows noisily congregate in the palm trees along the beach, In the grounds of this hotel the staff try and shoo them away with firecrackers from time to time. This morning the noise was going on as normal when Keith just happened to notice that after a brief flurry of squawks a crow just fell to the ground dead. I had my back to it so I didn’t actually see it fall. The staff were bemused at first and didn’t really seem to know what to do. After about five minutes someone came along at scooped it up.
Crows, or more exactly Corvids, including Rooks, Jackdaws and Ravens are well established in folklore and mythology as harbingers of death, Keith and I naturally thought of our Father who has been very ill all year. We had been in contact with home recently and were pretty sure that he was on the mend and a lot better than when we left home six weeks earlier. However we weren’t to know then that our Father would die in three weeks time.
Of course birds die all the time it’s just that it’s not something one generally observes. It was a weird thing to happen.
After breakfast we carried our bags out to the hotel gate to catch the bus but apparently we had missed it. It had left early and had not left from the parking lot outside the hotel as usual. The hotel staff were perplexed but they eventually helped us organise a taxi into Calicut.
In Calicut we were dropped off close to the bus station. As usual confusion reigned here and at first we were told that this was the wrong bus station for Chavakkad however another chap insisted we could jump on this bus … so we did!
The journey took us southward out of the city and down the coast. From time to time the bus left the main highway to find its way to a small towns and villages along the way. On arrival at Chavakkad we jumped an auto-rickshaw which delivered us to our accommodation about 5 kms outside of town next to the beach.
It was a strange place, and a bit pricey, but we had no real choice. The room was fine and we had a garden to sit and read. After settling in the porter/guard/chef rustled up and omelette for our lunch. Later we had a stroll down the beach and watched a lot of fishermen milling about the old boats. We then jumped another rickshaw and went back into town to try and find some beers.
As usual it wasn’t easy. After asking around we were pointed in the direction of a bar which was a dark windowless room up a battered old iron stairway. We took one look inside and turned away in horror. Back outside we considered looking for an internet cafe so that we could check into our flights tomorrow. But we gave up on that too. However we did find another bar attached to a hotel of some kind. This one wasn’t too bad though it was full of the usual drunks. In this one you had to pay for what you wanted at a kiosk and then present the ticket at the bar to pick up your order. Inevitably we jumped yet another rickshaw to take us back to the beach.
In the afternoon we sat around reading and idling away the time and amusing ourselves by photographing the many types of dragonflies hovering about.
The boss came over later to enquire how we were and to ask us what we’d like for dinner. We though a piece of fresh fish would be good and this was arranged. Later I walked back down to the junction and was watching the fishermen unload and pack the catch with ice. The catch consisted entirely of squid. Back at the hostel I asked if it was possible to get some squid for dinner too and the boss duly sent his man down to buy some.
Dinner, of course, was subsequently very good and we enjoyed a kind of squid stew as a starter followed by a large grilled fish, Not bad at all. We went to bed early as we would be starting our marathon journey home tomorrow.
The Journey Home
India; November 1st; Day 41; New Delhi
It was to be a long long day of travel today as we go home. We kick off by having a good breakfast of eggs and coffee at our place by the beach. We have to hang around a little bit waiting for the boss to come down so we can pay the bill. We finish packing and then watch the dragonflies.
Then the journey begins. First we take an auto-rickshaw into town where we pick up a taxi to take us to Cochin airport. It’s about a two hour ride. We have a long wait before our flight to New Delhi which has a stopover at Hyderabad. At New Delhi it’s madness waiting for the luggage off the carousel after which we have to queue for a taxi into the city. Remember we have to return to the Connaught Hotel to pick up the luggage we’ve left behind from the Himalayan part of our trip. Our luggage is where we left it and we have time for a last couple of pints of Kingfisher before taking another taxi back to the airport.
It’s the usual palaver of checking in and I lose my pocket knife which I’ve spent the last 6 weeks looking for! Keith just laughs. Our flight leaves at 3am. I sleep the first half and doze the rest. It’s relatively painless.
UK; November 2nd; Day 42; Aylesham
The flight arrives on time and it’s the usual boring stuff to get through at the airport. Then it’s the tube into London and train from Victoria down into Kent. It’s unfortunate that we have to wait at Canterbury East for the slow train to Aylesham – the last 15 minutes.
Back in the village we walk up to Keith’s place and then drive up to Mum and Dad’s house. It’s been an exhausting 36 hours or so travelling but here we are. My Dad looks a lot better than when we left and it looks like he’s making a slow but steady recovery.
Sadly we weren’t to know then that we would lose our father in a matter of weeks after our return.