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Ooty Tour

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a train in Ooty
Couched amidst those gorgeous blue mountains of southern India, there is something special about the erstwhile British township of Ooty. Year after year, it draws tourists, adventure enthusiasts, honeymooners and the film industry like bees to nectar. Sure, many wise travelers believe that Ooty is a dumpyard, a degraded, over-rated hill station, and so on. Nevertheless, the wiser one will see how Ooty can soothe strung-up nerves and become the backdrop for a wondrous holiday.

Ooty nestles in an amphitheatre created by four majestic hills—Doddabetta, Snowdon, Elk Hill and Club Hill. These hills are part of the Nilgiri ranges that are really the meeting point for the Western and the Eastern Ghats. But why the ‘blue’ mountains—one would naturally wonder at the name. Do rest assured, when the lavender-blue flowers of the famous Strobilanthes cover the hills in floral profusion, it would be time to stop wondering, for it is these funnel-shaped blossoms that are the reason for the name.

Although signboards all around scream and beg to make people call this 36-sq-km hill resort Udhagamandalam, their pleas obviously fell on deaf ears. Ooty will always be Ooty to everyone. As the blaze of the afternoon sun gives way to a nippy evening, one can make his way towards the nearby lake. This part of Ooty was once a huge bog with a west-flowing stream. In 1824, the lower part of the stream was converted into a lake. Though the lake seems ordinary enough, what really gets the tourists all excited is the warmth and buzz of activity in the vicinity. There is a boathouse where rowboats and motorboats can be had on hire. A Tamilnadu Tourism Development Corporation venture, it remains open from 8 am to 6 pm. Sitting at the edge of the lake and watching the sun dipping down to herald darkness, is a soothing experience, to put it lightly.

The beautiful Botanical Gardens are, in a word, Ooty’s milestone. Reaching the sprawling maze of greens and blooms, up northeast of the township, one’s first thought is of the incredible influence of British rule in India. And these images, reminiscent of the Raj, were all over Ooty. Not surprising, considering that the hill resort as we know it now was founded by the British, in the early 1800s, to serve as the Madras Government’s summer headquarters. The Botanical Gardens of Ooty, established in 1847, are much like the typical, manicured and planned gardens one sees so often. But the real beauty of the place is its plants—an amazingly diverse array with trees, shrubs and herbs of a mindboggling number of species. And the flowers were really something to write home about. Was it the altitude—Ooty nestles at 2240 m above sea level—and the rarefied air, or the lack of polluted air that gave these flowers an added shine and gloss? They smiled from everywhere as one ambles about the lovely, spread-out profusion. The fossil tree trunk that one sees here is believed to be 20 million years old!

The great charm of Ooty is not so much the specific tourist destination; it is, in fact, the long lovely walks that it offers. Anywhere you go, the serenity of the Nilgiris will be all around you. Specially the strategic points from where one could either see Ooty or the view all around, like Snowdon, Ketty Valley, the Wenlock Downs and, of course, Doddabetta. Further, one could hire a horse either near the boathouse or at the Savoy—for a slightly more exhilarating excursion in and around town.

Ooty is a haven for the seeker of sports, adventure or otherwise—from hiking and riding to fishing for trout and playing tennis and snooker. Then, of course, there is the gorgeously scenic golf course tucked away in the northwest almost straight across town from the Gardens. Many avid golfers believe that the links of the Ooty Gymkhana Club are among the best in the world. Then there is the Race Course, in the heart of town. Today, Ooty has shot up on the demand charts of the Bombay (Mumbai) film industry, and with the southern filmmakers already there, the resort faces quite a glut of starry stuff. With a large number of popular hill stations of the Himalayas snuffed out or made inaccessible by violence and political upheaval, Ooty is now a hot spot for the filmwallah. So you mustn’t be rattled to find your peaceful walks punctuated by sudden crowds and an outlandishly attired couple running around a grove of eucalyptus tree.

The eucalyptuses are quite a part of the Ooty landscape. They even fuel a small oil industry, so it is common to find eucalyptus oil in the shops at Ooty. These tall, lanky trees seemed much at home on the slopes around. Many a traveler may feel that Ooty and the Nilgiris lack the awe, mystique and drama of the Himalayas. One can only feel sorry for the cynical traveler who failed to catch the pulse of Ooty’s charm. More so the Nilgiris. For the lush green serenity of these southern hills of India would be difficult to find anywhere else. A summer of peace and uncluttered, cool days is what the Nilgiris offer, with their resonant echoes of a rich and tangible Dravidian culture.

All along the hill slopes in the Nilgiri Mountains, you will find that omnipresent, glossy, stout bush with fragrant white or pink flowers and a melodious name camellia (Camellia thea). Tea, brought to the Nilgiris in the 1860s, is amongst India’s most prominent plantation crops, what with the country being the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of black tea. This is perhaps why the slopes of the Nilgiris, all round Ooty, Coonoor and the like, seem to have tea bushes almost like a second skin.

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Ooty hunt in India
Processed tender leaves and leaf buds compose the tea of commerce. This agro-industry flourishes on the hillsides of the Nilgiris and experts say that tea growing at a higher elevation would have a flavor superior to that growing at lower heights. This flavor and distinctive character of the popular beverage is from essential oils and alkaloids present in the plant. But then, all this is after a long manufacturing process that is carried out in industrial units on the plantation itself or nearby. From harvesting to curing, rolling and fermentation, to drying and grading, the process is delicate and tedious. There are minor variations depending on the kind of tea being produced. The delicacy of the job of picking ‘two leaves and a bud’ is perhaps testified by the fact that pickers are always women or children.

And so, it is the camellia bushes, with their sheen and gloss that green the Blue Mountains, providing raw material for a huge industry and employment for many in the land of the Strobilanthes.

Ooty has the singular distinction of having many places around that are worthy of a visit, or sometimes even a halt. Heading east from the southeast of Ooty will take one to Coonoor and Wellington, two very beautiful townships. Coonoor, though small, had much to boast of Sim’s Park, Lamb’s Rock, Dolphin’s Nose and generally pretty landscape. Wellington, of course, is a typical army township, clean and smart. Coonoor may easily charm one enough to stay longer, with its lush, tea bush slopes and attractive British houses.

About 28 km from Ooty, towards the east, is the 26-sq-km Kotagiri, incredibly picturesque, amongst the first townships of the British and a great place to visit. From Kotagiri one can even proceed to the Kodanad View, Catherine Falls or Rangaswamy Peak, all famous for their natural beauty.

The famous Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, 67 km from Ooty, stretches over 321 sq km. Traveling to Ooty from Mysore and Bangalore, one passes the sanctuary with its dense vegetation crowding the banks of the lovely Mayar River. Herds of wild elephants, or lone tuskers, a great variety of birds, cats, snakes, and deer are known to live in these cool, dark jungles of the Nilgiris.

Ten kilometers out of Ooty is the great Doddabetta Peak, the highest in the Nilgiri chain of mountains. Doddabetta stands at 2623 m and if your trip is made on a clear day visible all around you will be Coonoor, Wellington, Mettupalayam, and Coimbatore. If it’s an exceptionally crisp day, you might even see Mysore.

Avalanche, Upper Bhavani, Mukurti and Pykara are all places that are near Ooty and must be seen for their scenery. The reservoirs at Avalanche and Upper Bhavani are excellent waters for angling with the rainbow trout in particular abundance. All these places have an attractive mixed landscape of forests, shola-grasslands and tea-filled slopes.

Finally, for the scientifically curious, en route to Avalanche from Ooty is India’s largest radio telescope. So also the Hindustan Photo Films in the Wenlock Downs, the only factory of its kind in India, manufacturing sensitized photographic materials.

The region is a treasure of wildlife, with some animals even native to these southern mountain ranges. There is that deep-voiced Nilgiri langur (Presbytis johnii) with its shiny black body and yellow-brown crown. The Nilgiri langur happens to be one of the five langur species found in India and Sri Lanka. These langurs of the Nilgiris are often found in the sholas, which are amongst their favourite haunts. It’s in the sholas that you can also see the lion-tailed macaque.

The shy, timid and hard-to-spot Nilgiri tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius) also has its home in these blue mountains. This animal has pride of place in being the only wild goat to inhabit any region south of the Himalayas. It has a short coat, dark yellow brown in color, and prefers to inhabit craggy regions above forest level. The Nilgiris are home to a great variety of carnivorous animals like tigers, panthers, jackals and hyenas. Elephants, wildcats, civet cats, giant squirrels and mongoose are also part of Nilgiri fauna. The Nilgiri marten, nightjar, hill mynah, and golden oriole are some of the region’s avifauna. In essence, this range of mountains harbors a massive diversity of animal life.

Coimbatore, 105 km from Ooty, is the nearest airport. Indian Airlines has flight to Coimbatore from Bangalore, Cochin and Madras.

The Blue Mountain Express to Ooty is from Mettupalayam (47 km). Mettupalayam can be reached from Coimbatore by the Tea Garden Express.

All important towns of Tamilnadu, Kerala and Karnataka are connected to Ooty.

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