The third day of our trip, we set out again around 10 am, this time bound for Coonoor. Located about an hour southeast of Ooty, one has to descend some distance to reach Coonoor, making it a warmer location to be in.
The route took us past the Madras Regimental Centre (since 1947), the first Indian regiment to be housed in the barracks here in Ooty. Originally named the Wellington Barracks and built in 1860, these barracks have been home to many British battalions. Built of teak wood and stone, the barracks have been in constant use since its inception.
We made our first stop at Sim’s Park, which is a real pleasure to visit. The brainchild of JD Sims and Major Murray, the park was opened in 1874 and has an amazing variety of trees, shrubs and plants. Many of the trees have been residents of this park for over a century and the tree top canopy is a good example of the longevity of this park. The park is gently terraced and there are several steps that lead down into the belly of the park.
There are several places to rest in, like gazebos, but the main attraction for us was the little man-made lake near the play area. There were paddleboats that we hired for a trip around the lake, about a 20 minute ride. After the boat ride, the kids spent some time playing on the slides and swings in the play area. The climb back up to the road level was a bit challenging for some of us. So, if you have elderly people in your group, they might do well to stay at the higher levels of the park, where they can still enjoy the beauty in the shade.
From Sim’s Park, we made our way to a tea estate where we climbed the gentle slopes of the estate, taking pictures and burning off some calories in the warm sun. After the cooler weather in Ooty, a bit of warmth and sunshine was very welcome.
We then made our way to Dolphin’s Nose Viewpoint. Over 5000 ft above sea level, this viewpoint offers spectacular views of the surrounding ravines, the valley and the peaks in the distance. Apparently, the tip of the rock where the viewpoint is located is shaped like a dolphin’s nose and hence the moniker. Catherine Falls can be seen in the distance from here. There were many monkeys that shared space with us on the deck. But for the most part, they left us humans to our own devices.
Driving down to Coonoor, we came across the route to Lamb’s Nose, another viewing area, but we were already quite hungry and decided to forego that site. Instead, we headed to a small vegetarian restuarant, Hotel Shri Lakshmi, near the Coonoor railway Station. The ambience left a lot to be desired but the service and the food more than made up for the shabbiness of the place.
Taking the advice of the travel desk at the Accord hotel, we decided to get to the Coonoor railway station for the afternoon. There was a train leaving Coonoor for Ooty around 4 pm so we stood in line at the counter around 2:30 pm. There was another train to Mettupalayam that was ahead of ours and many were in line for that, but we were the first for ours. As expected, it wasn’t long until there was a long line of visitors joining us to ride on the “toy train”.
The one thing the British did for India was to lay the groundwork for rail networking. Despite the rugged terrain, they were able to create an engineering marvel laying a single line (metre gauge) railway between Mettupalayam and Coonoor first in 1899, eventually connecting Ooty in 1908. According to the display board at the station, the engineers used “alternate biting teeth technology” in a “rack and pinion” arrangement between the rails. Originally pulled by steam engines, the trains are now powered by diesel engines.
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005. There is a plaque at the station commemorating this. This railway has the steepest gradient of 1:12 among the Indian Railways. It is 46 km long from Mettupalayam to Ooty and rises an astounding 6159 feet by the time it reaches Ooty. The portion between Coonoor and Ooty is only 19 km and takes about an hour and a half to reach Ooty.
The blue and cream colored cars are iconic of the toy trains. There are two classes of tickets, the first class and second class. I tried to look into the two tiers of class cars to see if there were any significant differences but couldn’t make out any. The price for first class tickets was INR 35 for second class and INR 185 for the first, huge difference. After talking to the ticketing clerk, my brother found out that only about 44 seats were available for first class. The rest were second class, where seating couldn’t be guaranteed. We wanted to have a nice trip with comfortable, guaranteed seating, so we chose to pay the first class ticket price.
Turns out, most of the people in line behind us had the same idea. We were almost all bundled into the first class coach, eventually. Around 3:45 pm, the train pulled in and we got into our coach to find a gentleman seated in one of our seats. He had the same seating as ours but he had booked his ticket online. Confused, we sought help from a staff member. Turns out, people who book online have another separate coach reserved for them. So he was escorted to the correct coach and we occupied our spacious seats.
The seats were comfortable, the windows were large, old fashioned and the glass panel was completely open, letting in plenty of light and air. Once we were settled in and the train started, we spent all our time looking out the windows on either side of the coach. Eventually, as the train chugged along, the temperature in the coach got too cool, despite our jackets and we had to insert the glass window back into its place.
No food is served on the train, so we shared snacks we had carried. The scenery outside kept us riveted; beautiful green slopes, trees, dales, small falls and curving bridges. This was certainly a one-of-a-kind train ride and I would highly recommend while in the Ooty area.