While this may sound cheesy, my first memory of Ooty is a dialogue from the 1980’s film “Karz’, where a cheeky Jalal Agha turns around to a disturbed Rishi Kapoor ( who is unaware that his love-interest resides in Ooty), and in an attempt of persuasion to get him to station himself there, squeals out “Ooty, pyaar ki booty” (Translated, that stands: -Ooty, the reservoir of love!). I loved the movie, the picturesque locations and the songs. And thus began the love-affair!
It was John Sullivan, the British Collector of Coimbatore who put Ooty firmly on the map in the 19th century. Surveying the “Neilgherry Hills” in 1819, he addressed an ecstatic letter to Thomas Munro thus: “This is the finest country ever. It resembles, I suppose, Switzerland more than any other part of Europe… the hills beautifully wooded and fine strong spring with running water in every valley.” And there is no reason why one should try disagreeing much to it today. I use the word ‘much’ because it really isn’t Ooty today, that stands out as the jewel in the crown of the Nilgiris, but the smaller destinations, that are away from the main commercial hill town. Red Hills, for example. A break from the break we took during our trip.
The decision to take off to the Nilgiris was as hurried as the notice period the mountains gave us, every time it decided on a shrill spell of rains. And what a pretty sight the mountains are in the rains! Oxidized grey clouds, blankets of engulfing mist, puffs of clouds in our breath that Nyja discovered was what the dushtu (naughty, in Bengali) dinosaur was responsible for! We did exactly what we had planned to do in this summer trip. Stay calm, and let the mountain breeze dictate your next steps. So the first day, we played in the children’s park, nibbled on chicken pakoras, sipped hot masala chai from the terrace of our resort and watched the dumplings skate-blade away to glory, teasing , twitching and competing with each other!
That was on the first day. A small drive within the very commercialized streets of Ooty was motivating enough to have us decide that the best way to start our affair with the monsoon soaked Nilgiris, was to steer away from the main city. And boarding the cute little Nilgiris Mountain Railway was a welcoming detour to get away! The Unesco World Heritage-notified train is an engineering marvel that chugs through 16 tunnels, 250 girder bridges and 208 curves. The steepest mountain railway in India has a toy-like, blue-and-white, four-coach train of wood compartments powered by a puff-and-hoot steam engine, the valiant sound of which carries in the hills as it journeys up and down. The effect is more cute than magnificent, and for a quite large chunks of time you are able to forget that Malaika Arora indeed swayed to ‘Chhaiya Chhaiya’ on its roof.
We did a clever thing by not including ourselves in the serpentine queue to get tickets at the Udaghamandalam station. Instead we took our car till Coonoor, and had the driver get the car back, while we took the ride in its return leg. Oh, the drive! Peppered with roads whose bends are a mystery, waterfalls that seem like shooting stars in the distance, tea and coffee plantations, that look like they are pampered by the best in class salons and a seductive curves and bends that can put Candice Swanepoel to shame!
The landscape is breathtaking, and the whiff of the monsoon forests, heady. The rail ride was next. Cute stations, red-tiled rooftops, walls of green that speed past you, puffs of the steam from the engine ahead, and raindrops from the window pane that keep a romantic engaged for hours! Sprinkle on top excited twins going berserk with pink cotton candy, and two hopeless immatured adults trying to catch raindrops on their noses!
Alright, time to go to the Red Hills in the Blue Mountains, taking a little detour on the history of it’s name. Say hello to Vijay Kumar, the owner of the Red Hills Resort. While sipping a hot cup of tea in his verandah, he tells us this tale; ” Willie Collins, a planter and hunter, fell in love with the Nilgiris and started constructing a house near a Toda village called Othe-Kal-Mund or the “One Stone Village” – simplified, and later made popular as Oota-ca-mund by the English. By 1875 Willie’s house on top of a hill was complete. He named the hill Red Hills because he belonged to Red Hills in England. (What a terrible analogy to pick up, Willie! Red Hills in Worcestor has been historically famous for bloodshed,and war execution! Seriously!) So,he stayed in the house for almost sixty years. After his death a certain Muthoor Pillai, an affluent planter and potato trader with business interests in Bombay and Calcutta, bought the properties of Willie from his daughter in 1937. All his children were raised in the house built by Willie on Red Hills. I am his youngest son and this is my inheritance!”
Over the years the landscape of the surrounding areas has undergone huge change, he says. A number of dams were erected in the Nilgiris and Vijay’s house now overlooks the beautiful catchment area of the Emerald dam. Out of the 250 acres of tea estate belonging to Vijay’s family he owns about 70 acres. He became a professional tea planter. His tea gardens now surround his bunglow. Apart from commercial reasons, boredom and the urge to meet new people is sometimes the motivation behind starting homestays. And this was no exception. That’s how the first homestay in the Nilgiris started. What we now know as the Red Hills Nature Resort.
The drive up to the lakes left us straining our necks to see more and more of the mesmerizing landscape with every odd turn! We stopped at the banks of the Emerald, and efficiently worked up our appetite throwing pebbles far, farther and as far as possible into the lakes! Glee in their faces and excitement in their limbs the twins (and their dad)went into a frenzy, I think! When you reach the 130 years old resort, nothing short of a spectacle awaits you. Nilgiris in the monsoon. A love affair that you cannot ignore! Undulating hills covered with tea gardens , the green carpet wearing a drapery of milky clouds and silvery fog, the songs of serenity idling through the curvacious cracks of the lakes below, fascinating shapes of blue tapestry, the monsoon interludes, handsome rumbles of the thunder, the dominating flash of lightening, the fragrance of jasmines and that white bench facing the perfect landscape. Can a recipe for taking your mind off from everything else that exists in the world, be more perfect?
What did I do all day? Made friends with Moby -the sweetest dog you would have ever met! Became cheerleader for a running race between the husband and the german shepherd; refereed a soccer match between T,N and M! Dangled my legs on a steep wall facing the tea gardens and the lakes ahead. Felt the rain on my face. Sipped hot tea and munched on calamari fritters. Watched in awe as the clouds engulfed the lakes, teasing me with slices of muted mellow sunshine every now and then. And, left behind slices of my heart behind, watching every moment of this breathtaking, all-encompassing landscape ringed by high mountains all around, and pretty pink and white mountain daisies growing in between the tea gardens like a carpet.
Sometimes it’s nice to have days when you don’t have to manically plan every hour. Post lunch, the rain thinned a bit, before the distant dark clouds would hug us back again . The grass was wet. Deliciously wet. I lay down on the grass and slipped into a state of oblivion and would have definitely fallen asleep as well, hadn’t I consciously tried to stay awake. A purr echoed in my ears. It was the breeze of the mountain. A strong nip of the chill of the hill-wind. And that was my perfect travel moment.
Red Hills is one of those simple destinations that doesn’t try too hard. It doesn’t give you too much ‘to do’. It’s just there for you, to uplift your spirits. And, to cunningly whisper in your ears …”Come back, will you?”