Sixty or more million years ago, what we know today as peninsular India was a separate land-mass drifting northwest across the ocean towards central Asia. Current geological thinking has it that this mass must originally have broken off the African continent along a fault line that is today discernible as a north–south ridge of volcanic mountains, stretching 1400km down the west coast of India, known as the Western Ghats. The range rises to a height of around 2500m, making it India’s second-highest mountain chain after the Himalayas.
Forming a natural barrier between the Tamil plains and coastal Kerala and Karnataka, the Ghats (literally “steps”) soak up the bulk of the southwest monsoon, which drains east to the Bay of Bengal via the mighty Kaveri and Krishna river systems. The massive amount of rain that falls here between June and October (around 2.5m) allows for an incredible biodiversity. Nearly one-third of all of India’s flowering plants can be found in the dense evergreen and mixed deciduous forests cloaking the Ghats, while the woodland undergrowth supports the Subcontinent’s richest array of wildlife.
It was this abundance of game, and the cooler temperatures of the range’s high valleys and grasslands, that first attracted the sun-sick British, who were quick to see the economic potential of the temperate climate, fecund soil and plentiful rainfall. As the forests were felled to make way for tea plantations, and the region’s many tribal groups – among them the Todas – were forced deeper into the mountains, permanent hill-stations were established. Today, as in the days of the Raj, these continue to provide welcome escapes from the fierce summer heat for the middle-class Tamils, and foreign tourists, who can afford the break.
Much the best known of the hill-resorts – in fact better known, and more visited, than it deserves – is Udhagamandalam (formerly Ootacamund, and usually known just as “Ooty”), in the Nilgiris (from nila-giri, “blue mountains”). The ride up to Ooty on the miniature railway via Coonoor is fun, and the views breathtaking, but the town centre suffers from heavy traffic pollution and has little to offer. Further south and reached by a scenic switchback road, the other main hill station is Kodaikanal. The lovely walks around town provide views and fresh air in abundance, while the bustle of Indian tourists around the lake makes a pleasant change from life in the city.
The forest areas lining the state border harbour Tamil Nadu’s principal wildlife sanctuaries, Indira Gandhi and Mudumalai which comprise part of the vast Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, the country’s most extensive tract of protected forest. Road building, illegal felling, hydroelectric projects and overgrazing have whittled away large parts of this huge wilderness area over the past two decades, but what’s left still constitutes home to an array of wildlife. The main route between Mysore and the cities of the Tamil plains wriggles through the Nilgiris, and you may well find yourself pausing for a night or two along the way. Whichever direction you’re travelling in, a stopover at the dull textile city of Coimbatore is hard to avoid.Read More
Perched on top of the Palani range, around 120km northwest of Madurai, KODAIKANAL, also known as Kodai, owes its perennial popularity to its hilltop position which, at an altitude of more than 2000m, affords breathtaking views over the blue-green reaches of the Vaigai plain. Raj-era bungalows and flower-filled gardens add atmosphere, while short walks out of the centre lead to rocky outcrops, waterfalls and dense shola forest. With the more northerly wildlife sanctuaries and forest areas of the Ghats closed to visitors, Kodai’s outstandingly scenic hinterland also offers south India’s best trekking terrain.
After a while in the south Indian plains, a retreat to Kodai’s cool heights is more than welcome. However, in the height of summer (April–July), when temperatures compete with those in the lowlands, it’s not worth the trip – nor is it a good idea to come during the monsoon (Oct–Dec), when the town is shrouded in mists and drenched by heavy downpours. In late February and early March the nights are chilly; the peak tourist season, therefore, is from April to June, when prices soar.
Kodai’s focal point is its lake, sprawling like a giant amoeba over 60 acres just west of the town centre. This is a popular place for strolls or bike rides along the 5km path that fringes the water’s edge, while pedal- or rowing boats can be rented on the eastern shore. Horseriding is also an option here – it costs Rs50 to be led along the lakeside for 500m, or Rs200 for an hour’s ride. Shops, restaurants and hotels are concentrated in a rather congested area east of and downhill from the lake. The only monuments to Kodai’s colonial past are the neat British bungalows that overlook the lake, and Law’s Ghat Road on the eastern edge of town. The British first moved here in 1845, to be joined later by members of the American Mission, who set up schools for European children.
To the south is Bryant’s Park, with tiered flowerbeds on a backdrop of pine, eucalyptus, rhododendron and wattle which stretches southwards to Shola Road, less than 1km from the point where the hill drops abruptly to the plains. A flower show is held here in May. A path, known as Coaker’s Walk, skirts the hill, winding from the Villa Retreat to Greenland’s Youth Hostel (10min), offering remarkable views that stretch as far as Madurai on a clear day.
One of Kodai’s most popular natural attractions is the Pillar Rocks, 7km south of town, where a series of granite cliffs rise more than 100m above the hillside. To get here, follow the westbound Observatory Road from the northernmost point of the lake (a steep climb) until you come to a crossroads; the southbound road passes the gentle Fairy Falls on the way to Pillar Rocks. Some 2km west of the lake, the signposted Bear Shola Falls now sees barely a trickle of water but remains a popular picnic and photo-stop for local tourists.
Southeast of the town centre, about 3km down Law’s Ghat Road (towards the plains), the Shenbaganur Natural Science Museum has a very uninviting array of stuffed animals. However, the spectacular orchid house contains one of India’s best collections, which can be viewed by appointment only (ask at the tourist office). Head 2km further along Law’s Ghat Road to reach Silver Cascade waterfall, where the overflow from Kodai Lake has created a pleasant pool for bathing.
Chettiar Park, on the very northeast edge of town, around 3km from the lake at the end of a winding uphill road, flourishes with trees and flowers all year round, and every twelve years is flushed with a haze of pale-blue Kurinji blossoms (the next flowering will not be until 2018). These unusual flowers are associated with the god Murugan, the Tamil form of Karttikeya (Shiva’s second son), and god of Kurinji, one of five ancient divisions of the Tamil country. A temple in his honour stands just outside the park.
Indira Gandhi (Anamalai) Wildlife Sanctuary
Indira Gandhi (Anamalai) Wildlife Sanctuary
Indira Gandhi (Anamalai) Wildlife Sanctuary is a 958-square-kilometre tract of forest on the southern reaches of the Cardamom Hills, 37km southwest of the busy junction town of Pollachi. Vegetation ranges from shola-grassland to dry deciduous to tropical evergreen, and the sanctuary is home to lion-tailed macaques (black-maned monkeys), gaur, sambar, spotted and barking deer, sloth bear, as well as leopards and tigers. Birds such as hornbills and frogmouths are also seen here. One of the highlights is taking a trek through the giant creaking stands of bamboo with a guide, and a Forestry Department minibus conducts safari tours on request, and a forty-minute elephant safari is also available. For reservations, contact the park reception office.
When John Sullivan, the British burrasahib credited with “discovering” UDHAGAMANDALAM – whose anglicized name, Ootacamund, is usually shortened to Ooty – first clambered into this corner of the Nilgiris through the Hulikal ravine in the early nineteenth century, the territory was the traditional homeland of the pastoralist Toda hill-tribe. Until then, the Todas had lived in almost total isolation from the cities of the surrounding plains and Deccan plateau lands. Sullivan quickly realized the agricultural potential of the area, acquired tracts of land for Rs1 per acre from the Todas, and set about planting flax, barley and hemp, as well as potatoes, soft fruit and, most significantly of all, tea, which all flourished in the mild climate. Within twenty years, the former East India Company clerk had made a fortune. Needless to say, he was soon joined by other fortune-seekers, and a town was built, complete with artificial lake, churches and stone houses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Surrey or the Scottish Highlands. Soon, Ooty was the “Queen of Hill Stations” and had become the most popular hill-retreat in peninsular India.
By a stroke of delicious irony, the Todas outlived the colonists whose cash crops originally displaced them – but only just. Having retreated with their buffalo into the surrounding hills and wooded valleys, they continue to preserve a more-or-less traditional way of life, albeit in greatly diminished numbers. Until the mid-1970s “Snooty Ooty” continued to be “home” to the notoriously snobbish British inhabitants who chose to “stay on” after Independence. Since then, travellers have continued to be attracted by Ooty’s cool climate and peaceful green hills, forest and grassland. However, if you come in the hope of finding quaint vestiges of the Raj, you’re likely to be disappointed; what with indiscriminate development and a deluge of holiday-makers, they’re few and far between.
The best time to come is between January and March, thereby avoiding the high-season crowds (April–June & Sept–Oct). In May, the summer festival brings huge numbers of people and a barrage of amplified noise, worlds away from the peaceful retreat envisaged by the sahibs.
Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary
Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary
Set 1140m up in the Nilgiri Hills, the MUDUMALAI WILDLIFE SANCTUARY, covers 322 square kilometres of deciduous forest, split by the main road from Ooty (64km to the southeast) to Mysore (97km to the northwest). Occupying the thickly wooded lower northern reaches of the hills, it boasts one of the largest populations of elephants in India, along with wild dogs, gaur (Indian bison), common and Nilgiri langur and bonnet macaques (monkeys), jackal, hyena and sloth bear, and even a few tigers and leopards. Of the wealth of local flora, the dazzling red flowers of the flame of the forest stand among the most noticeable. Now that the park is fully operational again, you can explore by vehicle or on foot. Generally speaking, the best time to visit is during and after monsoon.
The main focus of interest by the park entrance at Theppakkadu is the Elephant Camp show, where you can watch the sanctuary’s tame pachyderms being fed and bathed. This is also the starting point for the government safari tour, which is the only way of accessing the official park limits. However you may well see more creatures if you take a private Jeep tour or guided trek into some of the parts of Mudumalai that are outside the state-controlled area. These can be arranged through any guesthouse or direct at Nature Safari in Masinagudi (t0423/252 6340, e[email protected]).
- Moving on from Coimbatore
The Nilgiri Blue Mountain Railway
The Nilgiri Blue Mountain Railway
The famous narrow-gauge Nilgiri Blue Mountain Railway climbs up from Mettupalayam on the plains, via Hillgrove (17km) and Coonoor (27km) to Udhagamandalam, a journey of 46km that passes through sixteen tunnels, eleven stations and nineteen bridges. It’s a slow haul of four and a half hours or more – sometimes the train moves little faster than walking pace, and always takes at least twice as long as the bus – but the views are absolutely magnificent, especially along the steepest sections in the Hulikal ravine.
The line was built between 1890 and 1908, paid for by the tea-planters and other British inhabitants of the Nilgiris. It differs from India’s two comparable narrow-gauge lines, to Darjeeling and Shimla, for its use of the so-called Swiss rack system, by means of which the tiny locomotives are able to climb gradients of up to 1 in 12.5. Special bars were set between the track rails to form a ladder, which cogs of teeth, connected to the train’s driving wheels, engage like a zip mechanism. Because of this novel design, only the original locomotives can still run the steepest stretches of line, which is why the section between Mettupalayam and Coonoor has remained one of South Asia’s last functioning steam routes. The chuffing and whistle screeches of the tiny train, echoing across the valleys as it pushes its blue-and-cream carriages up to Coonoor (where a diesel locomotive takes over) rank among the most romantic sounds of south India, conjuring up the determined gentility of the Raj era. Even if you don’t count yourself as a trainspotter, a boneshaking ride on the Blue Mountain Railway should be a priority while traversing the Nilgiris between southern Karnataka and the Tamil plains.