Around sixty million years ago, what is today called peninsular India was a separate land-mass drifting northwest across the ocean towards central Asia. Geologists believe this mass originally broke off from the African continent along a fault line. This line is still discernible today as the north–south ridge of volcanic mountains, known as the Western Ghats, which stretch 1400km down the west coast of India. Rising to a height of around 2500m, it is 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 attracted the British away from the withering summer heat on the southern plains. They also realized the economic potential of the local climate, fertile 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 incessant heat, as well as romantic getaways for the emergent Indian middle classes and nostalgia for foreign tourists.
The best known of the hill resorts is Udhagamandalam (formerly Ootacamund, and known just as “Ooty”) nestling 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 actually 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, hydro-electric projects and overgrazing have whittled away large parts of this huge wilderness area over the past two decades, but what’s left is still 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 in the dull textile city of Coimbatore is hard to avoid.