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
  • Kodaikanal
  • Indira Gandhi (Anamalai) Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Udhagamandalam
  • Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Moving on from Coimbatore
  • The Nilgiri Blue Mountain Railway