Train journeys hold a special place in the heart, evoking nostalgia and bringing back memories of a lifetime. This toy train ride from Ooty to Coonoor was no different.
“U-D-H-A-G-A-M-A-N-D-A-L-A-M”, I spelled out the name on the yellow sign board that peeped through trees across the street, as I tip-toed around the balcony of our room to get a clearer view. Our family of five had just arrived at the ‘Holiday Home’ (a guesthouse for central government officials) we picked for our vacation in Ooty, and the eight-year-old me was gutted we didn’t stay at a fancier place.
So, while rest of the clan settled down in the living room to decide on the day’s itinerary over filter kaapi, I went straight to the open porch to assert, in my own way, that I was still very much in disapproval of the ongoing plan. But the giant sign before me piqued my interest and I, just like any other curious kid, forgot all about my dismay within seconds.
The sign was actually for the Ooty train station, a part of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. For next two days, we went on with the decided itinerary — ticking touristy spots off our list. The Botanical Garden, Government Museum, Dolphin’s Nose, Ooty Lake, St Stephen’s Church, and Dodapetta Peak.
On the third morning while chatting with my dad, I casually mentioned all the things I had noted about the station so far — how a whistle-blowing train arrives every evening; how a woman sits right outside the gate, selling mango slices smeared with masala that I thought would taste heavenly; how the signboard yellow was my new favourite colour, and how I really wanted to see where that train went.
Back in those days, the world’s information wasn’t at our fingertips, and my father, as he still does, was determined not to let my curiosity go waste. So off we went, hand in hand, to check out the station that early morning. The street was almost empty, the vendors were still placing fresh, hot idlis and vadas on their carts, and our two-minute stroll was over quickly.
As I slurped on my slice of masala mango, Dad chatted with the station master, enquiring about the route. Beaming, he told me, “Let’s take that train ride of yours!” We had hired a taxi to visit Coonoor that day. Turned out, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway ran a toy train along those tracks that connect Ooty to Coonoor and all the way to Mettupalayam!
There was no time left for breakfast at the guesthouse so we grabbed freshly baked buns, some butter, and aloo vadas, and rushed back to the station with rest of the family to catch the morning ride. Painted a stunning cobalt blue, the narrow-gauge toy train arrived dramatically, taking its own sweet time, occasionally blowing whistles and billowing thick steam. I gaped in silence, as my excitement grew with each turn of the wheel. Finally, with a sudden halt and a hiss, the train screeched to a halt on the tracks in front of me.
We took our seats, and the rustic wooden coaches with steel mesh on the windows, instantly transported us to a bygone era. The much-anticipated journey began, and in no time, it was chugging along the track. I sat back, as it hooted and moved in a slow rhythm, unfolding before me breathtaking views of lush tea estates and misty meadows.
The track spans 46 km from Udhagamandalam to Mettupalayam in Tamil Nadu, but it just takes an hour to reach Coonoor. The leisurely journey, however, gives you ample time to appreciate the natural wealth of this region. Winding through the Western Ghats and leaving behind a misty grey trail of steam and smoke, it passes through seven quaint little stations, including Wellington, Aravankadu, Ketti, and Lovedale. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway, awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO, was opened in 1899 for British administration as an escape from the sweltering heat of southern India. It has stood the test of time as an outstanding feat of engineering ever since.
The journey, as I remember it, took us through dense jungles, banana plantations, narrow valleys, and slopes carpeted with thick grasslands. I remember that the line ascends the Nilgiri Hills, passing through many arched bridges (there are over 250 of them, I read, along with 16 tunnels and around 208 curves). I also remember feeling the nippy air run through my hair, as I pushed my nose against the window grill, listening to father’s laugh and my mother’s chatter with a local, discussing the recipe of rasam.
Upon reaching our destination, we dedicated the day to the quieter charms of slow village life in Coonoor. A visit to Sim’s Park (a terraced botanical garden), followed by stopping at picturesque spots, such as Lamb’s Rock, Dolphin’s Nose, and Katteri Falls, resulted in a day full of little adventures with family that evoke nostalgia now. In the evening, we decided to take the train back to Ooty. Because the only thing better than taking a memorable train journey is, taking it twice.