A First Class Indian Adventure Part 3: Steam And Surprise From The Hill Fort Of Ooty

We departed the Oberoi with not just heavy hearts but also an excited flutter of anticipation for the next leg of our trip to the popular hill retreat of Udagamandalam, better known as Ooty. Thankfully for our return trip we were assigned a significantly speedier driver than the lady who picked us up from the airport. With the Mumbai traffic playing ball we really got to feel the benefits of our Audi A8. It was amazing how the car effortlessly gathered speed with no increase in noise whatsoever. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our flight to Coimbatore for what would be our second time flying with the low cost airline, IndiGo which had now grown into India’s largest carrier both in terms of seats flown and fleet size. Not bad for an operation that only started out in 2006.

Flight: IndiGo 6E283 BOM to CJB
Depart: Mumbai 11:45
Arrive: Coimbatore 13:30
Seats: 27E and 27F (All Seating Economy)
Aircraft: Airbus A320-200 (Reg Unknown)

Unlike the now condemned chaos of the International Terminal at Mumbai Airport, the Domestic Santa Cruz terminal felt like modern bliss in comparison. It’s amazing how much a bit of extra space and organisation can do when it comes to improving the airport experience! Check in was straightforward enough, with one long, well policed, post office style queue that successfully prevented anyone from pushing in. Once we were checked in I managed to get myself in a jumble as our flight was departing from Gate A1 in Terminal 1C, stupidly I confused myself thinking we were departing from Gate 1C in Terminal 1A which had only gates 1-8 without the letter prefix. Thankfully all the gates and terminals were just a short walk from each other rendering my stupidity shortlived. It seemed I was not the only one to be disoriented by the airport and since our trip the authorities have reorganised Terminal 1 yet again!

In the end my confusion didn’t matter, our flight was late, our gate was changed and then changed back again just minutes later. I also found out after the fact that we could have used the lounge near our departure point as it was available to Priority Pass customers after all despite the lack of signage around the entrance, whoops!

Boarding was the expected free for all but thankfully was as quick as it was chaotic. On our way down the airbridge a gentleman travelling to Coimbatore for work struck up some conversation with us, it turned out he travelled regularly to the UK as part of his job because his company owned a factory that produced clothes for Primark. We were soon aboard our Airbus A320 and I can’t remember the last time we were sat so far back on a plane.

The seat pitch was tight and the recline minimal but that was reflected in the low cost of our fare.

At first glance our aircraft looked brand new and immaculate but it appeared that the cleaning after its last flight had not been particularly thorough as there was a little bit of litter from the previous passenger stuffed in to my seat back pocket.

We had a quick safety demonstration, though for some reason the brace position was excluded. Furthermore, the crew and fellow passengers were totally non-plussed by the lady sat in front of us taking a phone call just as we were turning on to the runway for take off, if that had been on a Western airline a member of the crew would have been screeching down the aisle.

Thankfully before long we were smoothly up in the air and on our way.

The cabin announcements were friendly, informal and delivered with a healthy dose of humour. However, there was no apology from the crew or captain for our late departure.

Thinking we might be hungry and knowing we’d have little opportunity for lunch I pre-ordered us some food, not realising we’d be fairly full from our substantial breakfast. That said the sandwich and canned drink only ended up being £2.50 each.

Despite my miserable expression, the flight went by quickly enough and before we knew it the call for 20 minutes to landing went out.

The only logical explanation I could come up with, even now was that our pilot was auditioning for a stunt role in action film, first completing a big banked turn just before our final approach and barely slowing as the runway neared. We really felt the g-force as we hit the runway hard and I was surprised we didn’t bounce to a halt. With the airport almost completely empty and conditions apparently decent, I’m not sure why we otherwise had such a rough landing.

Safely on the ground we exited via a ramp from the rear door and on to a bus shuttling us a few yards to the terminal building. Though for some reason the forward door of the aircraft was connected to an air-bridge allowing the privileged few at the front to disembark more comfortably. In true Indian fashion it was a clear case of survival of the fittest when trying to exit the aircraft, even yielding for a frail OAP was a sign of weakness that would leave you last off the plane.

On exiting the terminal we had a huge surprise. My in-laws N & G had spent three days cooped up on a train travelling south via Delhi to catch up with us on our way to Ooty. We were in complete shock when we saw them waiting for us by the car park holding up their handmade chauffeur’s sign!

As a bit of background N & G had spent the previous six months travelling on a tandem bike from France, across Europe and into Asia with just one small hop on a plane from Azerbaijan to Kathmandu being their only time prior to visiting us not on spent on their bike or hitching a lift. If ever there was a trip that contrasted with ours, it was theirs. No 5 star hotels, just enjoying the simple life; camping, befriending strangers and keeping it under £10 a night for room & board, theirs was definitely more of an adventure than ours. Sadly their website seems to have bitten the dust so you’ll just have to imagine their escapades.

We had kept our driver waiting a while and at this point I wished we had spent the extra rupees and ordered the larger vehicle on offer from the hotel we had booked.

With our luggage tied tightly to the top, we squeezed into the grubby white Tata Indica and headed towards the sleepy hill town and former popular British colonial summer retreat of Ooty. It was a picturesque drive with plenty of photo opportunities from the side of the road.

Our drive from the airport to Ooty was just short of three hours. Largely flat through to Mettupalayam, then a twisted road up hill weaving past traffic on every corner till we reached the outskirts of Ooty before one final push upwards to our hotel. Whilst we were used to mountain roads from visiting N & G at their home in Ardeche, there’s very little that can prepare you for the Indian approach to tackling them, if you heart doesn’t reach your mouth at least once then you are braver than I can ever be. Shaken and stirred we thankfully arrived in one piece!

Hotel: King’s Cliff
Room: Othello
Status: N/A

We arrived at our hotel, King’s Cliff around 17:00.

Before we talk about the hotel I feel we should discuss certain things that for me feel absolutely necessary to indulge in on any tourist trip to India. After taking it easy in the chaos of Mumbai it was now time to start crossing off our bucket-list items. Clearly fearing for your life on the road was one, taking a train journey would be another but first it was time to try some historic Indian accommodation. On our 2010 trip that would be at a Maharaja’s retreat in Orchha where our time spent drinking an ice cold Kingfisher on the hotel roof whilst watching the relaxing Betwa River flow by below was an oasis in the desert of the often horrible hovels we’d booked to stay in. Whilst we travelled in much greater luxury in 2014 we still wanted to try out some proper heritage accommodation and although we were unable to find another Maharaja’s retreat we thought we’d try the next best thing, a converted colonial era mansion.

We’d been so heavily spoilt in Mumbai that the slightly idiosyncratic service so beloved from our 2010 travels took us by surprise in Ooty. This meant our first impressions of King’s Cliff ended up being not just a world away from the Oberoi’s slick service routines but clearly from a different planet and not the most habitable one at that! There was barely a handover from our driver to the front desk when we arrived and when we were eventually seen to by a member of staff, he explained the hotel services and practicalities with all the consideration of an unfortunate Olympic sprinter who’d flown out of the blocks so fast he forgot he was racing the hurdles until he came to a crashing halt. Tired from being squeezed into a tiny Indica for three hours I don’t think we took in a single word of his rambling account. Things then went from bad to worse as first we were shown to the wrong room and shortly afterwards as we were settling into the right room a member of staff knocked on our door to ask what time we were checking out tomorrow! We weren’t, they’d got the wrong room again!

Other than the TV in the corner, our room gave the impression it had hardly changed since its construction during British colonial times and we couldn’t have been happier.

There was also a small indoor terrace so we could take in the view in the unlikely event the weather took a turn for the worse.
The colonial era artwork helped take us back in time and despite the slightly off the cuff service King’s Cliff was exactly what we’d hoped for, cosy fire place and all!

N & G headed off in to town hoping to find a place of their own to stay and we agreed to meet the next morning in town at the tourist office.

We had dinner at 19:30 at the hotel restaurant, Earl’s Secret; so called as once upon a time the then Earl of Gloucester was a little obsessed with the already married lady of the house. Allegedly he used to cook for her as a secretive way of showing his affection. Supposedly one of the best places to eat in Ooty, the restaurant had extensive Indian, Western European and Chinese menus.

Predictably Anne-So and I ordered from the Indian menu, deciding to share our food.
To start we had tandoori chicken and a portion of vegetable kebabs which were actually closer to potato skins filled with vegetables than any kebab I’ve ever tried.

I liked the spicy ‘kebabs’ but sadly the tandoori chicken was unremarkable.

For our main course we chose a chicken and fenugreek curry along side a portion of aloo gobi.
We enjoyed the buzz of the dining room with it’s open fire and Victorian finishes. With large portions our stomachs did too and we were full without the aid of a dessert.

We returned to our room and as we’d been warned it had really turned cold. Despite the pleasant weather during the day it was technically winter in Ooty with long cold nights rolling down the hills to freshen the valleys below. When we disembarked from the plane the temperature was in the high twenties, by the time we’d arrived at King’s Cliff it had dropped to the mid-teens and when we eventually snuggled under the blankets with a book it was close to freezing.

We slept well and in an unexpected development we were surprisingly called for breakfast exactly as promised at 09:00.

We headed over a few minutes later to the hotel’s beautiful greenhouse that doubled for a breakfast room.

On show was a rather dismal buffet selection of Indian and Western items plus made to order omelettes. The buffet items were barely warm and had begun to dry out.

The omelette however did the trick as did the design on this packet of butter.

We also ordered some black coffee but for some reason known only to the hotel staff we ended up with two cups of black tea. Like most of the service errors at King’s Cliff, this mistake actually ended up being a pleasant surprise because the locally harvested tea was delicious.

We took in the morning view from our lofty perch and around 11:00 we left King’s Cliff to meet N & G in town.

Our walk downhill took us around half an hour in the morning sun.

On our way down we strolled past St. Stephen’s Church, consecrated in 1830 and intended for use exclusively by the British. We also passed some rather fancy houses. We arrived early into town so we decided to amble around for a bit and take in the sights.

We did another loop around the town and finished back up at the tourist office where we found a friendly lady to help us out. We enjoyed our brief chat with her regarding what to do in Oooty and the surrounding towns. She also provided us with a helpful local area map. Whilst she offered us some interesting ideas on what to do, she was unable to support us with the costs and practicalities of organising a car or guide to undertake any of the excursions she’d recommended! We met N & G a little while later outside the office and made our plans for the day. We decided against visiting the nearby town of Coonor as we’d already enjoyed some of the spectacular views the town was famous for on our way up to King’s Cliff and we also knew we’d get another chance to see them when we’d take the train back down again the following day. Instead we decided to stay in town and visit the Botanical Gardens and Ooty Lake. But first it was time for lunch!

Despite a multi-cuisine menu we all unsurprisingly went for the, “Very good South Indian food”!

We headed out in to the midday heat, making the short trek to the Botanical Gardens.

We went in with low expectations thanks to the rather mixed reviews on Trip Advisor but we all came out of the gardens pleasantly surprised.

The Botanical Gardens may not have been spectacular and they were certainly no Kew Gardens but they were certainly an enjoyable way to spend a few hours strolling in the afternoon sun. Though I think they’ve come along way from their original purpose back in the 1840’s as a vegetable subscription service for the town’s European residents. The gardens also appeared to be a popular place for young couples, all looking for a private spot to embrace as well as a scattering of children who arrived later in our visit when their school day was over.

We all felt like a coffee and internet pick me up so we dropped in at what feels like India’s answer to Starbucks, Café, Coffee, Day. What’s not to like when the menu contains the amusingly named fruit drink, ‘WTF’ aka ‘What Te Fun’.

Coffee was typical Starbucks swill but it did the job.

Frustratingly there was no WiFi available despite our guidebook suggesting otherwise.

After re-cafinating we walked to Ooty lake, it took a few minutes and we passed through the busier part of town where the bus and train station were located.

Our first impressions of Ooty lake were of disgust as with only the slightest of glances it was evident the lake was also used as a dumping ground, there was even a sign for children’s play area and pumping station! We were not wrong about the filth, in fact it was worse than we though and the artificial lake was apparently the most polluted stretch of water in the state. Despite our reservations we continued onward till we reached the boat house which we had to pass through to visit the remainder of the lake. We arrived at 17:30 but didn’t bother paying the small admission charge to visit the fenced off section featuring attractions such as food stalls, go karts, fair ground rides, horse riding, attractively landscaped areas and boating knowing we would be kicked out again half an hour later for closing time.

Instead we continued along the road, past the bike track and the nightmarish looking wax museum, following the outline of the lake the whole way round.

Tired after our walk, we squeezed ourselves into a tuktuk that took us back towards Charing Cross.

Having worked up quite the appetite we were hungry for dinner. Our guide book suggested that Kabab Korner was, “the place for meat eaters who are tiring of South Indian vegetarian food. It doesn’t look much from the outside, but here you can tear apart perfectly grilled and spiced chunks of lamb, chicken and, if you like, paneer, sopping up the juices with pillowy triangles of naan.” I have to confess our book sure was right when it said this place didn’t look like much, it really didn’t! Grubby and a little worse for wear, the menu was the usual mix of Indian, Chinese and European options. I thought our food was alright, not as tasty as lunch, but as our book said, the meat dishes were definitely better than the vegetarian ones.

I had chicken malai tikka, half was delicious and well marinated, the other half a little burnt.

The others ate vegetarian and we later on had a sneaking suspicion that G may have gotten sick from the food, the rest of us were thankfully fine.

After dinner we said our good-byes, N & G headed back to town and we flagged down a tuktuk to haul us up the hill and back to our hotel. In what had now become a pleasant routine we spent the evening sat in bed reading like the boring young people we were. We needed a rest though as the following day we’d get to experience the real reason we’d come to Ooty; to travel on the famous Nilgiri Blue Mountain Railway, the oldest scheduled steam train service in the world. I for one couldn’t wait!

The day commenced with breakfast in the green house which was identical to the day before. Like the previous day the eggs were good and the buffet items were lukewarm and dried out, therein lies the problem of doing your breakfast buffet in a greenhouse! We had fun watching a monkey family try to sneak into the breakfast room; closer, closer and than running away as soon as the chef appeared, cleaver in hand. I sat and read more of Superfan whilst awaiting checkout and our car to the station. Having met the author Morris during a slow afternoon at work he was every bit as friendly as he came across in his book and I could easily imagine how he got up to such great adventures whilst following his passion.

With one final show of ineptitude, our hotel booked car came late to take us to the station but thankfully it didn’t matter.

Before catching our train I went with N to get some snacks for the journey, including my favourite masala flavoured Lays crisps.

Train: Indian Railways 56137 UAM to MTP
Depart: Udagamandalam
(Ooty) 14:00
Arrive: Mettupalayam 17:45
Seats: Carriage FS1, Seats 9 & 10 (First Class)
 YDM-4, Top Speed 100 km/h & X Class Top Speed 30 km/h

Anne-So and I along with two others mistakenly ended up in a reserved Second Class carriage instead of the First Class one we had booked. It was an easy error to make as other than having an observation car at the rear and brown coloured seats the two carriages were pretty much identical. At the time of travel our tickets worked out at around £3 each for for the entire four hour journey.

This must be one of the cheapest first class rail trips in the world, however when you’re left wondering if your carriage would be rail legal in most countries the cost becomes a little more understandable!

The whole railway line has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. On the first stage of our journey from Ooty to Coonor our carriages were hauled by a diesel locomotive as the steam trains don’t have the grunt to haul them on the steeper sections of the line where there is no rack and pinion system. We passed through Fernhill, Lovedale, Ketti, Aravankadu and Wellington dropping over 500 metres on the 18 kilometre journey to Coonor.

Our train ride was one fantastic voyage through the mountains and despite the slow speed the four hours whizzed by. We shared our section of the carriage with a couple from Mumbai who had a sweet young daughter. The little girl had an immense amount of fun trying to show us pictures on her dad’s phone. Though she wasn’t doing the greatest job at sharing them with anyone; with the bottom of the smart phone clasped in one hand, her other hand gripped the screen tightly with her small fingers covering the images completely. She also had a great time trying to share her half eaten Oreos with us as she wanted us to try what she called the best thing ever! Safe to say this was one bit of hospitality we were allowed to decline. We also briefly spoke to a nice couple from Melbourne who we would meet again later on our trip. I had a feeling they were also at our hotel in Ooty and like us were also heading on to Cochin via Coimbatore.

Due to the gradient on the line, a Swiss made rack and pinion set up is used to allow the train to cope with the slope, the Nilgiri Blue Mountain Railway is the only line in India to use this system to help the train navigate the steep 1 in 12 gradient.
As well as the change of train at Coonor, we enjoyed a change of company. We were joined in our carriage by a talkative Dutchman and his less talkative wife who had been travelling through India’s national parks.

He shared with us his photographs of lions and other animals whilst telling tales of bumping into BBC and National Geographic channel TV crews along the way. In addition they also encountered a Bollywood singer/song writer on one of their excursions leading to a private dinner at her house in Mumbai. Your adventures are what you make of them and as good as ours were, sometimes it’s hard not to be a little jealous! It also turned out that our warning about tigers and elephants on the road during our drive to Ooty was more than just locals having fun with the tourists. Apparently a tiger had been shot nearby after attacking two people in the Ooty area, leaving one in a critical condition. The animal was sadly killed as a precaution in case he got a taste for human blood.

Whilst I was enthralled by the prospect of the steam train, our young cabin mate crashed out on the seat.

As we puffed out of Coonor the views got better and better. Unfortunately things were going against me. First I was sat on the left hand side of the train, which missed the best of the views and second there was huge thick mist in the mountains both of which made photography challenging.

There was one major downside to the power of steam… Tunnels!

Add in the open windows and each time we passed through one of the numerous tunnels on our journey the carriage was filled with what felt like lethal levels of toxic smoke. I suppose it was all part of the fun of riding the rails! Our train rattled on passing the stations of Kateri Road, Runnymede, Hillgrove, Adderly and Kallar.

The landscape flattened out and the signs of human life increased as we approached the end of the line at Mettupalayam. During our 46 kilometre journey we had dropped just short of 2000 metres in height from our departure point.

Though they are not the best I did shoot a few videos of the journey to give you an idea of the view and also how bumpy the train ride was.

Believe it or not we arrived into Mettupalayam on time at 17:45.

In hindsight it would have been better to get a taxi for the four of us all the way to Coimbatore.

Train: Indian Railways Train 12672 Nilgiri Express: MTP to CBE
Depart: Mettupalayam 19:45
Arrive: Coimbatore Junction 20:30
Seats: Birth A (AC1 Class)
Locomotive: Unknown

Our train to Coimbatore finally rolled in and we went to our separate ways for the next three quarters of an hour.

Us in AC1 and N & G slumming it somewhere back AC3 class. Much like first to business class on a plane AC1 offers slightly more privacy, space and food for a much higher price over the AC2 and AC3 coaches. Sadly the 45 minute train ride did not give us much chance to experience these benefits. When travelling first class on the Indian Railways you get your berth and seat information by checking the chart pasted up just inside the carriage as opposed to it being allocated at booking. Whilst it was completely unnecessary to do this journey in AC1 for the sake of completeness it was an opportunity too hard to turn down as these carriages are only on a few selected routes and can be incredibly hard to book.

We arrived at Coimbatore on time at 20:30 and the station was alive with noise and activity. There was a hustle and bustle of cars and taxis all trying to take us back to Mettuplayam. It felt like total chaos after the colonial quiet of Ooty and the high life of Mumbai. Ah, India, we were ready for your charms! Instead of serenity we were faced with a cacophony of horns and shouting.

So instead just relax your mind and look at this nice calming tunnel from our platform to the station exit!

We looked around the car park and it appeared that our hotel car had not turned up. As it later turned out the hotel emailed me that afternoon to reconfirm that we needed a car… I’m not sure what they were thinking at the Aloft and even after checking out we never quite worked out if they were thinking at all. I’m still baffled as to why they thought we’d have access to our e-mail whilst on the train as tourists from the UK, it wasn’t as if there were readily available cheap roaming sim cards we could have used to connect to the internet, let alone WIFI on a 100 year old steam train.

With no car in sight we went across the road for a cheap dinner with N & G on their recommendation at KR Pure Veg Restaurant. Unfortunately a good portion of the menu appeared to be sold out or unavailable for dinner so we ended up subbing out almost our entire original order for alternatives. The food was just about passable.

We then picked up a cab and G bartered the driver down a few rupees for a scenic ride to the Aloft. As we found out the following morning, to say he took the long way round was an understatement! Our ride was in what is known as the Indian Mercedes Benz aka the classic Ambassador Taxi and in the case of this dented rust-bucket, ‘classic’ was a more than generous description. A rough and ready half an hour later we pulled up outside the Aloft.

Hotel: Aloft Coimbatore Singanallur
Room: Double Room – 407
Status: Bonvoy Gold

We passed through the usual security showdown and checked in. Check in was not a particularly fun affair as Anne-So argued with N & G as to whether they should stay with us or not. N & G had an 07:00 bus ride to Kochi the next morning where we’d catch up again. They were worried that the hotel was quite a way out of town thanks to our driver and his poor route choice. This issue really showed up the problem of their fluid planning allowed by more than six months on the road with a tight budget, versus my tight planning and a more comfortable budget. Spending £40 for a night in a hotel would be no issue for them back at home but on this trip it was a matter of principal as much as cost. You can see the world in many ways and it is definitely impossible to argue if one way is any more real than the other. After fighting it out they agreed to sharing a double room with us and giving up their nightly budget in return and allowing us cover the rest. We were happy to treat them so we could spend as much time together as possible. Anne-So is very close to her sister and after this trip we would not see them again for six months, so for once she was happy to open her wallet at any opportunity.

We slept well, but had fun when the French decided that all the lights in our room were broken. I was sent down to the lobby at some stupid time in the night to report it as the phone also didn’t work. Maintenance soon arrived but on coming to fix our power problem it turned out someone forgot to try the master switch! Perhaps confidence was lost with two small power outages earlier in the evening, the mild disappointment from the less than perfectly maintained room was only amplified by us being continually confused by the front desk staff.

Despite the rather rough end it had been an amazing day on the rails that will stay with me forever. We slept soundly hoping tomorrow would be better as we headed down the coast to Kochi.

We said good bye to N & G at 06:00 as we were waking up and they were continuing to break all the lights in the room. After a shower and fixing the illumination problems once and for all, I felt better but Anne-So was feeling sick with stomach ache from last night’s food. I went for breakfast and got confused by the instructions from the front desk of where to find the breakfast room, I think we were both glad to say thanks and farewell after we had continually confused each other for the near entire duration of our one night stay.

I finally located the breakfast buffet and not feeling 100% myself I started my morning with a mix of veggie items, juice and coffee. The breakfast room seemed nice and the spread a decent mix of Western and Indian, though the food had already started to dry out despite the buffet just opening.

Shortly after breakfast it was time to check out and the farce continued. I had asked earlier to have the lights checked, an extra toilet roll and a car to the station at 07:30. We did at least get the first two without too much issue. I checked our bill and saw the expected charge for the car which I was told was for, “station drop off”. I signed, settled up and said we’d wait in the lobby for our the car to the station and asked if it was ready. “What car, your car?” our front desk friend stated. He then continued to tell me that the car on the bill was our pick up from the night before, which they didn’t send. Grrr… Anyway, a car was rustled up and we were off in to the early morning sun, arriving in half the time it took the night before. I knew we weren’t so far from town, despite the previous night’s complaints from the French. Hopefully things would get easier after the next stop.

A First Class Indian Adventure

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