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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

Ooty and the Jungle

INDIA | Thursday, 2 September 2010 | Views [1160]

Bye bye Leelu's, a record 6 nights in the same bed, and delightful Kerala. Hello again to grim faced Tamil Nadu, a night in bleak Coimbatore and a protracted journey to catch the famed Nilgiri Express.  The full railway trip, also called the toy train, goes from Mettupalayam and takes four and a half hours. We decided against the 4am wake up that would have connected us, and instead took a bus to Coonoor to join the afternoon train.  We had another classic India experience on our mountain bus journey, a mishap between us and another bus. The roads are not quite wide enough for buses to pass one another on the bends, a problem they seem to avoid by honking lots. As we discovered, this is not foolproof. The slow collision only smashed out the window, causing nothing more than a few scratches, and the obligatory hour standing in the heat looking at the damage. Lots of men very were happy to have an excuse to hold Emma's arm and check it wasn't broken.  It was with some relief we reached Coonoor in time to board the train. It is one of South East Asia's last steam trains and was well worth the hassle. We did our best to ignore our opinionated carriage mates commentary on everything from Muslims to marraige, looking at the green landscape and settlements of brightly painted box houses. At times one could believe we were back in Blighty or Switzerland with the rolling hills, drizzle and a light mist!  The track was at times incredibly steep or hazardously thin and vertiginous to look out over the sides. It was one of the guide book 'must do's' that actually lived up to the hype, not only for the scenery but also for the atmosphere, with everybody whooping as we went through tunnels or up/down a steep hill, as if it were a roller coaster ride.

As darkness fell, we trudged through a distinctly cold Ooty - strange to see people in jumpers and coats accompanying the same stares, smells, and collection of dogs and other animals that we've got used to seeing in stifling heat. We've stayed in a couple of YWCA/YMCA options while we've been here and, as long as you can deal with accompanied form filling and bibles), they are a good choice. Particularly this one, large airy rooms, quaint atmosphere and carefully tended gardens.  Emma was shattered and curled up asleep by 9pm after a hot bucket shower to get rid of the remaining glass. (Emptying glass out of one's bra with a mainly male audience is not fun).  A disappointing morning in Ooty, where the sights didn't seem to correspond with the map, yielded hand made chocolates, coffee on a terrace and a few colonial churches. We heard the jungle calling, not so far away, found our bus and off we went.

Three National Parks from Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu join together to make a huge expanse of forest. However, after the deaths of some hapless tourists, it is hard to get very far off the roads. After much time attempting to get good information about where to go at this time of year, we ended up in Mudumalai on the Tamil Nadu side.  Our bamboo cottage at the Jungle Retreat was not strictly backpacker or even flashpacker, but worth splasing out, especially because resident guide, Daniel really knew his stuff. Upon arrival, we were told about the various animals that live in the grounds: deer, langur and 14 flavours of snake - some of which are venomous! Walking in the dark was not allowed without a member of staff, because wild elephants, tigers and leopards have been known to wander in from the jungle.  As our avid reader(s) will know, elephants are becoming a bit of a South India theme, and they were certainly the big hitter here. The nearby Theppakkadu Elephant Sanctuary looks after about 25 elephants, some former temple elephants who had lost it and killed people, others orphans or elderly. They have all been taken in and given a good life - with plenty of food, no forced blessings, no concrete, and a forest home. We watched them being washed and fed, including a 4 month old who we were able to pat and who held onto our arms with her trunk like a baby grabbing your fingers.

Tame elephants were just the beginning. We also saw wild jumbos almost every time we went through the forest. We were entranced by the first group of three, right next to the road, either oblivious to or ignoring us and the various cars and trucks thundering past. The novelty of coming across such stupendous animals didn't wear off, especially when later that night a young male chased us in the twilight. Daniel did not seem bothered by rampaging elephants: the next night, we came across a group of about 15, with a baby. We watched them by the headlights for a while as he thought (rightly) that they would cross the road. This time the it was the matriarch of the group who got upset and charged us, trumpeting loudly. We watched them cross from a safer distance, nervous at the number of hefty shadows behind the trees.

Now, I would not want (or dare) to knock the elephants, but What we really wanted to see was tiger or leopard. We signed up for every possible safari - morning and evening, both in Madumalai and crossing into Karnataka where they can go off road, and even getting up at 6am to walk on our final morning. But two and a half days and not one capricious cat.  Initally we also enjoyed seeing the herds of gaur (Indian bison), samba (local deer) and spotted deer, but after a while, we'd seen so many they were hardly even worth stopping for. We had an optimistic start to the second day, when Oli spotted a sloth bear just minutes after we'd set off. But after that just more bison, deer and puns (oh dear) galore. The constant, tantilising possibility was made worse by the notice board in the retreat showing recent sightings, by comments like "Here's where I saw a tiger just a few weeeks ago!", "Last time I was here, there was a leopard just there!", "Look, there's a tiger footprint!" and, most depressingly, "After we dropped you off last night, there was a leopard on the road right there...". So for hours, we drove around, keeping silent, eyes fixed to the roadside and undergrowth, hoping for a flash of colour, or sign of life. As time wore on, we jumped at the growl of the engine or striped shadows of branches, anything that might be a tiger, but perhaps it's lucky in love and unlucky in tiger hunting - no tigers for us.

We enjoyed our jungle break, and were glad of the early walk before the bus to Mysore. It gave us a chance to stretch our legs in the famous Nilgiri hills, see the tea plantations, even stopping for stop for chai in a tiny local place. On the drive back, Daniel stopped to show us camera-shy nilgiri langurs (in their away kit) flying gracefully through the trees. As a final treat, we spotted a chameleon in the middle of the road. Spotted is a misnomer since we nearly ran it over before jumping out to see it closely, snap a few shots and help it to a nearby bush. In the end, jungles are not zoos and even the best guides cannot magic up animals.

- spend for good guides, they make it worthwhile
- elephants really are ten-a-penny in the Blue Nilgiri Biosphere
- The toy train delivers as a magical journey

Tags: elephants, jungle, mishap, ooty, train


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