There is always something intriguing about a mountain range that is called the Blue Mountains. Ancient tribes, rock art and cave paintings of prehistoric man, evergreen shola forests alternating with tea plantations, varied Biodiversity, charming hill stations – there isn't any reason why the Nilgiris shouldn't be on your itinerary. I revisited the Nilgiris after several years and rediscovered it all over again. Here are my five reasons why you must look beyond crowded Ooty and explore the mountains.
You do not have to be a scientist or a naturalist to enjoy the rich and varied Biodiversity of the Nilgiri biosphere. Just that the forests, the mountains, the lakes, the gardens, the flowers and the birds are enough to lure you here. While you may need permission to enter some of the reserve forests, you can discover a hidden stretch of shola forests, just as you drive around.
Walk along and you would be lucky to catch some endemic birds flying around the leaves. I saw the Black-and-orange flycatcher disappear among the trees in Longwood Shola. Just a walk in the Botanical garden or the Sim’s Park in Coonoor is enough sometimes to sight birds. I sighted close to 75 species including the Nilgiri Flycatcher, the fan tail, the Chestnut-headed Bee Eater, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, the Eurasian Blackbird among several others. Masinagudi on the foothills of Nilgiris is another birding paradise. I spotted a flock of Paradise Flycatchers besides having a tête-à-tête with the Indian Pitta.
If you are not into birds, then the wildlife here will not disappoint you. I was birding in a dense stretch of forest near Mettupalayam when we heard loud grunts of sloth bears. Gaurs are virtually everywhere and you can spot elephants, wild boars, leopards and even the Nilgiri Tahr if you are lucky. I had got lost on the way to Long Wood Shola when we entered a lonely stretch of forest that had no habitation. We met some locals who eventually told us to be on the lookout for a tigress with her cubs.
Quaint hill stations
There is more to the Nilgiris than just Ooty. If you go beyond it, some quaint hill stations present themselves. Some of the popular ones are Kotagiri and Coonoor, but there are many quaint ones with barely a handful of families living there. And then there are those little chai stops on the mountain roads. There are tree plantations everywhere. Sometimes you will see lush meadows and wish you could just roll on them. If you are tired and need to refresh yourself, just stop and drink a hot cup of tea and buy some eucalyptus oil for your aching limbs. And on your way back, pick up some homemade chocolates in Ooty.
The Nilgiri mountain railway
One of the legacies from the colonial era, I have spent all my summer holidays as a child in this mountain railway. Covering a distance of about 42 kms, chugging past bridges and curving through tunnels, the railway has one of the steepest tracks in Asia. Every year, we would find ourselves snaking through the mountains in the “toy train”, gushing past streams and letting the cool breeze touch our cheeks. There’s nothing like revisiting childhood and taking an unhurried lazy journey up the hill and down it after years. I stopped by at the empty Lovedale station, famous for its Lawrence school and watched a man paint the board - the pride they took in their little station was in sharp contrast to the way we treat our city junctions.
Hidden amidst the mountain ranges are caves which were once the haunts of prehistoric man, where you can see rock art. Ancient forts of rulers like Tipu Sultan dot the region. And almost every quaint town takes you down to the colonial era. The bungalows, the plantations, the churches – it takes you back to the colonial era. I walked into a beautiful All Saints Church and saw a lovely pipe organ that is more than a century old. And it still plays melodies.
A slice of tribal life
The home of several tribes, Nilgiris is filled with vignettes of their lifestyle. Without being intrusive, you could explore a bit. You may find a temple of the Irulas or the homes of the Todas. Visit the Toda Mund at the fag end of the botanical garden and you will meet a few of them. And before leaving, do not forget to buy the vibrant embroidered shawls from them.