Nilgiris, or the Blue Mountains as its name in Tamil alludes to, is among the signature mountain ranges of South India. A part of the Western ghats just before the latter breaks into what is known as the Palakkad gap, it inherits the bio-diverse splendour of the Western Ghats. As if to lend credence to the English adage “Distant hills look blue” the Nilgiris appear remarkably so when you approach it. I may be biased, but that’s how it looks to me every time I head towards the Nilgiris from Karnataka.
For most tourists, the usual destinations in the Nilgiris are the towns of Ooty, Coonoor, Wellington and Kotagiri. These places have numerous lakes, gardens, waterfalls and mountain viewing points to boast of. Not to take anything away from these locations, I have found some of the off grid places more fascinating that give you the true Nilgiris experience. This post is about some of these extraordinary locales off Ooty and Conoor.
The heritage buildings of the hill station towns are still a point of interest for me. As most of these towns were the getaway stations for the British as well as transit and recreational hubs for planters in the Nilgiris, they are home to many century old heritage buildings. Many of them are hotels, restaurants, government offices today, while some of the old tea bungalows continue to function as such.
The real gems lie away from these highly thronged hill towns. There are these pristine lakes, deep green valleys and tea estates tucked away in distant hills that rub shoulders with the wild. Most farm lands, and in particular the tea estates, are a result of invasive cultivation in forest lands, much of which occurred about a hundred or more years ago. As the world continues to sip its most loved beverage, you realize that this has come at a cost.
Some of my favourite places for stay in the Nilgiris are in the Emerald/Avalanchi regions and tea estates beyond the towns of Conoor and Gudalur. The quiet nights with faraway village lights glistening on hill slopes, the sounds of plantation activities in the day, the rustling of leaves as the winds swirl round the hills, all add to create the most calming ambience for a relaxed stay.
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is an attraction for those that look for that “toy train” experience in the mountains. This railway provides an important connection between Mettupalayam and Ooty and travelers get to chug through tunnels and over deep valleys and gushing waterfalls. Not quite bearing the cute “toy” kind of a look of the railways running in hill stations like Darjeeling (this one is a metre gauge track unlike the latter which is narrow gauge), this still holds a premium position in tourists’ to do lists.
An interesting fact about the Nilgiri Mountain Railway: the Coonoor Mettupalayam stretch has a very steep gradient and hence this route employs a “rack and pinion” arrangement to assist the climb to Coonoor. Notice the rack running in between the two rails of the track, in the following image.
The Emerald and the Avalanchi lakes and their surroundings offer some breathtaking sights. The two lakes feed each other, being connected at a narrow neck. They also receive water from lakes located at higher altitudes, an arrangement made to support some of the hydro electric power stations in the region.
If you are wary of the beeline of tourists to Ooty and Coonoor and yet want to quietly enjoy the Nilgiri clime, look for a bungalow stay in the midst of tea plantations away from these main towns. Red Hill Nature Resort in Emerald, Nonesuch Tea Estate near Coonoor and Parry Agro’s Sinnadorai Bungalow (Mangorange) in Pandhalur offer some of the most delightful leisure experiences that I have had in the hills, and I keep going back to them.
The Nilgiris, like the Western Ghats that it is a part of, has rightly been included as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The rich biodiversity, local tribes and the large number of species that are endemic to the region are forever under stress from growing human incursions. While tourism is an important source of living for many in the Nilgiris, as one can expect this does leave an imprint on the land. While the local administrations, NGOs and global institutions work very hard to ensure that a balance is struck between human led growth and sustainability of the ecology, visiting tourists have a role to play in this too. Responsible tourism is one of the answers to questions raised on human ingress dealing a death blow to the sensitive ecology of the ghats. Conscious adherence to the rules laid by the local administrations and forest departments is the least visiting travelers can do to help retain the splendour of the region. Let us, the visitors, commit ourselves to that.