India has over 80 towns known as Hill Stations – high altitude locations used as places of refuge from summer heat and tropical diseases – and we visited two of them. Both Ooty and Kodaikanal rest at an altitude of about 2000m above sea level and were established by the British in the 19th century.
As we have made our way around South India, many hill habituiès have waxed lyrical about the beauty of these two popular tourist destinations. Consequently, we arrived at Ooty with high expectations.
The long winding drive up the hillside was breathtaking and the temperature cooled noticeably (from 30c down to 10c in about 4 hours). By the end we had both changed from shorts and t-shirts into hoodies and trousers.
Everything about India has felt completely alien to us (barring the odd New Look store) but as we entered Ooty little reminders of the UK began to appear: Fields of grass, gorse bushes, sheep, people wearing jumpers, golf courses, lapwings, horses and allotments growing brassicas and potatoes.
It was late when we finally reached our hotel but we were just in time to catch sight of the sun disappearing behind the hills.
After eating dinner and watching the sun set we began to unwind in our room for the night. Suddenly… from behind the wardrobe scampered out giant spider number 2! No screams from me this time but, unlike with giant spider number 1, I didn’t manage to secure it in a sandwich bag. Instead it returned to the depths of hell (behind the wardrobe). Jess was unable to relax knowing it was there and we called in the help of the natives. Alas, the wardrobe was fixed to the wall and nothing could be done to catch the elusive arachnid.
This dreadful predicament had a VERY happy ending… we were upgraded to another room at the same cost. A room with a balcony overlooking the tea plantations no less.
Following a leisurely stroll around the tea plantations the next morning we made our way into Ooty town centre. Our expectations for a delightful time here were soon dealt a few body blows. The botanical gardens were a waste of both time and money and the town itself was an unorganised dirty mess. There was no sign of the cool, quaint and peaceful town we had, perhaps unfairly, expected.
One thing we did relish was the opportunity to do a little shopping in a place where you could buy pretty much every kind of traditional Indian gift imaginable, if you could manage to sort the wheat from the chaff. For those reading who are expecting a little something bringing back – good luck. Our favourite shop was christened ‘Bee Happy’ and sold honey collected from the local Nilgiri hills by tribesmen. To steal the sweet stuff from the angry giant rocks bees, these men climb down cliff faces with little or no safety equipment and, using bamboo poles, detach the comb from crevices.
That was about as exciting as it got for us in Ooty. We are convinced that there must be some worthwhile treks and excursions in the surrounding hills and if we had had more time then perhaps we might have less opprobrium for the place.
Next up, after a stopover in a city called Coimbatore, Kodaikanal.
Kodaikanal was BUSY. Another supposedly quiet hill station turned out not to be what we were expecting. The blame this time falls on a week long holiday called Pooja. The narrow streets were rammed with hundreds of private buses and the pavements bursting with domestic tourists. In addition to the tumult, our homestay suffered from a similar fate as the town itself – not living up to its billing.
Making the best of it, we decided to get out of town and walk the 5km downhill to the ‘Natural Science’ museum…and boy was it worth it! When I visited the Natural History Museum in London for the first time this year I was impressed but that was not a patch on what was waiting for us inside Kodaikanal’s equivalent. Take a look for yourself:
Bowled over, and with aching sides, we tackled the 5km uphill walk back into town.
The following day still being crowded we chose to escape again. This time on the Vattakanal walk. A walk which Jess had circled before we even left for India as the route offers a chance to spot giant squirrels.
There were no giant squirrels (we had seen one in Munnar back in July so it wasn’t too devastating) or anything else particularly interesting. A few nice hill views made it just about worthwhile.
Feeling a little disappointed we headed back and that was the end of day two.
Day three was our final day in the hill stations and definitely the nicest. We had an early morning jog around the scenic lake and drank organic coffee whilr chatting to the farmer who was responsible for both the beans and the cafè. Oh..and the domestic tourists had left. Delightful.
Kerala, our final leg of the journey, was now patiently waiting for us. The final two weeks for us and we still have another tiger reserve, the backwaters and a beach to enjoy before reality rears it’s ugly head…