This morning we traveled once again from the hot low lying plains to the cool air above 2000 meters. Instead of breaking our lungs with what would have been another relentless two day climb, complete with clouds of chocking toxic bus fumes we opted for the more civilized and relaxing UNESCO toy train – time to reach for the anorak! Yes, why cycle when you can be pushed by an old steam train up into the clouds to once again enjoy another 50km descent.
First open in 1908, the Nilgiris Mountain Railway connects the towns of Mettupalayam and Ooty with 48 kilometers of steep, winding track. Making its way from 100 to 2200 meters about sea level it has the steepest section of railway in India and was a true feat of engineering considering the dense vegetation and mountainous terrain. Within this short distance it snakes through 208 curves, 16 tunnels and 250 bridges, using a third rail rack and pinion system to manage the gradient. In 2005 the railway was inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list for its “outstanding example of the interchange of values on developments in technology”.
A number of trains ply the route per day, but only one is pushed by a 50 year old steam train – at 7.10 in the morning. Internet reports suggest booking early in the summer high season and a few days before otherwise to obtain a seat. A week ago we battled our way through the Indian Railways online booking system to realise it was fully sold out for at least the next two months! We learned that a limited number of tickets are sold as unreserved seating on the morning of departure so we thought we would give it a go, if we were unable to secure a ticket then the town of Mettupalayam was roughly on our route to Mysore anyway. The town was much bigger than expected, a bustling, busy and polluted place where being knocked down by the myriad of badly driven vehicles seemed more likely the longer we walked about. The narrow streets seemed unable to contain the volumes of motorbikes, rickshaws and busses heading in all directions while blearing their horns, the air was thick with smog and we had little patience for wondering about. We enquired at the train station, a busy place as it is also on a mainline route heading to Chennai, about the availability of tickets for the next day to be told it was possible if we were prepared to get up early. Twenty one tickets are sold in the morning, available through a token handed out by the stationmaster at 5.30am. We were advised that for any chance of obtaining a ticket we had to be at the station and in the queue for 4!
Our alarm went off at the still night time time of 3.30 when we drearily raised and gathered our panniers to head down the four floors to reception. We woke the dog which barked far too loudly for the time of morning, one of the staff who was sleeping on the floor in reception got up and opened the gates for us to load up and set off. While getting ready I saw a large mouse running over one of the men sleeping on the floor… another victim of our early morning.
The station was about a km away and we were quickly there through the quiet dark roads, arriving at 4.05am we found ourselves eight and ninth in the queue in a dark, empty and very closed station. There were two railings set up along one of the platforms designed to hold the queue, we stood there ready for the long wait ahead, apprehensive that the following people would ignore the system and just push in as is so common in India. In fact the cultural difference in the methods for waiting for something is probably the most irksome daily process that affects us, especially when you come from the ‘British Isles’ (hehe sorry Sheena :p) where any normal person wouldn’t even consider trying to get in front of someone else. We have devised methods to cope and had planned to use them; tag team blocking and weaving maneuvers work quite well followed by the cycling shoe on sandaled foot (oh sorry, was that your foot?) should their approaches gain too much ground – there was no way we were going to leave empty handed after being there at 4. Sure enough the next person that came attempted to stay in front of us, our less than polite early morning pre caffeine words and demeanor quickly put an end to that although his wondering hand attempts to touch Sheena’s bum was almost too much to cope with at 4.20 in the morning. What the actual fuck.
Much to our surprise there were limited attempts at further shenanigans and we retained our position, the station master turned up at 5.30 and proceeded to force everyone into single file within the barriers. Another wannabe was forced back into her place in the queue and the snotty man behind us was sent away after finding out he couldn’t buy tickets for his extended family without them actually being there… wah wah waaaah, we couldn’t help but heckle him as he stepped on the snake that sent him away with nothing in the process that had become our game for the morning. (Sorry, this sounds mean but he was a jerk).
Whipped into shape we stood waiting for the next step, station master and accomplice approached each group in line and asked how many tickets were required. This number was written on a small piece of paper and the holder of this paper had to then head outside of the station to a reservation office to purchase the ticket. Sheena had to remain in the line while I went to the ticket office that opened at 6, when everyone returned to the line with their tickets we were marched onto the train. The doors were then locked from the outside and we had to sit and wait there for some reason… we didn’t really understand this and the policeman just said it would be for ‘some time’. Concerned that our bikes were still on the platform we became a little agitated until we could persuade the policeman to open the door and let us out for us to take our bikes the the parcel office.
The parcel office, like many small rooms in small Indian railway stations is like a time capsule. You could have entered the parcel office at Mettupulayam station or you could have just slipped through a wormhole on platform three and entered 1950. Carbon paper is king here, big ledger books are filled out in triplicate under a faded sepia, wrinkled and torn railway map of India. The small old spectacled man in his beige uniform two sizes too big meticulously writes our details on pieces of paper that must end up at the biggest pile of paper in the world never to be glanced at again. Old dark wooden shelves were sparsely littered with packages wrapped in cotton sheets and tied with rough coconut string, a rusty fan churned the air suspended from the faded yellow roof. After paying 50 Rupees we had our A3 sheet of paper and permission for the bikes to ride in the small goods section of the guards van! Finally time to find a coffee, take some photos of the warming engine and prepare for the journey!
At 7.10 green flags were waved, a whistle sounded and we were off with the loud metallic clanging of the engine immediately behind us. The old Swiss engine was pushing the three passenger carriages, presumably so if the links between broke we wouldn’t end up helter skeltering all the way to the bottom?! We made fairly brisk process along the relatively flat first section, probably about 30kph as we passed through green rice fields and woodland with plenty of elephant fences.
Less than an hour in we had our first water stop at the closed station of Kallar, by we I mean the engine.. Someone climbed on top and a huge beam was passed over to pour gallons and gallons into the tanks either side of the boiler. During this time everyone was able to dismount and have a wonder about, ahead of us was the first sighting of the toothed third rail that would help us start to gain altitude.
From here the gradient became much steeper and the ingenuity of the people who designed and built the railway became more apparent. Our speed slowed to less than 10kph as there was barely part of the track that was not a tight curve, bridge, cutting or tunnel. The higher we went the more epic the views were of cliffs, waterfalls and thick mountainous forest. Although we were fortunate to have a window seat between us, we were on the wrong side to have the best view (if you take this train then try to get a seat on the left hand side as you face the direction of travel) we were still able to stand up and look out but not get the best photos. It is impossible not to sit and think of the geniuses who designed and built these complex engineering feats at a time when technology was a fraction of what it is today. I can’t even imagine how the track was planned, just to think of the first step of the process that would need to take place – an accurate survey of the land to decide how you would use the topography to gain height and fit a railway in. All surveying at the time needed line of sight yet the whole area would have been thick forest filled with dangerous animals, tropical diseases and steep slopes, the extreme effort required as a basic prerequisite before anything else could take place is mind-boggling. Presumably the best potential route out of a bad bunch were chosen, the one that needed the least blasting, tunneling and bridging to make its way uphill, yet every single meter of track must have required a herculean effort to create. To see it still functioning over 100 years despite torrential summer monsoon rains is remarkable, the ambition, ingenuity and skill of our engineers of the time deserve far more recognition for what they did the world over.
The train stopped every 45 minutes or so to take on more water, each stop lasted approximately ten minutes with its end signaled by a blast on the whistle. People disembarked to explore the area and have photos in front of the train. Most tourists were Indians, but there were quite a few foreigners as part of a large tour group. Of the four stops one was still a functioning station; ‘Hillgrove’ where food and drinks could be bought from a small kiosk. Monkeys have clocked onto this and masses of them swamp the area to be fed by the tourists.
The steepest part of the journey was over after 28km at the station of Coonoor, here we could get off the train for 40 minutes as the steam engine was swapped for a diesel one. Extra carriages were added and more passengers joined, after snacking on samosas and other fried snacks we continued the journey through tea plantations and the small corrugated metal dwellings that accompany them passing stations named Adderley, Runneymede, Wellington and Lovedale. After 5.5 hours and 46km our train finally arrived in Ooty station, we collected our bikes from the goods compartment and cycled off into the cool air of 2200 meters. How much did riding this slice of history cost? 15 Rupees each plus 50 for the bikes – 80 pence or approximately 1 Euro total! Amazing.
Ooty is a popular hill station in the Nilgiri hills that was built to serve as a summer administrative town (the heat was too much in Madras). The British built lakes, gardens, grand houses and churches, effectively turning the place into a home away from home earning the nicknames ‘Queen of the hill stations’ and ‘snooty Ooty’. Many Indian tourists come here to enjoy the cool air and visiting various view points and forests. The centre is now dirty and congested with modern buildings and traffic, but you don’t have far to travel to experience the beauty that made it popular in the first place.