Saturday, April 04, 2015

Call of the Hills, Ootacamund

My colleague's wedding was coming up and the venue was a great excuse for a few of us to escape to the hills. Her wedding was in the plains,  but the drive to Ooty-Conoor was just a few hours away at the hills. Chennai's rising mercury was an excellent need to climb over 7500 ft above sea level and chill out.

While the drive from Chennai to Coimbotore was braving an unrelenting heat wave inspite of the air conditioner, as we eased into the hills, we had the windows down and enjoyed the blast of cold breeze on our sweaty tired faces. The drive is terribly scenic, with lush green foliage, tea gardens, and beautiful view points overlooking the catchment area. The bride suggested we visit the lesser know Avalanche lake and Emerald lake, which is slowly opening up to tourists. Some of my friends who had been visiting Ooty for over 30 years barely knew of these two beauty spots! I was excited to get away from the noisy city life and incessant work schedule. 

After a tizzy spell, we reached the very quaint hotel, which was cut away from the Ooty town. At any time, you can wake up to the sounds of the sparrows and mynas and other birds that visit the property for its innumerable flora and fauna. I knocked out for a few hours, grateful for a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.

We drove over into town to explore the place on foot. It was amazing to see how much Ooty had urbanised - Dominos pizza, Cafe Coffee Day, Subway and other famous food joints had cropped up. In the same breath, I might also add how appalling it was to see how dirty the streets had become with the influx of tourists. In India, the lack of civic sense and need for maintaining clean hygienic spaces is severely lacking. While people do not mind throwing garbage on their own streets, while abroad, they comply to every possible rule including segregating waste. Why this indifference?

For dinner, we headed over to the much talked about Shinkows, a Chinese restaurant in Ooty that has been around for a very long time. It is known more for its non-vegetarian menu such as crispy rabbit, so my vegetarian offering was not too great. The price was reasonable. After a long time, I had the Casatta for dessert, while appetiser and starters included the pepper soup and vegetarian spring roll. We split the main course with a dry vegetable noodles. After chatting around with the staff, we took a walk and then headed over to the hotel in preparation for the exciting visit to the lakes in the morning.

The next morning was misty and chill. It had rained the previous night, so the weather was cozy and cold. I was praying it would not rain. The drive to the lake was through the town of Avalanchi and took us almost 2 hours to get to the forest area, but it was a beautiful drive. You also need the Forest Department's permission to drive through the Forest and stop at the Eco-tourism pick-up point. You are better off getting there early since the tour takes another 2-3 hours into the Avalanche lake area. The government has worked with the Todas tribal community who inhabit the place to act as the preservers of the ecosystem. 

We drove past the Cauliflower shola forest, which gets its name from the tree bunches which look like the cauliflower from a distance. I thought we could even add broccoli to the description. We then stopped at the Upper Bhavani reservoir source. 

It is home to the beautiful Goddess Bhavani who is the protector of the area. Right by the temple, the river flows into the deep trenches of the forest. We got off the bus and offered our prayers and admired the pristine beauty of the place. I enjoyed the cold fresh spring water mingled with medicinal plants. We drove through fields of gold - beautiful meadows of yellow flowers glistening in the sun mingled with the rain drenched greenery of the forest. 

Finally we reached the beautiful Avalanche lake. The first glimpse gives you the impression of a miniature version of the Grand Canyon, though the latter is nature's great wonder. It was a breathtaking view - untouched except for the hoof prints of the wild animals that come to the lake bed for water. We were hoping against hope to experience an encounter in the wild, but our Toda drive Prabhu Raj gave us a knowing smile. He mentioned that the our presence does not go unnoticed in the wild and the visitors come out late in the evening when the sun goes down. One of the unique traits of the place is the presence of the trout fish which inhabit the lake. The trout fish jump up in water and thrive only in fresh cold water. This concluded our trip to Avalanche and we were dropped back at our pick-up point. 

We then drove over to Emerald lake which is enroute brought back memories of Pottstown lake in West Chester, which my friend took me to in the Fall - the lake was beautiful to watch over the sunset. The driver took us for a short walk through the wooded area to see the backwaters of the lake. That wrapped up the most important part of the stay. 

Misson accomplished, we headed over to Mohans Bhojanalaya, a Gujurati vegetarian place for dinner. While the rotis were good, the side dishes were soaked in oil and I made sure I expressed my unhappiness to the staff. Post dinner, we stopped to buy the famous Ooty tea snacks, Varki and home-made chocolates from Modern Stores. On the way back, we experienced the unexpected - a huge mammoth size bison in the night. We were a little freaked out since these guys are unpredictable; even the local folks on two wheelers were wondering how to get past him. Since we were driving, we honked to scare the big guy and drove past. It was a life time experience! My wish came true. The hotel staff had a hearty laugh since the bison was a regular feature in their life. They treat him like their pet poodle!

With all the excitement, we drove back to Chennai through Conoor-Wellington and drove through the oldest and prestigious Madras regiment. You are not allowed to take photographs once you drive into the secured area. We watched the officers training for the parade and it filled our hearts with pride.

On the way, we quickly made a pit-stop at our friend's wedding reception and were off to Chennai braving the heat once again.

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