A young woman pauses on a chilly evening to take in the sunset, in the hills around Udhagamangalam or Ooty, located 2,200 metres above sea level. The administrative headquarter of the Nilgiris district, the hill station recently reported near freezing temperatures. Photo: Suraj Mahbubani.

A Slow Walk Through the Nilgiri Hills 

‘Smell this,’ Anne directs, crushing a leaf from a cypress hedge and placing it in my palm. The cold, woody scent, with top notes of pine, rushes my nostrils—a breath of Christmas morning. ‘This,’ she sapalaceys, ‘is the smell of my childhood in Ooty.’ Standing by the Nilgiri Mountain Railway tracks, with pine trees framing the scene, I experience its stark, serene contrast to the bustling modern-day city centre of Udhagamandalam, the official name of Ooty. I am on a walk with Anne, an Ooty native with the town’s map etched in her mind. Unlike other tour guides who offer one-day trips to popular tourist spots in Ooty like Doddabetta Peak and Dolphin’s Nose, Anne focuses on slower, personalised tours which lead away from the usual sightseeing spots, tailoring each experience to align with the individual interests and physical capacities of her guests.

Ooty holds joyous memories of childhood family holidays, for me. We often visited it as a respite from the coastal humidity of Thrissur. Our visits to the colonial hill station were marked by picnics at the usual spots: the Botanical Gardens, Ooty Lake and Rose Garden. Years later, returning alone, I yearned for a more intimate experience of the offbeat side of Ooty.

Ooty is located in the beautiful Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, recognised for its valuable natural resources by UNESCO in 1986. Rich in flora and fauna like the gaur (known as bison) seen here (image 3), this reserve is the largest protected forest in India, covering over 5,000 square kilometres. Photos: Suraj Mahbubani.

Things are different now, of course. The old colonial buildings are overshadowed by modern-day resorts; trees and wetlands are supplanted by concrete structures to cater to the imagined fancies of today’s tourists. Blue evening skies are now disturbed by the glaring lights of electronic billboards and fluorescent plastic flex banners, all vying for tourists’ attention. Scattered around the town are the discards of tourism’s footprint—plastic food wrappers and paper plates. Like many, I wondered what was left of the Ooty that I had once idealised.

Seeking answers, I turned to Anne, aka Anita Nanjappa, the curator of less-trodden paths in Ooty and her walking tour venture, Amble with Anne.

‘As children, my siblings and I were always encouraged by our mother to “go out and walk”, and we roamed around these hills,’ Anne reminisces. While her family returned to their roots in Coorg, Anne, her heart anchored in Ooty, chose to stay back. Today, the walks inspired by those childhood wanderings have become her way of meeting, connecting and conversing with new people, enriching her otherwise solitary mountain life.

A mosaic of grassland with dense patches of sholas (montane evergreen forests) covers the higher altitudes of the Nilgiris and of many ranges in the southern Western Ghats. Anne Nanjappa (photos 1 and 2) used to lead visitors through the grasslands earlier, but this tour has been discontinued as some areas are now restricted. Among her favourite sights: great quaking grass or Briza maxima (image 3). Photos: Anne Nanjappa.
 

The pandemic shifted the demographics of Anne’s walks. Previously favoured chiefly by foreigners, her tours now attract young Indian walkers. ‘Most of my guests aren’t typical holidaymakers; they’re here for a more intimate experience of Ooty,’ Anne says. She fondly recalls a tour with a doctor couple—one of them Indian and the other English—who joined her walk with a bag to collect waste along the way, conscientiously taking it back to their hotel.

‘My walks are not the usual walking tours with a fixed route map; they are more about the experience. I enjoy seeing people’s reactions when I show them the little wonders of these hills. That’s my reward,’ she shares. Anne encourages a leisurely pace, inviting her guests to absorb every detail, to truly ‘amble’ rather than just walk. This philosophy is why she calls her tours Amble with Anne.

When she offers up that fragrant cypress leaf to me, it is as if she is offering up a precious piece of her intimate history.

Two hundred years old, the city of Ooty is full of tourist lodges, shops and many of the amenities of the city. Yet, it is still surrounded by rolling hills and mist. The School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal, consulting on the Nilgiris Regional Master Plan-2047, found that there is little land available for development in the Nilgiris. Photos: Khandelwal Tushar/ Shutterstock (1); Suraj Mahbubani (2).

A Silent History

From the evocative ‘Through a Slice of History,’ which starts at St Stephen’s Church and extends to the Nilgiri Library, to the tranquil ‘Into the Countryside’, which explores the rural landscapes outside Ooty town, and the scenic ‘Along the Railway Line’, which follows the historic tracks of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, each of Anne’s three current tours is carefully curated to diverge from conventional tourist routes. I’m most drawn to the irresistible Nilgiri railway line—an enchanting stretch immortalised by the iconic ‘ChaiyyaChaiyya’ song in the 1998 Hindi hit film Dil Se, which features Shah Rukh Khan and Malaika Arora dancing atop the train as it moves up the mountains.

But this walk begins at a site that takes us further back in time. Bathed in the soft morning light, CSI St Thomas Church, established by the British in 1867 and surrounded by graveyards on three sides, serves as our meeting point. While each tour varies, Anne often starts out here. In this quiet corner of the bustling town, it’s just Anne and me, a quietude that the introvert in me silently cherishes.

Ooty’s churches are famous for their British era architecture. The CSI St Thomas Church, located along the southern side of Ooty Lake, was one of the locations for the Oscar-winning film A Passage to India, adapted from EM Forster’s novel of the same name. Its view of the lake (image 3) offers a tranquil moment out of time by its gravestones. Photos: Suraj Mahbubani (1), Sneha Thomas (2,3).

Anne leads me through the grounds. In the church’s ancient cemetery, where granite from Scotland marks the graves of long-gone Englishmen, Anne pauses and points to an old cross with its intersection encircled, distinct among its peers. ‘Do you recognise this?’ she asks. ‘It’s a Celtic cross,’ she reveals. ‘Its history traces back to pre-Christian pagan worship in ancient Europe.’ According to Irish folklore, Saint Patrick introduced the Celtic cross to the Irish Celts, combining the Christian cross with a circle symbolising the sun, thereby merging their sun worship with Christianity. We stay for a while, and for a moment, I feel like a character in a Dan Brown novel, deciphering ancient symbols on time-worn gravestones.

Next, as we move behind the church, Anne directs my attention to a distant emerald-green water body, visible through the lacy canopy of trees—Ooty Lake, one of the first projects of John Sullivan, the man who established this town as a hill station. ‘This year, Ooty is celebrating its bicentenary,’ Anne says. In contrast to the rest of India, where the departure of colonial powers is celebrated annually, the sentiment in Ooty is different; here, people commemorate the British establishment in a land originally inhabited by indigenous communities like the Badagas and Todas. The irony of this doesn’t escape me.

The timber tree Hopea sasidharanii (Dipterocarpaceae) is a common sight, when out on a walk in Ooty. Spending time with these gentle giants is a key aspect of ambling. Photo: Suraj Mahbubani.

Trees That Crossed Oceans

Leaving the church behind, where stories linger in silence, we enter the bustling artery of Ooty’s main road. Next: the Arboretum Tree Garden, located 750 metres from the church. I strive to maintain an open mind despite my initial reservations about the predictability of ‘buy-ticket-and-visit’ tourism.

Established in 1982, the garden, home to 60 species of temperate trees, stands as a testament to a bygone era of explorers and botanists who endeavoured to bridge continents by planting tree species from across the ocean.

The Arboretum Tree Garden is smaller than the more popular Botanical Garden, but it offers up more intimate spaces. The space features a variety of trees from around the country, such as the Himalayan cypress (Cupressus torulosa), which is traditionally found in the Himalayas and grows up to 45 metres high (image 4). Photos: Suraj Mahbubani (1), Sneha Thomas (2,3), S Rae/ WikiImages (4).

In the 19th century, the arrival of the British in the Nilgiris transformed the landscape of Ooty. Driven by their increasing need for fuelwood and a longing to mirror the picturesque hills of their native Europe, the British introduced various tree species from across the oceans. The Arboretum Tree Garden, established in 1982, is home to a collection of 60 such species, standing as a testament to a bygone era of explorers and botanists who endeavoured to bridge continents.

The vibrant green of Monterey cypress, the delicate greenish-yellow of Maidenhair, the sombre green of Himalayan cypress, and the mellow autumn tints of maple trees–in the tranquillity of the Arboretum, which feels like a closely guarded secret, I begin to feel a profound sense of belonging, surrounded by these silent guardians of history.

Built in 1908, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway—often referred to as the ‘Ooty toy train’—still uses original locomotive engines. Traveling from Mettupalayam (326 metres elevation) to Ooty (2200 metres) over 46 kilometres in 5 hours (the return journey takes only 3.5 hours), it lies on the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats. A big draw for visitors to Ooty, it is often booked up many months in advance. Photos: Rajesh Narayanan/ Shutterstock (1), Denis Vostrikov (2).

Tracing the Train Tracks

I trail behind Anne as she deftly navigates from the main road through various shortcuts to reach the steel tracks of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR), affectionately known as the Ooty toy train. Inaugurated in 1899 and stretching from Mettupalayam to Ooty, this railway marvel stands as a testament to the engineering brilliance of an era when technology was nascent. ‘NMR is Asia’s steepest railway track, and it has earned UNESCO’s World Heritage Site status, alongside the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the Kalka–Shimla Railway,’ Anne explains.

As we walk in the direction of Lovedale, the next train station, I catch a closer view of Ooty Lake, a scene I first glimpsed from the church. This is when I understand the planning of Ooty by the British: a water body, followed by a church, then a railway line, leading to the gradual development of a town around this life-sustaining lake, a strategy used by ancient civilisations like the Egyptians.

The landscape morphs into different colours as we make our way forward. The tracks, initially blanketed in a carpet of dry, earth-brown pine leaves, gradually transform into an oasis enveloped by temperate tree greens. The lush guardians standing tall on either side shield the tracks from the gaze of the outer world. We then plunge into the intriguing darkness of a train tunnel, giving us a whiff of adventure.

As we walk, Anne hands me mock strawberries (Potentilla indica), curiously devoid of flavour, and banana passionfruit, bursting with tanginess. ‘What is joy if not found in the little things?’ she says.

However, the tracks also bear witness to the scars of modernity, littered with plastic food wrappers, cigarette packets, railway brochures and broken beer bottles. ‘Garbage is our biggest challenge here, and it’s a problem caused by both tourists and locals,’ Anne affirms. .According to a report by TheTimes of India,the town produces 4–5 tonnes of dry garbage on weekdays and 6–7 tonnes during weekends and holidays.

Wooden coaches travel through 16 tunnels, 250 bridges and 208 curves as the Ooty train journeys through the mountains, its steam locomotives replaced by diesel locomotives between Coonoor and Ooty.It traverses the steepest train track in Asia, with a gradient that rises to 8.33 percent (Source: Ooty Tourism). Photos: Suraj Mahbubani.

A Royal Status Symbol

Instead of heading to Lovedale station, the usual endpoint of Anne’s railway walk, we take a diversion after an hour along the tracks. She leads me towards another relic of history—Fernhills Royal Palace or the WelcomHeritage Fernhills Royal Palace as it is called, today. It is the final stop of our journey.

The mist-laden hills of Ooty captivated not only the British but also Indian royalty. In 1873, the Wodeyars of Mysore, cultural pioneers among Indian princes, acquired Fernhills Palace for Rs 10,500 from its British builders, who had constructed it in 1844. The Wodeyars’ initiative set a trend, inspiring other royals from Hyderabad and Jodhpur to seek similar havens in Ooty. Today, Fernhills Palace serves as a luxury heritage hotel.

The Fernhills Royal Palace was the summer residence of the Maharaja of Mysore, first built in 1844 as a private residence. Built in the style of a Swiss chalet, it is a heritage property which tourists can visit and stay in, today. Photos: Suraj Mahbubani.

A 500-metre stroll from the palace’s entrance, under the watchful gaze of ancient trees, brings us to a building reminiscent of a Swiss chalet in brick red and white. Crossing the grand lawn, a former British high-tea venue, we enter the dining hall, which once served as the ballroom. Grandeur unfolds inside—a symphony of teak with intricate carvings, a high, ornate papier-mâché ceiling, and walls graced with vintage black-and-white photographs. With its well-preserved vintage charm, the palace now remains a symbol of the status once held by Indian princes.

And now, as I part ways with Anne, I carry with me more than just a rekindled connection to my childhood Ooty. I have an understanding of why this town celebrates Sullivan and the colonial era—and offers the opportunity to experience, daily, the joy of small pleasures.

To book a tour, call 9442158283 or visit Amble with Anne. Each of the three available tours covers 210 kilometres, running from 26 hours; prices start at Rs 2,000 and walks can be customised.

* Correction: Fernhills Royal Palace is now called WelcomHeritage Fernhills Royal Palace, the article was amended to reflect this on February 15th, 2024.

Sneha Thomas

Sneha Thomas is a freelance writer based in Kerala, writing about sustainability, responsible travel, and history. Her work has been featured in Paper Planes and Modern Farmer, among other publications.

1 Comment

  1. 🌄 Exploring the serene beauty of Ooty’s Nilgiri Hills with Anne, a local guide, offers a refreshing escape from the bustling city center. 🌲 Anne’s personalized tours unveil hidden gems beyond the typical tourist spots, creating cherished memories amidst nature’s tranquility. #Ooty #NatureWalk 🚶‍♀️

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