I was probably just about to enter my teens then and summer vacations meant a trip down to Coimbatore to spend a couple of weeks with my maternal grandparents, uncles and cousins and this time was not any different. Two months of time to kill. Cell phones were part of science fiction movies and entertainment primarily consists of travelling & outdoors. Television was always restricted to those 2-3 hours of bland meaningless babbles when broadcast did happen, of which a good half hour is spent in aligning the receiving antenna in search of good signal which is always around and never found. It was one of those nights and an adhoc idea floated around to visit the Nilgiris the next morning. I was caught off guard and started fantasizing my trip on the “OOTY TRAIN”, presently called NMR (Nilgiri Mountain Railway), only to be disappointed as the plan was brutally dismissed considering paucity of time. Who wants to enjoy the journey when the destination in sight. In my frustration, I kicked off the receiving antenna and I guess started receiving alien signals probably later intercepted in the making of Krrish, the Indian version of ET.
Fast forward a quarter century (Phew!, that’s a while), things have changed now. Television is 24×7 and the number of channels exceed my counting ability. Watching the road is happenstance and is an event only when we are tired of looking at our mobiles. Everyone looks like a spy straight out of a Ludlum novel with gadgets and wires hanging out all over the place. Certain things never change and my undying desire to travel in the NMR is one such constant. The last few years I have been blessed with a set of like minded folks who share the same idiosyncrasies as mine and an NMR travel did become a reality, which is for a recollection at a later stage. However the ride made me realize what my father stressed earlier 25 years ago, “Son, we do not have the time”. How true! The beauty of the NMR was breathtaking and it was clear as day that the 5 hrs riding the train uphill from Mettupalayam to Udhagamandalam is indeed not enough. So when my crazy group decided to take a hike along the tracks to Coonoor, it was no brainer and the decision was made.
NMR trips are always planned over a weekend thereby not hindering our professional commitments and the dates were set for Nov 21-22 2015. I was disappointed. Family & other commitments meant that I will have to give this a pass. Without waiting for a last minute decision considering the realities, I had to pass this on and did so without delay and wished everyone else to have a great time and miss me without fail. As we neared the dates, a higher power decided to withhold some of the hikers to ransom by dumping professional obligations and a few personal duties that the dates had to be reworked and the hike was subsequently shifted to the second weekend of Dec 2015. With another chance to redeem my wish and thanking my stars, I began planning for this along with my usual partner in crime.
The NMR UNESCO heritage railway climbs a good 2 kilometers across 46 kilometers from Mettupalayam to Udhagamandalam. As much as we were excited and blinded by the trek, common sense prevailed and we quickly realized that this is impossible to trek the entire stretch and the plan was reworked to trek all the way from Kallar to Coonoor, a trek a kilometer vertically and 20 km along the ground. Little did we realize how steep the incline was during the planning stage. However we had worked out the plan in detail to ensure that after a 10 km trek up to Hillgrove, we can manage exits and reach the roads if needed. We had obtained verbal permission from the Public Relations Office, Salem Division, Southern Railway. A couple of our group had talked to Mettupalayam station manager, who apparently was a patient of one of our trekking group and he had assured us of help and assistance as well.
The passenger for Ooty is scheduled to leave Mettupalayam everyday at 7:10 am, weather & nature co-operating by not letting the land slide on to the tracks in the mountainous region. The plan was to arrive before this departure, group ourselves and drive down to Kallar and start our trek, while the drivers would drive our cars to the guest house at the Glendale Tea Estate. Given the short notice and vacation time around, my partner and self, had a harrowing time to in figuring out the best option which would leave us well rested prior to our strenuous trek. Luck was in our favor as we managed to get the last 2 available tickets from Bangalore to Salem in 16526, popularly known as the Island Express. The Indian Railways berth allocation logic is something even Duckworth & Lewis cannot comprehend. Getting a lower berth with 300+ vacant berths may still be a gamble, but we were blessed with 2 Side lower berths on the last 2 available tickets upto Salem. From Salem, it was decided that we would take the Nilgiri Express aka Blue Mountain and popularly called as Blue all the way up to Mettupalayam, which is the official connecting train to the Ooty NMR passenger
D-Day, Dec 11 2015, I was waiting patiently for my 16526 at Whitefield. I had just received information from my partner that he had just departed from the previous station 10 kms behind and would be at Whitefield in another 15 minutes. I should have realized that I was in for an exhilarating run when I boarded my coach just 9 minutes after his call. The Loco Pilot was on an absolute high and showed it with full gusto. We ripped through the outskirts of Bangalore with darkness & light flashing past us like tripped up disco lights on a high. We made a lot of time and joined the Chennai Salem mainline at Tirupattur and let ourselves rest for a well deserved break. The controllers had better sense, extended our rest and fulfilled our wish by letting the legendary 12623, Chennai – Trivandrum mail, overtake us at Tirupattur. A relaxed run and we found ourselves dumped on Platform 1 of an extremely clean Salem Junction. We had a good 90 minutes at Salem and fueled ourselves with some roadside food and a steaming cup of tea. The Blue arrived a few minutes behind schedule and we were halfway to dreamland as the train pulled out of Salem and next thing I know, I was analyzing the electric locomotive at Mettupalayam 15 minutes ahead of our scheduled arrival, wondering when did the Coimbatore – Mettupalayam section get electrified