It had taken us 3 hrs to hike the 5 km to Adderley. The killer gradient laughing all its way behind us. We took our time, freshened up, hydrated ourselves with loads of stream water, which has been channelized to flow into pipelines with small water pits all along the tracks. It made sense to drop of all our water bottles and a bit of carrying load as fresh water was in abundance in the Nilgiris. After a quick & generous intake of fresh fruits and vegetables not sparing even the orange peels, we started off for the next 5 kilometers towards Hillgrove. The plan was to go beyond Hillgrove and jump onto the road where the tracks cross the roads more often beyond Hillgrove. It was half past noon as we moved our tired butts. The half hour break had stiffened all our muscles and took another 15 – 20 minutes of uphill trek to get warmed up and loosened.
The heavy lunch in our backpacks was slowing us down and draining our energy at an unprecedented rate and being the smartest individuals we were, we decided on a double whammy. Eat our lunch, reduce the load and fuel up your energy reserves. The NMR operates only two train on the Mettupalayam – Ooty sector. An early departure at Mettupalayam and the same passenger train back to Mettupalayam from Ooty later in the afternoon. Overestimating our superhuman abilities, we expected to meet the return passenger after our 20 km trek at Coonoor and certainly not the huge whooshy sounds from an oil fired X series steam locomotive carefully descending the gradient as we settle down for lunch. The lunch party quickly organized themselves along a small track side temple and waited patiently for the breakdown special to move past us with a few confused NMR railway staff waving at us. The gang men duo who picked up halfway towards Adderley exclaimed that this was a breakdown special which is now coming back after clearing the landslides which suspended the services a few days ago. Another half hour spent eating and cleaning up the place. Trust me when I say, the place is so pristine that leaving any mess over there will hang over your neck for the rest of your life, not that it assumes you can mess up anywhere else. Any which way, please clean up your mess.
Things started to get a bit spiced up now. There was a single gang man waiting for just beyond bridge no 42, around a couple of kilometers ahead of Hillgrove and about 1.5 km from where we just cleaned up after lunch. Apparently a wild elephant is on the run around bridge no 42 and is now in hiding as the BDS (breakdown special) scared it off. It should take another hour or so for it to come out and it would be a wise decision to step up our pace. Well, we were all fully perked up and with a much lighter almost non existent load on our backs, the pace stepped up literally and just as were about to cross the bridge no 42 one of us had to sit down right in the middle of the bridge to massage the leg muscles from severe cramps. The Adderley gang had informed us that just beyond bridge no 42, one can walk down a path to the road and get a lift to Coonoor. With one of us getting cramped up we spent another ten minutes discussion various scenarios and it was finally decided that a couple of us would assist him down to the road, get back and continue on with the hike. Each one of us was tired to the bone and no one wanted to let go of the remaining trek and accompany him all the way to our Glendale guest house. Hence we wait. Meanwhile, we have been handed over to the next gang man who would accompany us up to Hillgrove. He gave us the directions and the trio was off to hit the road.
While we waited for the two of them to return, we were shown the tracks and signs of the elephant which had been roaming around bridge no 42 and given some practical lessons on what to do if an elephant chases you. The cardinal rule is, never try to outrun the elephant or ever try reaching higher ground. These large creatures are deceptively quick and can climb real fast.The best option is to go down the hill as they very rarely chase anyone down the slope due to the excess weight and balance. As we were getting enlightened, the trio calls up having spotted the elephant. Our guide without a second’s hesitation asked us to run down the bridge to stay on the other side (Apparently elephants do not cross railway bridges) and wait till he gets back. After close to 30 minutes, which felt like a couple of hours, all of them were back after an adventure. They had managed to put up the member who cramped up onto a vehicle to reach the Glendale guest house and we continued on our hike.
The return passenger from Ooty normally reaches Hillgrove around 4 in the afternoon and for our guide cum escort, that is the only way out back to the plains. We had an hour left and another mile to go. Now this was a run. He was literally dragging us at a breakneck speed. We now have another 300 meters to hike. I can see the station building straight left.I could see the old abandoned building nearby. I can see the water tank, the water filling area for the steam locomotive. I can even see the station board. I just couldn’t move. When you see the destination in sight, hell freezes over. None of my muscles responded to a single command from my brain. I had to drag each and every cell within my body and this last 300 meters turned out to almost to be the most impossible part of the trek. Once I set foot on the station platform which is a couple of inches from the ground, I threw off my backpack somewhere and stood right under water tank with water gushing down and out from around a hundred feet above and after five minutes, I was dripping wet, tiredness out into oblivion, headache washed away. Two energy bars, a liter of water, 2 cups of coffee and 10 minutes later, I could not have felt any better and fresh as a daisy, ready to hike another 10 km uphill. My smart brain instantly let me know that it was insanity and adrenaline talking. Time now to wait for the Mettupalayam bound passenger.
The NMR especially between Jul – Dec is as charming as it can get. Uphill, the passenger stops at Adderley, Hillgrove & Runnymede for water, oil, cooling off and lets the passengers walk around, enjoy the breathtaking views, soak in the surroundings and unwind. Once all done, the train whistles and waits until everyone is back to continue on its journey. There is enough time built into the schedule to let passengers breathe in the pristine environment up to Coonoor. I had always wanted to get out and watch trains go rather than get into the train and watch the landscape rush past. This is almost next to impossible on the NMR. Now we are here, with no train to board and waiting for the Mettupalayam bound passenger to roll down to Hillgrove. As the hustle, bustle and whistle seeps in from the hills, a bunch us get to wait to capture the moment as the NMR beauty rolls down the bridge into Hillgrove with wide eyed passengers. Now, as the train rolls down the bridge, hills in the background and heart in my mouth, I almost freeze just to take a snapshot in time. Now, this is one feeling, I could never be able to express in words. Every single passenger inside were looking down at us, confused finding non railway folks at Hillgrove, sporting the widest grins stretching ear to ear and waving with all their heart and might. Well that WAS special.
That was a 30 minute halt. They wanted to know. Who are we ? Why are we there ? How did we reach there ? and everything else about our crazy hike up. The NMR passenger chugged off towards Mettupalayam at 5PM. The station staff wound up for the day, closed the tea & snacks stall and a couple of them guided our way down to the road through slippery rocks, fresh water streams and moss laden path. A careful fall and twenty minutes later, we were on the road waiting for our driver to pick us up and found ourselves dropped at the Glendale Guest house all for ourselves, except for a couple of caring cooks who took care of our culinary needs till 2 AM the next morning. After a spirited session with great food and cold beers, we called it a day around 2 in the morning only to continue from where we left off the next morning from 7 AM. The Glendale estate is a private property with beautifully manicured tea plantations where the cooks spent their entire morning and early afternoon in the kitchen taking the best care possible of their guests. The group started leaving in batches to their respective destinations starting around 4 in the afternoon. The estate manager managed an unofficial private visit to the tea factory, which unfortunately delayed our departure slightly and we managed to reach Podanur 2 minutes after our train, usually 10 minutes behind schedule at Podanur, departed towards Bangalore. After a lot of ifs and buts, I settled down with my usual travel partner near Coimbatore Junction, at a decent hotel for a day trip the next morning to Bangalore.
Before I wind up this blog, it needs to be said that this trek has been one of the most enlightening and delightful trips I have ever done. Trekking uphill may seem tedious, but it seemed to me at least that it is a safer alternative to going downhill especially if the terrain is slippery like it was during our trip. Nature is beautiful. Once you start appreciating its beauty, you do not need anymore campaigns on saving the earth. For one, we cannot save it. It is far more powerful than us and secondly, you will never destroy something which you love. Hope I was able to take you along with me in this trek. Do let me know with your comments and I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I relived the experience writing this. I certainly DID NOT HAVE ENOUGH TIME.