We departed Mettupalayam a few minutes behind the scheduled time of the passenger. The breakdown special was loaded with tools, generator and almost the entire manpower of the mountain railway. The Chief Engineer was quite confident of getting his work completed the same day and was hopeful of resuming the services by Sunday, 18th December 2016. The short ride from Mettupalayam to Kallar was uneventful and our group was busy distributing fluids, energy replenishment, cookies, chocolates and another miscellaneous set of food items ensuring everyone is self sufficient to carry on with the trek. Passengers or not, the train has to stop at every watering station to replenish and cool down the thirsty monster, X Class Oil powered locomotives.
As we reached Kallar, memories of the previous trek took us back a year ago when this very same station was covered in mist and heavy rainfall. This year it was a distinctly different atmosphere. Cool, bright and sunny interspersed with thick blue clouds against a beautiful cerulean blue sky. Any which way you see, Kallar represented peace and serenity. The pin drop silence was only disturbed by the original twitterati, a flow of water somewhere in the vicinity and the roaring growl of our thirsty & whistling X Class locomotive.
Once we depart, this would be a perfect place to spend some quality time with your inner self far away from pollution, industrialization, selfishness, greed, competition. We evolved to live with nature amidst every living creature and find a balance. As our brains developed, we lost the design we were built for. We stopped seeing the beauty and simplicity around us. We were mentally conditioned that power and money are the two things to live for. We challenged the Darwin’s theory. Survival of the fittest gave way to thriving of the meanest. In just a couple of hundred years, we destroyed our planet. We destroyed every living organism and animal. We made them play to our tunes. We thought we knew everything. In our pursuit of materialistic pleasure, we get rid of everything in our way, be it our own species. Amidst all this, when you spend a little time in a hamlet like Kallar, you really start to see how our life was intended to be only to rue the fact on how it turned out to be. Maybe one day we will realize the enormity of our mindless actions, but that will be the day when our Mother Earth decides to press Ctrl+Alt+Del.
The cog & teeth gets aligned at Kallar and the engagement needs to be inspected at every water filling station usually spread apart by around 4-5 km. After aligning, we chugged along towards Hillgrove with an intermediate halt at Adderley for inspection and water filling. I have to say, it was pretty nostalgic traversing the same section which we had trekked along the previous year. I could relate to every milestone, every landscape, every tunnel, every viaduct, every bridge and every single stream of water. The feeling of been there, done that. Cruising along the first major viaduct with gushing waters below brought in an involuntary sense of euphoria and a smile that can not be described. The viaduct which took us close to 6 minutes of careful trek the previous year was done and dusted in less than half a minute. The surroundings this time around weren’t as green and fresh as it was the previous year, but still refreshing and liberating. The highlight of this section was a huge black snake going back into hiding possibly scared to wits with the vibrations. The immediate fear and skepticism in everyone’s eyes were masked by faked expressions of absolute indifference. Folks, it is OK to be scared and we should be. Fear is an important factor that keep our senses sharp and let us handle the situation. Soon enough we reach Adderley and continue onto Hillgrove after a 10 minute break. We pass through that small temple where we had lunch the previous year. That nasty little slippery bridge where we had to let one of our group exit due to severe cramps. That protective rock like structure from where we were forced to return to the bridge due to an elephant encounter and that long distance view of Hillgrove station board which never seemed to come closer the previous year. Ten minutes after ten in the morning. We are now where we quit last year and all set to continue to conquer the rest of the Blue Mountains.
It was another ten minute break for the workers, while we were getting ready for the next 10 km of trekking the steep gradient. The landslide was supposedly less than a km ahead towards Coonoor which we would be crossing shortly. Hillgrove is famous for monkeys and “Dal Vada”. The stall vendor who guided us down from here a year ago treated us to hot, crispy and perfectly balanced dal vada and steaming hot tea to liven up our senses for the arduous task ahead.Ten minutes later as the breakdown special pushed on towards the landslide area, we collected our baggage and got our miniature versions with the station name board captured into the silicon valleys of my 64GB UHS1 Class 10 Memory card. Fully refreshed and excited, it is time to complete what was left incomplete. Should I say, intuition or premonition or deja vu, I felt that the breakdown special is gonna block our way right in the middle of some bridge or viaduct. A passing thought soon lost as we blended in with nature all around us. We bid goodbyes to the station staff and the innumerable monkeys and started hiking up the 1 in 12.5 gradient.
In the last 3-4 years, I have been attending a lot of workshops & meetings with clients, a few of them stretching almost up to a week. The typical discussion patterns always turn out to be something similar to MS Dhoni’s innings. The first 1% of the agenda items consume about 99% of the time and the remaining 99% of the agenda is completed in 1% of the time. Our hike was no different to this. Add to it the fact that Hillgrove – Runnymede section of the NMR provides the best visual treats, it was no wonder that the first 1 km of the trek took us close to an hour. We encountered about three waterfalls , a couple of tunnels and 3 small bridges before we could sight our breakdown special berthed and off to some real heavy duty work.
As we neared the BDS, my weird intuition was proven right. The Loco was right there parked in the middle of a narrow bridge smoking and puffing. Our hike came to a complete screeching halt. I am not sure if I could transport any of you to the scene with my writing ability, but allow me to experiment. The Loco is covering the entire length of this small bridge. There are no hand holders / any space available on either side of the loco for us to move ahead. To the left is a plain straight drop of at least 200 feet. On the right is a drop of about 8-10 feet which would place us in a landing at the base of a wayside waterfall. A few rocks right under the bridge. There is no way down on the left and the only way is to hand crawl down to the landing on the right, get drenched, use the rocks under the bridge as support not to fall off the steep cliff and carefully trundle along the 30-40 feet length of the bridge to reach the other side balancing our bags and equipment against slippery rocks. Well.. we did it all right. All of us. Came back up on the other side fully drenched and refreshed by an ice cold natural waterfall. If I were let to sum up the experience of NMR, this one adventure would suffice. Ten of us and half an hour is what it took for us to move on. A few meters ahead, we encountered the landslide which brought the NMR to a complete standstill. It took us just a few moments to realize the quantum of labor and manpower required to clear a small landslide. The unforgiving terrain and limited access path and lack of space to dump the debris demands the highest of resources from even the fittest of the workers. These workers need to be truly appreciated and thanked for the efforts they put in to get the NMR back on track for tourists like us to enjoy the beautiful visages NMR has to offer. After thanking them, we moved on.
The trek up to Runnymede station was uneventful and quick. This 4 km stretch took us exactly an hour from the landslide location. A short 2 minute refreshment & hydration break every kilometer kept the momentum going. Some of the best visuals in this hike were reserved for this section. The view of the valleys, falls, mountains and the long winding Mettupalayam – Ooty highway presented some breathtaking visuals where a description would provide no justice to the reality on display. Right alongside Runnymede station is the famous Katteri Park, a well maintained tourist spot. We were supposed to get our lunches delivered by our drivers at Runnymede station, but the traffic and roadworks en route ensured that they had not even started the climb towards Coonoor. Half hour later, post energizing and hydrating ourselves, we continued on only to be presented with the 1 in 12 gradient again. Plastic bottles, covers, sewage / waste mixed with streams and falls, gave us a clear indication that so called civilization is around. It was clear to us not to depend on any natural water source beyond Runnymede.
Considering our previous encounter with a hungry wild elephant, we had all our senses tuned to sense any danger. However as the elevation increased and more civilization around, the chances of encountering any more elephants were going down as we kept going up, but a repetitive pattern of prints on the left side of the tracks kept us interested and on the edge. Just as we were exiting out of another tunnel, the local population urged us to be quiet and move to the other side of the tracks only to witness a full grown adult male Indian Gaur casually lazing around chewing gum. A beautiful sight well enjoyed from a safe distance. Unlike the previous trek which was in the middle of a devastating cyclone on the east coast, this one was relatively dry and slightly more tiring, but we had the experience of the previous trek and mentally prepared for the task which we had so underestimated the last time and quickly completed the remaining 5 km to Coonoor in 2hrs. Coonoor presented us with relief, clean water, a beautiful YDM4 GOC Alco and excited tourists waiting to be hauled up to Ooty as the Coonoor – Ooty section of NMR was operational. We had to wait for another 30 minutes for our food & transport to arrive. An hour later, with a half full stomach, tired aching legs and body, I find myself under a hot shower at the secluded Glendale Tea Estate, Adderley, getting ready to fill up the remaining half.
Personally, If I were to compare the previous trek with this one, this one was certainly better planned, well executed and completed with lesser assistance from others, but the charm and beauty of the trek last year is beyond comparison. If there was one negative factor in this trek, that would be the “civilization” which has a total disregard for nature and the environment. Nature thrives where humans do not exist. Period.