Marikuppam bound Swarna Passenger takes a gentle shower at Whitefield, while a passenger awaits the all clear signal during a short refreshing break
An Empty BCNA Rake snakes out of one of the 4 loops of Whitefield Railway Station towards Devangothi. The cool surroundings of Whitefield suddenly realized its neighboring city awaits the NADA cyclone and decides to drench us as well suddenly.
A fresh New Year & the rising sun waits to greet its first visitor on rails somewhere between Tiruppur & Uttukuli
An unplanned and adhoc visit to Vanjipalayam to experience some adrenaline rushing action near Tiruppur on a wet and lazy Sunday morning. Do not be fooled by the visual. One of the high speed action zones on the Coimbatore – Tiruppur section.
Part 4 : The Climax
It is undisputed blasphemy for me to sleep in a train with an emergency side lower berth at my disposal, but the brain and physical limitations of my body overpowered the unwilling heart and sleep was instantaneous. The misty and cool early morning was welcomed with a sedate cruise through Kohli, a good 40 minutes behind schedule. We sped past Godhani and after a customary outer halt and a crawl reached Nagpur at 5:50 in the morning. Like every other journey, my morning freshening up and usage of the bathroom facilities were done and dusted well before dawn while the washrooms were clean and manageable. Ten minutes later, we crawl out of Nagpur and our P7 started to really pump itself up after clearing all the points. Ajni was crossed at MPS and the ride between Ajni and Sewagram outer was as fresh as it could be. Rising sun, with a low lying mist, foggy morning rushin past green fields and the new Vidharba Cricket Stadium. 45 minutes after we departed Nagpur, the P7 peeps into the quintessential Sewagram curve, A full 90 degree curve where you can see the loco curving at 50kmph from any part of the train. I have to say that this curve had never disappointed me. We accelerate out of the curve while the Nagpur bound Mumbai – Nagpur Duronto speeds past us on the mainline from Wardha towards its final destination.
By now, PK is up and indulging himself. Breakfast was served around Majri. I am unsure if it was the previous nights tweet about the pristine quality and quantity of food or whether it happened in its natural course of events, the breakfast was well above average. Upma and vada seemed fresh and not yet cold. Pk believes his tweet did the trick and I did not want to deprive him of his satisfaction and hence agreed. Unsure of whether we would get breakfast when we change over to 3A at Balharshah, we fueled up. By the time we finished our breakfast Chandrapur was getting dispatched at MPS. Either we enjoyed the breakfast relishing every bite or our Loco Pilot was in a hurry. The reasoning favored the latter notwithstanding the decent breakfast. Sewagram to Balharshah was completed in 72 minutes, a distance of 132 kms average being exactly 110 kmph. A fabulous run completly eliminating the 40 minute delay and bettering it by 15 minutes. Well, time to deboard and move over. We gather our belongings, which was a shoulder bag and 2 bottles of water and amble over couple of coaches ahead to B3. As luck would have it, both the lower berth occupants had shifted over to 2A and we quickly occupied both the lower berths with absolute adult like matter of fact expressions and maturity and curbed our natural instinct to scream & jump up in joy and exchange high fives. More water and another round of breakfast and back to business. The next halt Vijayawada is another 450 kms and 6 hours away and a couple of hours of power nap would certainly not hurt.
Sleep was elusive. The heart won. However did not feel like sitting upright. So face down and pillows as support, I look out of the large windows, eyes wide open, like a chameleon and watching the best entertainment Indian Railways has on offer. I start counting poles, time taken, estimate the speed and compare against my GPS. Kept looking out for crossings, overtakes, high speed skips and the real thrill you get at the switch over points at MPS. Sirpur, Manchiryal, Pedapalli, Odela and every station enroute was just a passing blur. Full MPS crossings with heavy weights Grand Trunk Express, Tamilnadu Express, Telengana Express (Old AP) , Bangalore Rajdhani Express & Yesvantpur Sarai Rohilla AC Duronto. After a blistering non stop MPS runs with a few customary loop overtakes of SCR, we had a beautiful relaxed and a slow crossing with the rockstar, Karnataka Sampark Kranti Express near the Kazipet lake. A short technical halt at Warangal for about 10 minutes and we were back on track towards Vijayawada Junction, an extremely busy junction which had always amazed me.
As we departed Warangal, the entire train entered into an almost trance like state. Curtains were drawn, bedding re-arranged and slowly more than half our coach drifted off to sleep. It was contagious and we were not immune either. Lunch was served around 1230 in the afternoon and to our relief, it was well above average. I have earlier heard of this discrimination between sleeper class and AC passengers of this Duronto when it comes to food. All my skepticism went out of the window the instant I tasted the food. There IS a distinct difference. With nothing else to do and the LHB coaches dancing on the tracks at MPS, we settled down for a short nap amidst the rhythmic sounds. An hour later, while the coach was still in deep slumber, I decided to freshen up inside out completely and spent half an hour occupying one of the cleaner washrooms and returned cleaner, fresher and a much better odor all around me and was just in time to enjoy the extended and massive entry into Vijayawada Junction. Vijayawada Junction is one of the important Junctions of the Southern part of India, where the lines towards Howrah / Vizag & Nagpur / Delhi bifurcates towards Central Telengana & Coastal Andhra respectively
I have no words to describe this station. A massive well maintained clean and neat Junction with multiple lines, crossover, junctions, yards, stabling lines, loco shed extending at least 8-10 kms beyond on either sides, with 10 long well equipped clean platforms. It was a sight to see and experience. My first visit to this Junction during day time and it is a monstrosity of a junction. We met one of our friends at Vijayawada and after a short halt, a fresh crew is now all set to take us all the way to Chennai. Right on dot 1430 hrs, we enter into the final leg of our journey to Chennai, with a typical LHB jerk. As we exit Vijayawada, we meet a soon to be condemned AJJ WAP1 with the Chennai Central – Santragachi AC express with its rear end halfway into the Krishna River Bridge waiting for clearance to enter Vijayawada, one of the massive river bridges of Indian Railways. With a not so great monsoon season, the river was not in its full glory as we accelerate towards Chennai. As our trip nears its end, tiredness now takes over completely and we settle down for an elusive nap.
The Vijayawada Chennai section is supposed to a terrific run for our Duronto, but a lot of freights and slow moving express trains ahead of us sharing the same track ensured our acceleration was patchy at best. We were running around 40 minutes behind schedule when we crossed Nellore and thankfully we had a clear line post Nellore. The distance between Nellore to Ennore, around 160 kms was covered in about 100 minutes. Post Ennore, we had a typical sedate crawl around 40-60 kmph and reached Chennai without any further stops a good 15 minutes behind schedule at 2025 hrs. We step out for a quick coffee, get back to end of PF5 to witness a few shunting operations at Chennai Central and I have to say inspite of all the frustrations I have had being held from Vyasarpadi outer to Chennai Central every other time, the operations at Chennai was quick. The efficiency with with Railways worked to clear arrivals and departures was commendable inspite of the busy hour. Half an hour after we reached Chennai Central, Duronto has been shunted out & its loco out to the trip shed. PF 1 cleared in just 20 minutes; Brindavan enters and ready to get shunted out. It gets shunted out quickly enough and PF3 is cleared; Kaveri Departs and shunter loco out in no time PF 5 cleared; 30 minutes 3 PF’s cleared while Palani and Blue departs bang on time and the PF’s cleared of shunters immediately relieving PF 7 & 11. I was extremely impressed with the operations and the efficiency with with PF’s were cleared to make way for DD, MYS & CBE Shatabdi’s , Kovai, JS and everyone else to spend as little time crawling from Jiva to MAS.
There is now just one more activity left to do. We cross the tracks onto PF 11, help ourselves to some piping hot Sambhar rice and curd rice, enjoy a coffee and settle down onto our two lower berths on 12657, the sleep killer ripper mail. As is the norm, two passengers on the same PNR cannot have lower berths and PK had to gift his lower berth to one of our co-passengers in the same bay. I was successful in avoiding the exchange by maintaining eye contact only with the platform vendors. We depart as our fellow IRFCAn @SJ pinged us expressing his inability to meet us at Chennai and that he would be busy taking shelter under a tube light at Perambur waving at us and got our co-ordinates in relation to the loco. Unaware of his counting capabilities, we indexed our coach from the rear to stop counting at 3. We cross the Basin Bridge curve, switch over to the fast lane at Vyasarpadi Jiva, accelerate madly and wave at @SJ drifting past Perambur at 90kmph. As we shift back into the darkness towards Arakkonam hoping SJ did see us, we settle down for the first good rest on the sleep killer. The killer mail, true to its reputation was right on dot as we deboarded at Bangalore East and took a cab each to our respective destinations. 1 flight, 4 furious train rides and 5000+ kms, no official leaves, tired body and a refreshed mind. What more can you ask of a weekend ?
Continued from right here …
Part 3 : Back to Nizamuddin
The ever unreliable NTES indicated that Nizamuddin bound Mangala express was on time at Morena, the scheduled halt before Agra. An 85 minute schedule for an 80km run was an overkill and we expected it to be on dot at Agra. With 15 minutes to spare, the thought of exiting the station for a hot cup of tea seemed inviting. However our lack of geography outside the station forced us to get on the foot over bridge and await Mangala on PF3. We had a sleeper class ticket in hand, but the lack of sleep caught up with us now and decided to upgrade to AC 3 Tier. As we entered the platform Mangala entered the platform silently sneaking past and fooling everyone including the platform indicator boards. A good 10 minutes ahead of schedule. One look at our designated sleeper coach and the blazing sun outside, we took the long walk in search of the TTE requesting an upgrade. The TTE was an affable no nonsense fellow and assigned us a couple of berths up to Nizamuddin. The occupants of the bay where we were allotted did their best to make the place inhospitable and be a deterrent for any new passenger about to join them and I have to say they were successful in their half hearted attempt. We roamed around other coaches, identified two good unused upper berths, informed the TTE and settled for a power nap.Meanwhile, our travel from Chennai to Bangalore for the next day was still a question mark and called one of our good dentist friends to book a couple of sleeper class tickets for us, reminding him to use our correct names age and most importantly the sex. By 11:05 AM we had 2 confirmed sleeper class tatkal tickets for our final leg of the journey and was relieved to know that the patient’s half pulled out tooth was finally fully out and sitting on the table. The TTE collected the difference in fares, issued the receipts, returned the change and the next thing we saw was us cruising beyond Faridabad and we were deposited right on dot, 1315 hrs at Nizamuddin.
Lunch outside at the Comesum restaurant was forgettable and hence no recollection except that I had one. The heat was taking its toll on us and started questioning our decision of travelling to Chennai in Sleeper Class, albeit a Duronto. We decided to split the journey and booked us on AC III tier from Balharshah to Chennai. PK, who has a fetish for PRS counters, wanted to have an intimate chat with the PRS clerk and started our hunt for the same. After extended enquiries and search, we found the PRS counters near Okhla. A confused clerk issued us 2 AC III tier tickets from Balharshah to Chennai on the Nizamuddin Chennai Duronto, scheduled to leave Nizamuddin in the next 1 hr, wondering how we would reach Balharshah in time tomorrow to achieve this feat. Well, we have a connection that cannot fail. We laboriously returned back to Nizamuddin, onto our scheduled platform awaiting a sleeper class full LHB duronto ride to Chennai. Half an hour later I was peeping out to feel the rushing wind on my face from my side lower berth emergency window.
The Duronto lives upto its name and was screaming at MPS as we passed Tuglakabad. The comparison between the Gatimaan ride and the Duronto ride was a tale of 2 sparkling contrasts. A sophisticated ride vs a down to earth one. 160kmph vs 120-130 kmph. Air conditioned vs natural breeze. Closed windows vs fully open emergency window. Silent vs Cacophony of sounds. Smiling service vs “service”. Trackside vs non trackside. Exciting vs Speechless. The difference in speed between the Gatimaan & the Duronto was a consistent 30-40 kmph, however the sleeper class travel in the Duronto accentuated every experience by a significant margin. Once again it would be unfair to use adjectives to describe the experience, but the Duronto ride started off with a mind-blowing and hair raising feeling, the latter being quite literal. We overtook some passenger or freight train every station enroute to Agra at 120-130 kmph with our WAP-7 loco screaming and pushing tresspassers out of the way. Stations, trains, trees, fields, bridges and every other landscape blurred past us. All I could hear was the loco whine, the breeze, the typical clickety clack of railway points as we go over them. A spectacular exhibition of aggression, precision and pride. The Nizamuddin – Agra section was completed in 1 hr 55 minutes, 10 minutes slower than what Gatimaan achieved in the morning, but I have to admit that I have more vivid memories of this Duronto ride than the former. The exhibition continued beyond Agra all the way upto Jhansi.
Dholpur, Morena and every other intermediate station was quickly left behind at a cruising 120kmph. Slight deceleration before approaching Gwalior and we skipped Gwalior on the mainline at a cruising speed of 70kmph while platform 1 was preparing for receiving the Bilaspur bound Rajdhani. The rhythmic motion, cool winds and the cyclic lullaby generated by the wheels on steel was slowly taking me back to wonderland when a sudden streak of flashing lights a bit ahead of us brought me back to senses. It took a couple of seconds to register the fact that it was another train cruising at maximum speed towards its destination, only to make an illusion as if it was converging right into us. Expecting a nasty jolt which never came, we converged into the portal safely passing the train at a right angle right below us. It was later once we reach our home would we realize that up and down lines go over each other at a couple of locations between Gwalior & Jhansi. Had we taken this geography lesson earlier, I would have had a video to share the experience, except now that the photographic memory is exclusively stored in a safe deposit locker somewhere in my ROM. Nevertheless, that was SOME sight.
Having full faith in the sleeper class catering service of the Duronto, we had ordered for dinner at Jhansi. Once again we were not let down by the on board catering and were eagerly looking forward for our dinner as we reached Jhansi right on schedule. Credit has to be given to the e-catering provider at Jhansi. It takes a lot to prepare something worse than on board catering. The mindless run continued on beyond Jhansi upto Bina post which the sectional speed was reduced to 110 kmph. By now, the body had exhausted its reserves and was begging for a rest, which we happily obliged. We never knew when we skipped Bhopal.
… to be concluded …
It was a day or two prior to our Independence day, Aug 15 and I was busy thinking about how the social media would come alive with patriotic messages masking the true feelings of indifference from the keyboard warriors. I had a client presentation with a PSU and was busy promising the moon on a cloudy new moon evening. My phone was on silent and set to vibrate to avoid any disturbance during my smooth and typical technical salesman talk. A few minutes into the first break, sensing the break, the phone popped out the name PK and with no time for pleasantries the conversation went like this.
Me : What ?
PK : Dai, lets make a Gatimaan trip this month or first week of September. Preferably in Sep as I cannot get leaves this month.
Me : Machan, I am travelling to Udupi this weekend and another one close on its heels might be an issue.
PK : Fine. Check if possible and let me know.
Me : Ok, will call later.
Well now my smooth talk presentation is done for good, both literally and mentally. My mind was poisoned by this caller and now it is my turn to become a keyboard warrior and the next session of my presentation went in route analysis and optimization for the travel, if at all it would materialize. Incidentally, my part of the presentation was over and I have confused my clients well enough to stay out for the next couple of hours. Line clear. A good omen ? Maybe ?
The plan was quick and an attractive late night red eye flight to Delhi from Bangalore in the wee hours just past midnight on the last Saturday of Aug 2016 nailed the plan. Red eye to Delhi on 27 Aug morning. Metro to New Delhi. Freshen up at the IRCTC lounge. Cab to Nizamuddin. Train spotting and selfies with Gatimaan. High speed ride to Agra. Back to Nizamuddin somehow. Duronto to Chennai and the ever reliable Bangalore mail on 28 Aug from Chennai back home early 29 morning and get back to work as if nothing happened. Great plan with some fast and furious rides on some of the best trains of Indian Railways. That leaves me now with the task of convincing PK to push for an extra day of leave and work out the details at home. I guess my enthusiasm rubbed into everyone and the line was now all clear except that quite a lot of our such adhoc plans have a great tendency to slip between the cup and the lip. Tickets booked. Fingers crossed. Waiting now.
Two days prior to our travel, being a sincere and senior employee that he is, PK decided to make his presence felt at work and planned a half day visit to his workplace, but thankfully confirmed that the trip is on. Now I go drum beating all around about my impending half impromptu rides to the rest of my fraternity and eagerly await the beginning of the impending weekend.
Part 1 : Flight to the Capital
26-Aug-2017 1830 hrs. Bangalore traffic is not bad. It is extremely unpredictable and Mr.Murphy always has the last laugh. Looking back maybe he had the first one too. Well,moving on, I was supposed to be picked up en-route either in a cab or an airport bus around 2030 hrs and hoping Murphy does not strike again, present ourselves at the airport around 2200 to have enough time to eat, drink, unwind and prepare for an uncomfortable two and a half hour flight to Delhi. Thankfully, the flight was not delayed and an SMS dutifully confirmed that our flight was on schedule. I reach my pickup spot around 1930, an hour before planned. Being a Friday night, there were enough intercity buses and watching them haggle with the passengers kept me entertained for a while until impatience started kicking in. A minute seemed like a couple as I called up PK around 2030 to check his whereabouts. Surprise, or rather no surprise. He was still stuck at work and waiting for a colleague of his who had promised him to drop him off somewhere between me and the Airport. Unlike a few moments ago, time reversed its velocity and 5 minutes pass by in a minute. Finally close to 2115, I was picked up, introduced, pleasantries exchanged and decided to get off the moment we spot a radio cab less than 5 minutes away. Soon enough, we thank his colleague and find ourselves in a cab instructing the chauffeur to display his best F1 skills. Thankfully, with the traffic not heavy, we reach the airport with a good 2 hours to spare for our flight. Carrying just a hand baggage, we were in the boarding area and ordered a couple of drinks and food. A couple more of our friends and hunger strike would have saved us enough to buy off that chain store outside the terminal. Anyway, the flight fare was cheaper and we settled for that. The flight was uneventful, cramped, on time, bounced twice on landing and let us off at a ghost terminal at Delhi.
Save a pat for your back if you are to land at the domestic terminal in Delhi. There are no facilities for passengers landing during the wee hours like the 3AM bouncy landing we achieved. All airlines customer support desks and other outlets closed except for a couple of coffee joints, the cheapest of the coffee priced enough to feed a family of two for a day. Without wasting any time, we went over to the luggage carousel, dragged a few luggage trolleys and positioned ourselves for a convoluted new yoga position to rest for an hour before boarding a shuttle to the Aerocity metro station.
Morning 0420 hrs 27-Aug-2016. We await the shuttle to take us to Aerocity metro station outside the terminal building. The airport now no longer looks like an airport. The shuttle came in around 0430 hrs. The first half of the shuttle was filled with passengers. The second half was filled with luggage and for the next 10 minutes the first half kept pulling out the second half. We decided to help the first half in help achieving their objective purely from a selfish standpoint. The site and stench of the luggage was unbearable. 0445 hrs, we were rolling towards Aerocity station and find ourselves dumped in some abandoned location. Apparently, it was indeed the Aerocity station as I managed to identify the Metro logo in the glistening moonlight. We thanked the conductor for relieving us of the misery called Delhi Domestic Arrivals and quickly positioned ourselves in a queue waiting to get the tickets to board the metro. A metro worker is setting up the ticket vending machine. Impatience in the queue. The first metro towards New Delhi is due in 10 minutes and the next one is a good 20 minutes later. Just as we were about to explode, the metro worker with a weird queer look said, “Bhai, what are you waiting here for ?” . Now that we know he was not willing to take a selfie with us, we inquired about “tickets” and were guided elsewhere. Phew !!! 10 minutes later we were off towards New Delhi Railway Station after escaping from a suffocating and overheated nightmare of a place called “Aerocity Metro Station”. The metro crawled all the way taking almost 25 minutes instead of the advertised 15 mins to reach the station.
The plan was to freshen up at the IRCTC executive lounge and take either a cab or a local to Nizamuddin Railway Station. Our previous experience with the IRCTC lounge was terrific. Things have changed now. It is terrible. I don’t want to spoil the experience and hence just a conclusion. Get into the IRCTC lounge if you have some cash to waste. The station waiting room would provide you with the same facilities at probably a percent of the cost. I am getting a lot of bad vibes now. From the moment we landed in Delhi, things have not been going great.
Part 2 : The Ride
Pathetic airport, forgettable executive lounge and lack of sleep made the decision for us. We took a cab to Nizamuddin and reached the station around 0645 hrs. SR King, Tamilnadu express had just departed and the information boards directed us towards PF No 5 for the coveted Gatimaan ride. A light blue LHB rake with a leading P7 stationed on PF5 made us skip a beat as a P7 ride on Gatimaan would kindle all sorts of controversy and a heated debate on the rail fanning community. Unfortunately that was not going to be the case as the TAJ express bound for Jhansi was all set for its 0700 hrs departure from the Gatimaan Platform. Early morning activity at Nizamuddin was brisk with multiple arrivals and departures. Karnataka Sampark Kranti, Goa Sampark Kranti, Golden Temple mail, Thirukkural and a few other trains came and went not knowing what is in store for them. TAJ departed bang on time and soon enough Gatimaan graced PF No 5 brought in by a Ghaziabad WAP5 30020. Unlike any of the regular trains on Indian Railways, the loco and the entire rake was striped with reflectors for better night visibility.
Fares, set slightly higher than the Shatabdi’s, Gatimaan caters mainly to foreign tourists and last minute travelers. The regular chair car class was filled up while the executive chair car had an occupancy level just a notch above 50 percent. Apparently the train also caters as a new excursion activity for the kids. On the day we traveled, there were a group of around 70-90 kids accompanied by their teachers off for a high flying ride to Agra and probably will take the same train back as well. The excitement on their faces was contagious and I am sure they had one hell of a ride back and forth. We had decided to travel in style and had booked the executive chair car. It provided a spacious 2×2 seating arrangement with lots of legroom for unhindered movement and freedom. Executive chair car also provided us ample opportunities for playing musical chairs with close to half the coach being empty. Amazon ads adorned our headrests and the train hostesses were busy moving back and forth with their practiced smiles setting up for some express service. Post the customary clicks, selfies, train board snaps, coach exterior and interior snaps, setting up the phone charging, GPS, speedometers and other miscellaneous activities which had bloomed out of nowhere in the last decade, the LHB rake gifted us with is traditional jerk, albeit slightly softer and I set my watch to display 0810 hrs, while we leave behind a busy Nizamuddin station.
Right on dot at 0810 hrs as we leave Nizamuddin, an immediate crossing with none other than the King Mumbai Rajdhani reset the bad vibes and set the tone for the rest of the trip. The acceleration was brisk and we were cruising along at Okhla at a sedate 120kmph. Breakfast started off with branded Muesli & Milk soon followed with some Guava juice, Paratha, 2 slices of brown bread, a decent helping of fruit and vegetable salad. By now we are ready for the dessert, the 160kmph run, a piece of cake. The breakfast, going by IR standards was exceptional. With tea to indulge and a huge window to my right, it’s time to let go of all my accessories and enjoy the run. Asaoti vanished at 160kmph and there was no looking back now. Palwal, Rundhi, Sholaka, Ajhai and every other intermediate station was left behind at 160kmph. I would refrain from using any adjectives to describe the speed. You have to feel it. We slowed down a bit after Bhuteshwar and skipped Mathura around 50-60kmph around 9:20 AM. The impatient P5 was quick to accelerate and was back at 160kmph by the time we crossed Baad. Few TSR’s between Nizamuddin and Faridabad gave little time for Gatimaan to recover and we reached Agra’s dedicated Gatimaan Platform 5 minutes behind schedule. Karnataka Samaprk Kranti, Thirukkural, Goa Express, Taj Express and another 8-9 unknown express trains were looped mercilessly for scintillating overtakes. This was my first ride ever in a train where opening the doors on the run never crossed my mind. We set our foot down at 9:55 AM with nothing but broad smiles. The trip was also a reconnaissance for a good trainspotting location and Sholaka seemed perfect. The next time we have an encounter with the Gatimaan, it will be with our feet planted firmly on the ground near Sholaka. It is time to experience it from outside and that would be the next mission.
…to be continued…
The Gateway to Kollur Mookambika Temple, A quaint and quite station awaits the arrival of the Bangalore bound Karwar – Bangalore express. The Konkan Railway Tunnel No 91 will spew out the smoking monster soon.
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.
An hour before the departure of the Ooty toy train. The crowd and excitement builds up. Camera’s ranging from a simple mobile phone all the way up to the bulky DSLR’s with lenses slightly smaller than the tank’s snout is all out in the open. It’s raining and no one cares. The early morning chirping of birds are masked by shutter clicks and hissing steam.Excited passengers go shutter crazy. The TTE is checking , well what else, the tickets. A handful of folks click ridiculous photos looking into the moon with the selfie sticks, while the rest watch in amusement. A final hoot and a final call and all the passengers settle down. Ready to depart and signals set, the trademark hoot followed by a push and the little beauty chugs on towards what would be a mesmerizing 5 hour journey into natural beauty. A slight drizzle, hooting and puffing and crawling out of Mettupalayam, The X Series loco pushes a train full of passengers, who have brought out their child within and cameras as they prepare for an exciting and delightful experience on the UNESCO heritage NMR (Nilgiri Mountain Railway).
With the star of the day out of the way, its time to regroup and move on. We separated the trek requirement part of our luggage consisting of energy bars, water, medicines, food, rain protection gear, cameras and flashlights. We picked up a few items needed on the way and rushed past overcast clouds and wet roads along the foothills of Nilgiris towards Kallar railway station. Right at the foothills of the Nilgiris and the entrance to the forest ahead, Kallar, named after the river, was a quaint and serene station where the Ooty passenger has the first of its unscheduled stop for water filling and aligning the gears to catch on for the steep climb ahead. The actual climb towards Ooty starts at Kallar. We spent around half an hour at the station master’s hut and fuelled ourselves with a heavy breakfast for the steep climb ahead. The station master was kind enough to hold back two of the gang men to accompany us and delayed their daily inspection check duties for our safety and assistance. They would accompany us halfway up to Adderley and hand us over the next gang. We had no idea on why they would take such measures, but as the day progresses, it would dawn upon us.
We have all the pre-requesites of a professional photographer. The DSLR Cameras, Facebook Pages and the knowledge of how to sneak in a copyright into our images. So out comes our gear and we click all over the place and delay yet another 15 minutes little realizing the fact that the 2 gang men were actually waiting for us. Maybe it is just another day at work for them unlike us who believe that nothing is more important than our own precious time. I had trekked ghat sections earlier and when the gang men questioned us on our knowledge of tunnels, bridges and trekking along railway lines in the ghats, the significant never dawned upon us. Anyway, we saw that the section had a gradient of 1 in 12.5, which apparently is one of the steepest gradients on earth. Just to get the perspective right the Bhor & Thull ghats of Indian Railways hover around 1 in 30 to 1 in 40 range. The gradient never looked menacing and we expected the trek of close to 14 km to be difficult but not strenuous.
Five minutes is all it took for us to realize how wrong we were. The gradient was a killer. With a moderately heavy load on backs, oil greased tracks, uneven and slippery track-side access, the gravel ballast and the killer gradient let us know immediately who is in charge there. Any leftover hint of overconfidence and complacency we had was wiped off instantly and the instructions sent out to us resonated with more reason. No perfumes, no bright colored dresses, camouflage dressing if available, no strong soap odor, no unnecessary talking, no sudden movements, no loud noises and the most scary of all, we are all children of mother nature, respect mother nature and you will survive.
The forest was rough and wild. The rain gods decided to take a break and showed up just every now on then to have a check on us. After a 10 minute trek, we could feel our muscles begging and lungs having a workout. Meanwhile we were slowly falling into rhythm and the trek getting steadier by the minute. The gang men had a lot of stories to keep us entertained and informed all the way up. There were continuous updates coming over the BSNL network on the track situation, elephant sightings and other dangers / precautions. We passed through a location where one of the gang men was mauled by a tusker, a memorial stone to refresh the memory and not to let our focus drift. We crossed a couple of tunnels and came face to face with a long curved bridge and a thunderous sound of gushing waters below us.
The bridge came out as open and wild as it could be. No supports / walkways on either side except for longer wooden sleepers. High winds, gushing waters and nothing but openness around us, it was not a time to look down through the wide gaps between the wooden sleepers. With extreme focus and dedication, trying to keep the fear of heights at bay, we crossed the first of the many bridges and viaducts careful not to slip over the oil stained sleepers. As we reached the end of the first long bridge, there were 2 gang men ready to take over the reins from those who accompanied us until then. After a 2.5 km trek which took close to an hour and a half of which 5 minutes were spent on crossing that 100 meter bridge, we bid them goodbye with lots of gratitude and respect. A few monkeys kept wandering around us taking in the mystery of seeing a bunch of amateurs doing an impossible uphill trek in the Nilgiris. We took a 15 minute break right after the bridge, hydrated and re-energized ourselves and started off our next 2.5 km trek to Adderley. The short trek so far had already drained us out and the rest of the journey already seems like an uphill task, no pun intended.
Small talk, more interesting chat with the gang men and their daily routines, focused climb, cool weather, lack of rains, heavy breathing, tunnels, viaducts and bridges, monkeys , cane assisted climbs, an experience of a 2.5km trek behind us and an hour later we found ourselves right under the water filling area of Adderley. Adderley, by no means can be called a station by any stretch of imagination. The station consists of a gang man hut on the left with wide open views of nothingness on the left and thick dense forests on the right. The gang man hut has an inverted U shaped entrance, courtesy of a mad elephant trying to make its way through while the employees took refugee and prayed to almighty. We had a half hour break and some rest at the hut listening to the experiences of the railway men and the difficulties they face in keeping the NMR operation running. The amount of work these hardworking railway men get done in harrowing and difficult weather conditions combined with threat of wild elephants and other animals is no trivial proposition. Add to that the salary and facilities they receive makes it a complete raw deal for them. The chief gang man over there has already spent close to 30 years at Adderley and expects his retirement in the next few years or so. We as passengers enjoy the beauty and charm of our rail networks little sparing a thought for these men. A big salute to their dedication and hard work ensuring the safety of millions of passengers across the country.