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.