Day 10 - 14: Heart of the Nilgiris
We were still buzzing the next morning with the excitement of the having seen the elephants and tiger the previous evening. After a quick breakfast and goodbyes to the Jungle hut staff, we all loaded up in the Pajero and headed on towards Ooty. With us now being 5 adults and 3 children between 6 to 8 years, it was a tight fit but manageable. The heavy bags all got loaded on the carrier, and using one of the jump seats it was a cozy, albeit comfortable fit.
Continuing on the Mysore - Ooty road, in a couple of kilometres we started climbing up the Nilgiris. Unlike the last time we'd done this route in the Skoda Yeti, this time around the weather was crystal clear, cold, but clear, and it was easy going. With it's powerful 2.5 liter mill the Pajero Sport chewed up the miles comfortably. The only downside was what with the load and steep climbs, we were averaging about 5Kms to the litre - a nearly 50% fall from the average the car had otherwise given so far! The Pajero isn't as refined as the Yeti, but for it's sheer bulk she handles quite well, and once you get over the Indian hangup of low mileage (which I still haven't quite managed to do!), it is quite an enjoyable drive.
Having left at around 1100Hrs, we reached our destination, the Kings Cliff, Ooty by 1230Hrs or so. The Kings Cliff was as beautiful as we remember it being. We quickly off - loaded our stuff and sprawled next to a little cabin serving coffees and shakes on the lawn.
After lazing for an hour or so we headed back to Annapurna restaurant in Ooty town for lunch. The place wasn't half as good as it was the last time we were here (in 2012). It sometimes happens that your memories of a place are embellished in your own mind, and reality is far away from it. However, in this case I'm pretty sure that wasn't the case. Ritika too was disappointed with the overall experience. The food wasn't all that great. Service was sub - par and the restaurant in particular + Ooty in general was way too crowded. I guess the last point is a reflection of the growing population and their aspirations to travel. That is a great sign, and the crowds notwithstanding, I wish more of us venture out to explore, discover and reconnect with the spell - binding country that we're blessed to have been born in! (You can check out my blog on our last trip to Ooty at https://www.roadtripperabhishek.com/grt-i-day-7-to-10-jan-2-to-5-2012-ooty-lake-botanical-gardens/ )
The afternoon was spent exploring the Botanical gardens, before we headed back to the Kings Cliff for a gourmet meal. Beef was of course off the menu (tragic) or it was unavailable that evening, and we made do with lamb. The Earls Secret and her chef had thankfully not lost their edge, and if anything, the food tasted way better than our memories of the last meal here nearly 5 years back. We had the Earls Roast Lamb and the Chicken Fillet Supreme, preceded by a Double Decker mushroom and finished with the Lasagna Al Furno. Without exception, the food was outstanding. The lamb was marginally underdone for Indian palates, which was just perfect, with a brown glazed roast gravy having hints of the stock and a slightly burnt, though very pleasant, undertones to it. The chicken comes with a roast garlic sauce, which in itself is a very interesting preparation. Of course, you get the 'biting' garlic flavour, but it gets tempered with the 'burnt' treatment, leaving a pleasant aftertaste, not unlike the butter garlic sauce that Malvani and Konkani restaurants are famous for serving in Mumbai (Bharat, Mahesh Lunch Home, Gajalee et al). We topped it all off with the caramel custard and creme brûlée. I find the brûlée generally too creamy for my liking and gave it a pass not wanting to upset the quiet satisfaction that my system was revelling under after the great main course, although the rest were raving about it. The humble caramel custard is something that takes a fair bit of skill and steady hand to get right. It is one of those dishes (like say a Fried egg, either easy over or sunny side up) that can be had even if not done to perfection, but when you get it absolutely right, it is simply heavenly - and the Earls Secret managed to get it JUST right that night! The sugar was caramelised to a perfect translucent brown and the custard was firm, as 'custardy' as it gets! Each bite of the custard transported one to heavenly bliss, and was a perfect end to the meal.
It was freezing cold, and the staff had kindly lit cheery fires in our rooms. After breakfast the next morning we reloaded self and luggage into & onto the Pajero and drove on towards Coonoor.
Our next stop was the Oland Tea Plantation, about 20 clicks beyond Coonoor town. The drive through the Nilgiris was one of the best we've undertaken. Though cold, certainly colder than the last time we were here, the skies were a clear blue, enhancing the breath - taking greenery of the tea plantations that abound here. The roads gently twisted and wound around the mountains, ascending and descending as the terrain changed. This 2 hour drive alone made the entire trek from Mumbai worth the effort! Now the Oland plantation is around 30 minutes from Coonoor as per Google maps, but the ground reality is far from that. A few kms outside Coonoor, the terrain suddenly gets more rugged, the roads virtually non - existent and you literally are driving through the wilderness peppered with scant tea plantations. After 18 Kms or so we can across a desolate police checkpost, where the cops actually stopped us and checked our papers, enquired where and why we were heading, before letting us go. I did try to ask them the reason for the third degree, but in part due to the language barrier and partly due to their unwillingness to explain, we got no answer. From hereon the plantation bunglow is about 3 - 4 Kms, but whatever semblance of road there was, disappeared too.
We gamely drove on what was now a rutted track, with declines of 30 to40 degrees, till we got to the Oland Plantation. As I killed the engine, the first thing we heard was the sound of a waterfall. The plantation consists of a main bungalow that houses the restaurant and kitchen, and 3 - 4 smaller cottages dotting the sides of the mountain. One of these was adjacent to a waterfall that gushed down the mountain - a rivulet actually, that fell off the side of a cliff on her way down to the plains. The property though very basic, was totally cut off from civilisation and was nestled in a beautiful valley. Our cottage was a 2 storied affair on the lower part of the property. As mentioned, the rooms here are pretty basic and the place is run like a rudimentary homestay more than anything else. While the advertised ' price inclusive of all buffet meals', what they meant was that someone would cook what you wanted and serve it. Which was fine, except 'someone' was at best a camp cook, so chicken meant one preparation and he had only toor dal in the stores. Thankfully there were eggs aplenty. After a meal of chicken and rice, which wasn't as bad as I'm making it out to be, we set out to explore the valley.
We took a path adjacent to our cottage leading to the waterfall. There was another cottage (of the same resort) adjacent to the waterfall, which looked very pretty, however, given it's proximity to the falling water I guess it'd be fairly noisy at night. We decided to take a circuitous path to get back to the property, which turned out to be a not so bright decision. We'd headed out westwards towards the waterfall, and then continued on the same path as it curved up and northwards for a couple of kilometres. At this point it turned on itself and continued upwards in an easterly direction, which logically meant if we followed the path we would end up somewhere exactly above the resort. In theory it sounded right, and practically too it made sense. Except that it got dark and we were lost in the middle of nowhere with 3 kids! We continued on gamely, making it an adventurous game for the children. Being heavily wooded and with the overhang of the mountain, we couldn't make out the lights of the resort either. By now we'd been walking for nearly 90 minutes, and with the day - long drive the children too were a little tired, and I suspect scared. Thankfully, at this point we could make out a few lights about 100 meters below us. Rather than continuing along the road and hoping to get a turnoff, I decided we'd cut across the tea plantation and head straight for the lights. Once we got in, we realised that the bushes were actually packed quite closely together. Using the phone flashlights, we managed to continue down the plantation in single file. Suddenly I saw a dark shape looming in front of me. A closer look revealed there was a whole herd of bison in the midst of the plantation! They just stood stock-still as we passed by them, with the nearest barely a meter away from us. Up this close I realised that the animals are HUGE, with their shoulders easily coming to my head - and I am a decent 5′.10″. Nevertheless, we reached the end of the side of that mountain, which abruptly ended with a sheer fall of around 12′ into the resort lawn - I quickly slithered down, finding a lesser height of around 4 feet further ahead, from where everyone managed to jump down. In hindsight we were lucky to have gotten away without anyone coming to harm. Stupid thing to have done.
Intrepid travellers cheerily trekking through the plantation, clueless of what's to come
Debarjyo and Pooja left for Nagarhole the next morning, and we explored the valley further. Being the daytime, the jungle was transformed into a beautiful cocoon of serenity. A 3 km trek from our cottage took us to a small pond, which was also a watering hole I suppose, where we spent blissful 45 minutes doing nothing.
We spent the next 2 days trekking around the surrounding forests (all during daytime though!), covering over 12Kms a day, eating and sleeping. The place is at an outstanding location, and if the owners invested a little time and effort in upgrading the infrastructure and services, this is actually an amazing spot to be holidaying in, especially if you love the forests & mountains, but like to come home to some creature comforts every evening!
Finally, our trip had come to an end and on the 4th day we headed back towards Mysore. Retracing our tracks, we headed to Ooty via Coonoor and from there took the Ooty - Mysore road, which brought us to Mysore in about 7 hours. Froth thereon it was simple enough route via Belgaum, Kolhapur and Pune to head to Mumbai. 12 days well spent in the lap of nature, rejuvenated to face whatever life had to throw until the next time!