Chances are, Ooty isn't the first place that'll pop into your head when you think of places to backpack around India. The desert havens of Rajasthan and the beaches of Goa or Gokarna might come to mind first. If you want the hills, chances are you're thinking of Himachal or Uttarakhand; the northeast, maybe, if you prefer going off the beaten track.
Ooty is popular in a different way, having become the place that many families from Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu make their way to when in search for a hill station. Recently though, a Zostel has found its way there, and slowly but surely the backpacking masses have begun trickling in.
I found myself there in July, trying to escape summer heat and in search of greener pastures (literally) having tired of the urban concrete jungle around me. Ooty had clean air, wide and winding roads to walk along, tea gardens as far as the eye could see, and a pleasant chill in the air that never got overbearing.
The town itself seemed confused. The roads were cramped, though the site of hills around gave it a sense of expanse that was liberating. Though the drivers of cars, buses and autos that roamed the city roads were ruthless, the helpful annas and akkas that ran the seemingly endless chocolate and eucalyptus oil shops put me to ease while I browsed through their offerings, even though I didn't speak a word of Tamil. The small hill-station town seemed to enjoy embodying these few contradictions, though in all honesty the town itself isn't why I would go there again.
What will draw me back to Ooty are the well laid roads in the hillside that snake through forests to emerge into expanse of tea estates, where stunning vistas of endless green are around every corner. Where the air is pure and the daily evening drizzle creates an atmosphere that feels clean, which isn't something you take lightly if what you experience daily is the gas chamber that is Delhi. You can walk and walk and walk some more; if you've got the time walk along the railroad that runs between Ooty and Coonoor, I guarantee it's an experience you'll cherish. I had the fortune of doing so with good company - a fellow traveller from the Zostel I was staying at had the idea of walking the railroad, and on the journey we talked about everything we could think of under the sun, from books and cinema to marathon running and meditation.
One of the singular best things about travelling here was that you were never counting pennies, which makes it ideal for the young backpacker. A meal consisting of a plate of vada-sambhar or dosa sambhar along with the sweet and refreshing filter coffee the region is famous for will set you back between fifty to seventy rupees at most. Tamil Nadu has also set up what I was told is the closest to a truly socialist bus transport system, with the average ticket costing about 1 rupee per kilometer (the four hour bus ride from Coimbatore cost me just 50 rupees). It's not fancy, but it's functional, and for me added that element of romanticism to travelling on the cheap.
Especially if you live down south, and even if you don't, find your way to Ooty soon. Spend some time discovering the town (if you're a book lover like me you can convince the kindly ladies who run the Nilgiri Library to let you wander round for a bit) and get lost walking through the tea estates. You won't regret it.