Set within the blue hills of Nilgiris, Ootacamund, also known as the ‘Switzerland of India’ and the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’, holds a vast variety of flora, fauna and attractions
Ootacamund has undergone as many names as developmental phases. Inhabited by the Toda tribe since centuries, the gorgeous hill station was known as Oththai-Kal Mandu before the Britishers discovered it and pegged it as their summer retreat for the Madras Residency. Udhagamandalam then, Ootacamund now, the popular hill station with its all-year-round pleasant weather and even more pleasant and friendly locals, is a must on every traveller’s bucket. At an altitude of 2,240 metres, once here, no traveller can resist getting mesmerised by its beauty.
With coffee and tea plantations, trees of eucalyptus, conifers and pines and a thick forestation of sholas, I was sure Ootacamund would be the perfect getaway for me to relax and let the stress melt away. A modern hill town, built in traditional, colonial style, it was a perfect fusion of the new and old and there was plenty to see and do without things getting taxing. Radiant blue skies, lush green hills, deep valleys and a pleasant weather all rolled together, the highest mountain peak in the South Indian region left me with memories I will treasure forever.
Time in the Wild
Start your day with a visit to Kalahatti village just 13 km away from Ootacamund. Once there, indulge in a two-mile trek for some refreshing air and morning exercise. I walked through dense foliages and serene paths, to end up gawking at the gorgeous, 40-feet high Kalahatti Falls. You also get to cross a stone bridge on your way there that was built during the colonial era! The stunning view of the waterfall was complimented by the rare spotting of a herd of wild buffaloes in the nearby forest. If you’re lucky you can also spot bisons, spotted deer and the extremely rare black panther here. I would recommend carrying warm clothes to this dense site of flora and fauna, it can get pretty chilly.
Next on my list was the very-famous lake named after the city. Artificially constructed in 1824 and spread across 65 acres, it is the centre of attraction in the hill station. It was pretty crowded but I managed to find a quiet spot for myself to enjoy the view before I indulged in a round of solo-boating. If constant interaction with nature is your thing then a visit to the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary is an absolute must as well.
The first one to be set up in South India, the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary is right at a crossover between the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. It makes for a pretty fascinating visit. From tropical evergreens to a swamp to a moist teak forest, this sanctuary is a habitat for all kinds of beings. It is the perfect place for you to spot a variety of animal species and indulge in some bird watching too. Come across populations of hornbills, minivets, fairy blue birds, panthers, elephants, Gaur, sloth bears, Sambar and spotted deer, four-horned antelopes (Chowsingha) and so much more. You can also take elephant rides within the park, they have to be booked in advance back in Ootacamund. The Theppakadu Elephant Camp here is a major attraction.
Soak in the Culture
To understand the local life, it’s always a good idea to go shopping for handicrafts and souvenirs to take home. My first stop for this was Poompuhar. Set up by the Tamil Nadu Government all over the state, the franchise sells locally-produced handicrafts and promotes the state’s arts and culture. Ootacamund is famous for wooden products, the Toda embroidery products and Kota stone pottery.
The Kota tribe has inhabited the Nilgiris since time immemorial. This tribe is extremely famous for their art of pottery. The fascinating bit about their handicraft is that it uses black stone and not clay. Another fun fact- only the women of the tribe are allowed to practice this art. I had the opportunity to visit one of their villages on the periphery of Ootacamund and watch the women at work! I talked to them about their practices and you can too, they are a very friendly bunch. Their unglazed and intricately carved products will make for a beautiful addition to your home.
I also added extra weight to my luggage with the wooden handicrafts sold commonly in the markets. Aesthetically appealing and symbolic of the rituals and traditions, Tamil Nadu is renown for producing wooden articles for daily household use, home decor, traditional panels in various sizes, finely carved small shrines, wall decorations and figurines. The wood carvers here also make baskets, ropes and mats with bamboo shoots, cane, reeds and palm tree parts.
I personally recommend buying Toda products for their distinctive form of embroidery. The patterns on their shawls (poothkuli) and mats and bags are stunning. Made with red and black threads weaved together on a white cotton cloth, Toda Embroidery has been declared a geographically tagged product by the Indian government. Ootacamund holds immense creative treasures for you to explore!
When strolling along the commercial market, the main street or the Charring Cross, you can also shop for woollen clothes, handmade bead jewellery, a plethora of horticultural products, leather products, eucalyptus oil and aromatic products derived from it like incense sticks and candles and definitely the white, caramel and dark chocolates that are locally-produced. And if all this doesn’t satisfy you, there’s also Cinchona products, Nilgiri tea, varieties of coffee and Nilgiri honey!
A Tourist Here, a Tourist There
For those who like to stick around the civilisation instead of the wild and want to go for the more traditional sights in Ootacamund, I recommend the Government Botanical Garden, the Tribal Museum, and a ride on the Nilgiri Toy Train is a must.
First established in 1848 by William Graham McIvor, the vast, green landscape along the Dodabetta mountain slope is thronged by tourists all-year-round. The Botanical Garden is very well-maintained by the state’s Horticulture Department and even though I am not the kind of traveller who likes strolling in parks, this garden was a surprisingly pleasant experience. The Botanical Garden is divided into six different sections: Lower Garden, Italian Garden, New Garden, Conservatory, Fountain Terrace and Nurseries and houses lush, manicured lawns, exotic and rare species of flora and a vast variety of flowering bushes and plants in a myriad of hues. Keep an eye out for the garden’s special features like the Cork Tree (one-of-its-kind in India), a Monkey Puzzle Tree, a 20 million years old fossilised tree and much more!
For your dose of history, head to the Government Tribal Museum, first constructed in 1989. Located on the Ooty-Mysore road, the museum exhibits the rich culture and heritage of 18 tribes that inhabit Nilgiris and Ootacamund’s landscape specifically. The museum houses displays of daily life tribal objects, ecological details of the district and miscellaneous sculptural works and arts and crafts of Tamil Nadu. Artefacts such as skulls of buffaloes sacrificed during Toda tribal funerals and model tribal huts have been set up here as well.
When your holiday is about to wrap up and you’re in a bit of a slump about going back, cheer yourself up with a ride on the Nilgiri Toy Train like I did. It was first started in 1899 from Mettupalayam to Coonoor and eventually expanded to Udhagamandalam (old name of Ootacamund) in 1908. This rail network is one of the steepest in Asia and the entire journey takes just five hours from Mettupalayam to Ootacamund. The route was extremely scenic and breathtaking and is definitely a recommended space for spending some time in quiet with your thoughts. The train passes through plains, tunnels, ravines, bridges and by a lot of tea estates too.