A few weeks ago, MH and I headed to Ooty to be away from the noise and pollution of a metro. In case you were under that illusion, let me tell you straight away that Ooty is a popular hill station, an easy weekend getaway from all of the four southern states of India. Like MH’s brother-in-law said, “They should rename Ooty. Call it Dirty.”
So, that’s a heads up. However, what most tourists don’t explore are the pristine hills that lie beyond the congested city, that belonged, still belong, to the tribes of the land. This land is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life. I will come to that in a bit, so let me start at us arriving in Ooty and checking into our B&B.
The decision to go to Ooty itself was a last-minute one, and we were pretty sure we wanted a hotel that’s quiet and quaint and had some character, something with a bit of soul, and that’s how I somehow found Life is Outside, a really user-friendly site that provides information on outdoorsy, rustic accommodation anywhere in India. You get to specify budget, the distance you’re willing to travel, whether it’s an adventure vacation you’re looking for or something for the whole family. So, after checking (and getting confused), we called up the number on the site late afternoon, spoke to a holiday consultant who got back to us with holiday options as quickly as the next morning. So, if you’re someone who likes the wild, like MH and me, if you like trekking, or waking up to the sound of the sea, this is the site for you. Most importantly, if you’re looking for something off the touristy path, these guys sure can come up with the best options. Also, another step we took was to check for reviews of suggested accommodations at TripAdvisor.
And the ‘hotel’ if you want to call it that, is Lymond House. This is mid-September, so that’s an off-peak season for them, which means that we had the entire place to ourselves, sprawling lawns, gazebos and all. So, Lymond House is essentially a Colonial-era cottage and comes with as they put it, ‘creaking floorboards,’ low amber lighting, narrow corridors and Victorian host chairs welcoming us around corners.
Vines, beams and clay roof tiles provide a romantic setting
One of the most relaxing places to be was the dining area, with a grandfather clock and several vintage heirlooms on display, one of my favourites was a shelf of antique kettles and pots.
Love that blue onion butter dish on the top shelf. Also, the beautiful velvet peacock tea kettle
Not too clear, but here’s a closer look at the peacock tea kettle. Isn’t he pretty?
So, MH and I usually have a problem when it comes to taking longer vacations – food. We HATE hotel food. I don’t know why anyone would voluntarily eat at a hotel, when all they do is take stuff out of deep freeze and fry the hell out of it. If you have a sensitive tummy like us, then you’re constantly looking for home-cooked food while on the move. This is what the kitchen of Lymond House offers. The advice on TripAdvisor was to order any meal at least an hour ahead because they chop-it-cook-it just then. And it shows. Every night, all we had was daal (lentil curry) and roti (Indian flat bread), nothing gourmet, and finished it off with a cup of hot chocolate by the fireside, which by the way, had real fire, real wood (pine and coffee) and vintage wrought iron tools including shovel, tongs and even a vintage bellow!
Through most of our stay, what we expected to do was to take it easy, catch up on some sleep, probably take a stroll here and there, we are really lucky that Lymond House recommended a tour by a guide named Thordey Gooden, who belongs to the Toda tribe. Funny, informed and sharp, this guy has an arsenal of stories, a bottomless love for the land he grew up on and a chummy (but not intrusive) nature that anyone would warm up to, in fact, he knows just about everyone up in the hills. We were up for some trekking and got to a pretty touristy spot on the Ooty-Gudalur road by bus. Apparently this is called Shooting Point since many Indian films have been shot here. But we went past the gate, where a Toda girl was standing guard and this was only possible because Thordey knew her and also he can roam freely about the lands because he belongs to the tribe.
A view to remember. This was how it was through the entire four hours we trekked, and we weren’t even tired!
He took us through various terrains, sometimes going slow because I kept stopping to take pictures. He took us through various inclines, and pointed to a hill that looked like it was located close to heaven and said, “That’s where we need to go.”
Eucalyptus trees. So this is where the aromatic oil comes from! That’s Thordey in the corner.
So, every tribe has a livelihood. Besides the Toda, there are other tribes such as the Badaga, Kota, Kurumba and many others. In fact, one of the managers at Lymond House, Samraish, belongs to the Badaga tribe. “We are vegetarians,” Thordey tells us, explaining their livelihood, which is rearing buffaloes, a particular breed with horns like earring hooks (couldn’t think of a better metaphor!). “Without buffaloes, there is no Toda, they mean everything to us, we worship them, we allow them to graze free on these lands, they are not like cows, they cannot be domesticated.”
Mmmyes, can I help you?
After death, the skulls are stacked like this, to pay respects to the creatures who provide the Toda people with their livelihood.
When we did go past these creatures, which were sometimes grazing in a herd of 10, we had to tread as noiselessly as possible, because a stampede is unavoidable. Even if we jumped up that tree? “Buffaloes can jump five feet into the air!” Beat that. Anyway, we kept climbing that hill, while Thordey, who runs cross-country marathons waited for us to catch up, and I have to say we consider our fitness level better than average. When we finally reached the top of the hill, we paused to take in the air, so clean, so unpolluted. We stopped by a house there, and Thordey spoke Toda language, which is unlike anything I have ever heard before. It sounded almost Persian.
A Toda temple, located right next to the house. See the design? It has the horns of the buffalo, signifying their livelihood.
The family that lived in the house were relatives of Thordey. We thought it rude to ask if they could be photographed like some animals in the zoo. However, I really liked a piece of cloth on which one of the ladies seated outside the house was embroidering. So, she got up to show me a shawl she had stitched and I loved it so much that I asked her if I could buy it from her. They were shy and did not understand my gratitude when she said yes. “The word ‘thank you’ does not exist in our language. Toda people do not expect it, and they consider it too formal. Instead, they would like to offer you some tea,” he said.
Tea made with buffalo milk
This, for me, was one of the highlights of the trip. I couldn’t have asked for anything more, experiencing a place for what it is, beyond the bricks and mortar, the way things were way before any of us were around, this was as untouched as it could get, right here in the midst of civilization. Energized by this, we were on our way back, but through a roundabout route. We stopped and drank from a waterfall, city-bred folk like us lapping up water either because it was fresh and clean or because we had only seen films of children raised on land like this. Or both, and Thordey’s intention was to take us to a tea plantation, which Ooty was famous for, so he was watching the clock. On the way though, a few kilometres below, there was a lake with the clearest water I had ever seen in a long time.
We sat here for a long time, abandoning plans to visit a tea plantation.
The presence of the lake was mesmerizing. That combined with the conversation the three of us shared.
We finally got ready to return to the gate, towards Shooting Point. And as we waited for the bus back to town, we watched Thordey as he interacted with the cart owners outside the gate, who were selling roasted corn, boiled peanuts, woolen wear, tea and more. All of the Toda people speak fluent Tamil although it is not their mother tongue. Thordey bought us some tea and when we offered to pay, he said, “No, no, please, she is my aunty. She will not accept money.”
Our jeans and shoes were caked with dry mud, all from walking across the grounds with Thordey. When we returned to the hotel, we were happy-tired, the kind that felt like we had learnt something new, or done something useful. After a long, hot shower and as we sipped on our hot chocolate, we were talking to Samraish, who would occasionally drop in to see if the fire was still burning bright. He suggested we visit Coonoor the next day. There isn’t much to do there, he said, but the botanical garden there was much better than the one in Ooty. Plus, the best way to get there would be to take the toy train, a tourist attraction in itself. Many films have been shot on this train, not to forget this Bollywood classic from the 90s.
So there are the run-of the mill things to do in Ooty. One of them is the Botanical Garden, then another is to go boating. And of course, buying Ooty’s homemade chocolates. We aren’t sure what’s great about these chocolates and if they taste better than Snickers. But the better route to do in a place this commercial and on it’s way to gentrification, maybe it’s just me, is to explore the place for something more, some soul. That guided tour by Thordey Gooden is my suggestion for ‘seeing’ Ooty. Still, some touristy things work out, like the train trip.
The toy train arrives at Ooty station
Before the British came along and called it Ootacamund and finally, Ooty.
Going through a tunnel. Everyone was screaming in excitement! There are no bars on the window here, unlike regular trains.
After getting off, we went to Sim’s Park, the botanical garden of Coonoor. This is definitely a more impressive place, but it’s still a garden. And well, meh. After the trek through the hills the previous day, how can we go ga-ga-goo-goo over artificial landscaping? However, besides the enormous trees here, there were other things to do.
Like feeding the Island Fish who will eat ANYTHING. Well, you can’t throw gum because that would be plain mean. But, cookies and chips? They love it!
After that we headed to 180º McIver for lunch. This place is owned by the Lymond House people as well, and was recommended to us by the staff at the latter. They HAVE to, I suppose. We thought it would have the same standards in terms of food and hospitality.The food was terrible and overpriced! I would say it doesn’t match up at all, except for the, the name says it, the view. We didn’t even bother to check out the rooms.
So, the next highlight of the trip is something I kept my stomach empty for. We love experimenting with cuisines. And again, I believe it is home-cooked food of the region that will truly be the best experience for a tourist. For example, to this date, I have not tasted Gongura (a kind of spinach) pickle that is better than what a friend’s aunt packed for me. It was so different from what we buy at the store! And that is a local delicacy you eat with boiled white rice and some podi, which is a kind of chilli powder. That’s it, that’s all you need.
Anyhow, my point is, we decided to go for the menu’s highlight at Lymond House, and that is a typical Badaga lunch, which had quite a lot of meat in the non-veg option, and a spicy vegetable side dish in the vegetarian one. All in all, a great sumptuous meal. Although, I would advise eating something lighter before that downward meandering route out of Ooty!
Indian bread, some salad, rice, black-eye beans curry were on the Badaga lunch menu. Also yummy was the batter-fried dessert, which is lightly coated in sugar syrup.
I have to say, one of the things I now feel I NEED to do whenever we take a vacation is that I need to see something real. And this trip stamped out a definition of ‘real’ for me, for us.