Ooty is the “Queen of the hill stations” and the best way to reach her is on the quaint toy steam train that puffs its way up the mountain every day.
A sweaty start
We arrive at Mettupalayam station in the late afternoon, sweaty and slightly disheveled after three separate bus journeys to get here from the tea carpeted hills of Munnar in Kerala. We’re about to embark on one of the most touristy experiences of our whole India journey: riding the toy steam train up to Ooty.
Naturally we haven’t planned for this trip and so we’re told that all the advance train tickets were sold out long ago. Fortunately there are always 20 or so general class unreserved seats available on the day, it just means turning up early in the morning and queuing on the platform for them. Which is what we’d do.
As we leave the station ticket office we’re accosted by a tout who’s been hovering outside the doorway, waiting for us. He pesters us to come to his hotel, and is so annoyingly persistent that we agree. The hotel is rubbish (of course) and the price too high, because his commission will get rolled into our room rate. Sometimes when we’re tired we get sucked in by a tout and forget our own rule: avoid them at all cost. I remember seeing a sign at the train station about “retiring rooms”, before we got ambushed, so we head back to check it out. By this point the limping tout has finally given up on us.
The station master is a strict looking man who peers through his glasses at us with a puzzled look. “Can we see the room to check that it’s ok?”, we ask, “believe me, this room for 350 rupees you’ll be very happy with. No need to see it first.”, he snaps. We don’t dare question him further and he is of course right, for $5 we’re the happy occupants of a clean and spacious room for the night. And the best part; we won’t have to shlep from some other part of town to queue in the morning.
An early start
Early (like 4:15am early) the next morning we head downstairs to take our spot in the queue for tickets next to the dinky blue, antique train, which is already waiting on the platform. By about 4:30am the queue is really filling up and anyone arriving after 5am has no chance of a ticket.
The ticketing system is a little quirky; once the staff arrives at about 5:30am they take one person from each party to the ticket office (back on the other side of the tracks) to buy the tickets for their group, in the order that they stand in the queue, then they come back and we wait again for the train doors to open. The price for each ticket is a ridiculously low 15 Rs (25 cents!).
Seats in the unreserved cars are unallocated and the best views are from the seats by the window on the left-hand side as you enter. Generally whoever’s at the front of the queue gets the best seats. Until departure most passengers take the opportunity to pose for selfies in front of the train from every imaginable angle, we instead take turns to go and eat breakfast. Idlis, of course.
The train journey of only 46 kilometers is set to take just under 5 hours, which is ridiculous even by Indian standards. The reason for such slow progress lies in the fact that we’ll be riding on one of the steepest rail lines in Asia, powered by steam alone. This is the ultimate in slow travel. The Nigiri Mountain Railway, was constructed at the turn of the 20th century, and prior to being built Ooty could only be reached via a forest pathway. The town was a popular summer retreat for the British during the colonial period.
We’re all snuggly wedged in on the padded benches of our petite cabin as the train puffs its way up the steep hills, it stops every few kilometres for the train operators to clamber up a ladder and attach the pipe to rehydrate the locomotive. At the same time, we train passengers are also refuelled; local vendors wait at the deserted stations to sell their snacks of mixed corn and chickpeas, chai and biscuits.
The train continues upwards, taking us into dark tunnels cut through vast mountain rocks, past waterfalls and alongside forested slopes, all the while accompanied by the sounds of steam puffing and the old fashioned train whistle.
A rainy start
We finally arrive in Ooty five hours later and the weather is miserable. The famed Nilgiri Blue Mountains are nowhere in sight, in fact it’s so damp and grey that I feel just like I’m back in London and to top it off we’re both getting sick.
There’s nothing for it, rather than heading up to the hills as planned we hibernate inside with cups of sweet chai and a bag of varkies, the buttery, flaky local biscuit of choice.
Who needs views anyway, when you’ve a bag of biscuits in your lap and a cup of tea in your hand.
Things to know for getting a last minute ticket on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway toy train to Ooty:
Train departs from Mettupalayam Station at 7:10am every morning.
To buy tickets on the day arrive between 4 – 5am and queue up in the designated area on the platform, NOT outside the ticket office.
To get a room at the station, head to the Station Master’s office to see if available, ours was by no means luxurious but cheap, clean and the novelty of staying in a station is quite fun.
When you get to Ooty, buy a bag of varkies, otherwise the experience will be less enjoyable. This is a verified fact.
*If you plan more than us (not hard) you can try and buy advance tickets here.