Ooty and Surroundings

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An Indian elephant

Ooty is a good place for sleeping. During daytime the temperature, now that it's October, stays at 17°C - and I can sleep really well after eating at one of the many restaurants around this place. The three days I have been here I slept most well.

The night I left - I had started at 4am - I had a stupid dream. The aunt who had brought me up (she passed away in 2004), but I had a half asleep, half awake sort of dream where she was walking around my room and talking about this and that, including how she had not seen me for a long time. And in the dream I knew this was not supposed to be taking place, that she was long dead. Finally I woke up with a start. Glad to say no such dreams troubled me in Ooty - it's that ripping good a place to sleep in.

The road was tedious. From Bangalore to Madumalai I made in 4 hours 15 minutes, but after that things really got slow. Because of Gandhi's birthday there were people everywhere, and the tour operators had brought all their buses out.I had taken the longer route because I had heard it's more densely forested than the other, shorter route - and that's got 37 hairpin bends, most irritating. That is so, but wherever there was a tourist spot there was a complete road block.

Actually after Bandipur, till a point where there are two different roads to Ooty bifurcating, Madumalai is a bit sparse and has numerous teak trees planted in rows, obviously by the forest department. Trees don't grow in such ordered rows in the jungle; beyond that point the jungle sort of closed in on all sides of the road and grew much thicker.

Seems there are more elephants around this time than usual. Inside Madumalai I got held up by elephants for 20 minutes or so - I took a blind turn and about 10 feet from me were five adult female elephants and a baby slowly crossing the road. I did not have the option of backing up to put a better distance between their group and myself either, my car would have gone into a ditch. So I just stayed inside; being so close getting out to take photos would have been risky. They looked at me several times, grazed, loitered, then slowly made off. I( was lucky in a way - before I had come they had chased a group of motor cyclists away.

Seeing the elephants gave me a weird idea. Suppose there was someone who has never seen an elephant in real or in picture, is it possible for him to think of an elephant as an ant - you know, red ant, black ant, white ant, eleph-ant? How rude a shock such a person would get if he saw an elephant for the first time.Has such a thing ever happened?

Beyond that point a cat crossed my road, and though I am not superstitious (I suppose this kind of things happen to people who are not superstitious) then a truck was backing up so I braked, and some idiot in a motorcycle could not stop in time and hit my tail light and broke it. I let it pass, but after a while the motorcyclist had the audacity to come up and tell me that I should not have braked like that etc etc, he's hurt. I felt like giving him a hiding - but anyway I settled with more or less forcibly taking 500 Rupees from him for damages. Actually the sum was Rs 552.

The toy train in Ooty that travels up to Mettupalyam gets held up by elephants regularly. Apparently the day before I came, the train had also been held up by a tusker ambling along the tracks. By the way, can ants hold up a train?

This has been a unique trip in a way - I forgot to bring any trousers along. I went around in shorts - did not want to go to the ridiculous extreme of buying a pair of trousers in Ooty. Not that I haven't bought trousers in weird places: once in a pathetic little Gujrati town, Dahej, I had a similar emergency and had to buy what was on offer. The only pair of jeans in the only shop selling stuff that I could slip into was of a strange yellow-pink colour,and I had to buy and wear it to my consternation and to the derision of my colleagues. I decided this time that it would be better to go around in shorts than buy something grotesque again. Getting into restaurants I have been given the occasional weird look, but after being in Australia, where they have this immensely cool attitude about wearing shorts to all possible places, I have become ultra-cool about shorts myself. Travelling has broadened my mind.

Yesterday I drove to a place called Avalanche here - it's a reserve forest and has a glorious dam. I actually wanted to go to this place called Upper Bhawani, apparently it's teeming with wildlife, but the forest department here did not issue a permission, because it IS teeming with wildlife - citing elephant trouble. So I went to Avalanche; the problem of travelling in rural and wild India is that there are hardly any sign posts, and in Tamil Nadu especially, they, if present, would be in Tamil. So I got lost quite a few times before reaching the place. The main forest is still off limits - the guard said in Tamil that Ministers, IFS officers alone can come, else I would need a permission again. I hate this Minister fixation this country has. I visited the dam, but there was some Tamil film being shot, the place was teeming with people so I did not stay for long. It was beautiful though.

And on the way back I got chased by a bull elephant; luckily I had seen its shoulder when crossing where it stood; after I went on for another 20 metres or so it broke through the shrubs and came on to the road and charged me, with its trunk tucked up and calling its shrill trumpet call.The road at that point was passable so I could rev up and run; after a while it stopped giving chase and crashed into the jungle. Must have been furious at the film shooting. I don't know how those people get permissions for everything -should never be allowed.

Asking directions in Ooty, for such a small town, is a dicey proposition. I got the feeling today that maybe residents of Ooty have very recently read about the Earth being round, and they are still sceptical about the idea and want to test whether circumnavigation works, but at the cost of unsuspecting tourists. Ask for directions and you are sure to be sent in a diametrically opposite direction, then, when you get suspicious and ask for fresh directions, they make you turn on your heels and head back the way you came - and that usually happens once you are outside Ooty city limits.

And, frankly, that daytime temperature of 17°C is not cold - it is comfortable. I was scandalised to see people wearing pullovers, jackets, shawls and even brilliant green and shocking orange nylon caps and even ear muffs in this weather. Especially the caps and the ear-muffs make the people look so dorky, it's amazing they don't see it themselves.

The next day I had planned to visit another place called Porthimund. Yesterday at the forest department they had told me Porthimund does not need a permit, so I set off, and after being mislead more than once got on the correct path.

Once the road gets beyond Ooty the fun starts. There is no road in fact - at places it makes you think you are driving through a dried-up river bed with big boulders strewn about; at other places there is deep slush with sharp rocks hidden below the slush, and gaping potholes. Also, interestingly, the road passes through a massive garbage dump, with literal hillocks of filth rising into the sky, and the place stinks royally - filth and animal carcasses , and so many carrion picking birds flying about. There's this similar place called Dhapa, near Calcutta, where enterprising farmers "steal" the garbage and use it as manure to grow really delicious, massive cabbages and cauliflowers - I didn't see such enterprise here, though.

And the road kept on winding viciously. I suddenly was reminded of the stripping of Draupadi by the Kauravas, looking at the state of the road. The way the road spun around and around - and the denuded condition of the road. If along with the cloth a layer of skin also had been flayed off and the hapless woman left spinning, that's how the road was. Surprisingly, there is a bus service running along that road, but apart from one bus I didn't see a single other vehicle.

At one point I picked up a forest guard of the Toda tribe, and he picked up another forest guard. Both of them carried an umbrella apiece, and a sharp weapon. Then they reached the forest office.There the forest ranger told me that it requires a permission from the South Ooty division of forest to go to Porthimund, and berated the two guards for having used my vehicle to take a ride knowing all the while that I needed a permission anyway - they should have turned me back from where I met the first one of them. However, later he relented and told me since I had come all the way, I may visit the place.

Of course, there are two other things. When someone in such a place tells you that it is a straight road to such and such - you know it is anything but straight. I am not complaining about a winding straight road - that's inevitable - but as soon as they say it's straight, you arrive at a junction of at least two roads and don't know which way to turn. As for the sense of distances, that's supposedly a universal phenomenon - they would always say 'It's not much farther on', yet you would be perambulating / driving for hours.

The destination was fabulous. There are two dams there - Porthimund dam and Parson's Valley dam, with massive catchment lakes, and green Nilgiri peaks rising on all sides, and in one a minor peak rising out of the water, like an island. The water is clear, sparkling and so many wild trees bearing flowers grow near the water. The distant hills across the lakes with a head of clouds above them, aquatic birds frolicking on the water, all in all the places were gorgeous - Porthimund more so than the other dam.

Rarely in India you manage to have such a vast area all to yourself - I had dropped the guides at the forest office though they were keen to come with me, so at Porthimund I had blessed silence. I stopped the car in the shade of a massive tree and walked around the high bank of the lake - there's a winding path, and then sat down at a place for an hour or so.It was just awesome, the place.

On the way back I caught a sight of what I think is the Kamraj Sagar dam from a hilltop, that was another great view - there were no cars likely to come so I could stop the vehicle in the middle of the road and sit there for some time.

However, all in all it's perhaps not advisable to go there without a sturdier car and preferably one with a 4WD - if now the roads were in such a condition, what would they be like in the rains? Getting a flat tyre is also a possibility. There are treks possible but they need a lot of attendance to details and getting a number of abstruse permissions as well.

Coming back took less apparent time, as usual - on the way there I had had to stop at numerous places to ask directions. The Mukurthi Reserve Forest falls in the way, but entry into that had been blocked.It has got some great views and another lake, I would have gone in if they had allowed it.

I did not see much of any animals - except a single spotted deer stag for a while and a solitary massive male Gaur in the distance. However there are gaur herds, sambhars, leopards and occasional tigers that have been spotted here, and recently a herd of elephants have come into the area - I saw their fresh dung in several spots. Among birds I saw a few jungle fowls, and one brilliant yellow little bird that was too restless to be captured on film. The famous Nilgiri langur abounds.

That reminds me - sure, there are many leopards who lose their lives each year to snares and poison traps set by villagers, and shot or killed otherwise - they are not exactly docile animals, and it is often difficult to take a position where fierce wild animals and villagers who are often harassed by them are concerned. But nevertheless, having two stuffed leopards on display in the Forest and Wildlife department building in Ooty sort of gave me the creeps. It was nobody's business, having those on display.

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Atrijit Dasgupta

23.10.08 Front Page

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