Like many of India's railways, the line up into the blue Nilgiri hills is a wonder of engineering.
When it comes to taking the slow train, nobody can hold a candle to the Indians. While the vast railway network that criss-crosses the country transports millions to and from all points daily, it doesn’t do so in a hurry.
But this, for me, is one of the real joys of Indian rail travel. Time is largely irrelevant. And the epitome of this must surely be India’s three wonderful narrow-gauge hill railways.
It has taken me more than 30 years to finally bag my “hat-trick”. Having travelled on the Kalka to Simla line and the even more famous Darjeeling “toy train” a number of times, the southern-most member of the triumvirate, the Nilgiri hill railway, has somehow eluded me. Until now.
And with a big toothless grin, the ticket clerk at Mettupalayam station has just delivered news that is music to my ears. My wife and I have snagged the last two first-class seats on the day’s only departure up to the former British hill station, Udhagamandalam, more popularly known as Ooty.
The 46-km line up into the blue Nilgiri hills is quite simply a wonder of engineering. Completed in 1908, it took 17 years to construct and is still the steepest railway in Asia.
Not only that, it is also the only rack-and-pinion railway. Pinion wheels under the locomotive and carriages bite into a notched third rack rail, which stops the train from slipping backwards.
But it gets even better. The line is so steep that for the initial 28km ancient steam locos have to be used to shunt the carriages uphill — more modern, and far cheaper, diesel engines not being powerful enough.
So on a cool, overcast morning in January, we take our seats, as behind us a team of drivers, engineers and firemen fuss over the majestic Swiss-built beauty which, we are told, is “as old as the line itself”.
Then with a deafening blast on the whistle, which would have woken anyone sleeping within a 10-km radius, we edge slowly forward and begin our climb up into the clouds.
Our first-class carriage is identical to second class but our $9 outlay means we get to share with only six fellow passengers, as compared with the 12-berth second and “cram-as-many-as-you-can-in” third class.
There are only a handful of fellow Westerners on the train. The rest are mostly Indian holidaymakers, snapping their cameras at this, that, anything. Leaning out of our compartment I look back into a forest of selfie sticks poking out of the windows. India has clearly embraced the age of the smartphone with a fervour.
As we head into the hills the occupants of the following carriage burst into song and keep it up for virtually the entire journey, providing a delightful soundtrack of Indian folk songs.
When we enter any of the 16 tunnels along the route the children all whistle or howl like werewolves, the noise echoing off the rough-hewn walls, creating a remarkable and hilarious din.
Alongside the track marigolds and rhododendrons are in bloom, with red flame trees and giant ferns adding to a gorgeous vista.
We chug along through a jungle of slender palms, which in turn gives way to plantations of eucalypts. Then we are in the hills where impossibly green tea bushes cover the slopes, the sari-clad pickers dotting the landscape like brilliantly coloured buds.
We stop at every station, not for passengers, but for our trusty old loco to be “fed and watered”. She’s an insatiable old girl too, requiring 5000 gallons of water and five tonnes of coal for each journey. As the water gushes into her, crewmen saturate each moving part with oil until the wheels and pistons are positively glistening.
The stations have delightfully English names. There’s Wellington, Lovedale, Fernhill and, my favourite...Runnymede.
“Chai, chai” comes the cry at each stop and we pay seven rupees (15 cents) for a small cup of sickly sweet milky tea. Other vendors carry huge bundles of fairy floss, which the children quickly devour.
Having sadly exchanged our magnificent steam giant for a dull diesel affair at Coonoor, we continue on and up through numerous narrow cuttings and across rickety bridges, suspended hundreds of feet above sheer chasms. On the opposite hillsides, small settlements seem to cling precariously to the slopes.
Despite the slowness of the journey, the five hours fly by and before we know it we are pulling into Ooty, with its porters and taxi and tuk tuk drivers jostling for business.
At an average speed of than 10km/h the Nilgiri has successfully completed its umpteenth journey, disgorging another trainload of happy train lovers. In this age of high-speed rail, it’s a wonder that the Nilgiri and her older sisters in the north are still operating. All are now World Heritage-listed but, with each reportedly losing up to $2 million a year, and with coal shortages and constant landslides to contend with, one wonders how much longer they can continue.
For now though they are a testament to the great engineers and labourers of more than a century ago and for me, among the world’s most sublime travel experiences.
Top picture: Crossing a viaduct in the scenic high country. Picture: Jim Gill
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