Located in southern India, south west of Bangalore, Ooty’s calling card is its range of hiking routes through tea plantations and hillside villages. While my girlfriend Sarah and I had predicted the imminent commencement of Diwali might limit our options, it still seemed incredibly difficult to find information about where to walk. It was frustrating as we could see the beautiful mountains around us, yet without a map or a guide, we knew it would be difficult to navigate. It was like arriving at Disneyland, but failing to find anyone who could tell you how to get on the rides.
We were encouraged to walk up to Doddabetta Mountain, the highest peak in the Nilgiri Hills. This sounded ideal, except it involved walking 3km up a road to the top, where we were met by market stall vendors selling goods to crowds of tourists who had arrived at the summit on bus tours. We descended the same way we came, eventually taking an unmarked trail past overgrown viewpoints for several kilometres which, just as we were giving up hope, brought us out to the beautiful and popular botanical gardens. The route we took appears to be known by locals, but we seemed to have been the first people to use the path for years.
The following day we had a more successful hike after eventually tracking down a guide. In contrast to the day before, we didn’t see any other travellers as we walked through tea plantations, colourful hillside villages and past women tending flocks of sheep on rolling green hills. Judging by the popularity of coaches with daily itineraries of tourist attractions, it appears many visitors (or at least Indian holidaymakers enjoying Diwali) were apathetic about actually walking in the environment that has made Ooty famous.
During our stay we learned Diwali is celebrated on different days in India, with those heralding from the south celebrating the festival a day earlier than their northern counterparts. As we returned to our basic £9-a-night hotel after our first day in Ooty, we stumbled across the posh Club Mahindra hotel, which was laying on a buffet dinner. The meal showcased various curries and although the £11-price made a dent in our budget, it was a memorable way to celebrate the festival in style. Little did we know the best was yet to come.
The next day the guide for our hike suggested we should walk around Main Bazaar Road around 6pm to see the fireworks displays and his recommendation provided some of the most memorable moments of the trip. We watched on in shock as young children, dressed in suits and their best dresses, casually lit fireworks and firecrackers in the middle of the road.
A final contrast that is worth noting is the difference in approach between Ooty’s residents and the town’s historical reputation. The area developed as a popular highland retreat early in the 19th century as wealthy colonialists sought to escape from the heat of India’s frenetic cities. The snobbery of these expatriates led the town to be labelled ‘Snooty Ooty’. Decades after India declared independence, we found the locals in the town amongst the friendliest on our trip.
Ooty’s location in Tamil Nadu, across the border from Kerala, may make it appear difficult to squeeze into an itinerary travelling through southern India. We travelled using local buses from the frequently visited Mysore and stopped off at Bandipur National Park along the way. Certainly, those who do make the effort to reach Ooty are richly rewarded.