An ecological hotspot, the Western Ghats still beckons those who are looking for off-beat trails. And as you ride up there, open up your senses and gear up to rediscover

the Blue Mountains.

Akber Ayub

Glenmorgan. The name conjures up images of an idyllic English countryside with sweeping grasslands, meadows and rolling uplands. However, add a scenic lake, craggy mountains shrouded in mist and hillsides carpeted in tea plantations and you get Glen Morgan — an enchanting locale just 17 km from Ooty, the queen of the Nilgiri Mountains in Tamil Nadu.

Or, take Lovedale. No, this is not a lakeside lover's nook, but a hundred-year-old, quaint railway station up in the Nilgiris. Nestled amidst swaying sholas and shrouded in mist for half the year, this station, even today, runs on sturdy but antiquated equipment set up by the British. As elsewhere, the Brits have left their mark on these mountains too.

And why not? The scenic splendour of the Nilgiri Mountain range awed the British colonialists, who built their summer camps on these majestic peaks. They also established local administration centres here along with ornate mansions to luxuriate in while the plains withered in the sweltering heat of the Indian summer. Remnants of the colonial era still remain on these hills in the form of picturesque railway stations, buildings reminiscent of Victorian architecture and other quaintly charming edifices nestled amidst groves of eucalyptus and shola. They evoke nostalgia and more in the connoisseurs. However, to the busloads of tourists passing through Ooty on whistle-stop excursions or rushed holidaymakers, they are just part of the scenery. Understandably, these, and the many picture postcard locales outside the commercial hub, do not figure in the average tourist itinerary.

However, if you are the type of traveller always looking for that something extra, intrepid and ready to rough it out, then get off the regular tourist trails and explore the outlying areas of these mountains — a part of the Western Ghats and declared an ecological hot spot of the world — and you will discover delightful spots, splendid views and beautiful vistas, virgin and unspoilt, that would touch you somewhere deep in a special way. Western Catchment, Parson's Valley, Mukurthi Forest Reserve, Moyar, Singara and Segur Falls are some of the not-to-be-missed spots, all within a radius of about 40 km around Ooty. Snowden Peak on the Kotagiri Road that commands a view of Mysore, Wenlock Downs and the Kalhatty Falls are some of the other enchanting spots. The list is not over yet. Avalanche, located about 28 km from Ooty is a nature lover's haunt. Capture their essence, especially at the twilight hours, when they lie veiled in a dream-like, surreal splendour. If you are looking to commune with verdant nature, look no further. Head for these uplands and soak up the energies from these primeval provinces.

And while in the Nilgiris, who can miss a ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, sporting the UNESCO-granted World Heritage status? As the twin tracks snake past quilted carpets of green and disappear around hillsides, passengers are buffeted by a crisp, snappy breeze lent fragrant by the soaring eucalyptus that stand all around like mute sentinels. And then the train snakes through inky black tunnels and while the rhythmic exhaust beat of the loco rings out aloud, screams and catcalls of passengers fill the air. Emerging abruptly from a dark tunnel, the narrow, metre-gauge train is poised precariously on a slender viaduct spanning a deep gorge. Little wonder this ‘toy train' covering the 46 km journey from Mettupalayam at the foot of the Nilgiri hills to Ooty has been termed ‘an engineering marvel' – considering the precarious gradients, the numerous meandering tunnels through rocky hills, the twin tracks clinging perilously to steep hillsides, and venturing gracefully across numerous viaducts positioned hundreds of feet above mountain streams and gushing rivers.

The author can be contacted at akbersait@yahoo.co.uk

When to Go: If you're the active outdoor type, the summer is the best time; but if you're a cool romantic pick the winter months. It'll be cold and chilly and everything veiled in mist. However, if you dig the rains and verdant greenery, make it June to Sept.

What to Pack: Summer or winter, pack warm cloths, more so if it's the latter. Reliable sneakers, a good camera, and a pair of binoculars if you care for birds, should do it.

Where to Stay: Hotels abound in the hills to suit all budgets.

Shopping: Try homemade chocolates available in most bakeries and curio shops. Buy winter cloths at the downtown shopping centres. Bargain hunters can head for the row of shops outside the botanical gardens. Try the Ooty tea biscuits – they are crisp, aromatic and delicious.

Getting There

Closest Cities: Mysore (135 km) and Coimbatore (100 km)

Closest Railhead: Mettupalayam (46 km), connected to Conoor and Coimbatore

Closest Airport: Coimbatore (100 km)

Getting Around

Self-driven car is best, especially to reach all the must-see out-of-the-way spots. Else, opt for a taxi. Bargain for a day package. Obtain route-maps from your hotel/resort or carry a road map. Pack food and water if headed for outlying areas