Monday, May 7, 2018

In Search of the Past: Part 12: Mudumalai National Park: Tigers!

Tiger Reserve entrance, Mudumalai website
We set off from Ooty at dawn, eyes peeled for elephants and other wild creatures known to roam the roadside. We head further uphill amid foggy greenery, following the narrow winding road through the NilgiriBlueMountains and down toward the plains. 

36-hairpin turns later (!), we near the  MudumalaiLand of Ancient HillsWildlife Reserve. Our excitement mounts. Here lives India's largest tiger population!

Photo, Mudumalai website
Entering the park, a former princely game reserve, our driver slows to a creep. Within moments, we spot a wild gaur--Indian bison.

Next, Mr. Peacock, flaunting his stuff.

This langur looks like he's waiting for a ride. As you can see, these creatures are in command of the roads.

We're told crocodiles live down there... maybe they're enjoying an early lunch. (Hikers are not allowed in this reserve; you can imagine why.)

Our first elephants. 

Elephants, Mudumalai website
We hit a roadblock, passengers hanging from their vehicles, peering to the right. The word spreads: TIGER! There is a rustling in the brush, the passage of a dark figure, but too swiftly for a photo. He retains his mystery, but at least others have sighted him. 

Tiger, Mudumalai website
The following is from the park's visitors center.

Too soon we reach the end of the wildlife reserve, back to big, bustling India.

Next stop: Mysore: Palaces and the end of the road

Saturday, March 31, 2018

In Search of the Past: Part 11: Ooty, Queen of the Hill Stations

Our antique steam train delivers us to OotacamundOotyaround noon. Queen of the hill stations, Ooty is a leafy escape from the hot plains. Pre-Independence, our colonial-era hotel, the Taj Savoy, was favored by the Indian and British elite. During research for my true-life Hollywood-India project, I learned my maharaja's family had a summer home in Ooty. Ooty. Entranced, I'd wanted to visit for a long time. To arrive in such a romantic way is icing on the cake. 

Up since 3:30, we are starved, but can't miss the festivities launching South India's harvest festival, Pongal, the 4-day Tamil Thanksgiving. Pongal means "boiling over" of milk and ricesignifying abundance and prosperity. The flower-strewn offering below is surrounded by a canopy of sugarcane with platters of coconuts and bananas.

Here I am with the hotel manager, who has led the ceremony.

By now, we are more than eager for a hearty thali, the traditional round tray containing small bowls of rice and various curries.

After lunch, we tour the hillsides, Ooty Lake, the Botanical Gardens, and the largest rose garden in India. Holiday-goers are out everywhere, celebrating. Despite the sunshine, the air is crisp, even chilly, and people are celebrating that, too.

Later, off on my own, I walk into town.

Returning to the hotel, I explore the grounds. I love this empty picture frame on the front lawn.

After enjoying the last moments of sunset, I order a predawn "bed tea." Tomorrow we will leave early in hopes of spotting wildlife en route or at Mudumalai National Parkhome to the largest tiger population in India! 

Next stop: Mudumalai Nature Sanctuary: Wildlife!

Monday, February 26, 2018

In Search of the Past: Part 10: The Steam Train to Ooty

An old-time steam train! In India! Sign me up!

Long smitten with North India's fabled Darjeeling Himalayan "toy train," I embrace the chance for an equally dramatic and harrowing trip in South India.

Another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Nilgiri Railway climbs Tamil Nadu's Blue Mountains to OotacamundOotyon the steepest track in Asia!

The Indian Railways website is not for the faint of heart. Although once successful, I strike out this time. Even a five-star hotel concierge in Chennai is unable to crack their system. The Mountain Railway is more than a train ride: It is an iconic journey. My last hope is to try to buy tickets at Mettupalayam, its downhill terminus. After passing a day amid the ethereal beauty of the Dhyanalinga Temple in the foothills outside Coimbatore, we are in a properly serene state to resume our quest.  

The afternoon before our only possible departure, we reach the head of a long queue and are advised by the ticket-seller to return tomorrow at 5 am. He gives me a standby chit, which I clutch fiercely. Up at 3:30India so calm and lovely in these early hourswe arrive at the station in the pre-dawn, smoky darkness.

A crowd is milling around the quays. Joining an even longer queue, I learn this is a big holiday weekend, and everyone is traveling.

3rd class is soldout, over-soldout, it appears from the crowded benches. However, there is a slight possibility of no-shows in 2nd classI hang tight to our standby chit, eyes peeled. The ultimate power resides in the hands of a short, dark woman in a navy jacket and long skirt. She is the Ticket Master, inspecting every traveler and seat. 

Tracking her, I see everyone is accounted for. Then, in the very last car, there are two no-shows. I hold her in my glance, and she nods... We're on the train! Squeezing onto one of two facing five-person benches. Within minutes, as darkness fades, the chugs and toots begin... and we are on our way! I collapse in joy and triumph! 

Greetings and introductions are exchanged. Across from us, a family is also traveling up to Ooty for the holiday. Our seat mates immediately offer us food, and it's delicious.

As we wind ever higher in the mountains, there are frequent photo ops. Here I am with two other cabin mates.

Selfies are all the rage. Note the man up top adding water for the steam engine. No one is in a hurry, the journey is itself the goal.

The Ticket Master moves from car to car collecting money. During her visit, we learn she is from a family of classical Indian singers, and she gifts us with a long, lovely performance. It is one of those magical encounters traveling is all about. Our carriage is rocking it, and I'm sorry to see her move on after we clear the next tunnelone of the 16 we pass through. The line also contains 208 curves and 250 bridges. 

Someone getting off and another trying to board.

Besides the many scenic photo ops, there are also station stops for snacks. At one, I buy samosas to share with our cabin mates.

The flagman.

After five hours, we reach our destination. Just in time for lunch.

Next stop: The Queen of the Hill Stations, Ooty.