This morning we are under strict instructions to be ready for departure as scheduled – we’re taking a trip on the famous toy train, and it’s usually packed, so arriving early to collect tickets is a must. Unfortunately the hotel staff have other ideas, intent instead on setting a new record for service at pace of snail, though we are the only patrons.
We arrive at the station in a mad rush, and hurry onto the platform – only to find, when the little train puffs up to the station, that at least two carriages are completely empty. We abandon our allocated seating (to the palpable relief of the local tourists who had the misfortune to be sitting next to us), and settle in more comfortably for the hour-long ride to the tea plantations of Coonoor.
Along the way we make a short stop in Wellington (only similarity to the NZ version: it’s built on a hillside), and take advantage of the platform catering service: one beaming fellow with a huge basket of deep-fried chickpea patties.
At Coonoor Charles takes us on an impromptu tour of the railway workshop, where several steam engines are lined up looking as if they’re waiting for the Fat Controller to arrive. We can’t wait though – it’s back on the bus, and on to our next stop: a nearby tea factory.
The factory is mostly closed for cleaning today, but the manager gives us a tour of the plant, from sorting to drying to packaging the tea. In the bowels of the factory a woman is operating some kind of noisy machine which emits orange-brown tea dust – she is covered in it, but manages to stop and smile as we squeeze past.
Down the slope from the factory there is a demonstration of the picking process, and they have thoughtfully provided brightly-coloured ponchos and tea-pickers’ baskets for the obligatory photos (pretty sure the ponchos are their own private joke, as there’s nothing traditional about them!). One or two of the group take to the task as if born to it. I forget to tuck my hair in the scarf and manage to look more like a seventies hippie. For others, the chance to break into dance is too much to resist…..the hills are alive?
Finally it’s time to taste the sponsor’s product, which comes in plain, masala, ginger or chocolate (tea aficionados may wish to avert their eyes). There is expensive white tea as well, but this has to be taken on spec as they’re not handing out freebies. The chocolate tea is surprisingly good (some nameless cocoa brand mixed into the leaves), though this may also be related to the amount of sugar in the mix…
We are nearly back at the hotel when the bus makes an unscheduled stop. Our guide mutters “back in a minute”, and disappears. He returns a few minutes later and says “Would you like to go to an Indian wedding?”. It seems the driver had seen the crowd at the temple and, being from around this area, took it upon himself to pop in and arrange impromptu invites. For twelve. Plus Charles, of course.
The formal part of the proceedings has been completed, apparently, but we are just in time for the official photos. We troop upstairs to the main hall, where the bridal couple are standing centre stage as a long stream of relations and well-wishers line up to have their photo taken for the record. The groom is looking pretty stoked about the whole thing, while the bride is doing her best to stifle a yawn. We are hustled to the front of the queue, and before I know it I am on the stage, as the official photographers – and quite a few unofficial ones – snap away. I can only wonder what the newlyweds will say to their children years from now – “who are they, Mum?” “Haven’t the foggiest”. I doubt they’d have such a friendly reception if the position were reversed, but here we are, photobombing, then ushered down through the dining hall, where we only narrowly escape crashing the wedding breakfast as well. As it is we are plied with plates of bhajis and sweets, and one of us is even given a gift bag on the way out – I hope there isn’t a wedding guest somewhere cursing us for depriving them of their blessed coconut and string of marigolds….. We meet the father of the groom at the door; he is grinning from ear to ear and generously bids us welcome, handing us someone else’s invitation to make it all official – it’s all a bit surreal!
After the morning’s excitement the afternoon is pretty laid back. A quick thali for lunch, which I manage to eat entirely without cutlery, though having mastered the skill I’ll be quite happy if I don’t need to use it again (I was never one of those kids who liked to spend hours playing with fingerpaints). Then a few of us wander back into town, and stop in at a small pharmacy for assorted supplies (though don’t ask for a pharmacy: try “medical” shop instead). One of our group is a dentist, and is a bit like a kid in a candy store, having discovered that pharmacies here will dispense pretty much any drug you like without a prescription and for little more than 20 rupees. Cough and cold remedies, anti-nausea pills and anti-emetics for the downhill journey tomorrow (which apparently also work as a foolproof hangover remedy, though I couldn’t possibly comment) – we consider asking for sleeping pills and valium while we’re at it, wondering if there is any limit to what they will dispense.
That evening we board the bus for the short drive to Fernhill Palace. If I were coming back to Ooty with unlimited funds, this place would be at the top of my list. At the end of a sweeping drive, the summer palace is a grand old colonial relic, its walls lined with photos of maharajahs past. We take a walk through the grounds, past outbuildings and cottages (the more reasonably priced accommodation is, sadly for us, under restoration), and pause on the terrace to watch the sun sinking below the hills, before we are ushered inside to the bar.
Again, I’m afraid we are not suitably attired – this place is crying out for a sparkly evening gown or, better yet, a safari suit, as it is lined with stuffed animals and sepia-toned pictures of tiger hunting parties, polo matches and maharajahs on elephants.
An unofficial guided tour reveals palatial suites and a huge ballroom with grand piano. Like yesterday’s hotel, it appears to be completely unoccupied, though I suppose this is the off-season: this is traditionally where one goes to escape the summer heat, and it’s decidedly chilly once the sun goes down.
We settle in at the bar, which is not as well stocked as the huge selection of bottles and decanters behind it might suggest. In fact, our options are Kingfisher, or Kingfisher: the bottles are just for show, and they’ve brought in a few beers just for this evening. There are masala peanuts to go with the beer, a spicy mix of nuts, raw red onion and sharp green chillies.
Then dinner is announced, and it is delicious – the first time I have tried a goat curry, and I suspect I won’t try one as delicious again (be warned: if you see mutton on the menu, it is far more likely to be goat). After dinner there is warm carrot halva, which is now on my list of must-learn recipes before I leave India – I know there is grated carrot, condensed milk, and probably ghee and cardamom – the rest remains a delicious mystery.
There is a slight air of abandonment and decline about Fernhill, but this only adds to the atmosphere – it would be an unforgettable place to spend a day or two. One day…