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All Aboard for a Backward Ride to South India

August 02, 1987|JAY BRUNHOUSE | Brunhouse is a San Francisco free-lance writer.

OOTACAMUND, India — Travelers should be wary of trusting a train with a backward locomotive. The one backing down from this city, which is better known as "Ooty," steals you away from the heavenly cool of the Queen of the Indian Hill Stations and plunges you into the hot and humid jungle of South India.

The "Malabar Express," as the train was called in the movie "A Passage to India," is really the scenic Nilgiri (Blue Mountain) rack railroad.

At first glance it is the narrow-gauge connection from Ooty to the mainline network of the Indian Railroads that is famous with rail fans, but those traveling on it are exposed to a cross-section of the people, scenery and special ways of life of the remote Nilgiri mountainous region of southwest India.

Spectacular Views

Both going up and going down open spectacular views of the precipitous eastern slopes of the rain forest-covered Nilgiris and panoramas extending as far as the Arabian Sea between Cochin and Calicut.

Ooty (elev. 7,439 feet) lies in a green amphitheater surrounded by four hills, with temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees most of the time. It is no wonder that affluent Indians and government ministers seeking a change from the humidity and 100-plus temperatures of the plains in the hot season replaced the British raj as regular passengers and made Ooty one of India's premiere hill stations, or mountain resorts. Leaving Ooty saddens the adventure of riding India's surviving cogwheel train.

In addition to its reputation as the definitive way to the popular hill station, the train to Ooty is an attraction in its own right. Its British builders used the Riggenbach cogwheel system and laid tracks only 2 3/4 feet wide to maneuver through the twists of the rugged mountains.

The train is steam-hauled, but the vintage locomotive faces backward for safety reasons. It backs down when descending and pushes from behind when climbing.

At 3:15 p.m. a khaki-clad dispatcher walks briskly to the end of the four-car train, separates his green burlap flag from his red one and waves the green.

At the sound of the turbaned engineer tooting his whistle, he leaps onto the separated veranda at the end of the train next to the first-class compartments.

Uphill Takes Longer

He ignores the first-class passengers, but the back of his head is a constant presence on their descent. The three blue-and-ivory-colored passenger carriages and a luggage van take only 3 1/2 hours to run from Ooty's station (7,312 feet) to nearly sea level at Mettupalaiyam. Going up takes 4 1/2 hours.

On the outskirts of Ooty everything is green. Fields of cabbages and cauliflowers cover level spaces. The air is fresh with the fragrance from the eucalyptus oil huts where wallahs roast leaves into oil for sale as pain- and headache-relieving medications.

The first stop is Lovedale. Up the platform, schoolchildren in uniform get off and on. Across from the station is a reminder of the raj--Cambridge University School is one of the best English-language schools in India.

Passengers begin peering far down the valleys by the time they reach the village of Ketti. Terraces banked upon terraces run down the mountainside. Tea shrubs break the rouge color of the earth. The houses are faced with brown stones. Roosters crow.

The next stop, Aravankadu, is less cheerful. The train passes a series of factories with brick chimneys polluting the hills with yellow, sulfurous fumes. It seems fitting when one learns that this evil-looking place is a military installation producing cordite, the explosive.

Coffee Costs 8 Cents

Passengers place orders for coffee from the windows with smiling platform runners eager to fetch. Their tucked-up, bright-colored lungis make it easy for them to race to the "Combined Fruit and Vegetarian Tea Stall operated by S. K. Rajan (Licensee)" and rush back with a glass of pre-mixed coffee costing 1 rupee--about 8 cents. Food service is fast on Indian platforms.

The 5,700-foot station at Wellington is spotless. Gleaming blue and ivory colors mirror the livery of the train. Nearby is the Southern Military Regimental Center for Army Basic Training.

The most important stop on the line is Coonoor, the second of three hill stations in the Nilgiris. At only 5,500 feet, the climate is said to be the equal of London's--warmer than Ooty's. Because of this it attracts tourists and affluent retirees. The golf course among the acacia trees is busy all day.

Coonoor rises on both sides of the blue-and-ivory-colored station houses. In the east, spires of a Gothic Christian cathedral face twin minarets of a silver-and-white Muslim mosque. A tiny white church with a Christian cross overlooks the tracks.

A new flagman/brakeman leaps onto the train's veranda. The engineer tweets the whistle and at rush hour the train pulls away through busy downtown Coonoor. Lowered draw gates across the main thoroughfare hold back patiently watching taxi drivers, bicyclists, rickshaw wallahs and tonga ponies.

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