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 Ootacamund—Ooty—on 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 3:30—India so calm and lovely in these early hours—we 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 class—I 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 tunnel—one 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.
After five hours, we reach our destination. Just in time for lunch.
Next stop: The Queen of the Hill Stations, Ooty.