Reached by swinging, lurching, swooping bends rising ever higher first through forests of spotted deer, termites, tigers and elephants. Then tea: gardens, estates, plantations, hillsides, and, finally, gum, towering utterly straight. Ootacamund, aka Ooty, aka Udagamandalam, was originally inhabited by the Toda, a tribal people, whose population has hovered around the eight hundred mark for the last century. Their language being unwritten and barely spoken by anyone led to much teeth gnashing recently as anglicised impositions were jettisoned in favour of the historically authentic. Ooty is what people say.

A fellow traveller
More tea
Eucalyptus stand

Undiscovered by Europeans until 1820, within thirty years the Government in Madras was decamping here for the hottest four months of the year. Temperatures never exceed 25, and in winter swing between 22 in the day and 10 at night. Snow is known. The hills this high, about 2200m, were mainly downland and by 1850 an English village had been made. Billiards was invented in the club here, there was a hunt with hounds, a racetrack, more than one vicar, ornamental gardens, plenty of recreation for a gentleman and his family.
The super suspension and cavorting gyrations of our AC bus left one of our party particularly grateful for Ooty’s emergence from the trees, and as we  dropped down into the bowl of the valley, my expectations of scale were overwhelmed by another busy bus station, mad streets, and an extended vista of run-up and run-down buildings. Where was the pastoral idyll? Where were the churches? Maybe it was always just in someone’s imagination. It was absconding from mine.

We had use of a bungalow in an outlying village, Lovedale, and duly took an auto the twenty minute journey. We were cold, although it took a while to give a name to the feeling, all the time our brains were signalling the visual clues; hats, scarves, coats, jackets, gloves sported by nearly everyone we passed. The sky was blue, the air clear, our directions vague – first tiled roof bungalow after the bank – and defeated us until a local directed us to ‘Clifton’.

View from the garden
The train in the distance
View from the house
And this

There we were greeted by the sight of Gowrie, cook, housekeeper, caretaker, standing imperiously on the roof, watching for our arrival. Tea, madam? She, her husband, Gopi, and her 95 year old mother live in a four room stone cabin just above the bungalow. They had overseen the house, and the three generations of family who lived and holidayed there, for fifty years. Our instructions were to tell Gowrie what to cook, and to make sure the ingredients were available. We must not fail.

Gopi at home

Gathering recipes

Attempts to wash up, help, or enter the realm of the little kitchen whilst Gowrie was in the bungalow were dismissed as ludicrous ramblings – nooo, sir – but over time we persisted and persuaded her that cooking once a day was sufficient for our needs.

Gopi accompanied us to the market in Ooty the next day, leading us hither and thither, as we sought out the ingredients we’d been told to get, and ones we thought we might like. He was small, wiry, with a barrelling upper body, extremely lively eyes, and the air of someone who at any moment may burst into laughter at the absurdity of life. He, also, spoke to the gaur, indian bison, that appeared looming on the edge of the forest above the house like super steroidal Rambos. I didn’t follow the language but it was clearly banter. They stared back.

Vegetables, here. Rice, lentils, here. Beer, yes later, there, there, a hand waved. Did he understand? Did i make myself clear? Chicken? Here, here. Yes, there they were, about four of them in a cage, in front of the shop. Four minutes later, I walked away with one of them in a bag, sliced and diced, and still very warm. But what about the beer?

Gowrie at home
Rooftop leisure
Wonderfully narrow house
Temple with wreck
Local beauty parlour
Orpington library. I expected to find my mum haunting the shelves

The bungalow had the defeated charm of the early nineteen seventies, distantly stylish, but now almost empty, it’s heyday long since passed. Wilkie and I dug out a Carrom board, found the pieces in a decaying games box, and played the first of many games that night. Hats were added to the shopping list. Bed was early, musty bedding clamped tightly against the penetrating damp and cold. Mornings broke bright and warming, excursions into the forbidden land of the kitchen safe until later in the day.

A rest stop on the descent
Like Scalextric but not quite. The wheel that stops the train sliding downhill.

We watched the tootling chuffing progress of the “toy train”, as it toiled up and down the valley on its narrow gauge tracks tucked into the hill sides. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, as we found out at the tweedle dee railway stations that lined the route. We looked forward to the three hour journey that takes you through spectacular mountain scenery down to the plains below – it was full of promise.

Another fine paint job
A cliché to all but the one carrying the load..

We occupied ourselves with excursions to Ooty to restock, wandering the local roads, paths and tracks, essay writing, staring at the view, placing my phone in obscure spots to improve reception, games of Carrom and cards, chocolate sampling, watching the pre-dusk bird life, red-whiskered bulbuls, oriental white-eyes, indian hoopoes, migrating up the hillside and into the night time safety of the trees behind the house, and by evening staying warm in the draughty high ceilinged living room.

The ten o’clock bus was likely to have room enough to sit, the return leg was sometimes made in an auto – bag carrying on buses is limited – but for me this was miserably arduous, noisy, cramped, and with a disapppointing view of the driver’s back. Trying to work out which bus to board coming back was a lottery, bus signs in Tamil, questions replied to with affirmative shakes of the head and negative nods. We made it halfway back on one bus before it turned off from our route, me blithely saying it’s only half an hour walk from here, and then a few minutes of optimistic tramping later Wilkie flagged down a passing bus. With grown men hanging on around the door as though a population explosion was unfolding before our eyes, some fundamental creative principle taking place, some magic of multiplicity causing humankind to bloom beyond the limits of the bus, I was certain it would career past.  Amazingly it stopped, the men hanging on shook their heads – what does that mean? – the inside of the bus, the seats, the aisle, everywhere jammed. The conductor started shouting at people, probably along the lines of you, yes you in the red shirt move up, move up, gradual shuffling sqeezing forward, tighter, and in slipped Tash and Wilkie a few steps from the door, the engine gunned, the space closed, I climbed onto the step grabbed hold of a window bar and we were off. I was on, but as Wilkie might say technically more out than in. I have a few jumbled impressions of the next ten minutes as the bus roared and swooped along the picturesque lanes. One was the thought that it was too late to change my grip or my stance, another was, particularly acute each time the bus swung to the right and I realised I was a centrifugal experiment, how strong am I? Another: why is Wilkie laughing? Dad you were literally hanging on for your life! Yes, but it was better than an auto.

At this point the toys left the pram
The local shop

Still growing

To make ourselves both useful and scarce, Wilkie and I undertook a journey into town to buy some provisions. Mutton biryani was on the menu, necessitating the purchase of mutton, from the market. We had noticed a few avenues, part of but also an adjunct to the main market, with gates, albeit ones that never closed, here, here was our market for meat. Here goats, like cows, and pigs, give a different meaning to the phrase free range and you see them wandering around in most places, unaccompanied little gangs chewing on anything that comes within range. They might settle down in the middle of a road, oblivious, unconcerned, too tired to care, impossible to know. Someone somewhere owns them, may milk them, might peel one away and lead it to market.

We had noticed these avenues with their carcasses and cages, but had skirted them, and now here on business I stopped at the first one I came to. Yes, a kilo and a half.  A leg held up. Yes I suppose so. Yes cut please. A tree stump stood between us, hacked and scarred, the butcher raised above me in his little shop, a bench running along one wall, a happy, chatty, immaculately dressed man sitting there waiting for his meat. We also wait, and have time to take in what our senses wish us to avoid. The thick globby pools of dark blood, here and there. The splintered spoils of his cleaver flying through the air. His unusual grip on the knife, forefinger tucked back over the blade. The goat’s head. It was just there, all captions inadmissable. Looking around, well you know let’s take it all in, three young men in the chicken shop opposite just hanging out, three chickens in a cage, the remains of a carcass caught on the netting strung over the entire avenue, a goatskin lying between the two shops like the punctured and deflated animal it was. But most of all and impossible to resist, the smell. A smell that crept up slowly, but then, once in your nose, in your head, drenched you with its insidious power. All pervading, a miasma, wrapping us in its cloying clutches. Rank, sharp, raw. I looked at the butcher, now cutting and trimming the leg – did it belong to the head? – him smiling, happy in his work, what does he smell, what smells does he carry home? He charged an exorbitant amount and met no dissent from me.

Ah yes, about the view

Chai barista

Further visits took in the Botanical Gardens; a hybrid Indian sweet shop come fast food place which served fantastic dahi bel puri and to Wilkie’s delight, pizza; the main post office set amongst a litany of court rooms, chambers and judges precincts; and a library from another world with its neat and quiet gardens marooned amidst the bustle and mess. I made some sense of the place, glimpsed a few of the historic landmarks, admired the skill of a bus conductor to individually pack and place an incredible number of people into a limited space, whilst collecting fares, issuing tickets and change, and still squeeze a few more on board at the next stop.

Returning to Lovedale and the prospect of a delicious Gowrie cooked meal, lovely ambling conversations with her and Gopi through the eccentric lens of a limited shared language, the swift but beautiful dusk, the fantastic sky, the peace and cool, this was a good place to come back to, a good place to be. Time to put my hat on.