I read somewhere the meaning of my name is ‘Traveller’. I don’t know if it’s the real meaning or if it has any meaning. But I choose to believe so. For I am never more at peace than when I am travelling. I especially remember fondly, the lone road trips on my Royal Enfield Bullet. If I have to pick my most memorable trip, I don’t have to think hard.
A year, a month and four days back my life took an unexpected turn when she walked out of my life. As I often do, I sought solace in the open road. With my trusty companion, my bullet, on the chilly dawn of 16th April with Ooty as my destination in mind I started from Bangalore.
Cold wind in my face and the music of rhythmic thump of engine, it was almost as if I left all my troubles behind. I kept an almost steady speed of 70kmph. I was in no hurry to be anywhere. I just wanted to enjoy the view as I cruised through villages and farm fields. The rising sun was casting an enchanting golden hue over the landscape. I stopped for breakfast in the town Maddur of Mandya district. Puffed up with pride, owner of the small hotel went into lengths to explain how the vada of Maddur, called Maddur Vada, is well known among travellers for its exquisite taste. Apparently instead of water, they use juice of onion in the flour for the taste. After a modest breakfast and a superb coffee, I thanked the man and moved on. I reached Mysore by mid-morning; the city was alive with morning traffic and busy pedestrians. Mysore, I recollected, the old capital famous for its festivities during Dusara festival and for its sweets and textile. I stopped to see the legendary Mysore Palace, Wesley Cathedral & St. Philomena’s Church.
I thought it might be a good idea to call one of my old friends in Ooty, Cheryl Rohit John, who happens to be a terrific photographer. As it turns out, he was in Wayanad with his friends on a road trip of their own. Fortunately, I just had to change direction. The route was mostly villages and long highway. But as I came close to Nagarhole National Park, either side of the road started to look more scenic with thick greenery and an occasional wild animal watching the traveller. I slowed my pace. It was almost dusk by this time. I was thoroughly enjoying the cool breeze and the greenery with a rich haze cast by evening sun light through light mist. Dark clouds were gathering heralding a heavy down pour and it was almost dark. The climb up the hills was getting steeper. There was an eerie quality to the scene now. Lighting in distance would illuminate the landscape for tenth of a second. A church on top of the next hill would be visible in an electric purple hue. The whole view was straight out of the pages of Bram Stocker’s Dracula. By eight thirty I reached Sultan Bathery, Wayanad. My destination was a small town called Chundale. I stopped for a hot cup of coffee and directions. The town was six kilometres ahead but the address I given was three kilometres further. The guy mentioned in a nonchalant manner the distance from town to the address might be a little hard to navigate. I was about to find out that would turn out to be a little more than an understatement. It was drizzling by then but I kept going. By now, the drizzled turned into a full-fledged downpour. Since no one was around to give me directions, Rohit had to come down in that heavy rain to the town. As the man warned, the three kilometres was hard but what he forgot to mention was that it was a spiralling steep climb and the road was almost non-existent. Thank God for small miracles, I packed plastic packets for phone, purse and all the damageable items and above all, a water proof cover for the dslr bag. The address turned out to be a huge tea, coffee and rubber plantation estate, which most of the three kilometres, owned by Rohit’s friend’s friend who likes to call himself ‘Bob’. There was a cape cod styled house in the middle of the estate. I knocked on the door drenched to the bone. As my luck would have it, the power went out when the storm started and was not to be restored until the next day. Things were starting to look more and more like I am in the domain of Count Dracula. Old house in the middle of a large estate, drab decorations visible in the light of few candles. Fortunately I was not greeted by old vampires or hunchbacks. Rohit’s friend Charly was at the door instead. There was also the lovely Els Van Dongen and Bob whose real name I forgot or he did not mention. Despite the lack of power and flooded floor, rest of the night was very nice mainly because somehow, my bag kept the water out hence dry clothes. Grilled chicken & cold beer helped.
Out of habit, I got up fairly early. Bob gave me a brief tour of the estate. Rohit, Charly and else had already covered Wayanad and was planned to start for Ooty that day and since I had already been to most of Wayanad on several separate occasions, we planned to start in the morning itself. We thanked Bob for the stay and tour and started. There was another bullet and a honda unicorn. In the morning sun, the landscape bore no resemblance to last night’s eerie appearance. What lay before us was the bright greenery of the tea plantation and mesmerising azure of the sky with clouds painting artistic patterns. Since it was late morning, everyone was a little hungry. We stopped for breakfast. Place was actually really nice for a less navigated road side hotel. Els were in India for work from Europe. Charly, who goes to one of the most decorated schools for photography Light and Life or LLA as they call it, met Els in Ooty while looking for a model for his assignment. I being an amateur photographer with wanderlust got along well with Charly and Els. The entire route was so scenic; I had to stop occasionally to capture the landscape through lens. Fortunately Rohit being a professional in photography had a hell of a photography kit and even more fortunate, it all could be used on my crop frame DSLR body too.
The ride through Mudumalai tiger reserve was a calming one. Even though high noon, we were protected from the hard sunlight by the covering of branches forming an arch over head. Temperature was relatively cool considering it was midsummer at the time. In the middle of the forest, the cottages and villas where tourists flock in for all kind of vacation; packages vary from plain sightseeing to trekking and camping in the night. None among us were strangers to the forest or the tiger reserve. Though we had to stop and enjoy the scenery one more time. We parked near a log house and climbed down to a stream just below. The water was very cool and refreshing. Perhaps this was because the water was supposed to have medicinal qualities since it was flowing down from deep forest through the herbs and trees. Few minutes sitting on the rocks with feet dipped in the cold clear water took away every semblance of tiredness. It felt as though we could just sit there for hours. We spotted a single elephant one the opposite shore. I remembered my grandfather telling lone elephants have a tendency to be violent as opposed to the calm natured ones who travel in packs. Luckily we were in the safety of at least 400 metres wide river.
We did not stop much for a distance after that. Though I was dying to stop at each passing dense pine forest or tea plantation or a huge slop which offers a panoramic view of the land down below all green and just stand and watch for hours; at the same time enjoying the cruise along spiral climb. Close to Ooty, the climate began to change and slight fog started flow down from the hill. We stopped near a road side stall which according to the guys, sell the best omelette with spices. And indeed the omelette and coffee served justice to the reputation. We had a light lunch there with bread rolls and more omelettes.
Ootacamund, better known as Ooty, is the capital of Nilgiris district and is well preferred among tourists for its spectacular beauty, gardens, lakes and medicines. That was my first visit to the town which soon would become one of my favourite spots. In my mind what set Ooty apart from rest of the hill stations I have been to is the quaint homely feel to the town and friendly and helpful people. Then there are the Victorian styled stone buildings. From the moment I reached Ooty, I felt right at home. The building had about fifteen flats and almost all were rented by LLA students.
Next few days Rohit and Charly was busy with their shoot assignments. I was exploring Ooty’s less travelled by areas in Rohit’s car; which turns out, was what exactly what I wanted at the time. Some time alone in the beautiful valleys. The most challenging thing was trying to capture the beauty of nature as I see it through the camera lens. Trouble was the fog that gave the landscape an ethereal beauty was causing the picture to develop with slight grains and an overall clouded quality. I wish now I could say that I solved the problem using some kind of filter. May be due to my lack of technical knowledge or maybe I am simply romanticising, but looking at the pictures now, it is not even close to that evening I saw in that valley.
LLA was located in the side lines of Ooty. Established by a passionate photographer names Iqbal and his wife, the institution brings out many talented photographers who would go on to become some of the most recognized names in the world of photography.
Days rolled by very fast. As much as I loved being in the old town, time was drawing near for me to say good bye.
A day before I was planning to leave someone came up with the idea for a bonfire. In the starry night sky the flames of the bonfire stood out. Chilly air was filled with warmth of the fire and tempting smell of chicken and potatoes cooking in the fire. As if to put my thoughts into words, they were playing ‘Wish you were here’ by Pink Floyd