Narayan, a railway veteran of more than 30 years, agrees: “Ooty and Coonoor have been exploited for their natural resources in the name of development, and you see that when you travel by road. But when you travel by this train, it feels like nothing has been touched.”
We pass tea plantations with workers bent over the leaves and waterfalls that have sprung up after the monsoons. I kept leaning out the window to see the train’s serpentine twists and turns, keeping my eyes peeled for a wandering gaur (Indian bison) or an elephant in the thickets. There was non-stop activity, people were getting off to stretch their legs and take pictures at the various stations on the way (some are for passengers and some are just for filling the steam locomotive with water) . The stop at Coonoor was much longer, allowing the train to switch from a diesel locomotive (used for the fairly flat route so far) to steam, for more power on the inclines.
The restful landscape and the gentle rocking of the train lulled me into a state of near drowsiness. At one of the water stops I filled up on hot chai and masala vada (spicy donuts) sold by local vendors – essentials of any train journey in India.
Mangalore-based journalist Subha J Rao, who grew up on the plains near Mettupalayam, has equally relaxing memories of her childhood train journey. “We could actually get off and walk with the train,” she said. “As adults we now talk about the romance of train travel, but as children we just enjoyed the experience, even with all the soot and smoke from the steam engine.”