Tea, trains & relics from the Raj: exploring India’s Western Ghats

Running parallel to India’s coastline for 1600km from Gujarat to deep-south Tamil Nadu, the lush, forest-cloaked, Unesco-listed Western Ghats make up some of the most biodiverse territory on the globe. India’s second-highest mountain range is an untamed natural world of Jungle Book dreams, rich in unique, endemic flora and fauna, interspersed with carefully clipped, glittering-green tea plantations and once-splendid hill stations drenched in Raj–era history.

Nilgiri Mountain Railway
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway trundles its way through the mountain range © Dethan Punalur / Getty Images

Though the Ghats on average reach 915m, in Tamil Nadu they tower over 2500m high in the Nilgiri Hills – where you’ll meet Ooty, ‘Queen of Hill Stations’ – and the Palani Hills near Kodaikanal. Across the border in Kerala, some of the world’s highest-altitude tea plantations sprawl around Munnar. In between, tigers, elephants, langur monkeys, chital deer and gaur (Indian bison) flit through the unspoilt wilderness of several contiguous protected parks.

Ooty, queen of the Nilgiri Hills

It was British colonials who originally sought refuge from the sweltering lowland heat in these cool, mist-shrouded mountains of native shola (virgin forest), founding South India’s eccentric collection of hill stations. Today, it is Indian holidaymakers rather than foreign tourists who flock to the Western Ghats seeking cool air, natural beauty and green serenity.

Major town of the Unesco-designated Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve – a highly biodiverse 5520-sq-km area that flows across northwest Tamil Nadu into Kerala and Karnataka – the typically frenzied yet historically captivating town of Ooty (Udhagamandalam; 2240m) is Tamil Nadu’s most popular hill station. Like its Himalayan siblings, it was founded in the early 19th century, when Madras (now Chennai) was the capital of British India’s Madras Presidency. Ooty is also the springboard for exploring Tamil Nadu’s wildlife-rich Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, just northwest.

Nilgiri Hills
Epic views abound of the mist-cloaked mountains of the Western Ghats © Naufal MQ / Getty Images

Ooty’s Hindu temples, lively bazaar, chaotic centre and pedalboat-sprinkled lake give way to flower-wreathed English-style lanes, passing splendid Raj–era buildings like the red-hued, still-operating 1867 Nilgiri Library, and St Stephen’s Church, dating from 1829. Many of these have been reimagined as exquisite heritage hotels: cosy 1855 bungalow Lymond House, or the early 19th-century Taj brand Savoy.

But this is still, of course, South India, and you’ll feast on tasty idlis, vadas, dosas and pure-veg thalis aplenty in Ooty’s restaurants. Beyond the town, you can escape into the forested hills on guided treks to tea plantations and tribal villages, or visit the 2633m Doddabetta viewpoint, the Nilgiris’ tallest.

Before the arrival of the British, the Nilgiris’ sole inhabitants were its distinct tribal communities, most well known among them the Ooty-area Toda, who dress in striking black-and-red embroidered shawls. The Tribal Research Centre Museum, 10km southwest of town, is worth a stop for its fascinating exhibits and displays on these tribal communities. Beyond the museum lies the beautiful, little-visited Avalanche Valley, reachable only on official forest department ‘ecotours’.

Nilgiri LIbrary in the Western Ghats
The Nilgiri Library dates back to 1867 and houses a vast collection of books on the hill stations © Isabella Noble / Lonely Planet

A cuppa in Coonoor

Bustling Coonoor (1720m) sits 20km southeast of Ooty, encircled by an emerald-green sea of tea plantations. Upper Coonoor (not hectic central Coonoor) makes a more peaceful alternative Nilgiri base to Ooty, with easy access to superb viewpoints, the 50-year-old Highfield Tea Estate, and such gorgeous heritage accommodation as 1900s British bungalow 180° McIver. Meanwhile, quiet Kotagiri (1800m), 30km east of Ooty, is the Nilgiris’ original hill station: its earthy-red Sullivan Memorial is the 1819 house of Ooty founder John Sullivan.

With the Nilgiris, half the fun is getting here – ideally aboard the celebrated British-built, narrow-gauge Nilgiri Mountain Railway. Awarded World Heritage status by Unesco, the blue-and-cream-coloured ‘toy’ train trundles between Mettupalayam in the plains and Ooty, via Coonoor, traversing tunnels, tackling bridges and passing ever-more-spectacular forest and tea-plantation views; you might even spy a wild elephant pushing through the undergrowth.

Exterior view of a 1900s British bungalow at 180° McIver.
Spend the night in a transformed 1900s British bungalow at 180° McIver © Isabella Noble / Getty Images

Kodaikanal, princess of the Palani Hills

Ringed by the protected Palani Hills, 250km southeast of Ooty, Tamil Nadu’s 2100m-high ‘Princess of Hill Stations’, Kodaikanal (Kodai), is all the more atmospheric when (often) veiled in mist. Unusually, Kodai was founded in 1845 not by moustachioed British Empire officials but by American missionaries escaping malaria in the Madurai lowlands, and has its own distinct character punctuated by its international school, organic-fired cuisine and popularity with Indian honeymooners.

Rowboats bob on the star-shaped lake, and the hazy surrounding hillsides are carpeted with shola forest – found only in the Western Ghats – and kurinji shrubs, which blossom in lavender-blue just once every 12 years (including in 2018!). Walks thread through forests to horizon-reaching viewpoints, shimmering lakes, and the budget-traveller haven of Vattakanal village (4.5km southwest of Kodai), which has the sociable vibe of a miniature South Indian Manali.

Boats on the lake in Palani Hills
Rowboats rest on the lakeshore at Kodai © krisghariharan / Getty Images

If you’re feeling adventurous, there are two-day treks (with guides) across to Munnar in Kerala via Top Station (1880m), with glorious views over the Ghats. The long-running and reputable trekking outfit Tracks & Trails offer guided walks and insider expertise. Stars of Kodai’s accommodation scene include expertly run, ecofriendly Cinnabar homestay, and the high-end, lake-view Carlton, a majestic colonial-era mansion, or choose to retreat to ecofocused Elephant Valley in the Palani Hills below, where elephants wander the 48-hectare grounds.

Munnar: tea, cardamom and cooking classes

Just over the border in serene Kerala, Munnar (1524m) is the hustle-bustle hub of South India’s major tea growing area. Much like Ooty, Munnar’s commercial, traffic-choked centre fades fast as you venture out into its mellow, enticingly green valleys and hills, where cottages hide amid the glinting leaves of manicured tea and cardamom plantations.

You can join guided treks to high-altitude mountain outlooks and tea estates and tour the model Tea Museum, or get hands-on with delicately spiced Keralan cuisine at a cooking class with respected food writer Nimi Sunilkumar. Among Munnar’s mountain escapes, gorgeous family-run homestay Rose Gardens shines for its cooking courses, valley vistas and coconut-pancake breakfasts.

Tea plantations around Lamb’s Rock viewpoint near Coonoor
Join a scenic guided trek through plantations in the main tea growing area of South India  © Isabella Noble / Lonely Planet

Protecting The Western Ghats

Crisscrossing between Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the adjoining protected areas of Bandipur, Nagarhole, Wayanad, Sathyamangalam and Mudumalai host the planet’s single largest tiger population. According to India’s 2014 tiger census, 570 tigers prowl these wilds – you’ll be lucky to spot one, but keep your eyes peeled in the Ghats’ many national parks as there’s always a chance.

Karnataka’s 643-sq-km Nagarhole National Park, west of Mysuru (Mysore), is home to one of the world’s greatest concentration of wild Asian elephants, joined in its Kabini-River-flanking forests by tigers, leopards, dholes (wild dogs), chital, gaurs and langurs. Many of these signature species also roam Bandipur National Park just to the southeast, which encompasses 880 sq km at Karnataka’s junction with Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

The secluded, untouristed reaches of northernmost Kerala’s 345-sq-km Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary are arguably your best bet for encountering South India’s wild elephants. In southern Kerala, 35 tigers and 900 elephants, plus sambar deer, wild boar and langurs, patrol the dense evergreen forests of Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, one of India’s most extensive (925 sq km) and beloved parks. With around 50 elusive tigers, luscious Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, in Tamil Nadu, has one of India’s highest tiger-population densities; more regularly spotted are its elephants, jackals, langurs, gaurs, deer and peacocks.

Elephants roaming in Mudumalai tiger reserve
Try your luck spotting South India's wild elephants in the national parks of the Western Ghats © Isabella Noble / Lonely Planet

Access to these ethereal, carefully guarded reserves is via official 4WD or minibus tour only; some parks might also offer guided treks. You’ll dine and sleep at hands-on wildlife lodges, such as Nagarhole’s lakeside Waterwoods Lodge and Mudumalai’s stylish Jungle Retreat, or at welcoming homestays such as Green View Homestay in Periyar and Bandipur’s Dhole’s Den.

For a thoroughly off-the-beaten-track Western Ghats wildlife experience, seek out Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in Kerala, or Tamil Nadu’s Anamalai Tiger Reserve, where Sinna Dorai’s Bungalow adds tea-plantation luxury.

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