There is a lot more to Ooty and the Nilgiris than the traditional tourist brochures and websites would have you believe. I couldn’t get enough of the Nilgiris during my last trip and knew for sure there were a lot many things that lay hidden. To uncover these, you either have to know people who know about these ‘secrets’ or be a Google ninja. Either way (and especially if you own a vehicle), sometimes the best map to follow may be your intuition. Parsons valley and Porthimund lake were just two best kept secrets that I unearthed through countless hours spent reading forums and blogs. And once a rough itinerary materialized, things fell in place like clockwork – a Friday night bus to Ooty found 4 of us in its passenger list.
A beautiful Saturday morning dawned on us, and we decided to hire some bikes. A Royal Enfield Thunderbird and a Bajaj Discover were seen fit for the task, with a 600 rupee and 500 rupee rental cost respectively. People had heard of Porthimund and Parsons valley, but nobody could give us clear cut directions. Much to our frustration, digital maps were not of much use since cellphone signal reception is non-existent in the remote areas and there are too many roads and shortcuts that the maps don’t reveal.
Pothimund lies some 20 odd kilometres to the west of Ooty. Half an hour on the dreamlike Ooty-Gudalur road past Sandynulla lake, past the shooting meadows will take you to a nondescript diversion that seems to be the correct road. A couple of kilometres on a narrow road hemmed in by jungles on both sides, and you’ll reach a tea estate where you have to take another diversion. A villager who had caught a wild buffalo (with enormous curved horns and trying to ram the truck it was loaded into) happened to give us the correct directions when we took a wrong turn somewhere beyond the estate. Asking the locals at every point thereafter certainly helped. There are yellow signboards that were put up by the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board and the Forest Department long ago – but the markings on these have faded beyond the point of legibility.
The road past the tea estate is a kuccha road that belongs to a different age. At some points, it is too narrow for anything more than a small hatchback, and yet, the ditches and stones on the road might not take kindly to anything with low ground clearance. Thankfully enough, our bikes seemed up to the challenge.
On the way, we saw black Nilgiri langurs scampering across the road. The thump of the Bullet was interspersed with bird calls that we’d never heard before and the occasional drone of insects. In between, a faint whiff of eucalyptus would enliven our senses. On certain stretches, the trees crowd around the road and lend a claustrophobic feel to the ride. So it was, that we couldn’t help feeling a little lost and doubtful about the direction we were headed in.
With no sign of Parsons valley after almost an hour, we were sure we had taken a wrong turn somewhere. After a brief pit-stop at a hamlet, we ran into a check-post where the guard asked us for a permit. Turns out, you need a permit from the Forest office in Ooty to ride beyond the check-post. The old Indian art of greasing palms works its charm in such situations but we bargained a little more. At first, they reprimanded us for bringing bikes and that too, one as loud as the Bullet. They also mentioned the presence of wild animals and told us it was too dangerous to go ahead, that too on bikes. However, after much cajoling, pleading and countless assurances to return in half an hour; we managed to get the go-ahead. Sure enough, within half an hour of twisting, curving roads – we caught our first glimpse of Porthimund lake.
Our bikes climbed a few metres ahead on a gently sloping hill till we saw, what looked like the fresh spoor of some herbivores, potentially large ones judging by the amount they had left behind. But what rooted us to our spots was the sight of the lake itself.
We had hardly spent more than half an hour when two forest guards came out of nowhere and demanded to see our permit. Very clearly, this was a restricted area and without a permit, they were surprised we had managed to come this far. After having explained that we had taken permission from the check-post guards, they asked 2 of us to come with them to their forest hut. A few moments of panic and worry ensued but their jaw dropped when my friend told them they had bribed the check-post guard with a lot of money. Excited at the prospect of sharing the booty no doubt, they sent us on our way and warned us to go straight back to Ooty. Who were we to disobey them ?
On the way back, we took a diversion which would lead us out through Avalanche. Not only did we manage to avoid questions from the first check-post guard again, we were treated to a whole troop of Nilgiri langurs occupying the road. In huge numbers, they looked scary but thankfully, all of them scampered up the trees upon hearing the thump of the Bullet. A few miles later, we were treated to fantastic views of Avalanche lake.
All along the way, Avalanche continued to provide glimpse after fantastic glimpse of its famed beauty. We pressed on further and encountered a pack of Bullet riders on the way back, leather jackets and saddles, flags and all.
The intention was to take in the sights the next day and relax as much as possible. So we hired a cab to take us to Kotagiri the next day. I asked our cab driver, about his favorite spot in the Nilgiris and without much thought, he said he would put Avalanche at number 1 and Kotagiri below Avalanche. I didn’t want to bother asking him about Porthimund and Parsons valley.
As the light faded fast and the chill in the air rose, I realized that over two trips to the Nilgiris, I hadn’t seen Ooty lake, or the botanical or rose gardens or the Sims garden in Coonoor. On second thought, I realized I didn’t really have any intention of visiting these attractions.
I do however, intend to visit the Nilgiris again because the blue hills hide many more secrets from the ignorant touristy eyes. But till the next time, I have got a lot of research to do and some more planning to do.
Note: Porthimund falls into a protected area as it supplies water to most of the towns in the Nilgiris district. Hence a forest permit is required from the Forest office in Ooty before venturing inside. We just got lucky on that day to be let off with a warning, however it is a serious offense. Also, there is another road from Avalanche that goes to Porthimund that does not have any check-posts on the way. So it is a bit of a mystery why one of the entrances is unmanned. Even if you do manage to get inside, there is a barrier gate near Porthimun that restricts access to four wheelers. Bikes and bullets will manage to do so from a narrow passage on one side of the barrier. One more thing, there is a road that leads into the Mukurthi national park as well, but you require another permit for that and it covers a area that is almost 80 square kilometers in size.