Wednesday, 3 December 2014

COONOOR IN NOVEMBER IS JUST RIGHT


Acres Wild Farm Stay. All photos credited to Ayesha Tabassum


Ayesha Tabassum, our guest blogger, is a copywriter and consultant with Why Axis. She is also a self-confessed "wanderer, runner, nature-lover, animal-rescuer, foodie, Bangalore-based people-seeker, high on life and colours". She writes about her charming trip to a cheese-making farm in Coonoor. She blogs at ayeshatabassum.wordpress.com and tweets @aishatax

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Coonoor in November? Naah! Not really the holiday destination for the winter month,” was the dismissive response from a seasoned traveler-advisory. It’s too cold, unpredictable showers and a roller-coaster of a journey by bus. Car seems better, was the suggestion. Near and dear ones were a tad bit surprised: "It will be too cold, no? That too you are taking your mother along? You better be padded well."

With an earful of advice, yours truly decided to embark on the much-awaited annual trip.
Agreed, November is usually the month to explore warmer places and cities in India. But what’s the point of following the usual holiday calendar.

This holiday was truly earned – booking at Acres Wild Farm Stay was done nearly two months prior (after warnings from traveller friends: "Book this place early, it’s not easy to get a cottage.") and leave at work had been applied three months in advance. With such planning (perhaps even more meticulous than PM’s quarterly itinerary), we absolutely
had to get on with our trip.

One of the cottages in this cheese making farm
This was the first time that just two of us -- mum and I -- were travelling on our own. Else, like typical Indian families, we travel in packs of 15 -- with the entire khandaan (family) -- totally Bollywood style, hum saath saath hain (united, we are). This would be a memorable trip, like mum said, ‘na chudi ki choon choon, na bachchon ki khalbali’ (neither chirping sparrows, nor the hullabaloo of children). True to her latter statement, this was a quiet holiday -- away from the city lights, honking motors, yelling vegetable vendors,buzzing phones and non-stop television blaring.

After a delayed 13-hour journey, (by KSRTC’s Rajahamsa Sleeper Bus), when our bodies seemed like live cocktail shakers, literally tossed and turned, as the bus drove up the Nilgiris range, crossing Ooty, we finally reached Coonoor by 10:30am on a sunny Saturday.


From the Coonoor Bus Stand, Acres Wild Farm Stay is at a distance of about 3Km. Local rickshaw drivers charge up to Rs 150 for a ride to the farm. Younger people will enjoy the steep curves and twists leading up to the farm, but like mum, those in their late 50s, and others with arthritis will perhaps remember the Almighty with each breath. But as you near your destination, every steep bend and bump is forgotten and forgiven.

Acres Wild lives up to its name -- acres and acres, (22, to be precise) of 'wild' amidst the lush green tea estates and forests of Coonoor. No highway in sight, no sound of urban civilization, just vast expanses of green, the only patch of colour is a tiny village, Gandhipuram with its colourful houses, in the thick of greens.

Mist and quite for company

Set up by Mansoor Khan (ex-Bollywood biggie and author) and his wife Tina, this cheese-making farm is for the bonafide outdoor traveller. Unlike the usual gated farms with handful of geese and man-made ponds, Acres Wild’s distinct location and unkempt terrain give it a real character. The farm is divided into three tiers with three cottages, Cheddar, Haulomi, Colby (our abode for the 3-day-stay), a dining area and a cheese-making room. There isn’t much to do apart from basking in nature’s beauty, gazing at the grazing cows, watching the actual cheese-making process, enjoying leisurely meals, and sitting with a cup of chai outside your cottage – aren’t holidays meant for this?

Munna
That’s what we did on Saturday and Munna, the farm manager: more of a walking-talking encyclopedia was our host (Mansoor and Tina had informed us of their annual break to visit their families in Mumbai, so Munna had to play host in their absence). He took us on a short walk after breakfast, helping us get familiar with the routes and farm workers.


By the time we unpacked and managed to catch a few winks, it was lunch-time, and lo, the farm was enveloped with mist, at the peak of day, 1 pm. Cotton-clouds were floating around the hills, it was cold and grey… but beautiful. Lunch was served late, as we delayed walking down to the dining hall. How could one miss the opportunity to click such a picture-perfect silvery-afternoon!  The entire day was spent aah-ing and ooh-ing looking at such postcard-worthy landscape. 


 Meals at Acres Wild are the perfect combination of carbs-proteins-fats, with equal proportions of rice, rotis, lentils, dals and Indian desserts. So you don’t feel guilty of indulging. Non-vegetarian meals are available on request, but we preferred vegetarian fare.



Next day, Sunday, we decided on a whim to visit the neighbouring hill station, Ooty. Munna, the all-resourceful hand arranged for a rickshaw pickup from the farm to board the 10:30am Nilgiris Queen train from Coonoor Station. Before the actual day started, the fun had already begun. An early start atop the hill was as late as 8am for us city folks, unlike the farm workers who were up before sunrise braving the mist, which grew deeper by 9am. This was the November joy that we discovered… walking through the fog unaware of what lay ahead. Alas! It was just mist and mist. We reached the dining area, sans any wild encounters and left for Coonoor station after a hearty breakfast of eggs, toast, vermicelli, tea and of course, coffee -- for me, the coffee-addict!

The Nilgiri Queen, takes a little more than an hour to reach Ooty. For  Rs.10 ticket, the ride in the quaint little train is worth many times more than the fare. Passing through eucalyptus forests, tiny villages and of course tea estates, the journey will leave the shutterbug exhausted. Just too many sights to miss, so better click and that too quick!


 At the Udhagamandalam (Ooty) Station, there are many autorickshaws lined at the exit gate. Hire a rickshaw for an entire day -- to visit all the tourist spots for a decent fare of maximum Rs 800 for eight hours, that includes drop back to the station.  Since we had little time (starting at noon, to catch the last train back to Coonoor at 6 pm), we hired Vijay’s rickshaw for 5 hours at Rs 600. We started our trip with a visit to the Tea Factory first, then the Botanical Garden, Rose GardenOoty Lake and the market area. Vijay was an absolute delight -- well-behaved, knowledgeable about the spots and more than happy to stop the rickshaw several times for us to click pictures. It’s not every day that you get to see the beautiful Ooty, the camera battery didn't die and yet, we were able to make it in time for the last train. Once, again, chalo, Nilgiri Queen!

Back in Coonoor, our morning rickshaw driver, Sadiq was waiting for us at the station. He had obliged to pick us up on return for the same fare. After a long day trip, we were as hungry and impatient as a lion. Like most newbie foodies, not having done our homework about local eateries, we asked our chaperone to guide us. With his limited experience in assessing non-touristy folks like us, Sadiq took us to Quality Restaurant in upper Coonoor. If looks are deceptive, then this place is the epitome of such deception. What appears to be a hole in the wall from the exterior, turned out to be a fine-dining restaurant that serves chicken stew on a customised live flame on your tableVoila! This was quite a discovery in the hill station.

With our tummies full, it was time to find our way back, up to Acres Wild… and what a rickshaw ride it was. Pitch dark, only the headlight illuminated the 3km ride up to our cottage. We called Munna, concerned; he assured us that nothing drastic would happen apart from a bison encounter. That was scary enough! Half-way up, near the dining area, Murugesh, the other manager in-charge was waiting to escort us back. Despite all the disturbing thoughts and horror stories playing in our heads, we reached our cottage, safe and drained!

Monday, the last day of our stay at Acres Wild turned out to be really pleasant just like the bright sunny weather. The thick, dark grey clouds had made way for bright sun rays, and like Samuel Beckett said in Murphy, “the sun shone, having no alternative. The cows were back on the greens, grazing lazily, the chickens were out of the cow shed along with week-old calves, sun-bathing, while we were joyously walking around the farm after breakfast with Munna, discovering different plants and trees.


Mary the cheese-maker
From eucalyptus, guava, wild-flowering trees, cheese herbs and many, many varieties of plants, the farm is a blanket-bed of flora and fauna. We also managed to catch Mary at the cheese-making room, while she was on the job. Mansoor’s wife Tina has trained Mary to make cheese. So while they are away, Mary continues with her job. She too is a resourceful hand on the farm. On prior request from guests, Tina conducts cheese-making workshops as short as one-day. “Many solo-woman travellers come here for the workshop,” says Mary. 

Like all good things, even our stay at Acres Wild had to come to an end. But these were three-fulfilling days – with a quick one-day trip to Ooty. Thoughtfully laid out in the arms of Coonoor, this property is worth a visit. Though it was off-season and only two of us as guests, we didn’t feel lonely. The non-intrusive staff was always on call, and like the perfect vacation, we were away from the city buzz, lolling in nature’s beauty.



Our bus arrived on time at the Coonoor bus stand at 4.45pm, and we were back on our way to the city grind. But from the coo… of Coonoor to the ooo… of Ooty, each moment is etched in our memory and remains fresh like the morning whiff of tea at the farm.


Travel Tips

  • For reservations at Acres Wild visit: www.acres-wild.com
  • Rickshaw fare from Coonoor Bus Stand to Acres Wild: Rs 120-150
  • For trust-worthy rickshaw/taxi in Ooty: Vijay: 07598425404
  • Nilgiri Queen timings from Coonoor: 7:30am, 10:30am & 2:30pm (check with locals)
  • Last train back from Ooty to Coonoor: 6pm
  • What to look forward to at Acres Wild (apart from the peaceful farm stay): fresh cheese to eat and take home
  • Word of caution: Don’t venture out very late at night, bisons and leopards don't like homo sapiens' company