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At evo India we have a very special place for Coimbatore. It is, after all, home to the second oldest race track in the country – the Kari Motor Speedway. It is one of the three places in India where we can experience the real Thrill of Driving without fear. The no-holds-barred kind. But if you’re not the sort who gets thrilled at the idea of slipping and sliding around a race track or gets excited about watching the needle on the rev counter touch the redline, what could you do in Coimbatore? Well, you could of course head to the ever green and ever popular, by which we mean awfully crowded, hill station of Ooty. Or, you could do something different and head to Doddabetta peak, and in the process enjoy The Thrill of Driving of an entirely different kind.
“At 2,637 metres above sea level, Doddabetta peak in Tamil Nadu is one of the highest peaks of the Nilgiri Hills”
Less than seven kilometres away from Ooty, or Udhagamandalam as it is officially called, and less than a hundred from Coimbatore, it is extremely accessible too. To cover the 90 odd kilometres that separate Coimbatore from Doddabetta, we had at our disposal the very capable Renault Duster DCi with AWD. Now, we’ve been using the Duster to go to all sorts of places throughout the year and if you’ve been following our travel features you too will be left in no doubt that the Duster is a very capable SUV that can take you anywhere. Literally. But what happens when you take it on what is essentially going to be nothing more than a road trip? And not some wild adventure?
To get to Doddabetta, you have to head from Coimbatore towards Ooty. The first part of the road is fairly straightforward as you cut through the lush Tamil landscape on an old school two-lane highway up to Mettupalayam, which is about 30-35km away. At Mettupalayam, you’re faced with a choice. A fork in the road. One goes left and heads towards Ooty scything through Coonoor and Wellington. The other one goes right and runs right through the heart of Kotagiri. The one through Coonoor being the more popular route, we took the other one. At this point we could of course get all poetic and start quoting Robert Frost but let’s just say that the route we chose turned out to be spectacular and by the end we were glad we had gone right when everyone else was going left.
“The road from Coimbatore to Mettupalayam was dead boring. Trucks coming at you like they want to crush you under their wheels like you’re some ugly bug”
Till Mettupalayam it was dead boring. Trucks coming at you like they want to crush you under their wheels like you’re some ugly bug. Jaywalkers. Mad bikers who wore their sunglasses on this cloudy day like they were immortality charms. A few animals. Nothing interesting at all. All the usual stuff that you’d get on any Indian highway. Zigzagging between them I’m glad of the Duster’s company. Its rigid and strong monocoque coupled with the dual airbags and the omnipresence of ABS, ESP and EBD provides immense reassurance. In a tight spot, this is the SUV I’d like to have.
Thankfully, the only tight spot turned out to be a section of road that was being repaired, which meant that the already narrow two-lane road was reduced to a single-lane highway for about half a kilometre. Naturally, more boring stuff followed. Vehicles facing each other with neither room nor desire on the part of their drivers to manoeuvre and free things up.
Having crawled past that mad bit, the road turned out to be a little freer than before. Perhaps a result of the entire traffic being held up at that deadlock. Shameless opportunists that we are, we didn’t stop to bother. Instead we hotfooted our way towards that all important fork in the road. With 108bhp on tap and a slick shifting six-speed manual at our disposal, the remaining 18km to Mettupalayam went by before we had the chance to spell B-L-I-N-K.
“With 108bhp on tap and a slick shifting six-speed manual at our disposal, the remaining 18km to Mettupalayam went by before we had the chance to spell B-L-I-N-K”
A quick tea stop later, we hung a right and things began to change before a kilometre had passed under the Duster’s wheels. The traffic thinned out, the jaywalkers vanished, and things turned interesting for the first time as we headed straight for the Nilgiris that loomed in the distance. Unlike the climbs in the Western Ghats or the ones in the mighty Himalayas, the slope isn’t particularly steep. The narrow two-lane road has some of the best surfacing I’ve seen in a long, long time.
This, was going to be fun. Not just another boring drive up to a viewing point teeming with tourists.
Blasting up the mountainside at a reckless 50kmph, because the police maintain strict vigil on these roads, I was amazed by the Duster’s torque spread. Barring the few hairpins, I didn’t need second at all while only a handful of tight turns needed enough slowing down to merit third. Most of the climb was accomplished in fourth, with fifth being used occasionally as well. Sixth was used too but only going downhill, on the way back.
“Unlike the climbs in the Western Ghats or the ones in the mighty Himalayas, the slope isn’t particularly steep”
The road through Kotagiri is incredibly pretty with lush tea gardens on either side of the road stretching down to the valley on one side and up to the summit on the other. For a man who hails from Bengal and has vivid memories of the tea gardens lining the sides of the mountains on the climb to Darjeeling, the sight of these green Nilgiri carpets, ready for the plucking and the brewing, brought with it immense nostalgia. I decided a cup of tea was in order. If for nothing else, then just to savour the flavour of the nostalgia for a bit more.
We stopped at this wonderful roadside café-cum-homestay called Stop and Refresh where breakfast of toast and omelette and a cup of lemon tea – hot chocolate for Rohit – felt like manna. Mind you, the tea here isn’t the frothy milky substance that you get across most of the country, the stuff where you boil the tea leaves with the milk and effectively ruin the subtlety of the leaves. No, the folks here not only know how to grow but also know how to brew. It is a delicate honey-brown concoction distilled in a clear glass tumbler with a sprinkling of mint leaves and a dash of lemon juice for added zest. Sugar of course is to be added as required. It was one of the most flavourful cups I have had in a long time.
“Climbing ever higher, the weather got cooler and soon we switched off the Duster’s automatic climate control and rolled down the windows”
The Nilgiris is famous for its medicinal plants and all sorts of herbal and ayurvedic solutions to unfathomable problems and having shopped for a few herbal products, we decided to get going again. Climbing ever higher, the weather got cooler and soon we switched off the Duster’s automatic climate control and rolled down the windows. The chilly breeze that hit our faces was colder than what was being blown through the AC vents, but it wasn’t the sting of the cool air on our faces that struck me as a surprise. It was the freshness of it.
All too often we city slickers forget what it’s like to fill our lungs with freshness. It is addictive. It’s almost like you can’t have enough of it. You want to fill your lungs to the brim, or diaphragm, and keep it all there. The fact that this freshness was accompanied by a picture postcard view only helped matters and our mood. If I were blessed with the twin facets of tune and rhythm then I would have broken out into a song, but not wanting to scare a lolling Rohit in the spacious rear seat of the Renault, I hummed instead. As the Duster and I wound our way towards Doddabetta, it struck me that there was hardly any traffic on this route. Sure, there were a few vehicles but for the most part you’re on your own. Which is excellent.
“If I were blessed with the twin facets of tune and rhythm then I would have broken out into a song, but not wanting to scare a lolling Rohit in the spacious rear seat of the Renault, I hummed instead”
Doddabetta arrived exactly three hours and fifteen minutes after we had set off. We parked in the car park and walked the last few hundred metres to the viewing point. The sight was breathtaking. There on the hillside facing us was the hill station of Ooty. Nestled in the middle of the green hill, it could have been any city from any other Alpine region in the world. And if you’re looking for a better view then just head to the observatory with its telescope.
Back at the Duster, we decided lunch would have to be at the Blue Hills restaurant on Commercial Road in Ooty. It serves one of the best biryanis you can get here. Lunch hour and the restaurant, both being twenty minutes away we arrived just in time. An hour later, thoroughly satiated, we were more than ready to head back. A journey that would be just as wonderful as the one that we had already made to get to Doddabetta.