To homesick Brits stationed here during the Raj, this hilly corner of western Tamil Nadu looked like a small bit of England. So they scattered the lakes with English names. Visitors to the Red Hills can still picnic on the shores of Emerald Lake and Parson’s Valley Lake. One waterbody, however, took its identity from a rather more tumultuous event: Avalanchi resounds with the crash of a rockslide that occurred early in the 19th century.
Its name, it turns out, is about the most dramatic thing about Avalanchi. A trip to this relatively unknown town of the same name, overshadowed by the crumbling glory of Ooty (Udhagamandalam), is the perfect way to soothe Big City nerves. As one drives along the 28 km road southwest of Ooty, the traffic thins out and then disappears almost completely. Only the occasional village interrupts the calming scenery on either side: winding roads that wrap themselves around the hills, forests with towering trees, well-maintained plantations and a liberal sprinkling of wild flowers.
Now and then, the thick foliage parts to reveal a sheet of water, but it’s only after rounding several bends that the lake shows itself in its entirety. On a cloudless day, the lake is intensely aquamarine. As one drinks in its immense beauty, one also registers the crisp mountain air and the surreal silence, broken only by birdsong.
Fortunately, Ooty acts like a giant sponge for the crowds and the noise. This makes the lush banks of Avalanchi Lake ideal for lotus-eating. Spread a blanket on the grassy banks and lie back with a book, or simply absorb the views. The surrounding peaks create a stunning backdrop for the celestial drama of ceaselessly moving clouds—dark grey during the monsoon and pale white in other seasons. The stillness is livened up by occasional showers, ranging from the gentle to the vigorous. The Red Hills area lends itself to leisurely wandering. Pack a picnic lunch and stroll along the water’s edge or along one of the paths on the slopes. Have a pair of binoculars handy if birds are of interest: more than 60 species live in the area. Destiny Farmstay, the only all-season resort in these parts, is a perfect place to use as a base. Located on the hill slope that leads down to the backwaters of Avalanchi Dam, the farm’s garden benches and long verandah are ideal for putting up one’s feet. If doing nothing gets tiresome, guests are encouraged to get their hands dirty in the farm’s organic patches, which run down to the backwaters. From iceberg lettuce to zucchini, herbs like rosemary and thyme, and beds of strawberries, there’s plenty to dabble with. For slightly more vigorous activity, there’s horse riding: visitors can ride in a paddock perched dramatically on a plateau overlooking valleys and the lake.
If you like to walk, this is the right place. There are many trekking trails, ranging from easy to difficult, in the entire area, which locals call the Lake District. It encompasses Emerald and Parson’s Valley, 14 km west; Porthimund, 25 km to the northwest; Upper Bhavani, 20 km to the southwest; and the rather drearily named Western Catchments 1, 2 & 3, which are 60 km to the west. However, large parts of the lakes, other than Avalanchi and Emerald, are off-limits and require clearances from the forest department (0423-2445971). Applications need to cite very solid reasons to be approved—simply “trekking” is not acceptable. If you procure a permit—a long, cumbersome process—enlist the services of a resort guide before venturing out.
Choose a hiking trail according to your level of enthusiasm and stamina. The easiest trek is up the hill rising from Avalanchi in a northerly direction. It is a bit steep to begin with, but eases off to take trekkers to a peak that provides panoramic views of the Avalanchi and Emerald lakes. A more vigorous workout comes from walking the unmarked trails towards Emerald Lake and Parson’s Valley and then on to Upper Bhavani. These paths are used by locals and are safe. Mountain bikers can have a free run on Emerald Valley slope, which is considered an exhilarating downhill challenge. (Guests have to carry their mountain and other off-roading bikes; resorts have more basic bikes. Regular bicycles can be rented near the bus stand and lake in Ooty; there may be a deposit.) The roads are flanked by tea gardens. There are also winding paths through the woodlands and grassy slopes, some of which offer fun jumps for experienced bikers along the route. Resorts set up escorted treks and overnight camping trips, but the latter depends on the weather. Camps are pitched within the limits of the resorts. (Guides cost around ₹500, while a day’s trek, combined with an overnight camp, costs ₹1,800 per person.)
The area is part of the 5,500-sq-km Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, so it’s no surprise that the forests are full of wildlife and birds. Birdwatchers will be thrilled by some of the species found here, including white scavenger vultures, grey hornbills, black-orange flycatchers, black eagles and screeching owls. (resort guides conduct half-day walks for ₹500.) Travellers may come across sambar, the Nilgiri tahr, and even the occasional leopard on the road, but such sightings are rare. The region is also home to elephant, gaur, chital, wild boar, mongoose, black buck, langur, porcupine and flying squirrel, but these are more likely to be encountered in one of the surrounding national parks. The Mukurthi National Park is the nearest, but is closed to visitors to protect the highly endangered Nilgiri tahr. The Mudumalai National Park (60 km) offers safaris run by the office of the wildlife warden, Nilgiris district (0423-2445971; ₹165 per head for a one-hour vehicle safari, ₹840 for a 30-minute, four-person elephant back safari; safaris run from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.; no booking required).
Very limited accommodation is available in and around Avalanchi.
Destiny The Farmstay Resort is located on the banks of the backwaters of Avalanchi dam and has to be approached via a patch of rugged forest, which is impassable except for off-road vehicles. Resort guests are asked to assemble at the Destiny parking lot (about 2 km from the resort on the Ooty-Avalanchi road), from where modified army trucks ferry them to their destination. Various categories and combinations of accommodation are available. The resort’s kitchen is fairly versatile but it is a good idea to stick to phulkas, rice options and Indian curries made from fresh farm produce. (0423-2224545; www.littlearth.in/destiny; doubles from ₹7,475; check for season and off-season rates.)
Red Hill Nature Resort overlooks both the Avalanchi and Emerald lakes. The century-old bungalow located inside a 300-acre tea plantation offers 10 rooms, all of them with views either of the lakes or the mountains. The food is simple and delicious. They welcome lunch guests but it is best to call ahead and check.The resort also serves tea processed in its own plantations. (94422 54755; see the Facebook page; tariff varies according to season, availability and special events; doubles ₹9,000; closed for the monsoon from 6 Jun-16 Aug. Visitors can try their hand at picking tea leaves and tea tasting.)
Nilgiri South Division Guest House, run by the Tamil Nadu forest department, is clean and very basic. Located away from the lakes in the tiny Avalanchi village, it has four suites and a trekkers’ shed with 10 beds and shared bathrooms. There’s no restaurant but staff attached to the guesthouse will cook on demand and charge accordingly. (0423-2444083; rooms from ₹1,350; beds ₹100.)
Visitors can also stay in Ooty, which offers plenty of accommodation options across all budget categories. As for eating options, apart from those mentioned above, little else is available in and around Avalanchi. There are roadside shacks but these are functional at best. If planning a day trip, pack food from one of the many establishments in Ooty.
For an experience like no other, take a short trip on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Nilgiri Mountain Railway. Though the train runs from Ooty to Mettupalayam, the recommended stretch is from Coonoor (20 km south of Ooty) to Ooty. In the early morning halflight, the blue-hued train is surreal and toy-like. Passengers mill about on the platform with steaming cups of coffee, eagerly waiting for the guard to blow his whistle at 7.30 a.m. (Another train runs at 9.15 a.m. from Ooty to Coonoor, but bright sunlight robs the landscape of the magic of mists and clouds.) When the train finally chugs out, with a long toot piercing the early morning stillness, it is tempting to hang out of the window and savour the glorious scenery and chilly air. Traversing 18 km in about 90 minutes, the train hugs precarious mountain sides, winds around hillocks, chugs over bridges above high valleys, passes through 10-odd tunnels, reaches a top speed of just over 10 kmph and stops at pretty stations with names like Wellington, Ketti and Lovedale. The views are breathtaking: Lush hills and valleys, clouds sweeping across peaks, and hill slopes carpeted with plantations. Some travellers choose to get off at Ketti (9 km southwest of Ooty), a picturesque little town located in a valley that is the last stop before Ooty, to wander around in the tea plantations. Another option is Lovedale (5 km south-west of Ooty), a scenic town with a population of less than 1,500 and home to the 150-year-old Lawrence School. It was once full of elegant colonial structures but only a handful survive.
Appeared in the September 2012 issue as “Lakeside Rhapsody”. Updated in November 2017.
Located more than 7,200 ft above sea-level, Avalanchi is 28 km southwest of Ooty in the heart of the Nilgiris. Ooty is a hill station in western Tamil Nadu, the capital of Nilgiris district, and about 280 km southwest of Bengaluru.
Air Coimbatore is the nearest airport to Ooty (100 km/2.5-3 hours) and well-connected to other cities. Taxis from Coimbatore airport charge around ₹3,000 for the one-way journey to Avalanchi.
Rail Ooty is the nearest railhead, but the Nilgiri Mountain Railway only runs between Ooty and Mettupalayam. There are no direct trains from Bengaluru, and the only viable route is Bengaluru-Coimbatore-Mettupalayam. From Chennai, there is the convenient Nilgiris Express to Mettupalayam (530km/8 hours).
Road Ooty is around 270 km/6 hours from Bengaluru. Take SH17 (NH275) from Bengaluru to Mysore, followed by NH212 (now NH150A/NH766) to Gundlupet, and finally NH67 (now NH181) from Gundlupet to Ooty. From Ooty, take the road in front of the railway station, head out on Avalanchi Road until you see Avalanchi Lake. From Ooty, taxis can be hired from the bus stand or the railway station for around ₹900 for a one way drop-off at Avalanchi. Buses also ply between Bengaluru and Ooty (for tickets go to www.ksrtc.in).
The best way to experience Avalanchi is on foot. However, have a vehicle handy if you want to access places further away and make the most of your visit, or to travel to Ooty. Cabs can be hired in front of the railway station or bus stand; hotels and resorts also book cabs (₹900). Local buses ply between Ooty and Avalanchi but are irregular; all signage is in Tamil.
The weather ranges from pleasantly cool to bone-chillingly cold. It is cloudy, misty and cold during the rainy season (May-Oct) with average temperatures ranging from 22°C to 10°C. During winter (Nov-Feb), it is cold with temperatures ranging from a high of 20°C to a low of 5°C.
A few years ago, fishing suddenly spiked in popularity in the Nilgiris, especially in the Red Hills area, because of the large number of lakes and reservoirs. Currently, however, fishing is banned in the entire region, except for certain areas such as Glenmorgan reservoir, Sandynulla lake, and Moyar dam. You need a licence from the Assistant Director of Fisheries in Ooty (0423-2443946).