Indian Hill Railways

A rail tour of India's remarkable Hill Station railways offers both the enthusiast and general train tourist a wonderful opportunity to experience a piece of India and railway history. To cover the Shimla, Darjeeling and Nilgiri Hill Railways in the timeframe of a regular holiday - in this case 3-weeks - requires a lot of travelling, as Ffestiniog Travel guest David Peel, found out. But the sightseeing content and railway experiences certainly made it a worthwhile odyssey. David shares his thoughts of Ffestiniog Travel's 2017 Indian Hill Railways tour in this unedited, candid account!

We hope you enjoy reading this blog and invite you to share your comments, reactions and any similar experiences in relation to it.

Delhi Railway Museum - © Maria Cook
Tindharia Works - © Maria Cook
Mayfair Hotel, Darjeeling - © Maria Cook
Attari-Wagah Frontier Post - © Bob Cable
Taj Mahal - © Bob Cable
Siliguri Junction on the DHR - © Michael Whitehouse
Golden Temple - © Ray Smith
ZDM-3 No. 192 at Kalka Station - © Ray Smith
Shimla to Kathleeghat Steam Charter - © James Waite
Nilgiri Railway - © Bob Cable
Shimla, India

As one gets older, the ‘bucket list’ gets shorter, and a keen eye is always open for those destinations still on the list. Even if one of these is spotted in the endless stream of catalogues dropping on your mat, it may not, for many possible reasons, be as attractive as you hoped it would be. However, when Ffestiniog Travel’s 2017 brochure advertised ‘Indian Hill Railways’ as a 21-day tour, the itinerary was read particularly carefully, did not disappoint in any way and so a booking was made.

Thus it was that on Sunday 19 February 2017, by courtesy of South West Trains and National Express, we duly checked-in at Heathrow Terminal 4 for the 20.50 JET airways flight to Delhi and the connecting domestic flight to Amritsar. After sluggish transits of both the International and Domestic sections of Delhi airport, plus a delayed take-off for Amritsar, we finally arrived at the Ritz Plaza Hotel in the mid-afternoon on Monday (Indian time is 5½ hours ahead of BST).

Amritsar has three ‘must do’ attractions for both tourists and railway enthusiasts alike, and prime amongst these is of course the Golden Temple. This is the holiest site for the Sikh religion and is set on an artificial lake, surrounded by a large complex of associated buildings. The whole complex is always very busy, and the Temple’s own refectory manages to provide 10,000 meals per day, made on the spot and served free to Sikhs, devotees and pilgrims. Fast food on an industrial scale, and staffed entirely by volunteers! Prior to our own lunch in a local restaurant outside the complex, a visit was also made to the site of the infamous Amritsar Massacre by the British Army in 1919 (see the internet for details). After lunch we were then transported by coach to the Indo/Pakistan border crossing to witness the nightly ‘gate closing’ ceremony. This is a boisterous and nationalistic ‘tour de force’ by the border guards of both countries. The large crowd – especially on the Indian side, and seated in extensive tiered stands – is whipped into a nationalistic frenzy by a belligerent ‘Master of Ceremonies’ before the ceremony itself begins. It’s quite a spectacle and the ‘action’ lasts for 30 minutes or so, after which spectators eventually drift away, calm down and return to the extensive car parking area in local fields.

The first railway interest began the following day. An early start from the hotel took us to Amritsar station to catch the 08.10 ‘Paschim Express’ as far as Ambala, passing from the Punjab into Haryana State, and finishing some 250km to the east. By European standards Amritsar station was appalling. Even by subsequent Indian experiences it was dirty, smelly, cluttered and run-down – we were thankful to depart!

The electrically-hauled 08.10, a broad gauge (5’6’’) train of 24 coaches (a not untypical load!) disgorged us at Ambala at 12.35, and we were given time at this busy station to photograph both diesel- and electric-hauled trains passing through. Additionally, on plinths outside the station, an ex-Shimla line diesel no.152 (2’6’’ gauge) and a metre gauge YP 4-6-2 no. 2825 were on display, both in well-maintained external condition. A coach journey then took the 29-strong tour group to Chandigarh station (via a lunch stop on the way) to view metre gauge YG 2-8-2 no. 3437 and ex-Shimla diesel no. 155, both on plinths outside and again well-presented. Then it was onwards to our Taj Hotel in central Chandigarh, a city planned out by the architect Le Corbusier in the 1950s, post Independence.

From Chandigarh it was only a short coach ride next day to reach the first of our ‘Indian Hill Railways’, the Shimla line from Kalka. This is where the broad gauge line from Chandigarh finishes and meets end-on the 2’6’’ tracks running 94km through to Shimla. Kalka itself is at an elevation of 658m, and apart from a relatively level/slightly downhill central section the line climbs steadily to reach 2086m above sea level (6883ft) at Shimla station. Our 3-coach charter train was not scheduled to leave Kalka until 12.30, which gave us ample time to walk the short distance down the track to the engine shed and repair shops and to photograph everything in sight.

Regular steam working here ended in 1971, the first diesels arriving here in 1955. The line is now operated by diesel hydraulics of Class ZDM3, six of which (built 2008/2009) have double-cab bodies for better visibility than their single-cab predecessors of the same class. One steam loco, KC Class 2-6-2T no.520 has been retained for special workings and is based at Shimla. The line is mostly a gruelling climb on a ruling grade of 1 in 33, with 919 curves, 864 bridges and 109 tunnels – the views however are dramatic! It was originally built as 2ft gauge in 1898-1903, but re-gauged in 1905 to 2’6’’. Its main purpose at that time was to connect Shimla to the rest of the railway system. Later Shimla became known as the summer ‘capital’ of India during the later Raj period (1911 –1947) when British Civil Servants vacated Delhi for the cooler mountain air. In 2007 the Government of Himachal Pradesh declared the line heritage property (though Kalka is just in Haryana). As from 8 July 2008 UNESCO added this railway to the World Heritage list, thus achieving the same status as both the Darjeeling and Nilgiri lines.

The accommodation provided on our 12.30 departure was sumptuous; 1+1 seating in armchairs, with curtains, table lamps and carpets – in total contrast to the broad gauge train from Amritsar to Ambala! The track is single with passing loops, and we were able on several occasions to disembark at these loops and photograph both our charter and downhill service trains. Progress was not quick; the timetabled service takes 5h 35min to Shimla and we took slightly longer, arriving at dusk at 18.15, and then transferring to the excellent colonial style Clarks Hotel. The hotel is only accessed by an enormous flight of steps despite its entrance being on the main ‘road’ through the town.

Shimla is surprisingly large, and spreads itself over several steep hillsides and therefore varies considerably in altitude depending on where you are standing! The streets for road traffic are narrow in the extreme and this traffic is incessant. However, due to the steepness and curvature of the available road space, traffic is restricted to relatively small vehicles. Much of central Shimla is happily pedestrianised, though just as steep! If you can drive (and park) in Shimla, you can drive anywhere!

Next day (Friday 24 February) we sampled a trip by steam. Number 520 was diligently prepared at the local shed for a short, one-way 23½km run down to Kathleegaht with our 3-coach charter train (though not with the same stock as yesterday). The engine was obviously not in the best of health, but looked fine and got us to our destination, with photographic opportunities on the way. A rare treat, apparently. The engine had been built by North British in Glasgow in 1906, withdrawn from service in 1971, refurbished in 2001 and is reserved for occasional use only.

Returning to Shimla by road, a visit to the former Viceroy’s residence came next, then a climb to the highest point in town, Monkey Hill, where the resident monkeys take delight in pinching your glasses off your face – and did! A stroll along The Mall (the main shopping street) before dinner completed another memorable day.

After an all too brief stay, we were to depart Shimla next day by the 10.35 service train back to Kalka. We did of course need reserved seats, as trains have only five coaches and these service train carriages only have a seating capacity of 30+ each. Arriving at Shimla station nice & early afforded an opportunity to examine the facilities more closely. The single platform is long and curves towards the loco depot beyond the station, where KC 520 was receiving minor repairs after its exertions of yesterday together with two or three diesel hydraulic locos one of which was to head our downhill train. At the other end of the platform (which had a run-round loop) is a turntable on which the ‘local service’ railbus is turned after each journey. Further on there are several covered carriage sidings beyond the signal box, the entire line being controlled by semaphores. The platform itself commands an impressive overall view across adjacent hillsides, down the valley straight in front and out to the distant Himalayas.

Further stops were made on the downhill run to cross uphill workings, and a ten minute stop was scheduled at Barog to buy refreshments from the stall on the platform, and to take photos of course! Arrival at Kalka was punctual at 16.10, and as our connecting train to Delhi wasn’t until 17.45 this gave us all time to reflect on the splendidly run Shimla line and its most attractive mountain terminus. Luckily we had also been favoured with glorious weather at Shimla; it rained and snowed the day after we left, and they had had three feet of snow the previous week!

The 17.45 ‘Shatabdi Express’ to Delhi set off on time and an at-seat meal was soon provided. This 17-coach electrically hauled ‘express’ was scheduled to take 4h 10min for the 269km journey, an average speed of 64km/h or 43mph – hardly demanding! We finally arrived on time at New Delhi’s large and busy station at 21.55 though it was a rather late 22.45 before we reached the Lalit Hotel for a 3-night stay in the capital.

On drawing the curtains in our 19th floor room the following morning we were delighted to see that our large window overlooked the adjacent local station Shivaji Bridge, and the long curved approach from New Delhi station in the northerly middle distance! More use would be made of this view later. The morning’s tour itinerary took us along the tourist trail to Humayums Tomb (16th century); India Gate (where the Dehli Marathon had just finished); passed Edwin Lutyen’s Government buildings and Parliament and onwards to the Qutab Minar – all impressive constructions in their own way and well worth seeing, if only briefly. After lunch in central Delhi the rest of the afternoon was spent walking round the National Railway Museum. This is set in parkland, with an outstanding collection typical of steam, diesel and electric motive power that had graced India’s rails over the decades. The exhibits are all generally well kept and free from graffiti though not, on a Sunday afternoon, free from being climbed on by children of all ages as visiting families strolled around in apparent ignorance of the many signs saying ‘Please do not climb on the engines’! (We had visited this museum previously in 1987 and the big change since then was the extent to which the trees had grown in 30 years so that, in many instances, the locos are now under a permanent umbrella of branches and much less photographable than before!)

On our 1987 holiday in India we had also seen the Taj Mahal at Agra (as one must) and the next day’s tour highlight was to visit this wondrous sight, by train there & back from Dehli. Having already ‘been there and done that’ we decided not to repeat this tour and have a rest day instead. So we slept until 9am (!), breakfasted leisurely in the sun, and I then ambled round to the nearest road bridge overlooking southbound trains exiting Shivaji Bridge station for some photos. After which a light lunch was followed by a siesta and several further shots of the busy local railway scene, as seen from the bedroom window. The frequency of train movements was fascinating, as was the sheer length of the loco hauled train sets, every one of which had 20-24 carriages; even the local e.m.u.s boasted up to 18. As it happened, our party’s train back from Agra returned 2h late due to pantograph problems on the loco, which were repaired in situ, and we were thankful that we’d had a shorter, more relaxed, day.

Tomorrow we were to be on the move again, so suitcases were duly packed ready for the off. Our train from Delhi was not due to leave until 16.10 however, so the morning was largely filled by visiting the extensive Red Fort complex. Here its history revealed that the entire wealth of India in the 16th century was controlled by 562 princes and their families, ruling the Princely States. This left the poor very poor and the rich very rich, and the local guide was happy to point out that this was the period in which India’s population was at its most divided ever, between rich and poor. Lunch was taken at a local restaurant, though this left the transfer to New Delhi station more than a bit tight, and we boarded our train with barely ten minutes in which to find our sleeping car in a 24-coach rake and get the luggage on board! The service was the ‘Rajdani Express’, and we were to travel 1467km eastwards across the plains of northern India from Uttar Pradesh, through Bihar to reach New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal at 13.10 next day, a 21h journey. The sleeping berths were arranged with six per ‘compartment’; four transverse two-tier berths/corridor/two longitudinal two-tier berths equalled one ‘compartment’ – though only the upper tier folded down for night travel. No doors, just curtains and fixed ladders. One Asian and one European style toilet were available at each end of the sleeping car. Despite each 2nd class car having 72 berths, our party was split over two coaches with ‘locals’ occupying other berths between ourselves – not ideal; some people slept better than others! During the course of the journey, two meals were provided and were brought to us at our seats.

A breath of fresh air was sampled on the platform when we stopped for several minutes around 07.00 at Baurani Jct., after which another six hours brought us (only 5 minutes late) into New Jalpaiguri, our 9th stop (out of 254 stations since Delhi!). A few quick photos were allowed on the station here – plus the broad gauge WG 2-8-2 no.1798 plinthed outside – before transferring, by a selection of eight 4x4 ‘Jeeps’ to the Sinclair Hotel for a late lunch. The remainder of the afternoon was spent visiting the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway’s depot at close by Siliguri Junction, providing our first views of the vintage, but well known, 2ft gauge B Class 0-4-0STs that still work the line.

We arrived (from the Sinclair Hotel) at the same place the following morning to witness the preparation of engine no.01 ‘Tindharia’ for our 2-coach charter train that would take us as far as Kurseong by the end of the day. When this was ready, we boarded in the shed yard and backed down into the narrow gauge platform at Siliguri Jct. The line actually continues further south to New Jalpaiguri, but this section is almost never used nowadays. From Siliguri Jct to Darjeeling the route covers 80km, traverses three loops and six reversals. For almost all the way, the line shares the local road – the Hill Cart Road – sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right in order to keep the tracks as straight as possible (they aren’t!). So far as road traffic is concerned, the line therefore twists unpredictably from side to side, usually diagonally, without any warning other than the engine’s whistle! There are no tunnels to speak of, but frequent watering towers and nine intermediate stations, as the line climbs from 114m at New Jalpaiguri to 2064m (6812ft) at Darjeeling, though the highest point is at Ghum (2245m or 7407ft) about 7km short of Darjeeling. A number of B Class 0-4-0STs are still in service, plus four modern diesel locos. These are maintained at depots at Siliguri, Tindharia (where the repair shops are also located), Kurseong and Darjeeling. The DHR has been a World Heritage site since UNESCO declared it such in 1999 (only the second railway to be so honoured, the first being the Semmering line in Austria the previous year). The line has been subjected to earthquakes and landslides throughout its history, most recently in 2011, as a result of which a full-length service was not possible until December 2015.

We set off from Siliguri Jct. around 09.30 and as far as Sukna (first station, 10km to the north) the track is pretty level and runs largely through woodland. From Sukna onwards the line begins to climb in earnest, and I vacated the train to join one of the eight 4x4 vehicles that were ‘shadowing’ the train’s progress and carrying our luggage. (The roads hereabouts are far too narrow for coaches (except for a few school minibuses); 4x4s are the standard means of passenger transport all the way to Darjeeling and beyond). The drivers had been instructed to get ahead of the train (not difficult!) and to stop wherever we saw a decent photographic location – I was not the only one to jump ship and go for lineside shots rather than simply riding the train. A packed lunch had been provided and was eaten at the lengthy stop at Tindharia Works, where we freely wandered around, viewing several 0-4-0STs undergoing scheduled repairs. The paralleling arrangement worked extremely well, and only when the light was fading did I rejoin the charter train for the run into Kurseong, where we were due to spend the night at the delightful Cochrane Place Hotel. (Significantly, we saw no other trains on this section during this day).

Friday 3 March was the day we finally reached Darjeeling, though we did not leave Kurseong until 12 noon. Initially the small engine shed was visited and photographed, as was the town’s terminal station, at an elevation of 1474m, or 4864ft. Kurseong is the headquarters of the DHR and an archive is also held within the station. To depart towards Darjeeling, the train has to reverse out of the dead-end single platform and, having crossed a police-controlled busy road junction backwards, then sets off and draws forward straight through the main street bazaar. Passage along this road is so close to the adjacent shops and stalls that you could literally grab handfuls of whatever you desire as you pass by!

Until we reached the first station at Tung, I travelled this 7km on the train, but thereafter linesided as yesterday, again successfully. Beyond Tung the hillsides become steeper and the views open up even more as the engine (always, it seemed, on full throttle!) struggled ever upwards. Stops for water seemed frequent, as at Sonada where the station platform was literally a pavement on one side of the busy, narrow shopping street i.e. the main road! Entering Sonada, such was the density of road traffic that our engine delivered a glancing blow to the front wheel of a 4x4 which was unable to find any room to escape! A daily hazard, apparently, on the busier part of the line near Darjeeling. No damage to the engine, but the car…!.

The station at Ghum is on a wide island platform, with tracks both sides and substantial buildings on the island, including a worthwhile DHR Museum on an upper floor, plus an outdoor museum of rolling stock next to the running line. This station is comparatively busy, with the steam-hauled ‘Toy Trains’ – tourist trains from Darjeeling, stopping at the Batasia loop and coming on to Ghum to run round and then return. These are regularly timetabled short excursion trips of only 14km and are popular as they stop at the Batasia loop (5km from Darjeeling) for passengers to get off and admire the panoramic views of the Himalayas in general and Kanchengunga in particular, (8586m or 28,334ft), especially on a clear day. It is of course steeply downhill from Ghum to Darjeeling, and my linesiding 4x4 had to be quick for me to get onto the Batasia loop before the train did. The immediate approach to Darjeeling is slow both by road and by rail, as the engine takes water on the outskirts. Advantage was therefore taken of the bright evening sun to photograph the station environs and the adjacent loco depot before our charter train came in behind no.01 ‘Tindharia’. Another memorable day!

The following morning’s tour on foot visited a few of Darjeeling’s historic sights and was slow and easy. The day then continued in similar vein by watching some televised Test Match cricket between India and Australia in the afternoon. Down-time is essential on a 3-week tour! In the earlier days of the Raj, when Calcutta was India’s capital – as it was until 1911 – the British upper class migrated to Darjeeling’s cooler climate in the summer to escape the heat of the plains, as they later did at Shimla, and doubtless played much cricket besides!

Sunday 5 March began by walking to the station for our own ‘Toy Train’ ride to the Batasia loop. This scheduled service (at 09.40) stops at the loop going uphill (only), where photos were again taken before progressing to Ghum. Here there was time to visit both museums and witness the next ‘Toy Train’ come in with a steam engine (leaking badly) on the front and a diesel at the rear. On our return leg, we halted suddenly on the outskirts of Darjeeling to find rails being replaced immediately in front of us. No warning, just a red flag in the ‘two foot’ a few metres ahead of the work gang. Within five minutes we passed over the site – I’m sure the remaining screws would be fitted as soon as we’d traversed the ‘secure’ new rail! On returning to the Mayfair Hotel another leisurely afternoon followed, as tomorrow’s itinerary looked fairly hectic.

Three internal flights on the same day is not something to look forward to, though in fairness it has to be said that JET airways were to blame for altering their schedules at relatively short notice – not the tour operator. Thus it was that to get from Kolkata (ex-Calcutta) to Chennai (ex-Madras), we had to fly via Mumbai (ex-Bombay). In addition to which we had firstly to get to Kolkata from Bagdogra, which meant driving away from Darjeeling at 07.30 with our luggage, in a convoy of eight 4x4s to Kurseong (an awful road!), and then losing about 4,000ft via multiple hairpin bends to reach the valley floor and Bagdogra airport. Fortunately our luggage could be checked through to Chennai, but three servings of airport queues, passport checks, security checks and cramped seating in one day is not good news. Although we landed at Chennai on time, it was still midnight before lights out at the Raintree Hotel.

Next day we were on the move again, though this time by Indian Railways (broad gauge). As the train to Coimbatore did not set off until 11.30, a short drive-by tour (on a coach) fitted in views of St Thomas’s cathedral, the waterfront, and the fort and brought us directly to Chennai Central station. Just why our coach driver could not approach the entrance closer than the wrong side of ten lanes of moving traffic is a mystery, but all 29 of us (carrying our luggage) did actually make it to the other side safely! Score for the local guide; 0/10!

The train we were booked on was the 11.30 ‘West Coast Super Fast Express’; a mis-nomer if ever there was one, as the 496km journey, with 11 stops was scheduled to take 7h 55min at an average speed of 62km/h (39mph), and was 50 minutes late into the bargain on reaching Coimbatore! No meals were served either, so crisps and water had to suffice. At least the Residency Hotel dinner was very good!

After two comparatively unsatisfactory days on the trot, tomorrow had to be better. It certainly started earlier; 04.45 alarm and 05.30 departure with boxed hotel breakfast, for the train to Ooty from Mettupalayam; in other words the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. As the only uphill train leaves at 07.10 it’s as well not to be late, so we left Coimbatore (the 4th largest city in Tamil Nadu) in good time to have a look round the steam shed at this southern terminus, prior to the climb over the Nilgiri Hills. This is an interesting line in many respects; only one train each way daily (at the time of our visit); 46km long with the lower section rack operated, but not the upper section; steam engines on the rack section, diesel on the upper; steam locos oil fired and all locos at the southern end of the 5-car sets of coaches regardless of direction; metre gauge and isolated from any other line of this gauge. The scheduled journey time is 4h 50min with six intermediate stops, giving an average speed of 9km/h only over this, the third (from 2005 in Nilgiri’s case) in the trio of the UNESCO-listed ‘Indian Hill Railways’ World Heritage Sites.

After taking photos in relatively poor early morning light, we departed on time in the full train; 5-aside seating on bench seats facing each other. These seats were clearly designed for 5 Indian backsides – or 3 Americans! – and again our party was split over several compartments. This was in slam-door stock with no corridors or inter-coach connections; neither was there any luggage space, ours being taken on by road to Ooty. The first stop was at Kallar (6.6km) where the rack section begins, and the first opportunity to hop out and take photos – which half the train at least seemed anxious to do, though mostly these were ‘selfies’! The rack & pinion system used is the ABT system, after the Swiss engineer Roman Abt, but also known as the Alternate Biting Teeth system! The X Class 0-8-2T steam engines are compounds, with the high pressure steam driving the adhesion wheels and the low pressure steam driving the rack wheel, placed centrally between the running rails. Each loco has an on-board diesel engine to heat the oil and to drive the pump that feeds the oil into the burners in the firebox. The engines (of Swiss manufacture at Winterthur) used to be coal-fired but are now fitted with a 2250 litre fuel oil tank and an 850 litre tank for the diesel engine. When stationary – whilst taking water for instance – you could be forgiven for thinking that you had diesel propulsion! The average gradient of the rack section is 1 in 24½, with a maximum of 1 in 12. The changeover from lower to upper sections is at Coonoor (27.3km) where diesels of Class YDM4 take over for the run to Udagamandalam (Ooty for short!). This section is generally not as steep as the lower section, though the exit from Coonoor is at 1 in 25. Over the Coonoor to Ooty section there are four trains daily each way; both steam and diesel locos are serviced at Coonoor shed. Apart from passing loops the track is single throughout, and climbs from an elevation of 328m at Mettupalayam to 2210m (7293ft) at Ooty. Various stations on the line have been used in popular films; Coonoor for instance featuring in David Lean’s ‘Passage to India’.

During the uphill journey the engine took water a number of times, and at these locations – usually stations – passengers detrained freely to wander around. Only at Hillgrove were there any substantial buildings, where refreshments were on sale which inevitably attracted a host of local monkeys on the lookout for freebies! At least ten minutes were allowed at the Coonoor stop to change engines, purchase food and to visit the motive power depot adjacent to this, the main intermediate station on the line. The remaining leg of the journey to Ooty behind diesel traction was uneventful, and the coaches were slightly less crowded. Much of the scenery was dominated by tea plantations on the steep hillsides and we arrived at our final rail destination on time, where our loco did not of course run round, but stayed at the ‘downhill’ end.

Two nights at the Taj Savoy Hotel then followed – a restored Raj-era hotel in the residential district and just the place to round off a lengthy tour. The last full day was spent initially at a viewpoint located on the 2nd highest peak in the Western Ghats, at 2630m (8680ft), and overlooking Ooty. The obligatory visit to a tea factory came next, and after lunch in Coonoor it was back to Ooty to walk round the Botanical Gardens and finally – another relic of the Raj – the boating lake, complete with a miniature railway (of sorts!). In those earlier days, Ooty served the same purpose for the British and Indian hierarchies in Madras as the two hill stations already visited.

The journey back to England commenced next day with a lengthy coach ride to Coimbatore airport in order to fly onwards to Mumbai for the overnight flight to Heathrow. Departing Ooty at 13.00 and descending about 6,000ft by the only steep, narrow, twisting road capable of taking trucks and coaches, the ride was not without incident. Half way down, a long slow-moving queue indicated something was wrong – a large lorry heading uphill had broken down right on the apex of yet another hairpin bend. This meant that our coach appeared not to have enough room to bypass this obstruction at all, but, via at least a 19-point turn in virtually no space, our driver managed to get past and receive a round of applause!

In the final few miles to the airport we passed through our only rain shower in the entire holiday, for which we counted ourselves extremely fortunate. Despite the delay coming downhill from Ooty we were still two hours early for the 19.00 check-in onto the 21.00 flight to Mumbai. Taking off 20 minutes late and getting stacked at Mumbai did not auger well, though on paper we had ample time prior to boarding an hour ahead of our 02.25 JET flight to London. The architecture inside Mumbai airport is stunning – and so is the bureaucracy, negatively! The slowness of the transfer between the Domestic and International terminals and the snails’ pace long queues for passport and security checks amidst heaving crowds (at turned midnight) absorbed almost all of the available time, so that last-minute shopping was precisely that. Beware Mumbai airport!

Ten hours later we were inside a relatively quiet Terminal 4 before – just – catching the 07.45 National Express coach to Bournemouth. Here South West Trains had thoughtfully disrupted the Saturday timetable through engineering works, so the extra wait allowed us time for tea and bacon butties in the station Café – a homecoming worth waiting for and very welcome!

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