Crowd losing in Dandeli's forests and Gokarna's beaches
It had been a while since we took off like we do every once in a while. Finance and circumstance would inevitably play spoilsport and kill our plans. So when we were headed in the direction of Dharwad, it was with a slight sense of disbelief - that we were actually on the road after all this while. We started in the wee hours only to get stuck in a traffic jam a hundred kilometres outside town. At 2 am! Really! Of all the traffic jams in the world, 2 am traffic jams, jammed among a million intercity containers and other transit sundry, are the least fun. After some sympathetic grunting and groaning for my friend driving, I went right off to sleep. And woke up to broad daylight, that touched a hilly landscape with cool fingers. The unbearable heat of the summer that would presently follow took its time in making an entrance. The landscape was dotted with placid windmills that marked the course of a languid breeze - or so I think. It would take more than little poof of a breeze to coax any movement from those giant blades. We'd made good time in the early hours of dawn. By we, I mean my friend behind the wheel. We zipped by mango groves and banana plantations and desolate landscape, by turns.
About seven in the morning, we took a deviation on the highway and slipped into a road that appeared to lead to a sleepy little town. No sooner we'd crossed the toll, we were stopped by cops with huge rifles. The elections were a sniff away and they were being excessively aggressive. But nevertheless, polite in their own way. Dharwad is apparently the current Chief Minister's constituency and had produced many proud sons, and daughters in the past. It's the twin to the city of Hubli and is the administrative headquarters of the two. Dharwad wasn't a stop made for travel purposes. We didn't plan on staying more than a couple of hours - our business in Dharwad was to pick a friend and buy a disgraceful amount of Dharwad Peda. For the record, Dharwad is famous for its incredibly delicious pedas. Takur Peda's small and unassuming establishment - a balcony of sort of an almost derelict but nevertheless charming old building, belies the fact that it's even heard of across the Atlantic and has business from those whereabouts. But taste the peda and you'll believe anything about it. After picking our friend up, and stuffing ourselves to the gills with idilis his aunt made and buying an armload of sweets, we headed for Dandeli.
Dandeli is famous for its wildlife sanctuary that's apparently teeming with tigers, elephants, black panthers. leopards, gaur, deer and all such animals, and it was the possibility of spotting some of these in the wild that took us there. The River Kali that runs through the forest, is tempestuous and beautiful, and offers some great rapids in the monsoons that are worthy of whitewater river rafting. In the summer, it's languid mostly, cleverly hiding the violence she's capable of. The River Kali is home to crocodiles and offer great scope for angling.
After wandering aimlessly around Dandeli Town for a while, we enquired at the forest department about possible locales to visit. The road forked to the right and the left - to the left lay safari opportunities and possible animal sightings and to the right, a place called Syntheri Rocks. Eyes widened suitably in alarm whenever we enquired about Syntheri Rocks. So we took right - towards danger and whirlpools at this place called Syntheri Rocks. We drove a long and winding road with roadsigns exclusively in Kannada. For your own good, travel with a guide (who obviously can read Kannada) or with someone who can read the language. Or you just might find yourself either in the middle of the Kali or passing a Thank You For Visiting signboard. But since three out of four of us could read Kannada, we took all the right turns, all the while keeping our eyes peeled for some sign of wildlife. The forest was kindling dry and by the patches of ash, looked like it had its fair share of forest fires. We spotted black-faced langurs perched on the trees, bounding across trees and scampering up trees every time we stopped to take a picture. Clearly, they were camera-shy and did not appreciate our paparazzi ways.
Many monkeys and a stopover at a watch tower later - watchers looked out for forest fires from these posts - we finally stopped at a hillside. We were parched from the long drive and to our delight, a very enterprising man had parked an Omni filled with tender coconut - good business sense or what. he charged a premium, but we didn't care. A plunging drop and many massive, steep steps down the gorge, an emerald pool glistened invitingly up at us. A small shelf in the makeup of the pool made a small waterfall of sorts, like a fountain in a rich Arab's living room. The way down was not easy. And did no special favors for my vertigo. But once at the bottom, the view was something else and then some more. The family that came before us, was just leaving as we made our way down - leaving us alone with the creaking cicadas, the rustling trees, the silent rocks that towered on two sides and the siren pool. The pool that looks innocuous enough has claimed many lives with its strong undercurrents and powerful whirlpools. So swimming in it might be the last thing you ever do. But there's no harm in sitting on the edge and dipping your feet in the clear water. The water was just right. Where cool and warm meet, that you can't tell one from the other. No sooner had the wake of dipping our feet in the water calmed down, little fish came and nibbled at our toes. Cute little fish, darting like like inquisitive busybodies.
Syntheri Rocks is apparently named after Ms. Cinthera, an English lady who is supposed to have discovered the place. From our comfortable perch, we began to take stock of our surroundings. The monolithic granite stone that loomed 300 ft above us is a huge limestone rock that was formed by volcanic activity. Along the stone steps that we'd sauntered down, there are edifices that contained geological tidbits on various volcanic rock formations. Though it appears like a spring, the water body is part of the River Kaneri, a tributary of River Kali. The rock that towered above us was draped with beehives. Black and thick and heavy, they hung with palpable threat. If anything untoward was to happen, the pool would be our only refuge. But nothing did. The afternoon was a spider's silver yarn, quiet and unbroken. Nothing ruined the delicate balance of that hour we spent, making friends with fish with tiger stripes. We consoled ourselves at the non-event of seeing any wildlife - at least we saw some tiger fish, hey! A little while after, we decided to head back. I did not look forward to the climb back. Some of those steps were made higher than my knee. Instead we took the footpath up, which preceded the stone steps. It was steep. But not too bad - for everyone else. Me being badly out of shape, had my wind knocked clear out of me.
One more round of tender coconuts later, we were ready to head out to wherever the road would take us. No sooner we sat in the car, two tempo travellers filled to its gills with people, a jeep (stuffed with unruly boys) and a couple of cars bounced down the red dirt road. What timing. Syntheri Rocks just isn't the same with strange company - far from tame, it commands respect. Without it, the place holds a stony discourse with you. If you're quiet enough, you hear a lot more. On our way out of the forest, we spotted two giant squirrels. With luxuriant red tails and cunning pointy ears. That's the only other wildlife Dandeli treated us to that day. We decided to come back in the monsoons. Though summer is supposed to be the best time to catch some wildlife sightings. But at least in the monsoons, the trees would be lush again and that would be something to return for.
Getting out of the forest is a little tricky. A. All the signs are in Kannada and are strategically placed that foliage covers them. B. It's a forest, there's really nobody to stop and ask directions from. C. Google maps is not hundred percent reliable. But after a few circuitous roundabouting and goingroundincircles, we found our way out and headed for Gokarna. The road to Gokarna is beautiful. And that's understating it. Hills on one side and sea on the other. And a lot of containers on the road, twisting and careening around bends like they were a Vespa. You need to have your wits about you on this highway.
We reached Gokarna by sundown. The thing about Gokarna is that, if you don't know Gokarna or you aren't with someone who doesn't know Gokarna, don't get there after sundown. If you don't know where you're going, you need the mercy and the love of god to get to where you think you want to go. The cliffs hold off and pretend to have no little lanes that lead to the sanctuary of the many homestays that dot the beaches. The Shiv Prasad Homestay is a nice enough place. Cheap and comfy. But we decided we wanted to stay on the beach. A walk down what looked like someone's backyard and suddenly, without warning, we were on the beach. It was well after sundown and a moon was making its way up the sky, ritualistically sprinkling stars among the clouds. We were on Kudle Beach. One of Gokarna's more popular beaches.
Gokarna has many beaches, of which Om, with its eponymous shape, is indisputably the most popular one. A temple town and a beach destination, Gokarna carries these two extreme personas with seasoned élan. Its name literally translates into 'cow's ear' and has a rather interesting legend to its name. It so turned out that Ravana, with his eyes on the atmalinga - the most potent and supreme embodiment of Lord Shiva - went on a penance on Mount Kailasha. The atmalinga, believed to grant absolute happiness on any worshipper, is what the gods prayed to, to free themselves from the cycle of rebirth. Lord Shiva was so impressed with Ravana's austerities that he offered to grant him any boon - and predictably Ravana asked for the atmalinga - giving the gods a lot to worry about. Ravana had some notoriety as a mischief-maker and granting him invincibility wasn't in the best interest of everyone. Shiva not to one to go back on his word, granted the atmalinga, but on the clause that Ravana was to make the journey back home on foot and never once to place it on the ground - for it would be rooted there for all eternity.
Meanwhile, the gods consulted Ganapati, the remover of all obstacles for his expertise. Ravana's fastidiousness about his rites was public knowledge and as he approached Gokarana, Lord Vishnu blotted out the sun - time for Ravana's evening rites. Just when Ravana was beginning to worry, Ganapati appeared in the guise of a Brahmin boy. When asked if he would hold it till Ravana was done, he pretended to reluctantly agree on the condition that he would hold it till he could bear its weight and would put it down after calling for Ravana three times. Just as Ravana returned to a linga that was rooted to the ground forever, Vishnu withdrew his sudarshana chakara and the sun shone again. Ravana realised that he'd been had and tried to uproot the linga using brute force - so much so that he dented the linga and it resembled a cow's ear - otherwise Gokarana.
Gokarana is strewn with peaceful beaches. Some so quiet that you get the feeling that it's private - your own piece of pristine paradise. Forgive the alliterative tripping, but that's exactly what it feels like. take your pick from Kudle Beach, Paradise Beach, Half-moon Beach and Gokarna Beach.
Being the middle of summer, we expected to be tripping and falling over tourists. This endless stretch, scantly peppered with humanity was a surprise. Between November and March, Gokarna comes alive - a veritable touristy carnival. But not tonight. Tonight, Kudle Beach belonged to us and a few others. The price to pay for a beach to yourselves is a not-so-good, horribly overpriced dinner. But we hardly noticed - this was our first meal since breakfast. A moon, few nights short of full, climbed up the sky and looked down at the curling sea, turning its waves into glistening mercury. The clouds made funny shapes - I swear I saw the sea witch in the sky and the stars beach bummed. Oh what a life. We stumbled across the beach - you never walk on white sand - until we reached the wet tips of the shore. Now there, we walked - all along the beach looking for accommodation. And right at the end, way across, a row of little red cottages with no visible sign (the sign wasn't working) waved us over. Strawberry Farm Cottages - 400 a night - nice enough for beach bummers. We fell right in and slept a drunken sleep, while the ebb of the ocean made for a bluesy lullaby.
I slept well through the night until someone flicked the daylights on - there are no gradual early mornings on the coast. The terracota-tiled roof let the boisterous sun in through the sunroof. I blinked into the light thinking it must have been well over nine in the morning. And I'd had grand plans of shooting the dawn! Too late for that. But nevertheless, I slipped out for a stroll.
The beach was empty. And the sun was taking its time with the summer heat. In no time the soft white sand would be hot enough to fry an egg on and bake our feet. But right then, it was the idyllic beach holiday. Kudle Beach is a sweet curve between two hillocks that stand sentinel on either side. The Arabian Sea stretched out far and beyond - being from Cochin, the Queen of the Arabian Sea, I have this inexplicable love for this sea. And meeting her here was like meeting a dear, old friend. There's something about being alone with the sea - suddenly, you know what it's like to just be. Among all that constant movement and crashing upon the rocks, you know there is indefinite stillness - a stillness so savage and so dynamic. A reminder that everything too, shall pass. Love the moment, and love it well, for it will pass. I headed back an hour later and then checked the time. It was a little after seven! Should have known dawn takes its business seriously in these parts.
Once everyone had their share of sleeping in or morning strolls; turned out that every one was a little selfish with their sea strolls - we all went walking by ourselves - we headed for some breakfast. By now, it was well after nine. And the beach burnt. Along the wet sand, everything was hunky-dory perfect. We strolled across a beach with a hangover - revellers from the last night had carelessly strewn beer and coke bottles on the sand. Stupid boys mostly and some stupid girls. This kind of behaviour makes me wish I could take those responsible far out into the sea and feed them to the sharks. A little respect for nature, is that asking for too much? While we tap danced across the beach towards less feet-cooking terra firma, we saw people head out to sea, armed with beer and lesser forms of hydration, on brightly-coloured boats. These boats take you far out to sea, where you might spot a dolphin or two. In the season, Gokarna is huge on water-sports -banana boat rides, snorkelling amongst colourful fish and even parasailing. Fishing trips are another thing that's big here - what's a visit to the coast without one of those, huh?
Remember the Shiv Prasad Homestay from last night? Well, even if you don't want to spend the night there, they let you park your car there for Rs.100 a night. We got the car and headed towards Om Beach. There are less fortunate souls who walk their way around. Gokarna on foot is exciting - though scaling all those cliffs can be crazy tiresome. And being bumpy country, the chances of autorickshaws bouncing along are far and few. Om Beach is one of the most popular beaches and just outside its precincts, autos waited like chauffeured vehicles. Om Beach looks like a huge Om from the heights of the cliffs - Gokarna clearly has gone all all in its devotion for Lord Shiva. And as the God is believed to have been, Gokarna is a huge hit, pun intended, with the reefer-happy crowd. You could idle lifetimes away on Om Beach.
At the Namaste Cafe, breakfasts and the view are delicious and laid back. You could spend the entire day there, just being. Your own beach bummer brand of meditating. The gazebo like cafe was filled with happy people - the no make up, sunglasses and shorts wearing, hair-tied-into-a-careless-bun, sandy chappals, leaning against the back of their chairs, juice/ice tea/ beer in hand variety. At the far corner, a labrador in true beach bummer spirit, lolled in the sun. Namaste Cafe is a good food stop. Our lazy breakfast stretched into early noon. It with a lot of effort and reluctance we left Gokarna. It was Sunday and we had regular life waiting for us in less than eighteen hours. Ugh! But for a long overdue, much needed weekend getaway, this wasn't too bad.