Ah weekends! The time when you catch up with family, friends, your hobbies, the pile of clothes you haven’t washed for a month. All of these are perfectly legitimate uses of 48 hours. So also a 650 km drive to nowhere.
There once was a Chinese philosopher who said that the true traveller does not hurry to the destination as he realises that the journey itself is the destination. That is the kind of philosophy you need when you go to Coorg. Most people think Coorg is this one place where you do your regular tourist thing. You know, go to the Lovers Point, take a look at the Suicide Point, gawk at the Sunrise Point(c’mon how many of us can even begin to comprehend that there is a concept called sunrise; and that the sun does not immediately jump to overhead when we wake up). In theory, you could do all of this. But then, that is not the best way to enjoy Coorg. Besides there is just one point, Raja’s Seat, in Madikeri. And conveniently it’s a sunset point.
See, there are these two Coorgs. One is on every tourist’s map. Go to Madikeri, spend an hour at Raja’s Seat; go dip your feet in Abbey Falls & Irupu Falls; stop by at Bailkoppa and Nisarghdhama. Which is also good enough for the weekend. Then there is the trekker’s Coorg, Tadiyandamol, Brahmagiri et al. However, for someone with no fixed agenda, mixing both of these can be quite rewarding. Unfortunately, this means you require a means of transport. Car is good. I believe bikes would be better.
Here is what you do. You plan to start early on Saturday morning. Then you leave the waking up part to friends (The Usual Suspects); one of who is curled up with a John Grisham with about 100 pages to go late on Friday night and the other who sleeps like he is in the middle of a lecture. Then you thank your lucky stars that you live close to a temple that has a speaker that loudly invokes the Lord’s name at 6 every morning. You then go kick said friends’ butts to wake them up. Travel.
We took the Mysore Road. Now that the construction is almost over, this is an excellent piece of asphalt. The almost part is as there are still some un-nerving sections when you find out that suddenly all vehicles are coming in your lane. To get to Coorg via the scenic route, take the right turn to Ranganathittu just after Srirangapatna. Keep following the road through some excellent rural settings to hit Hunsur. Madikeri is 64 kms from Hunsur. The road after Hunsur gets bad, and in sections is just a figment of some greedy bureaucrat’s imagination. Apparently for the last 2 years, the PWD is labouring to construct a 4 lane road from Mysore to Madikeri.
A little over 16 kms out of Hunsur, there is a fork in the road. Both eventually get you to Madikeri. As the movie gag goes, “Yeha se jao, ya waha se jao, sab rasta God ko jaata hai.” In this case, the right will get you to God; or at least to one of his abodes. Around 20 kms from this fork you will hit Bylakuppe, which is home to the largest Tibetan settlement in India. This is also home to the Golden Temple (of the Buddhist variety). It is quite interesting to be seemingly thrust into Tibet, with red-robed monks and prayer flags, and hear Kannada all around you. The Golden Temple is a monastery, and is open to all to visit. While the monks break for lunch; between 12 and 1; you will not be allowed to roam in the main prayer hall. Once they are back, you can walk in and pretty much go anywhere in the hall. For all the foodies, avoid the BDA-like food court outside the temple complex. Instead a little further along the way back towards the highway, you will find a board advertising Olive, a restaurant. It looks like a house, and probably is, but its proprietor Tsering will serve you authentic Tibetan food. If you are lucky maybe you can bum a packet of cigarettes off him too!
The nearest place from here is Nisargdhama. This is a 2.5 km sq. island in the middle of the Cauvery. The forest department charges you 10 Rs. as entry fee, and there is a rudimentary deer park, a couple of over worked elephants that you can ride if you fork over 10 bucks. There is also boating if you fork over an extra 10 bucks. You will have to ask the dis-interested person manning the booth if the boating is on. You can stay here, there are cottages available, and the Forest Department charges you 650 for double occupancy. There is food available in the canteen a little away from the huts. Just so you know the folks there speak Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam. Hindi works fine too. The huts are your basic fare, but sit on some excellent piece of real estate, and would be well worth the stay, if you are looking for 2 days of peace and quite. Or whatever quite you can find in the midst of your regulation hordes of weekend picnickers. You can combine this with a visit to Harangi Dam or Dubare or both. The park itself is open between 9.30 AM and 5.30 PM. Harangi Dam is an excellent picnic spot.
We however, made tracks for Madikeri, another 30 kms away on agonisingly bad roads. Madikeri is a good place to stay if you want to explore the countryside around. In fact, for the budget traveller, the Cauvery hotel near the bus stand is an excellent place for budget acco – 300 to 400 Rs should get you a 3-bed room with hot water (very essential in these cold climes). This is central to the town, and if you are pressed for time, a 14 km hike to the Abbey Falls and back is an excellent way to enjoy the weekend. A little out of town, and you have the more “expensive” fare. We stayed at Crystal Hotel; it has a board as you enter Madikeri, follow the signs. They charged us 1190 for a 3-bed room. It’s a new hotel, so it is clean, and more importantly has hot showers. They have cottages being built in an estate opening soon. At 5000 bucks a weekend, only those who are loaded need apply.
The next day we set out from Madikeri. There are those who extol the beauty of the drive from Madikeri to Siddapur. It’s a 30 km drive to the south. However, if you go roughly the same distance to the South-west, you reach Talacauvery, the place where Cauvery springs over ground. A 300 step climb from the spring will get you to the top of the Bramhagiri which will give you extensive views of the surrounding countryside. This entire place is a temple complex – or at least it will be soon – so be careful that you do not disturb the sanctity of the place.
You can then drive down to Madikeri, and thence to Bangalore or as we did, take a random turn to the right towards Siddapur. We spent about 3 hours on the back-country roads of South-west Coorg district before we passed through Nagarhole, and got back on the main highway connecting Madikeri and Mysore. This drive passes through some amazing locations, and there are places you can take a break and have a light picnic. Be sure, however, that you clean up the mess after you. Most of these places are coffee estates, and you don’t want to test the adage that the Coorgi is born with a gun in one hand and a hockey stick in another! If you are close to the coffee estates of the venerable Tata group, you might not even need that. All those estates are ringed by electrified fencing. We did however stop to ponder how a coffee-running Mafia can siphon off the coffee by jumping over the fence. None of us actually wanted to put our theories to test. If someone is game enough to try them, please feel free to contact me. For the saner ones, if you ask around, Tata Coffee arranges for coffee estate tours. But remember to ask politely!
The random right turn presents itself around 10 -15 kms on the way down from Talacauvery. You take the road leading to Napoklu. Once you reach there, make tracks towards Murnad, and at Murnad ask anyone the road to Ammathi. There is a semblance of a road from here, that leads you on to Titimati. From Titimati you take the straight road, whence you will enter Rajiv Gandhi National Park, or as all of us know it, Nagarhole. Just as you exit the National Park, the road forks. Taking the left will take you back to Madikeri. There is some truth to the saying that the straight and narrow road will lead you to good things. In this case it will take you to the fork in the road near Hunsur I mentioned earlier. Bangalore is about 175 kms from here.
I am harping on the bad roads bit, however, the drive is still an extremely satisfying one despite that. The other thing is that the road is mostly lined with small dhabas, that might not serve you full scale lunch. You will however get your regular Coorgi fare. Comes highly recommended. If you plan on going exploring the country side in your vehicles, be sure to top up on fuel in Madikeri.
For those not feeling up to the drive can stop at Nisarghdhama or Madikeri and just relax. For the rest, there are still nowhere calling.