Road Trip n. A journey in an auto-mobile, usually impromptu or unplanned. Road Trip n. A journey,usually coincides with a long weekend, undertaken because there is an auto-mobile. The first is the dictionary meaning, the second, the meaning according to my roomies and myself. A lot of jaunts have been because there is an auto-mobile and a long weekend. I went on this trip some time ago. 12th August 2005 was the date. And now that summer is nigh, I figured, it is a good time to remember, that there are cooler climes on the other side of the Heat.

August had been kind, and there were 3 long weekends to choose from. We chose the first, on the principle, that when it comes to holidays, tomorrow is not tomorrow. We had planned a long circular trip to the Karwar coast on the West and back. We started on 13th Morning at 6 AM. Our original destination was Gokarna, 250 kms north of Mangalore and 420 km east of Bangalore. There are two ways of getting there. For those who are interested in the scenic route, the NH 247 to Hassan is the ideal way. Right up to Chickamaglur, the road is drivable, the scenes great, and what’s more, if you are the journey-is-the-destination kinda person, you can stop over at Belur and Halebidu. Both of these places have temples built in the 12th century AD. The Halebidu temple is smaller, and it is dedicated to Lord Shiva. There is an excellent guide there, who for 50 Rs. will give you a run-down on the temple and also impart such nuggets of wisdom as what Love is. For those interested, according to him, it is Look, Observe, Verify and Enjoy. Most of us in the group figured that we can skip from look to enjoy. The temple at Belur is dedicated to Lord . It is also much bigger. It is a collection of temples in a large compound. The central temple is the one dedicated to Lord Vishnu and is known as the Chennakesava Temple. It is not as intricately carved as the one at Halebidu, but at least it is complete. Legend has it that the Halebidu temple was sacked by a rival emperor before it could be finished.

The temple at Halebidu on a cloudy August day.

Onwards. When we set out, there was no stated destination nor a stated idea. The whole journey-is-the-destination might not work for people travelling in mixed company. Women like to have a firm answer on where we are going and why are we going and so and so forth. However, we were not thus encumbered. The road between Triptur and the turn off to Chikamagalur is quite bad. Once you cross this however, it is excellent. Both for the driver and others. We passed through some excellent scenery, where the driver wanting to appreciate it closely, got a little too close. I believe there is a dog out there with a bad back to prove it.

The Jog falls in full mid-August flow. Circa monsoon 2005

Jog Falls, is an excellent place. If you can see anything that is. That is the impression we got when we reached there. Having chosen a period when the monsoon was getting active, we could hardly see anything at the site. There is however, an alternate viewing point, which very conveniently, is also not so crowded. To get there, ignore the signs which prompt you to cross a bridge to view the Falls. Just a little beyond the bridge, is a road that goes up which leads to an alternate site. This is relatively empty and if it is possible, cleaner.

Honnavar was the halt for the night. By the simple process of elimination. That was the nearest town to Gokarna. There are a lot of hotels around, there is a Kamat just across the junction where the NH 247 meets the Bombay Cochin highway. Word of advise, the last stretch from Jog Falls to Honnavar is a NH. Even if it gives a feel and width of a village track. Since we chose a long weekend, we ended up staying at Kumta, 20 kms north of Honnavar. Excellent rooms at 500 + taxes. For four people.

A view of the Gokarn coast, once you get past the temple complexes.

The next day was the coast drive. The ideal way would be to start from Bhatkal and drive up to Goa. Since we all know the ideal way is never the realistic way, we did the contrary thing. Driving down from Gokarna to Mangalore. This stretch boasts of some excellent beaches. These are not crowded, they have reasonably cheap hotels around, and for most part, are good to go to any time of the year. Gokarna is also a temple town and unless there is another way to the beach, there is an extremely narrow and convoluted entry to the beach. And at first pass, it is not even worth the effort. Move around a bit, and you will be rewarded. For those who are up to it, there is an excellent half day trek along Gokarna, which will cover Uma, Kudle, Om and Paradise beaches. Just take something to eat along with you. There are a couple of huts on Uma and Kudle which will serve you your basic fare.

The next beach driving down is the Murudeshwar beach. This again is a temple beach, but walking along the beach is much more interesting. The Maravanthe beach is the best of all. It suddenly comes upon you as you are driving along the not-so-excellent road. And it is each to miss. It is just a spit of land between the highway and the sea. Add an excellent river next to the road, and you have the perfect setting. For those who want to take a break, the Turtle Bay Resort is the only choice, so book in advance. The resort is nice and prices range from 500 to 1200 for double occupancy. It is also on the beach, but a little further along where you would stop.

A boat-man on the Sharavati as it flows past Maravanthe, Karnataka.

The last part of the journey is also the most painful. The drive from Mangalore to Bangalore would be heavenly; and would be, considering that the PWD and the truckers are trying to get you there any way. The roads are bad all along the ghat and quite a way beyond. I might’ve missed out on a couple of beaches, the Malpe beach at Udipi is also considered good, but attempt this drive only if you have more than 3 days. Otherwise all you would have are memories and trouble sitting anywhere for a couple of days.

Tourists & Trekkers

I love cities. I love living in one. I love my job. Hmmm… I guess that was little too unbelievable. But it’s true. I really do. It makes me appreciate the long weekends that I can wrangle. I especially love it when I can get an extra day off, and take a 4 day vacation and loose only one day in leave.

Visions of appam and beef fry that I enjoyed last Christmas at my roomie’s place in Kerala were still fresh in my mind. And my stomach. So Kerala it was; twice in the past 2 months. Republic Day saw me heading Wayanad-wards. We’d (one of The Usual Suspects and I) decided to stay here for a couple of days, and head on down further south towards. But, then when inveterate journey-is-the-destination kinda travelers travel, all plans where thrown out of the window the moment we crossed Muthanga and drove towards Bathery (Sultan Battery for all of you imperialists). This district – and not a specific place – is one of the lesser explored parts of Kerala. Those 4 days were absolute bliss, and then I found about about Chembra and how you can trek there. So I decided to come back and do it one of these days. Well, the weekend of 11th & 12th March, found me doing just that. To be honest, I don’t think Wayanad is something that can be covered in 2 days. There are too many places of interest for the regular tourist and gawkers. There are a couple of treks there. Chembra I mentioned, and another one close by called Vallarimala. I would really have loved to camp there. But then not everything can go one’s way, now can it?

If you are in Bangalore, then the way to get to Wayanad is Mysore, onwards from there towards Gundulpet/Ooty. Just after the Gundulpet police check post the NH 212 heads towards Calicut. A little into the drive and you hit some beautiful countryside. Now this is what I call the problem of plenty. If you start from Bangalore early in the A.M., then you would reach here sometime in the afternoon. This is, of course, considering that you are not one of those who like to leave sonic booms in your wake. If you start out late at night – midnight is suggested – then you will get to Muthanga around day break. And watching the sun come up from the trees is a sight to behold. This route is by far the fastest way to get to Wayanad. There are other routes. When I’d travelled in January, Lonely Planet’s India & Bangladesh road atlas suggested there was an alternate route from Mysore. We spent about 20 minutes trying to find it and then gave up.

The remnants of a Jain Temple at Sultan Bathery.

Bathery provides you with the assorted lodges and The Resort. At INR 500 for a double room, it is definitely a place to stay. For all those “bleddy alkoholiks” it also has a bar attached. In fact all the places I stayed had a bar attached. The Resort’s bar is one of those gloomy places where the accent is on how much you can consume rather than providing you with any sort of ambience. Bathery is the place to stay if you want to explore the Edakkal Caves. Or rather cave. Umm… make that rock fall. This has some Stone age carvings, and a treat of a view if you climb a little further from the rock fall where the carvings are. Oh, did I mention a climb? It is a very short climb, but it is steep as heck. It also has the Edakkal Hermitage. If nothing, this establishment sits on some excellent real estate. It is a collection of 8 cottages (INR 3300) and 2 tree houses(INR 3900). I didn’t verify if the tree houses were suitable for adult entertainment. By the way, if you want to enjoy the view and the carvings get there well before 16.30. They don’t allow folks to climb after that. Bathery is also close to the Wayanad Heritage Museum in Ambalavayal, the excavations at Muniyara and some more spots.

A peak into the caves at Edakkal, Wayanad.

The drive from Bathery to Kalpetta is excellent. You pass through some excellent scenery, and it is quite easy to become part of it. Enthralled as you will be with the passing flora, keep an eye out for that peculiar fauna, the Kerala bus drivers. Unlike other fauna, it is not at all territorial. It just assumes that the entire road belongs to it. The problem is that the NH 212 that goes to Calicut is in excellent condition (circa early 2006), and it just begs you to cruise.

Lonely Planet suggests that Kalpetta is the central place to stay. It is definitely the place where there are more hotels to stay. Kalpetta is like a junction. You can go further South-west towards Vaithyri or go North-East towards the Tholpetty Nature Reserve. This Nature reserve along with Muthanga is part of the Bandipur, Mudumulai & Kudremukh parks. Kalpetta is also where you can stay at the PPS Lodge (INR500) a short walk away from the New Palace Hotel. Now I must pause here. And savour the taste of the puttu, appam, ackora fry and beef fry that New Palace serves up. And if two people gorge there, they can run up a princely bill of 75 to 85. Strongly suggested pit stop place.

From Kalpetta, the Sentinel or Soochipara waterfalls are about 18 kms. The falls it self is not all that great. And besides, I never did understand the fascination with waterfalls. Be that as it may, when I went the second time around, my entire group spent rapturous times there. Some adventurous souls did try and climb behind the falls. But saner sense prevailed. You can drive up to a km. away from the falls. Then there is this descent to the falls proper. Try and get here in the evenings. The sunsets are great. Plus, to get to the falls, you take a diversion off the NH 212 at Chundale, from where the road winds through tea & coffee estates and to sound repetitive, you have to stop and look at what is spread out in front of you. We stopped at one point, where the tea estates with the high mountains in the back drop offered excellent views. Turns out that the estate has donated that spot along with around 10 acres for a college. Now that is what I call conducive environs for academics!

Because we came in this big group, the first day, we only had time to go to Pookote lake and Soochipara falls. Pookote is a bit further away past Vythiri. The lake itself is not all that big, but it is clean. You have your regulation boating along with a very interesting walk around the lake itself. I would suggest taking the walk. This is also seems to be a very popular place for all the schools around the area. Both the times I went, it had hordes of kids all over the place! Night was spent at the Haritagiri (750 to 1500INR). It has a swimming area – that is claimed to be a pool. Not to mention a little chlorine-loving pool keeper. My eyes watered like heck after half-an-hour of swimming. The next day was the trek.

A silvery sunset at the Chembra, near the heart-shaped lake.

Now a lot of our group probably didn’t expect the trek to be so tough. And it is not. Chembra looks formidable. The trick is to keep climbing. That is what Vikas, constant companion on the trek, and I did. It is spread out in a series of climbs followed by a plateau like area. As you reach one plateau, you see that the next climb is steeper. It is only when you start climbing it that you find out that it is actually quite easy. Because the grass grows in some sort of steps, if you keep off the beaten path, it offers you excellent grip. And once you reach the top, the views are to die for. Chembra also is along Soochipara way, so the trek proper starts from a tea estate. You need forest department permission to climb and to camp. There is a peculiar feature on Chembra after the second plateau. There is a heart-shaped lake there which gives you excellent grounds to camp. The heart-shapeness (OK, that word is made up) is not evident unless you climb further up. We started our climb around mid-morning, and the sun was harsh enough to sun-burn the delicate skins of some (read women). The ideal trek would be to get up to the lake around night fall, set up camp and climb at the break of dawn. Since I didn’t do that, it means, I have yet another trip to make. Sigh. Nevertheless, this day trip was worth the effort. And a lot of us did make an effort. While there were still others, who ensured that a lot of Chembra stuck to their jeans when they got down. They shall remain un-named.

Now here is the kicker. Wayanad seems to make you want to stay back. One way to return is via Mananthvadi and the Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary. This is where I spent a soporific 90 minutes driving through the park for about 450. At the end of which, the guide helpfully pointed out that the best time to come to the park is on a Tuesday between March and mid May. This is when you are most likely to spot a Panthera tigris. The cost structure is 350 for the jeep – if you are not driving your own – 50 for a guide and 20 for still cameras.

So for those of you with 3 days to spare, check out this part of God’s Own Country. But don’t make any plans, and you will find out what they mean when they say that the journey is the destination.

3 Guys, a drive & Coorg

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.

The road to nowhere. Or the long way home.

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!

Moon-rise over the Namdorling Monastery at Bylakuppe, Coorg.

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.

Travel, Photos, Humour (… well *some* humour)