Sitting crouched on Dharam Singh’s musty folded mattress and bouncing up each time the truck hit a rain-battered pothole, I couldn’t have imagined that the very next year I would be cruising along the same highway, only this time with wheels designed for luxury. The trips were starkly contrasting: one a backpacking trip along the coast of Karnataka in trucks and goods vehicles as a drenched monsoon hitchhiker, and the other driving the latest BMW 530D. While the romance of a hitchhiking trip will always be indelible in my heart, the recent trip has validated my belief that the scenic Bengaluru-to-Goa coastal drive surpasses its rivals on the Indian map by a colossal margin. For me, journeys are rendered unforgettable by the conversations with people one meets along the way, but on this drive it was all about people and a labyrinth of green along the roads, rain-washed coffee hills, fishing villages and angry waves crashing along the Karnataka coast. It was a visual extravaganza.
Bengaluru has always been the bastion of self-drive weekend getaways given its proximity to alluring destinations just a few hours away. Goa, though almost 600 kilometres away, has been a long-standing favourite for many. With the monsoons no longer dampening the spirit of the Indian traveller, the state’s tourist period has been slightly extended to the months from June to September as well. Though Goa’s well-kept secret of its cathartic monsoon avatar is now out, only the intrepid make it here during these months. (The upside: no tourist clutter, mélange of green and more economical tariffs). More than anything, chasing the monsoon along the coast has its own charm. So, with a rain-loving photographer and wheels to match our alacrity, we headed out for a week-long trip.
Adding a slight twist to the trip, we ditched the more popular Shimoga route, to chalk out a detour through coffee country Sakleshpur, moved west to Mangalore and headed along the coast through Gokarna, Karwar and finally Goa. What good is a road trip if one doesn’t veer off the highway to the more unassuming countryside? For us, it meant leaving the Tumkur Highway on the first day and taking a left through Tiptur village. It’s as if life moves at a different pace here. Potato and wheat fields swayed in the warm balmy breeze, while farmers slowly ploughed the land; shopkeepers were lost in afternoon gossip, and a sense of slowness hung on this route. The car, too, had to be slowed down to match the mood — and because the roads were barely paved on this stretch. The car’s high clearance ensured that we manoeuvred every crest and trough with ease till we reached the excellent Hassan highway and made it to Sakleshpur by evening. A small bridge over the Hemavathi River ushered us into the busy town till we hit the large arterial road that leads to Hanbal village (15 kilometres from the main town). Most of the homestays and resorts are in this vicinity, located in the middle of dramatically wild and unmanicured coffee estates, with pepper vines winding over larger trees on the fringes. The stilted cottages at The Hills made for a great misty pit stop for the night, with the rain lashing out in full form as a prelude to what the journey might offer up ahead.
Fortunately for us, the weather was photography-friendly, with the mist adding a touch of intrigue to the pictures, as we spent some time in the nearby coffee estates, a local temple and its small pond before leaving the resort. Those of you who want to spend some more time around the area can explore the Manjarabad Fort for a bird’s-eye view of the region around, or check out the Hoysala history etched in the Belur and Halebidu temples at a distance of 40 kilometres from Sakleshpur.
With our eye on the watch, we left soon to drive through the scenic Bisle Reserve on wide and largely pothole-free bends of the ghat region, the car turning out to be a marvel with its speed and map virtual projection near the bonnet of the car, helping me to keep speed in check. The light rain demanded a few chai breaks before we hit the red-hued tiled city of Mangalore, and further to Hotel Sadanand for a local specialty, kori rotti (chicken rotti) in Surathkal. Just 10 kilometres ahead was one of my favourite stops, Mulki’s Mantra Surfing Ashram Retreat tucked away next to the bright green paddy fields and the Shambhavi River, which keeps the surfers a short paddle away from the beach on the other side. Later that evening, as we walked to the lighthouse at Kaup beach, I thought of Shyam and his journey of becoming a surfing brahmachari over the years. The Mantra Surf Club was established with a view to immerse in yoga, meditation, simple vegetarian fare and, of course, riding the waves. Experts Jack Hebner and Rick Perry have led the team for years to help visitors manoeuvre surf breaks like Baba’s Left and Swami and indulge in kayaking, body boarding, wake boarding and more. The 20-year-old’s story lingered in my head till Henry Anna decided to occupy it. The newly rescued four-legged muse at Blue Matsya at Kaup beach kept us company at the beach villa. It was an easy choice of accommodation, over the busy temple town with the waves keeping up a constant background score at Kaup.
The spiritually inclined can make a quick stop at the famous Krishna temple at Udipi or the small but informative coin museum on a perpendicular road. We dropped in here for a bit before the slow and bumpy drive ahead. The only veritable respite was the brilliant coastal road, small fisheries and weathered bridges hanging over coconut trees-lined backwaters, and a quick chat with local fish sellers. Fresh catch made for a lunch stop at a roadside dhaba, before we reached a hazy Maravanthe beach (55 kilometres from Udipi). A hot, sweet cup of tea for rejuvenation, and the plan was to reach the town of Murudeshwar. But before that, there was an exquisite stop, waiting to be unearthed. The discovery lay on the left of Maravanthe beach, in the form of a lonely stone jetty jutting out from a fishing village. We stopped for a few splashes before we hit the highway again.
The mighty Shiva idol at Murudeshwar is hard to miss as one approaches the town. Though the temple is of great significance, it is the fishing activity that really caught our attention; loaded colourful dinghies were coming in, amidst songs of cheer. I caught myself humming the song right until we met the Gokarna detour on the highway and decided to stop for the night. Red-tinged Gokarna and its steep drop to the bohemian beaches section have become all too familiar over the years. I can safely say that even though the town lacks its distinct backpacking vibe during the monsoon, it’s far more peaceful.
Next morning, it was a short drive from Gokarna to Goa via Karwar, but the greenery, which served as a distraction, slowed us down; tall trees that flanked the road through the Cotigao wildlife sanctuary were the highlight soon after we drove over the iconic bridge over the Kali River that announces one’s entry into the state. One can’t help but notice how the roads here are starkly different from the ones in Karnataka, and pushing the pedal comes much more easily. Women selling jasmine flowers, and red-eyed men after a pre-lunch feni swig dotted the roads as we made our way to Vasco. Vasco makes for a great place to stay in this season for its proximity to Panjim’s (30 km) restaurants, historic lanes and boutique resorts that stay open through the year. A cosy chalet by the bay awaited us at the Stonewater Eco Resort, with a small fishermen’s colony along the stony beach at the base. Triumphant about the last four days, we slept with abandon, only to wake up the next morning and explore a little bit of Lisbon in Goa.
The Latin Quarter, or Fontainhas, reeks of history, and never gets old for me. With brightly coloured walls, Portuguese architecture and a distinct character, Fontainhas is one of my favourite places in Goa. Here, the snug balcony of Venite restaurant hanging over the narrow lanes criss-crossing below, Panjim Inn (the first heritage hotel of Goa), Viva De Goa restaurant and hidden gems like Confeitaria 31 De Janeiro bakery and the Sunaparanta Centre for Arts pluck you out of the usual destinations with touristic fervour and submerge you in the authentic Goan vibe. Later, it makes sense to stop by Miramar beach to watch the regulars stroll in the evenings or a game of football break out. Closer to Vasco, Bogmalo beach works brilliantly as a football pitch as well, before one settles for a beer at Joet’s on the far end of the beach.
Though one can never have a fill of Goa, it was time to drive back, this time through the more popular, but magnificent route through Jog Falls, Shimoga, Chanrayapatna and then Bengaluru. Of the 650 kilometres, the drive through the small village of Uppani to Jog Falls, along the Geru-soppa Hydel Project is one that will remain etched in the mind for a long time. A ludicrous amount of green shades surround the mountains. The light wheels of the BMW and the car’s ability to swerve quickly but stably along the bends on the narrow road make it safe; the fact that there was much lesser traffic on this road also helped. The road leads right into Jog Falls, a destination that is the monsoon Mecca of the state. The smaller gurgling waterfalls along the route are just a precursor to the mighty Raja, Rani, Roarer and Rocket waterfalls that plunge down from a height of 830 feet, making the group the second highest waterfalls of Asia. Fraught with the monsoon rains, the falls lie on the Sharavathi River and create a magical haze of spray for those who brave proximity.
Long stretches of open roads through Asikere and Chanrayaptana lay ahead. We hit the Hassan- Bengaluru highway, with dark, ominous clouds looming over us. Despite compromised visibility, the car smooth-sailed through a downpour till we made a last chai stop on the highway to take in the week gone by. A few kilometres down, the city traffic would swallow us. Reminiscing about the highlights of the trip, we agreed that this was one route that was bound to bolster your soul. I know that Dharam Singh approves — no wonder he chooses to drive here almost every month.