Saturday, December 19, 2009

Another Seaside Idyll.

Reaching the best parts of Gokarna can leave one feeling like Tantalus. You’ll find Gokarna’s name on milestones along the Mumbai – Goa – Mangalore highway NH17. But on approach you’ll realize with dismay that the town doesn’t lie on the highway at all. It lies 9km away on a narrow, bumpy side road that is traversed only by infrequent rickety buses.

Once you get to Gokarna town, you’ll have another twinge of disappointment awaiting you. You’ll find that the Om beach, the biggest attraction in town, is 7km away from the bus stand, and that there is no public transport to the place.

Then you’ll be helpfully told that from the Om beach, you’ve to traverse 2, 2 and 3 kilometres respectively to get to the three other beaches around (Kudle, Half Moon and Paradise). Now, that wouldn’t be so much of a bother if it weren’t for the fact that there are no roads to any of these beaches from Om. The only way to get to these beaches is to hike across hills.

I had all day, and was curious enough to travel slowly, to take my time seeing things. So I set out on walk from Gokarna town bus stand. The road to Om beach lay along what looked like a nondescript bylane. I walked along the deserted village road, past thatched houses hidden behind shrub fences.

Shortly after the 5km-to-Om milestone, the road rose to reveal just a little glimpse of the wide open sea in the distance. I regretted walking on, for the road dipped again, and the sea hid behind a hill. As I impatiently awaited the shore, the road swerved around a couple of hills. At the 2km-to-Om milestone, the hill to my right dropped away to reveal a yawning valley.

I stood staring across the valley, as the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea shimmered across it in the late morning sun. The infinite silvery stretch seemed just beneath me, yet the intervening forests made it seem tantalisingly unreachable. The empty grey of the road waved about ahead of me, and I walked on, for the shore was still some way off.

The Om beach, my first port of call, is named thus because it is shaped like the letter ‘Om’. While you can see the two semicircular shores that form halves of the Om, the meagre elevation isn’t enough to reveal the Om-shape very clearly.

Because Om is the only beach in Gokarna accessible by road, it is the only one that draws crowds. It was quite an interesting mix of people too. Beer guzzling Europeans occupied tables in the numerous seaside restaurants, as did Indian joint families. Middle aged women wrapped up in drenched saris got out of the water and walked past sunbathers. A 6 year old girl pointed excitedly at a bikini clad woman and screamed in Kannada - “she’s in her underwear!” as her parents made frantic attempts to look elsewhere.

I walked across the two arcs of the Om, past the numerous restaurants dotting the fringe. At the southern end, a narrow hill-path sneaked out behind Sunset Cafe, the last restaurant on the beach. The path quickly rose upwards. It made its way into the forests that just a little while ago had been a green blanket covering the hills bordering the sea.

Trees on either side were slender and short, and accompanied by undergrowth. The foliage completely obscured the sea. There were no people along the trail. At times the path dissolved into a clump of trees and became ill defined. Sometimes two roads diverged in a wood. I found my way from the fact that Half Moon and Paradise beaches lay in a general southward direction, across a couple of hills.

After what seemed an age of walking through the canopy of forest cover, the path stepped outdoors. I walked along a ledge, right above the sea. There was nothing but the cold blue of the boundless water below me. The gentle wrinkles of wavelets twinkled in the sunshine. The crowds, the restaurants, the noises that lay just across a hill seemed a world away.

I climbed down to Half Moon beach. It was empty. The golden sand looked never stepped in. The beach was just some 40-50 metres across, yet its solitude gave it an air of purity, of peace. The few shacks being built, the wannabe restaurants hadn’t quite managed to spoil the calm of Half Moon.

Paradise beach was two hills away. This stretch spared me forest walks, but furnished rocks to climb across, sometimes amid clear water that gently gurgled in frothy pools under my feet.
Paradise beach was a mass of seaside restaurants. The beach was much smaller than Om, just 150 metres or so long. There wasnt much space between the hills and the water, and the six or seven restaurants packed what little space there was. Shacks for rent lay tucked in the hills behind the restaurants, where a few foreigners lay slung in hammocks, in the midst of idyllic seaside vacations. My initial surprise at the existence of commerce in this outpost lasted only till I noticed boats depositing people here.

I stepped into one of the open air restaurants for lunch. Conversations wafted across the wet, still air from neighbouring tables. There was a “but I’m just disillusioned with all the commercialism” as was “and then she found another boyfriend”.

From the edge of Paradise, I retraced my steps on the two hour trek back to Om. It was late afternoon by the time I got to Om. I began walking towards yet another beach – Kudle, to the north of the Om beach. Kudle lay across two mounds that were relatively tame compared to the others I’d faced earlier in the day.

The Kudle beach was a semicircular bowl of hills that contained the sea within. The water was nearly still. Waves rolled in, not crashed through. Kudle looked like a placid backwater, a forgotten lake, a long way from civilization. Along the sprawling half-kilometre circumference of the beach, there were no more than a dozen bathers. A dolphin’s leap punctured the grey water surface in the distance.

The late evening sun lowered itself into the water far, far away. Soon, the only remnant of the day was a diffuse orange light draped over the water.

(Images here.)