Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gokarna - The Lost Waterfront

(This piece appears in the Jan 2011 issue of India Today Travel Plus. There is no direct web link to the piece. This is a part of the special year-end edition - India, the all weather country. It has pieces on each state in India in one of the 4 seasons. This piece is about Karnataka in the summer).


(On exploring four forgotten beaches in Gokarna on Karnataka’s west coast).


Playing hard to get
Gokarna on Karnataka’s west coast can play notoriously hard to get.
Gokarna’s name features prominently on milestones along the Mumbai – Goa – Mangalore - Cochin highway NH17, but these mentions can be deceptive. The town doesn’t lie on the highway at all. It’s 9km away from the highway on a narrow, bumpy side road traversed only by infrequent rickety buses.
Gokarna’s main beachfront, the Om beach, lies 7 km away from town. There’s no public transport to Om beach. From there, the other beaches in Gokarna(Kudle, Half Moon and Paradise) are 2, 1.5 and 3 kilometres away respectively. There are no motorable roads to these 3 beaches. You have to hike across hills to get to these beaches from the main Om beach.
Every beach feels just a little farther off, just a tad unattainable. Gokarna, then, is just the sort of place that can leave you feeling like Tantalus.
From Gokarna town, the road to the main Om beach lies along a nondescript bylane, with thatched houses behind shrub fences. Some 2km before Om beach, a hill on the right drops away to reveal a yawning valley underneath. The vast expanse of the Arabian Sea shimmers below in the valley. The empty grey of the road waves about ahead, reminding you that the shore is still some way off.
The Om beach 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 meager elevation at the shore 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 is an interesting mix of people too. Beer guzzling Europeans occupy tables in the numerous seaside restaurants, sitting alongside Indian joint families. Middle aged women wrapped in wet saris get out of the water and walk past sunbathers. Kids gaze at bikini clad women as parents make frantic attempts to divert their attention.
Along the fringe of the two arcs of the Om, there are shack-and-cottage hotels that offer rooms for rent, with hammocks slung out in front of them. Restaurants dot the contours of the Om, with boards advertising Italian, Lebanese, Russian and Israeli cuisines, presumably for the delectation of foreign travelers.
At the southern end of the Om beach, a narrow hill-path snakes out behind the last restaurant on the beach - Sunset Cafe. This path quickly rises upwards and ascends a hill, from where you can see the Om shape stand out in clear relief. This path is the route to the other beaches at Gokarna – Half Moon and Paradise.
Half moon
Atop the hill, after a kilometer of walking through a canopy of forest cover, the path steps outdoors onto a ledge right above the sea. Below, gentle wrinkles of wavelets twinkle in the sunshine. The crowds, the restaurants, the noises that lay just across a hill seem a world away.

Across this hill is the next beach – Half Moon. Half Moon beach is empty. The golden sand looks never stepped in. The beach is just some 40-50 metres across, yet its solitude gives it an air of purity, of peace. There are a few shacks being built - wannabe restaurants and hotels. But they haven’t yet managed to spoil the calm of Half Moon.


In Paradise

Paradise beach is two hills away. This trek spares you forest walks, but throws up rocks to climb, sometimes amid clear water that gurgles in frothy pools under your feet.

Paradise beach too has seaside restaurants and shacks-cottages for rent. The beach is much smaller than Om, just 150 metres or so long. There isnt much space between the rocky cliffs and the water, and the six or seven restaurants pack what little space there is. Rooms and shacks for rent lie tucked in the hills behind the restaurants.

Even though boats ply to Paradise beach from Om beach, it remains an outpost with few visitors. A few foreign tourists lie slung in hammocks, in the midst of idyllic seaside vacations. In the open air restaurants, languid conversations waft across the still air.

Paradise is a place foreign tourists are in love with. Many stay here for months together. It fits the image of a tropical paradise – trees, shade, hammocks, quiet beaches, a conspicuous lack of noise and crowds. It’s the perfect location for a summer spent away from the world.


Standing alone

Because the hikes to Half Moon and Paradise aren’t easy, these beaches aren’t crowded. The beaches still preserve a near-natural state. Thankfully for Gokarna, this doesn’t look like changing anytime soon. There are far too few tourists arriving here for it to be worthwhile for local bodies to build a road across the hills. Without better connectivity, more tourists will not arrive. Thanks to this virtuous cycle, the far reaches of Gokarna look like they’ll be spared bright lights, noisy resorts, plastic bottles and other debris of mass tourism for some time at least.

Another seashore
Gokarna has yet another beach - Kudle, lying to the north of the Om beach. From Paradise you have to retrace your steps to Om beach, and then go further north. Kudle lies two mounds across from Om. These mounds are relatively tame compared to the rough treks to Half Moon and Paradise.
The Kudle beach is a semicircular bowl of hills that contain the sea within. The water is nearly still. Waves roll in, not crash through. Kudle looks like a placid backwater, a forgotten lake, a long way from civilization. Along the sprawling half-kilometre circumference of the beach, there are no more than a dozen bathers.
As sundown approaches over Kudle, the late evening sun lowers itself into the water far away. Soon, the only remnant of the day is a diffuse orange light draped over the water.
(Second pic(of Om beach) by Kelly Martin. Other pics by self. The print article has pics by Parikshit Rao & Gireesh VV).