Karnataka’s Karavali coastline extending from Mangalore in the south to Karwar in the north along the Arabian Sea for about a little more than 200 kms is undiscovered and hides in plain sight numerous unspoiled beaches, temple towns and opportunities to take pleasure in water sports. These virgin beaches have yet to descend into the main tourist circuit and they also lack proper tourist amenities and infrastructure but unbidden guests persist in discovering the coastline’s unique splendor of river-sea confluences, estuaries and tiny islands off the coast.
The first vision of Karwar you catch sight of as the bus enters into the sea-side town is that of a still-watered beach huddled between the peaks of Western Ghats. But that beach though is not open for public since it is located inside coast guard premises – few of the coastal town’s beautiful beach stretches are housed inside the naval base in Karwar and hence inaccessible. Much of what is accessible for public in Karwar will require a tiny bit of effort to get to owing to lack of above mentioned civic amenities – barely-there roads and virtual non-existence of road signs.
I am of the persisting kind and I befriend a local as soon as I land in Karwar amid the strong smell of fish with crows and kites fighting for leftover fish as fishermen and sellers prepare their catch for sale. Avinash, a resident of Goa who has moved to the riverside village of Hanakon off Karwar recently after having bought property agrees to take me around. Having worked and lived in this region for a few years now, Avinash has contacts in the hospitality industry and hence I get access to the view point at a resort that is built among the ruins of the Sadashivgadh Fort.
The Kali river flows into the Arabian Sea in Karwar and the resultant estuary could be the reason for the tide-less beach in the town. Standing atop the fort ruins gives me the aerial view access of the kite flying just above my shoulder. The numerous islands – Kurumgad, Oyster Rock Light House, Devbagh and the Tagore Beach fringed with thickly wooded trees are visible. I persuade Avinash for a ride along the coast and to the lesser popular beach of Majali. We watch biker couples enroute Gokarna relax on the beach benches on the highway gazing at the sunset and talk to the speed boat operator about possibilities of hiring a boat to a visit to all the islands.
While Karwar revels in its raffish charm, in a sort of unchartered magnificence, Gokarna thrives in its popularity as the lesser Goa. It doesn’t have the full fledged attention deserved for Goa (for the lack of Goa’s festive vibe) but as a destination approachable within Karnataka and with an instantly recognizable vibe of a hippie culture – tattooed, dreadlocked Caucasians with sunburst hair, skin et al– Gokarna preens in the glory of its handful of pretty beaches.
Kudle exudes an air of a commonplace beach destination, Om and its eponymous Namaste beach shack is a jaunt for brief holiday makers – college going kids, young professionals and honeymooners. Paradise though prides itself with an unattainable aura that requires one to negotiate spiky boulders and rock faces on foot. But if you do take the effort, staid tranquility lingers. You will also spot lone artists – writers or musicians from far, far away land that may or may not be on the verge of breakthrough with their creative pursuits. They stay in shanties, will engage you in a conversation for the sake of humoring you and they know you can’t stay the night in paradise beach.
“You could have called me from Om beach and I would have sent you a boat,” the sinewy, beads-wearing, overgrown beard sporting, Kamal who owns the Nirvana Beach Resort tells me. Kagal is that rare beach, the existence of which is only spread word of mouth. Or you have to stumble upon it somehow when you take beach hikes.
Located off the Agnashini river estuary, Kagal is tricky to locate – even the local rickshaw drivers draw a blank when asked to be taken there. But if taking long walks on beaches with only dogs (Kamal has six of them, most of them Rottweilers and a few strays) for company while spotting humungous crabs burrowing themselves into the sand at approaching footsteps is your thing, Kagal might suit you. That boat ride to reach Kagal though, will be something.
The name Murudeshwar evokes the image of a towering Shiva statute at 123 ft, alongside the 20-storey temple complex overlooking the beach. Murudeshwar has religious significance and receives excessive footfalls on festive occasions. On such occasions, palmists line up the street leading to the temple peering into the hands of youngsters seemingly predicting their future. A stream of sari and burqa clad pilgrims and their families pour in and out of the narrow road that’s lined with stalls selling orange colored jalebis freshly being fished out of the boiling oil alongside shops hawking pink teddy beards. The beach becomes a hub of activity, crammed with tourists taking a dip in the ocean and indulging in parasailing and jet skiing.
Few miles away from Murudeshwar, Netrani Island has become a popular spot in Southern India for diving and snorkeling owing to its visibility with divers being able to spot varieties of tropical marine fish and corals.
When you take the bus from Murudeshwar enroute Udupi, you will see the beautiful and bare Marvante beach. The NH17 hugs the beach and its noisy waters on the one side and the river Souparnika and its tranquility on the other side, making it one of the most beautiful studies in contrast as far as the intensity of water bodies are concerned.
I take a walk along the beach to the Turtle bay resort to get my fill of coastal cuisine – lady fish curry and rice over beer. While I eat my lunch alongside empty hammocks swaying in the breeze, I learn about the possibilities of snorkeling just off the coast, arranged by the resort. The lure of boat rides on the backwaters of Sowparnika, encircled by coconut palm trees, is also impossible to resist.
Kapu, Malpe & St.Marys
To explore the beaches along Mangalore coastline, I choose the little known coastal village of Kapu whose claim to fame is the century old lighthouse and (lately) the beach property called Blue Matsya. I have lengthy discussions with S, who owns the property. She tells me that she has furnished the property entire from salvaged wooden doors and windows (otherwise antique) and asks me to feel the walls by running my hands across them. “I have used a mixture of egg white, egg shells and lime, an age old technique, to plaster my walls,” she tells me.
Blue Matsya’s caretaker Sarasakka makes tender neeru dosas upon order for breakfast and I persuade her to cook dinner for us – fish curry and fry with the fish her husband Ramanna brings back from the sea. Ramanna fills me with stories of dolphins ruining his nets and the trawlers driving recklessly into his fishing space destroying his catch. “I shine lights at them but they are usually asleep and do not know where their trawler boats are meandering into,” he says.
Soon, I set out in an auto and ride on a road that runs along the coast with Pangala river’s backwaters on the other side to the ferry point to Malpe. From there a ride to St. Mary’s island is taken in a boat along with picnic makers who haul with them impossible amounts of food in plastic containers and carry-bags only to leave their trash behind. St. Mary’s is a declared geological monument and the basalt rocks in the island are formed as a result of volcanic activity millions of years ago.
Malpe’s vast coastline is conducive for long walks and the beach is a hub of parasailing and jet skiing. If you are into less populist adventures like surfing, Mulki, 32 kms from Udupi and its Mantra Surf Club is the place to visit.
Back at Blue Matsya, as I sit ergonomically unsafe on a bean bag on the verandah, gazing at the sea and the lone fisherman who fishes in the near shores with the help of a bright orange life jacket loop, a kite swoops down on the beach as if he needs a break from his hunting ritual. He lifts his feet and spreads his body on the sand extending his wings lying flat bellied on the beach, basking himself in the sun. He was sunning, not unlike me, but without human comforts of bean bags and hammocks.
The day progresses languidly and I visit the charming Kapu market for supplies, followed by a visit to the light house at the end of the beach in the evening. After which, I sit on the beach bench watching the approaching distant lights of fishing boats while dogs scamper around playfully in circles. The sky erupts in shades of purple and orange before dissipating into a liquid dark, revealing the stars – like tiny light freckles appearing through the holes of a huge circus tent. I dust myself and walk home.
I took the Karwar – Gokarna – Kagal – Honavar – Marwanthe – Kaup – St.Mary’s island – Mangalore route and used public transportation largely. If you want to be mobile, hire a car and start from Mangalore or vice versa.
This appeared in JetWings International, March’14.