I have been fascinated by the Kodagu region since I was a child growing up in Bengaluru. Those days, our school excursions on cramped buses took us to picnic spots close to the city, though curiously, never to the hills of Coorg. The idea of exploring the region, which has beckoned me since childhood, was therefore extremely attractive.
We started our ride on a pleasant, cloudy day, full of promising weather that would keep us company throughout the journey. We meandered left from the City Hall in the city and walked up the flyover above the ever-packed KR Market, soon reaching the new Bengaluru-Mysore Expressway (SH17) bridges of smooth paved asphalt that dipped and meandered next to fields of sugarcane and paddy and coconut groves, occasionally channeling the smaller tributaries into the parking lots of major IT parks. Cars and buses whizzed past us as we stopped halfway for breakfast at Kadu Mane.
After some delicious tatte (plate) idlis and filter coffee, we got back on the gas and ducked into view of villagers hitching rides on open-top cars and families heading for weekend getaways in sultry SUVs. Small, colorful shrines typical of South India appeared on both sides of the road as it meandered beneath the huge rocks of Ramanagaram and we entered Channapatna, famous for its handicrafts. Somewhere along this highway, where rural life meets urban life at every mile, we noticed farmers in Chevrolets outside two giant coffee shops. After a short walk around the Grand Palace of Mysore and lunch, we slowly shifted out of Mysore and the wide SH88 (Mysore-Hunsur Road) took us to Siddapur, our first stop in Coorg.
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The road to Hunsur passed through Elivala, Bilikere and other hamlets set against the blood-red backdrop of rolling hills. All this abruptly disappeared about 70km further on, as we drove along a narrow, bumpy road lined by large clumps of cracking bamboo and dense forests. The cool, wet air and lack of traffic indicated that we had left Mysore’s mugginess and congestion behind. A sign announced that we had entered the Coorg border, via Rajiv Gandhi National Park (also known as Nagarhole). Our entrance was indifferently noted by a group of common Indian monkeys, who were walking about on the roadside. The lush greenery surrounding us, the coffee plantations slowly coming into view and the curving roads all gave us a sense of what was to come.
We soon reached the picturesque village of Titimati, where boys laid out a freshly whitewashed chapel for a ceremony. We stopped in Virajpet, the second major town in Coorg with Mangalore tileroofed houses protruding from the hilly terrain, for some fresh coffee which quite frankly left us in stitches. Here we discovered that we had taken the slightly longer route to Siddapur, from Hunsur via Nagarhole and Gonikoppal to Virajpet. But it is a drive highly recommended for those who find joy in being in the middle of nature, those who are not in a hurry. We turned off the AC and forged our Indica through the winding electric greenways with a new vigor, greeting the occasional Willys and sputtering Yezdis, to Alath-Cad Estate in Ammatti village where we settled in for a relaxing two nights.
Much of the Coorg region is covered with dense, pristine forests or large coffee plantations and spice plantations. Add to that the possibility of random rain showers and what you get is a country that blooms, glows, croaks and whistles all year round. This, we Dubare Elephant Camp, 17 km before Siddapur, on the banks of the Cauvery River.
Some time after reaching the camp, we were rushed into a jeep and led into the adjacent forest, where we saw a large number of elephants, peacocks, some deer and a huge gaur. We left Dubare the next day for Coorg’s first town, Madikeri. Despite the sudden explosion of traffic and buildings, we discovered that Madikeri had its charms. But the best was beyond, as we went to the pilgrim centers of Bhagamandala, and on to Talacauvery, where the Cauvery River originates. We drove past green fields, milestones the height of villages and a cluster of vibrantly painted shrines to all the Hindu gods, and one to Mother Cauvery.
On the last leg of our ride, we headed to Kakkabe. Once there, we decided to hike to Thadiyendamol, the highest peak in Coorg at 5,741 feet, not knowing that it would also be the highest point of our trip. We went out to explore just after sunrise the next day, driving to where the road ended, and trekking from there with our grueling legs. Streams broke our path, tall trees loomed above and the path often disappeared like a cat in the dense foliage. At the top there were hills everywhere that mimicked mushrooms. Clouds added a sense of mystery to this glorious landscape, dotted with shola forests. Seeing all this beauty shining around me, I felt I had come full circle, from my ‘wonder years’ as a wimpy child reluctantly going on a study trip, to a day with heavenly mountain slopes at my feet. Kodagu was everything I thought it would be and more.
ON THE ROAD
After initially traveling on the four-lane Bengaluru-Mysore Expressway (SH17), one has to slow down in Coorg, where the driving is a bit complicated as the roads are all winding and rain showers occur without warning. The highway has several dhabas, coffee shops and good restaurants. From Mysore to Hunsur, you follow SH88, a popular two-lane road that was under construction around Elivala and Piriyapatna at the time of this drive, and sometimes riddled with potholes. Turn left onto SH88A from Hunsur to Virajpet and Siddapur. The first part is bumpy, but it becomes comfortable once you cross the national park boundaries.
Carry snacks and plenty of water for this stretch. The road to Talacauvery remains busy all the time and the sharp hairpin bends here, coupled with fast-moving traffic, can be a hazard. It is advisable to drive slowly on this route. The return journey through Suntikoppa and Bylakuppe on SH88 becomes strenuous as the popularity of this road has led to its deterioration and severe traffic jams. It is best to fuel up in one of the major cities such as Bengaluru, Mysore and Madikeri for this journey, but petrol pumps, tire repair shops, small garages and nondescript eateries are regularly found in major towns along the route. There are a few car petrol stations once you reach Gonikoppal. Only the Bengaluru-Mysore Expressway is illuminated at certain inhabited parts; there are no street lights on the rural roads of Coorg. It is best to leave Bengaluru early in the morning, so you can cross Mysore before noon and perhaps arrive in Coorg late in the afternoon. When driving in Coorg at night, keep in mind that you could be stranded in a sudden downpour or be surrounded by wild elephants.