I see the world flash by. Sometimes it’s busy, at others starkly empty; it has steep hills and dense forests, the endless curvature of the sea and arid landscapes of dark red earth punctuated by prehistoric rocks balanced by fortunate design. During the day the statues crowd from one to the other, at night they are covered by a darkness so deep that even a million stars can do little to dispel it. The soundtrack ranges from the latest Kannada hits to old Hindi film songs and Nina Simone’s pleas for a little sugar. The city has become increasingly claustrophobic in recent weeks, not just because of the approaching monsoon. The newspapers only talk about civil infrastructure and the Assembly elections. There’s too much cricket on TV. I need space, and early on a Saturday morning, as we pull away from a blaring traffic jam on NH48, speeding our way to the Arabian Sea, I feel the luxury of a wide, open horizon.
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Our first stop is Mangalore. We drive along gently rolling roads that later climb through hilly coffee plantations, charming enough, but it’s just a hint of the beauty that awaits us along the coast. The city also gives us our first taste of the delicious seafood we will eat along the way. Tonight the tender fish fillet is perfectly fried and fresh shrimps in spicy red curry are served with feather-light nee dosas. There’s no fish in it Udupi, a pilgrimage site that is the home of the ubiquitous South Indian restaurants spread across the country, but it does offer a very satisfying tiffin of idlis. In front of us, the smooth NH17 winds its way along the coast. Every now and then a cheerful yellow sign points to exits to the seemingly endless series of small, quiet beaches we drive past.
The four where we stop, Maravanthe, Murudeshwar, Gokarna and Karwar, each has an enchanting charm. These are not the brightly lit, party beaches of Goa – there are few if any huts, no crowds of sunburnt tourists, just the sea crawling around in the fine sand, and the odd crab clapping for cover. When the sun sets, these beaches are pitch black, and the crashing tide fills the air. Of the four, Murudeshwar is perhaps the most populous, thanks to the Shiva temple and the giant Shiva statue that watches over the sea; and Gokarna the most surprising. As we drive to the Om Beach we climb a steep slope, it seems impossible that a beach suddenly appears in the middle of such high hills. And then there it is, a treasure of blue far below us – not Om but Kudle, even more remote.
Gokarna has some of the ambiance of North Goa: there’s beer on every table and the menu offers the mouth-watering Nutella pancakes that mark the backpacker’s path. The water is warm and welcoming. I walk around congratulating myself for having extra pairs of everything packed. Early in the morning we head to Kudle. Bells along the hilly path are marked in friendly white chalk, and breakfast on the soft white beach tastes particularly good. Time does not stand still here, he takes off his shoes and puts his feet on the table.
It’s hard to imagine that just a few hours later we will cross Goa, but that afternoon we drive up and down the Ghats on our way to Panjim. The heritage neighborhoods of Fontainhas and São Tomé, with their brightly painted houses and terraces, are miniatures of a more relaxed and friendly age, a world away from the wide roads and fast-moving traffic around them. Panjim is also the end of the first leg of our drive – from here, instead of green palms and holiday beaches, we have the considerably straighter roads and austere landscape of North Karnataka. But before that we pass through the thick jungles of the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary, looking out for hairpin bends and all the wildlife crossing the road. Unfortunately none. In the coming days, as we drive towards Hampi, not only the landscape changes, but also the food.
Fish, squid and prawns make way for spicy vegetable curries, jowar rotis and dosa varieties. In Dharwad, the hotel receptionist moonlights as an amateur historian, and his enthusiasm for his city drives us to wander around the city and find historical treasures here and there, all too often neglected and abandoned.
The next day the road stretches far to the horizon. On either side are fields of dark red earth and the highway is silent except for the occasional blur of a passing vehicle. The feeling is almost cinematic – perhaps fitting, as our final stop is known for the sheer visual grandeur of its ruins. As we return from the elegantly planned ruins of Hampi to the overburdened infrastructure of Bengaluru, I realize how easily I forgot that space is at a high level for most of our lives. As the next few days settle into the usual mundane routine, I feed that memory loss.
ON THE ROAD
For the most part, this is a relaxing and enjoyable driving experience, although it’s likely to be on a chaotic note. Unless you leave before dawn, you’ll find NH4 (Tumkur Road), coming out of Bengaluru, gridlocked with trucks and shrouded in dust and exhaust fumes. However, don’t let the frustration of prolonged immobility get to you. The real ride starts the moment you turn onto NH48 at Nelamangala. This is a gentle, quiet road that becomes increasingly scenic, particularly as post Hassan begins to climb through hilly coffee plantations. The next stretch, along the coast on NH17, is pure relaxation. The road allows for acceleration, so you have complete control over how slowly or quickly you want to go from one stop to the next. Both entering and leaving Goa (along NH17 and NH4A respectively) require more concentration: the roads are good, but hilly. Along the way the road rises and falls regularly, meaning you almost have to drive with your foot on the clutch, while the exit is a long and steep climb through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary – watch out for many hairpin bends and the possibility of wildlife crossing the road across.
The shortest route to Dharwad would be the national highway that goes straight east from Londa, but this road is in a bad condition so the better option is to stick to NH4A and head north towards Belgaum. Unless you want to visit Belgaum, turn right off the national highway just before the town of Khanapur and drive along the narrow but reasonably well-tarred road that cuts through villages and fields until you reach the stunningly wide and fast NH4. Unfortunately, NH63, which leads from Dharwad’s twin town of Hubli to Hampi, is much less efficient – narrow and roughly paved, it also has a lot of commercial traffic, which could slow you down. NH63 gets progressively worse on the return journey, between Hampi and Bellary – rough, busy and unnerving. Fortunately this is not very long and SH19, which starts at Bellary, is well paved and slightly hilly. At Hiriyur town, the national highway joins NH4 – its four lanes and incredible speeds may spoil you for the jam that awaits on Tumkur Road.