Gokarna may have started its foray into the traveller’s world as a quiet, seaside town that drew tourists to its sandy shores for reasons that were largely religious. Today however, it is the prayer on the lips of every backpacker and solo traveller. In fact, a lot of people consider Gokarna to be a more untouched, “unspoilt” version of Goa. Every place does have its own charm though, and even a place like Goa that’s usually just dismissed as a party hub can surprise you when you least expect it. That said, Gokarna is a place that you should make your way to right away, so you can experience it before the tourism industry alters it irreversibly.
There’s a lot to be said for off-season travelling. The rooms are cheaper and so are the tickets. The best part however, is the very prominent absence of people. Most tourist destinations operate on a seasonal basis. That is very quickly changing, as modern technology somehow finds a solution to every challenge that might make a place difficult to access in a particular season. Gokarna, though, is still quite content with the natural cycle. While people flock to the place during the summer and post September when the rains stop, it’s practically empty during the monsoon, with just enough places open to ensure that you don’t go to bed hungry.
My friend and I went to Gokarna right at the end of June to celebrate her birthday. She took a bus from Bangalore, and I took three buses and a cab to get there from Goa, where I’d been for a few days just before. From the Gokarna bus stop, autos charge you a hundred bucks to take you to Kudle Hilltop, through a route that seems more a like a dare to anyone on wheels than anything else. It is incredibly fascinating though, because as you ride through the town, you feel like you’re transported to a whole other world where life revolves around temples and religion. Everywhere, you see temple priests making their way around on cycles and women in nine-yard sarees buying puja supplies at stores that exist solely for that purpose. It’s almost like being on the set of an old South Indian film!
The hilltop is where the Gokarna paradox strikes. As you hike down from there to Kudle beach, it feels strange to even imagine that this is actually a temple town. All you see are what look like dense, unexplored forests, the occasional off-season traveller, and as you take off your shoes and wade through the tiny stream/waterfall at the very end where the path opens out into a clearing, the huge, grey ocean. When I reached, it was high tide, and I had to actually wade through the flooded beach to get to my room! That’s not a cause for concern though, for there are always lifeguards present on the beach to stop people going into the water deeper than they should. From here on, Gokarna is entirely cut off from the rest of the town, and it seems, the world.
The accommodation in Gokarna is probably its most fascinating element. This is one of those places where you can stay in shacks right on the beach, so you can stay up or fall asleep at night – depending on the kind of traveller you are – listening to the sound of waves crashing outside. And when I say shacks, I really mean shacks. On our first night there, there was a massive downpour at night, and the fact that there was what seemed like a roof above our heads did nothing to stop the determined showers that made their way in and soaked us to the bones! And yes, while the shacks do have proper beds with mosquito nets, there are no blankets. I’m sure there would be more comfortable ways to stay in the town, but beachside shacks are the true Gokarna experience. Just carry a sleeping bag along, and it’ll go a long way in stepping up the comfort. And if you’re lucky like us, you might even get a “big” shack for the cost of a small one simply because you got there before all the rooms could be prepared!
Most of the restaurants are on Kudle Beach. When we went, there were only a handful that were open in that season, but that didn’t really matter because funnily enough, the menu was the exact same almost everywhere! We just found one place where the taste suited us and ate almost all our meals there. Kudle Beach by itself is a great place to hang out. It is definitely a tad bit dirty because of all the commercial establishments, but in general, Gokarna seems pretty clean- at least in the off season. Kudle was certainly the more “homely” sort of beach to me. From Kudle, you can hike through a little forest to get to the famous Om Beach, that apparently derives its name from its shape. When we went to Om Beach on our first afternoon there, we were blessed with glorious sunshine that practically made the beach sparkle. All we did was lie on the beach, build tunnels in the sand and let the water wash over us for hours on end. It’s quite fascinating how the sand differs so much from one beach to another. This is particularly noticeable on Om Beach, where the sand is smooth on the first curve of the beach, but coarse and shinier on the second curve (which is also the rougher part of the beach, by the way). The beaches in Gokarna change their colours in an instant, which is something you should be careful about. Our second morning there, we went for a walk along Om Beach after a ridiculously good breakfast at Namaste Café. We went all the way to the end of the second curve and in the fifteen or so minutes that it took us to get back to the first curve, what had seemed like a dry, empty beach when we started was flooded all the way to the trees at the end of the sandy stretch! We had no choice but to walk back through knee-high water.
When we went, most beaches were closed off due to flood warnings. In fact, we were only able to see Kudle Beach and Om Beach. That didn’t matter though. Everything in Gokarna feels just a little bit slower and more relaxed. It’s almost as if the rules, conventions and concerns of the rest of the world do not apply here. There is no hurry, no checklist. People and animals both do whatever it is they want to do. Hair-braiders and bead sellers hang out with tourists they remember from previous years in the restaurants, dogs and cats climb onto your lap when you’re eating your meal and ask for scraps, cows go for long dreamy walks on the beaches and travellers sing, skip and dance on the empty roads. You could just walk through the forests, or lay back and watch the waves endlessly, and you’d forget that time is passing you by.
I’m sure if you wanted to make it a regular holiday with a must-visit spots list and everything, you could, but if you wanted to let go, it’s easier to do that here than anywhere else. There’s no doubt that Gokarna will give you just what you want. It’s the kind of place that will be for one, exactly what one wants it to be. So do your research beforehand, or don’t. Just pack light, go with an open mind, and let the waves of Gokarna sing to the wanderer in you.