I’ve been fascinated by the Kodagu region ever since I was a child growing up in Bengaluru. Those days, our school excursions on cramped buses took us to picnic spots near the city, though curiously enough, never to the hills of Coorg. The idea of setting off on a drive around the very region that had been tantalisingly beckoning me since childhood was therefore hugely appealing.
We started our drive on a pleasant, overcast day, full of promising weather that would keep us company throughout the journey. We veered left off the Town Hall in the city and headed onto the flyover above the always-crammed KR Market, soon reaching the new Bengaluru-Mysore Expressway (SH17) -lanes of smoothly paved tarmac that dipped and swerved next to fields of sugarcane and paddy, and coconut groves, occasionally directing its smaller tributaries into the parking areas of huge IT parks. Cars and buses whizzed past us at top speed as we halted midway for breakfast at Kadu Mane.
After some delicious tatte (plate) idlis and filter coffee, we stepped on the gas once again, soaking in the sight of villagers hitching rides on open-roofed autos and families heading for weekend getaways in swanky SUVs. Small, colourful shrines typical of South India appeared on either side of the road as it swerved under the enormous rocks of Ramanagaram and we entered Channapatna, famous for its handicrafts. Somewhere along this highway, where country life meets urbanhood on every mile, we noticed farmers in Chevrolets outside two gargantuan coffee shops. After a quick stroll inside the grand palace of Mysore and lunch, we slowly shifted gear outside Mysore, and the wide SH88 (Mysore-Hunsur Road) took us towards Siddapur, our first stop in Coorg.
The road to Hunsur passed through Elivala, Bilikere and other hamlets that stood against the blood-red backdrop of rolling hills. All this abruptly disappeared around 70 km ahead, as we drove on a narrow, bumpy road lined by large groves of creaking bamboo and thick forests. The cool, wet air and lack of traffic indicated we had left behind Mysore’s mugginess and congestion. A sign announced that we had entered the borders of Coorg, via Rajiv Gandhi National Park (also known as Nagarhole). Our entrance was indifferently noted down by a troupe of common Indian monkeys, who lounged around on the roadside. The lavish greenery surrounding us, the coffee estates that slowly came into view and the curvaceous roads, all gave us a hint of what was to come.
Soon enough, we reached the picturesque village of Titimati, where boys were decking up a freshly whitewashed chapel for a ceremony. We stopped at Virajpet, the second major town in Coorg with Mangalore-tileroofed houses poking out of the hilly terrain, for some fresh coffee that honestly let us down. We discovered here that we had taken the slightly longer route for Siddapur, coming from Hunsur via Nagarhole and Gonikoppal to Virajpet. But it’s a drive that’s highly recommended for those who derive joy from being in the midst of nature, those who are in no hurry. We put off the AC and our Indica forged through the winding electric green roads with a new vigour, greeting the occasional Willys and spluttering Yezdis, to Alath-Cad Estate in Ammatti village where we settled in for an easygoing two nights.
Much of the Coorg region is either covered with thick, pristine forests or large coffee estates and spice plantations. Add to this the possibility of random rain showers and what you get is a land that blooms, glows, croaks and whistles with gusto throughout the year. This, we Dubare Elephant Camp, 17 km ahead of Siddapur, on the banks of the Cauvery River.
Sometime after reaching the camp, we were hurried into a jeep and directed into the bordering forest, where we saw a good 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 Madikeri had its charms. But the best lay beyond, as we headed towards the pilgrimage centres of Bhagamandala, and further on to Talacauvery, where the River Cauvery originates. We drove past green fields, milestones bearing the altitude of villages, and a cluster of vividly painted shrines for all Hindu gods, and one for Mother Cauvery.
On the last leg of our drive, we headed to Kakkabe. Once there, we decided to hike up to Thadiyendamol, the highest peak in Coorg at 5,741 ft, unaware that it would also become the highest point of our trip. We set out to explore it just after sunrise the next day, driving up to the point where the road ended, and trekking from thereon with our carweary legs. Streams broke our path, tall trees loomed above, and the path often disappeared like a cat in the dense foliage. At the top, all around were hills that stood imitating toadstools. Clouds added a sense of mystery to this glorious landscape, dotted with shola forests. Watching all this beauty unfold around me, I felt I’d come full circle, from my ‘wonder years’ as a queasy kid reluctantly joining a study trip, to a day with heavenly mountain slopes at my feet. Kodagu had turned out to be everything I’d imagined it would be and more.
ON THE ROAD
After initially speeding on the four-lane Bengaluru-Mysore Expressway (SH17), one has to slow down in Coorg, where driving is a tad complicated as the roads are all winding, and rain showers occur without warning. The expressway has several dhabas, coffee shops and good restaurants. From Mysore to Hunsur, you follow SH88, a popular, two-lane highway 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 initial stretch is bumpy but it gets comfortable once you cross into the national park limits.
Carry snacks and ample water for this stretch. The road to Talacauvery remains busy all the time and the sharp hairpin bends here, coupled with speeding traffic, can be a hazard. It’s advisable to drive slowly on this route. The return journey through Suntikoppa and Bylakuppe on SH88 gets strenuous as this road’s popularity has led to its deterioration and severe traffic jams. It’s best to tank up on fuel at any of the major towns such as Bengaluru, Mysore and Madikeri for this drive, though petrol pumps, tyre repair shops, small garages and inconspicuous eateries are regularly found in major towns along the entire route. There are a few car service stations once you reach Gonikoppal. Only the Bengaluru-Mysore Expressway is lit up at certain inhabited stretches; there are no streetlights on Coorg’s country roads. It’s best to leave Bengaluru early in the morning, so you can cross Mysore before noon, and perhaps arrive in Coorg in the late afternoon. When driving in Coorg at night keep in mind that you could be stranded in a sudden downpour or that you could be surrounded by wild elephants.
About the author:
Parikshit Rao is a Bangalore native who calls Himachal Pradesh his home. When not travelling the world, he is an avid photographer.