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'Recreational Cycle Touring' has the advantage of covering longer distances experiencing varied terrain while at the same time 'feel' every inch of the gradient, breath in every bit of the changing air, listen to the chirping of birds and stop at any spot to click a picture. It uniquely combines the advantage of a motor vehicle to travel faster and go places with the quietness and leisure of trekking allowing the time to soak in the nature. The recent trip of Uttara Kannada (north-west Karnataka) was exactly that fabulous experience where we went through the varied terrains of hills, forests and coastline. In the span of just five days, we rode about 300km exploring the beauty and thrills of the 'not-so-popular' region of Dandeli-Anshi forest, ancient relics of Sirsi-Banawasi and coastal towns of Gokarna-Kumta.

On the evening of 4th of February 2013, Prasad Kancharla and I (Lalitesh Mandrekar) started off our journey from Mumbai in a bus (Neeta travels, Volvo, from Sion circle: ) to Dharwad (555km). The 8 hour journey was very comfortable in the multi-axle bus on the well paved NH4. The destination was on the Dharwad bypass since the bus did not enter the town. We missed the highway exit and ended up 5 km ahead on the high speed road in the dark of early morning hour. Depending too much on the GPS can land you in trouble. So we had to kick off our ride at 4:50 am of 5th February on the highway, totally dependent on the flash lights mounted on the bikes and at the mercy of the drivers of heavy vehicles moving at 120km/hr. So we came back to the missed exit and travelled about 12kms through the town avoiding barking dogs and asking for directions to the early morning walkers and finally found the correct route towards Halliyal (SH 28) passing under the highway (so the GPS was not totally wrong after all).

Day 1: Dharwad - Kulgi (72km)

The weather at daybreak was very nice and cool. Mild wind bringing the aromas of the surrounding farms. After a stretch of about 5kms the road was newly built and pretty smooth.

It went winding through the sugarcane fields and many small villages and we reached Halliyal (about 30 km) and after a small tea break continued riding for another 25kms towards Dandeli on SH46. Dandeli is a small town with a paper mill and a sugar factory. It has few not so great restaurants but ok for survival. Accommodation is also available here but we decided to continue to Kulgi after lunch (A suggestion here for the gastronome: Never order any north Indian food in this part of the country but stick to simple local preparations). An easy ride of 8-9 km took us to a small village of Kulgi to try our luck with availability of accommodation at Kulgi nature camp ( Rs.550 up- 08284-231585/ 9448765999 ). I would strongly recommend this place for stay if one wants to enjoy tent camping with safety and hot water luxury of a hotel room at affordable price. But make sure to book in advance to avoid frantic last minute search.

Alternate accommodation: Pansoli Homestay – 9886911255/ 9535645704 (15 kms from Dandeli; Rs.750 up)

We took the evening 'safari' which was quite a waste of money since no animal sighting can be expected at that time of the day so we kept asking the organisers for the morning trip to Kavala caves and hit the bed disappointed since there weren't enough tourist ready for morning safari and the area cannot be visited on bikes.

Day2: Kulgi - Ulvi (50km)

At about 06:00 we woke up startled by a sudden rap on the tent door (yes it had a door :-)) and the camp attendant shouting "Sir! Kavala caves!". Within record breaking 8 minutes we were out of the tent dressed up in wind cutters just to find a mini bus and an open jeep loaded with tourists from a nearby nature camp (Ganesh gudi) with just 2 seats available, ready to leave for Kavala caves. Delighted with our luck we boarded the jeep and moved on in the early morning chill to realise we were luckier than we thought. The morning trip to the caves also proved to be a jungle safari with sighting of a bison, a heard of deer, wild boars and a majestic flight of the great Indian hornbill!

Kavala caves were quite a surprise for us and amazed us with the size of the naturally formed 'Shivalinga' (Stalagmite-Stalactite formation) and also a few smaller ones in making.

Back from the caves and after a refreshing bath and a fulfilling breakfast, by 11:30 we were on our way towards 'Sintheri Rocks' en route Ulvi. Sintheri rocks is an interesting place about 25 kms from Kulgi situated in the deep forest and has a unique geological occurance of almost 12-15 types of rocks ranging from igneous dyke rock to sedimentry polycmite. The water flows over a naturaly formed dam creating almost chanting sound making the location ideal for meditation.

Reluctant to leave the magical ambiance but pressed for time, we moved on towards the temple town of Ulvi. The ride from here was a real treat for the nature lover. The forest changed from dessident to evergreen and abundance of birds chirping made it an unforgettable experience. Riding on the winding path and soaking in the forest for about 25kms, we reached Ulvi almost by sundown. The most difficult part being presented by absence of a single sign board or milestone in english or Hindi. So we had to depend on Prasad's limited knowledge of Kannada alphabets and occasional local.

The tiny town of Ulvi is known in this part because of the Channabasaveshwara temple which is the only temple of the Lingayat community in Uttara Kanada. The temple itself is very humble yet beautiful and one can get free meal as Prasadam twice a day. The accommodation ( 08383 250801/ 250806) for the pilgrims is very comfortable and inexpensive. For a charge of Rs. 250/- we could get a room with attached bathroom and two

beds. During the evening stroll around the temple, we met an interesting person called Manjunath who happened to be a guide and promised us to show the caves located nearby and also a short route to Yellapur which otherwise would have taken us a 100km ride and an extra day via Kadra dam on the Kali river down the valley and a crazy uphill which by this day 3 had started to concern us. The only scary part being as he said: "It is only one way on the bicycle and one cannot think of coming back!"

Day 3: Ulvi - Yellapur (40km)

We started earliest possible managing the rationed warm water supply in buckets for taking bath. It was quite an adventurous decision to trust a young 'guide' and take the bikes down a mountain trail which was impossible to scale up in case the route was blocked for some reason but luckily enough the otherwise trail like route was occasionally used by a few motorbike riders. Manjunath, our excited and enthusiastic guide took us through further 'short cuts' which even motorbikes cannot scale to visit some fabulous naturally formed caves inside which beautiful formations of stalagmites and stalactites can be seen. One of the caves had an entrance one can barely crawl in to and has to pass through water to reach the spacious interior.

The mountain trail ended next to Kali river where a peaceful Mutt is situated. We had lunch (Bhojan Seva) served by the Mutt for all the pilgrims and passersby and headed for the river crossing.

Crossing the river on a rope pulled wooden raft was both thrilling and exhausting. Luckily though the water was calm. Another advantage of bicycles, as they can take almost all the modes of transports as the riders!

A very tough terrain was waiting for us on the other side of the river. A steep climb of about a kilometre took us to the tar road where we saw the sign board for 'Sathodi Falls'. After going downhill through a broken, almost non-existent road for 6km we encountered the falls. 'Mystical' as Prasad called it the falls appear suddenly as the rivulet 'Dabbisal' jumps out of the forest making a low pitched rhythmic sound.

We had to move on reluctantly as it was already 3pm and we had a lot of distance to cover before the next possible halt. (Magod falls is also about 20km from Idgundi but we had no time for it) The road to Yellapur was tormenting. After the 6km climb from the falls to the tar road, the route kept on climbing for almost 10 more kms. It was almost nightfall and we were completely out of steam. Luckily we got a ride on a truck (God sent, since this route is not frequented by any vehicles other than tourists visiting the falls). Had it not been for this ride, we would be riding for 2 more hours at least up the 8km climb considering the gradient and our depleted strength.

At Yellapur, we stayed at the 'Sankalpa' lodge located on the highway junction. The place was pretty decent and affordable @Rs.600/- per night. (There are many alternates available for stay and food in Yellapur.)

Day 4: Yellapur - Sirsi (52km)

Started early at 7am for Sirsi. The road (SH93- Yellapur- Sirsi )was pretty good and fast on the bike. We stopped over at 'Sahasralinga' on the way near Sonda. The place was an interesting cluster of numerous 'Shivlingas' carved on the rocks in the riverbed. S ituated amidst river Shalmala near Bhairumbe village, the Shivalingas, around thousand, are believed to have been built by King of Swady to get children. It is also believed that there was a art school here in ancient times. The place gets its name from the numerous (Sahasra = thousand) Lingas carved on the rocks of Shalmala river. Lingas with Nandi of all shapes and sizes can be seen here, some of them dislodged due to the force of water flow. It is better to visit this place when the water level is low when all the Lingas become visible. There is also an interesting suspension bridge on the river used by the nearby villagers.

We reached Sirsi at around 2pm and checked in at 'Hotel Panchavati'. At Rs.500/- per night this was an unexpected luxury with hot water, towels, clean linen and very thoughtful amenities. This hotel is quite a contrast with the rest of the city where food is awful and rickies can fleece you. I would recommend to stick to the restaurant in the hotel only instead of exploring the town.

After lunch we took a state transport bus to the ancient town of Banavasi established by the Kadamba rulers, situated about 20kms south of Sirsi. The road was very narrow and very busy with buses and private transport vehicles and not at all safe for cyclists. The town of Banavasi, capital of the Kadamba Kings who established the first Kannada Empire in c. 345AD, is the site of an annual cultural festival - Kadambotsava held in December. The Madhukeshwara Temple, is famed for its architecture, deriving its name from the honey colored Linga. Of special interest is the intricately carved stone cot, which was actually used by the kings and a huge Nandi in the forecourt. The temple was built by the Satvahanas about 1800 years ago and then extended by the Kadambas. The temple premises hold many shrines of various deities around the country resembling the original statues.

The 'Marikamba temple' at Sirsi is also a prominent religious destination and a beautiful building with big elephant statues at the entrance.


Day 5: Sirsi - Yana - Gokarna (95km)

After the fourth day, we had a big day ahead and saddle sores behind. The next halt had to be at Gokarna or Kumta, both about 90-100kms from Sirsi. We started at 7:30am with somewhat upset stomach, thanks to the ridiculous dinner. The route to Kumta (SH69) was under construction and hence closed for heavy traffic. But this was advantageous to us since we could ride very easily till Yanna for 65kms before taking the diversion. The road then went downhill for 2km reaching the site. Yana is a nature’s wonder. Known for two gigantic rock formations of a height of 90 and 120 meters called Mohini Shikhara and Bhairaveshwara Shikhara. Encircled by thickly wooded forest, it is a trekker’s paradise. The rock formations are really very mystical and one can experience the power of nature to create some magnificent sculptures. The place is beyond words!

There is a so called 'road' from Yana to Gokarna. A 6km downhill through extremely bad, rocky trail like something. Thanks to the sturdy machines that we were riding, that nothing went wrong. For the first time I had to stop because my hands were paining due to all the hard work of braking on the steep gradient!

The ride till highway was not as pleasant as expected. The road was all broken though pretty flat without climbs but after riding more than 75km fuelling ourselves with energy bars, we were not much in the mood to take those bumps. But once we reached the smooth road to Gokarna, a newfound energy helped us push till the Om beach beating the last 3km uphill. The temple town of Gokarna is frequented by numerous foreign tourists seeking peaceful stay on the beach and serenity of traditional holy environment. (Indian tourists will not find vacancy on the beach stays! So we had to go back to the town and find a lodge). Mahabaleshwar temple being the main attraction for the pious visitors, Gokarna has many beaches some of them totally secluded from the crowd. This was the most appropriate destination to end our 5day journey with the soothing sea breeze.

Next day we took our bikes to Kumta in a small goods carrier to take a Volvo bus ride back to Mumbai. The tour of Uttara Kanada had been a very different and fulfilling experience for us with physical challanges, thrilling wild life, exhilarating terrains, surprising detours and ever changing landscapes. I would like to urge the readers of this article to take this journey and experience why it is called 'Incredible India!'

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