Shack owners at the pristine golden beaches of Gokarna come together to address environment issues to protect their area from going the way of other overcrowded polluted seafronts

Rarely does anyone encounter a brawny-looking reptile unknowingly interrupting one’s morning chore in the toilet. But such a pleasantly shocking brush with nature is what one expects when nestled in the lap of the Western Ghats.

Gokarna, meaning ‘cow’s ear’, is a little town situated in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. Serene blue sea, clean beaches, coconut trees lining up the mud-smeared metalled streets bordered by traditional tile-roofed brick houses, Gokarna resembles any small coastal town with fishing boats and trawlers bobbing in the backdrop.

A town of contrasts with a history as ancient as its name and the mythological tale spun around it, Gokarna is fast being recognised as a popular destination for those who are possessed with that acute sense of exploration, adventure and experimentation. Predominantly a Hindu pilgrimage town with temples dotting the hillside, the main city has grown around one of the bigger Shiva temples, with priests, pilgrims and cows jostling for street space.

Further away from the city, towards the beaches, there are tiny tin-roofed shops selling psychedelic t-shirts, summer gowns and cheap swimsuits. Roadside cafes sell cheap but fresh sea food, home brew alcohol and further towards the sea the indigenous tourism icon of Gokarna is sprinkled along its calm sandy beaches: shacks.

The ‘shack culture’ in Gokarna is fast picking up pace. Tourists prefer to live in shacks that offer thatched huts with bare basic amenities like a mosquito net, a single halogen bulb per room and a common washroom than checking into a comfortable concrete walled room at some hotel in the town. After all, the soothing music of the surf a few feet from where you sleep and that ever-present grainy touch of the soft sand under your feet are irreplaceable. Also the room tariffs do not burn a hole in your pocket.

Walk along the tide lines, go for a swim in the shallow sea, lie down in the sun, toss a frisbee or simply sit on the rocks as the sea breeze ruffles up your hair as you watch the sun dip into the ocean. Being a small town, you get your quiet as well as the bout of frivolous festivities after sundown on the beach itself.

Suresh Nagappa Gowda, who strolls on and around the Om beach in his check-printed shirt and a lungi, owns the Nirvana shack. Eighteen years into this business, Suresh employs eight people who manage the 12 rooms and a little restaurant-cum-bar complete with a pool table. Not only is Suresh setting up an example of profiting entrepreneurship, but is also contributing to the thriving budget tourism industry. There are over 120 such bag packer’s abodes sprinkled along the four beaches of Gokarna.

But this booming industry has its own qualms. Twenty years ago, these pristine clean beaches were nestled in the lap of the lush green Western Ghats. But with commercialisation, Gokarna is slowly losing the very charm that lured people towards it. As more and more shacks are erected along the beaches, environmental degradation has literally become a ‘stinking’ reality. The practised garbage disposal system is to either bury it in the sand or cast off into the sea, endangering and polluting marine life. Encroachment into the forested hills is not only destroying the scenic beauty but also driving away the inherent wildlife like my exotic friend by the toilet seat.

To a novice, Gokarna would still look like an untouched paradise waiting to be explored, but natives like Suresh who have lived and seen this town before the first bag packers arrived can see the unprecedented calamity approaching in the near future. As a vital cog in the booming machinery that Gokarna has become, Suresh fears that if not capped, Gokarna could very well be following in the footsteps of other coastal destinations that tourists detest now.

And to counter that, a sudden emergence of awareness has awakened amidst the locals in the recent past. The 120-odd shack owners have formed an independent association tasked with the upkeep and weekly cleanliness drive of the four beaches. Through an informal collaboration with the local police, the association has formed a network that not only focuses on keeping Gokarna’s beaches and the forested hillside from harm and bottlenecking the building of more such shacks but also helps the police to keep bad elements at bay.

Much that there is to this lovely town with all its domestic issues, Gokarna largely remains immune to the viral grasp of pillaging tourist masses. Because of its non-commercialised nature and the small town unexplored flavour still native to it, Gokarna might not appeal to everyone. Consequently, it is overshadowed by Goa which resides just 150km north of it. But this seaside idyll, which effortlessly switches back and forth from being an affluent religious town with strong cultural and mythological roots to a hippy paradise with swimsuits, guitars and hammocks, Gokarna clenches on to that distinctive serene charm of its own.