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Monday, Sep 16, 2002

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Where rocks tell a tale

J. Kamath

Udupi has more to it than the famous Krishna Temple. The St. Mary's Islands, off its coast, offer some rare rock formations and the option of spending a lazy day on an island that can be virtually yours for a day, says J. Kamath.

Udupi, a small town in coastal Karnataka, is a `must see' for tourists, particularly those on the temple circuit. It is famous for its Krishna Temple but almost all visitors are ignorant of the fact that a few kilometres outside the town lies one of the geological marvels of our country.

St Mary's Islands is a group of rocky outcrops located about seven km off the coast of Malpe, on the outskirts of Udupi. The uniqueness of these islands lies in the fact that the lava here that oozed out millions of years ago from cracks in the limestone, has formed rocks of polygonal shape. Logically one would expect molten lava to have random shaped patterns after cooling but what makes them form a regular five, six or seven-sided pillar remains a scientific mystery. Geologists call this flow `laminar lava.' Occurring in varying, heights all over the islands, the tallest of them would be around six metres. Considering their importance, the Geological Survey of India has accorded these islands the status of a National Geological Monument.

The Islands derive their name from the fact that when Vasco de Gama landed in 1498 on one of these islands, he named them `el Padron de Santa Mario.' The largest of these islands is 500 metres in length and about 100 metres at its widest point and is the only one accessible to tourists.

Tour boats to the island are available from the compound of the Karnataka Fisheries Development Corporation at Malpe. Their timings are rather haphazard and the frequency depends on the availability of tourists. On holidays, there are up to 10 trips per day and the ride lasts about an hour. The journey is idyllic — as the boat lethargically slices its passage through the wavy seas a few exuberant fish keep you amused by their acrobatics.

Totally uninhabited, St Mary's has just a few coconut trees for vegetation but nonetheless there are quite a few things that one can do here. If you happen to the lazy type, you can spend relaxed moments watching the azure blue sea. And when it gets too hot, you can catch your proverbial 40 winks of sleep in those straw huts constructed by tour-operators. The hexagonal rocks in various shades: of black and red are certain to hypnotise the itinerant tourist and one can spend quite some time climbing the taller ones. You can put more than your big toe in lagoons created by these rocky outcrops. Or walk on the soft, sands with the waves gently caressing your feet. Adults and children often succumb to the pleasures of collecting seashells that litter certain stretches of the beach.

Though officially the boat operators give you about an hour on the island, a few polite words can get you to spend much longer time. You get virtually nothing on the island except a few cold drinks and it is advisable to carry: food with you in case you intend staying long. Remember, the last boat from the island to Malpe is around 5 p.m. and make sure to catch it unless you feel like doing a Robinson Crusoe for one night!

Malpe is a quintessential fishing village where time moves in slow motion. It is great for wandering around aimlessly and for watching the garishly painted boats unload their day's catch. Fisherwomen, with bored expressions on their faces, eye the fish while tawny men blow lazy smoke rings into the air — each waiting for the other to make the first move.

The boat owner operating the trips griped that the state tourism department had not hawked St Mary's properly. Somewhat perversely, it was for this reason that this writer found the island endearing.

Cacophonic music does not push you towards impending deafness, vendors do not pester with shoddy merchandise and all you.get is lots of peace with just the sound of the sea crashing on the rocks. It is almost like having a private island of your own. Vivo, the joys-of neglect!

Fact file

How to get there: Udupi is about 60 km from Mangalore, while Malpe is a further seven km from here. The return boat ride to St Mary's costs Rs 50 per head.

Where to stay: Udupi is the recommended base and has reasonable hotels to suit all budgets with the more expensive ones costing around Rs 300 for a double room.

When to visit: The islands can be visited throughout the year except during peak monsoon when the choppy seas make the boat journey a little risky.

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