News: India - Big Cats and Small Kingdoms

Posted: 23 October 2018

Mark Huggins has recently returned from a recce trip to Rajasthan and off the beaten track Gujarat in India. Read his blog below:

Day 1

Arrival at Delhi airport couldn’t be more straightforward with no queues to work through with my pre-applied e-visa. I meet with my driver and have a 30 minute journey to the Florence Inn, a comfortable mid-range small hotel, a couple of kms from Connaught Place and a good location for exploring the local bazaars. After some much needed sleep, it is time to explore Old Delhi on an adventurous heritage walk.

The labyrinth of narrow streets heaving with civilization is a true assault on the senses. A cacophony of noise, a kaleidoscope of colours and the powerful aromas of spice and street food surround me – an experience both exciting and slightly unnerving at the same time! We squeeze down narrow lanes, jostling with rickshaws, motorbikes and locals burdened with all manner of goods. Towards sunset, we wriggle our way through the packed spice bazaar, reputedly the largest in Asia. Sacks of turmeric, cumin and verdant chillis bulge, and my guide threads us away from the throng, up several flights of stairs to a superb rooftop vista of the spice bazaar as the sun dips. It is an evocative scene, with low light catching the famous red fort in the distance and monkeys marauding across the rooftops. The contrasts of calm on this lofty perch, against the chaos below couldn’t be starker. I would highly recommend a walk through Old Delhi for those who want to get up close and experience the hubbub of local life in this jammed metropolis. After the journey and being jostled for a few hours though, I am glad of the sanctuary of a lovely restaurant and tuck into creamy Dhal and fresh Paratha. 

Day 2 

A 5am alarm jolts me into action and before long I am heading to New Delhi train station. The entrance is rather chaotic with locals liberally sprawled, sleeping all over the arrival area. Once on the platform, however, it is an easy task to find my carriage on the Shatabdi Express. I am seated in AC Chair Class which proves extremely comfortable, with reclining seats and decent leg room. We trundle through Delhi as daylight breaks and enjoy coffee and a hot meal of eggs and vegetable cutlets which is surprisingly good, given the ungodly hour! The train is no doubt a great way to travel in this vast land and I am enthralled by the 6 hour journey, with my only requirement to watch and enjoy rural Rajasthan amble by. Our destination is Ajmer, situated only half an hour from the holy town of Pushkar.

After checking in to our hotel, which affords a magnificent panoramic view of the town and the sacred lake, we set off on foot to explore. Pushkar is a small place but attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over the world to bathe in its holy lake and worship at the Brahma temple, the sole site dedicated to this God. We stroll through the atmospheric bazaar to the temple. We then head to the lake where dozens of ghats lead from the streets to the water. One such ghat is dedicated to the place where the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were scattered in 1948. Later in the afternoon we take time to simply sit and admire the backdrop of the green hills against the shimmering holy lake as the sun lights up the old buildings. A magnificent scene. The day ends at a sunset panorama point where locals and tourists gather to soak up the exotic atmosphere, enhanced by the reverberation of rhythmic drums. Dinner is a delicious ghatta curry with fresh roti. It is worth noting that, as a holy city, the inner areas of Pushkar do not sell alcohol and are strictly vegetarian. 

Day 3

The day starts with a window over the serene Pushkar Lake at dawn, observing early rising pilgrims cavorting in the holy water. After breakfast, we take a 3 hour journey west towards the Rajasthan desert. We divert off the main highway around 30 minutes from Jodhpur and after 15 minutes arrive at the village of Chandelao. Our accommodation is an old Garh which has been converted into a hotel. It is a delight, with lovely gardens, full of bright flowers and charming atmospheric rooms. The chatter of birds is all around and cheery local children greet us. We chat to the owner who regales us with his journey in setting up the hotel and the challenges he has faced. The results are surely impressive.

After freshening up, we take a short village walk, but the heat in the middle of the day is fierce and we take refuge from the furnace. After a sumptuous lunch of curry and roti and a short rest we head out to what the owner describes as a village safari. I am intrigued by the terminology and keen to see what is in store. The excursion turns out to be half-cultural, half-nature-based. We visit some small villages and spent a short time meeting a local family and also witness some local artisanship, including pottery. This is all interspersed with looking out for a delightful antelope called the Blackbuck, supposedly common in this area, but otherwise rare in India. We also observe huge Gaur and many species of bird including thousands of migrating Demoiselle cranes. It is an insightful and enjoyable afternoon, but do be forewarned of the bumpy ride in any of the land-rovers.  During the evening, vibrant celebrations take place directly outside the hotel with dancing and music for the Durga festival. 

The Chandelao Garh is a charming place worthy of even a couple of nights. It also boasts an inviting pool and relaxing gardens. The property also actively supports the local youngsters, giving them employment in the on-site arts and crafts centre and even offers free places to young people on a computer course in the custom-made IT room. A fantastic place all round and a model for sustainable tourism.

Day 4 

I’m up at first light and the air is refreshingly cool. Taking a stroll in the immediate vicinity of the Garh, I photograph some stunning birds, including Purple sun birds, Rose-ringed parakeets, and a beautiful White-throated kingfisher in all its glory, bathing in the early morning sunlight.

We continue for around 1 hour to Jodhpur, colloquially known as ‘The Blue City’ because so many of the houses are painted a pale cobalt hue. The absolute highlight of the second city of Rajasthan is the magnificent fort looming proudly and imposingly over the city. The approach is jaw-dropping; the interior does not disappoint either. Intricate sandstone (which is able to stand the test of time due to the low humidity on the edge of the Thar Desert) and wooden artisanship is stunning, and there are fabulous rooms and historical artefacts to view, from art and textiles to weapons from down the ages. To this day, the fort is used for state ceremonial purposes, such is its grandeur. Furthermore, mention must go to the incredible 360 degree views from the ramparts, showcasing so vividly why its blue epithet is so apt as you look down on its coloured buildings.

After some hotel inspections, we continue 2 hours south to a village called Bhenswara. We are staying at a heritage hotel dating back from the 17th century and the 10th generation owner/manager shares the history of the place with enthusiasm and passion. The place is utterly stunning with a beautiful pool and rooms oozing character and old-world charm.

Around 4pm, as the sapping heat relents, we set off for a memorable excursion in one of the antique open land-rovers which the owner has restored for visitors’ use. We start by visiting a tribal village, which until recent times was nomadic and lived as hunter-gatherers. The village is primitive but extremely functional and the locals greet us with wide smiles and we play pied piper to the children. We then head off into the bush for an Indian safari. Bhenswara is situated closer to some dramatic rocky mountains, which are home to a variety of wildlife. We spot wild boar, antelopes and langur monkeys. Observing a nesting site of the Indian vulture was also a highlight.

As the sun touches the horizon, we stop at a stupendous lookout point and drink Masala chai and enjoy some biscuits. With the engine off we hear nothing but the distant screen of a grey Francolin. No vehicles. Bliss. We remain for a while, enjoying the tranquillity until night falls. We then return slowly with a spotlight looking for the elusive leopard which roams the area. I was saddened to hear from my host that sightings are becoming rarer owing to poisoning from villages as leopards try to take livestock for easy prey. The classic man-versus-nature scenario: never an easy solution. However, the anticipation of being out in the balmy warm evening breeze in pitch black knowing a leopard could be close is enthralling. We stop briefly on the way back, turn the engine off immerse ourselves in the darkness and admire the smudge of the Milky Way directly above. 

Day 5 

We have a 2.5 hour drive this morning, south to Kumbarlagh Sanctuary. Little visited by foreigners, the sanctuary is a lush forest corridor with abundant birdlife, butterflies, and animals such as Leopard and Sloth bear, although we are unlikely to see them here as the slopes are steep and the forest dense at this time of year, travelling as we are after the rains which have rendered the grass particularly wild. We plough on through bumpy tracks through the sanctuary and enjoy the peaceful surrounds. Kumbulargh fort stands guard arrestingly over the vale and we capture an impressive view from the valley floor. After a couple of hours we climb gradually out of the valley to the exit gate from the sanctuary. We agree this is a most pleasant experience for nature lovers and birders, but perhaps less sot for those hoping to see larger animals. However, before we exit the park we enjoy a lovely sighting of a family of Samba deer.

We continue through the hills to the city of Udaipur, the second largest in Rajasthan. The old city is a harum-scarum tangle of streets, better suited to pedestrians and intrepid tuk-tuks; lone cows meander incongruously, but purposefully among the intricate wooden reliefs of a cornucopia of shops. Our hotel in the old quarter has a magnificent panorama from the roof top terrace over Lake Pichola and we enjoy a hazy sunset before tucking into a fine meal overlooking the shimmering lake and the impressively illuminated City Palace across the water. 

Day 6 

I rise early to enjoy a magnificent sunrise over Lake Pichola. The luxurious Lake Palace hotel sitting proudly in the middle of the lake looks spectacular as its normally brilliant white facade is softened in the early golden light. The haze of city life provides a softening of the light towards the distant towering sentinel of the Monsoon palace, but it is the lake shores which most delight: ivory haveli, palaces and temples’ ornate jeroka-windowed edifices grow in majesty as the light intensifies and their reflections ripple and soften.  Kingfishers adapt the protrusions from the ‘floating temples’ as hunting perches and swifts gather in squealing squadrons above us.  A photographer’s paradise.  Then we are bound on a quest to check hotels and explore the Jagdesh temple, a small site, dedicated to Vishnu, the preserver, whose black statue is daily redressed by the priests, today in magnificent tangerine attire a 400years old practice.  Finally, we stride up the unexpectedly broad boulevard that leads into the stupendous City Palace where exquisitely carved figures support every balcony and the main buildings tower majestically into azure skies.

We then have a 4 hour drive ahead of us east towards the former hill station of Mt Abu situated at 1200m above sea level. After a route that crosses sundry bridges spanning dry monsoon river channels, we turn right over a huge bridge which offers bountiful views of Black ibis, Egrets of all kinds and streak-throated swallows.  At the foot of the climb, the scene is dominated by the gargantuan hanging rock atop the dome, bringing to mind scenery like Yosemite in the USA.  It’s a lovely winding road up steadily gaining height with the scenery not dissimilar to a spaghetti western.

We eventually arrive in Mt Abu a bustling small town of 30000 inhabitants surrounded by rocky peaks with a picturesque lake at its heart. Few visitors, certainly amongst westerners and indeed of the multitude of Gujarati who decamp to Mount Abu ever set foot amidst the Wildlife Reserve. A place of utter tranquillity where the idiosyncratically named ‘Trevor’s Tank’ houses crocodiles and resounds to the chatter of swifts and the onion-skin weathered rock domes flank wooded walks which offer a plethora of birds, from the White-browed fantail and the Red-cheeked bulbul to the Brown-headed barbet. A kilometre and a half will take you to the beautiful views of valley of Death Point, whilst Crocodile Point is a superb vantage point only 5 minutes and 50 dizzy stairs from the car park. 

We continue to an important Jain temple in the centre of town. As we arrive at the reception it becomes quickly clear that our bare knees in shorts will be subjected to a punitive sarong! Food, shoes, cameras, phones, even water bottles were not permitted to pass its portals, so it is with much lightened rucksacks that we wandered into the four utterly beautiful temples. An additional fifth, outside the complex, was reputedly built to honour the fifth deity, uncomissioned by the king, in the workers’ lunch breaks! A tour guide is available, yet a lone wander through the elaborate, yet curiously unpretentious simplicity of the site perhaps lends the visitor a more moving experience. Simply astounding delicacies of carving of the marble work, particularly the inner sides of the countless domes, adorned with tiny, intricate figures were at every turn.  Dating from the 11th century, the staggering workmanship makes it hard to believe it only took 15 years to construct.

The day concludes with a glorious sunset from a spectacular rocky outpost with an unnerving shear drop into the plain far below. We are joined by hundreds of Indian tourists from Gujarat away for the weekend who come to enjoy being able to drink legally and enjoy themselves away from their own dry state. I felt like a celebrity amongst the thronging crowd as the friendly Gujaratis insisted on numerous sunset selfies with me, seemingly the only westerner in town. 

Day 7  

At dawn, I take an energising walk up from lakeside to Toad Rock for sunrise over the perched glory of our hotel – The Jaipur Palace.  Mt Abu has a large green space at its heart which was once an old polo ground during colonial times. On our way out of the town we stop here and enjoy some cricket with a local lad who seems to be a keen bat. Even at 9am and at 1200 metres above sea level, 15 minutes of play was plenty enough in the heat.  

From here, we commence the Helter-skelter descent: sit on the right if you’re at all prone to vertigo! Across the steep wooded valley a Huge Mammoth-faced Rock seems to protrude from the ridge and the constant incursions of Langur monkeys makes for a stop-start route down, but an excellent photographic experience.  Heading out of Rajasthan we move into the neighbouring state of Gujarat, passing through more desiccated river beds and endless fields of corn and lentils; railways with lengthy arrays of blue carriages trundle alongside from time to time.  Indeed there is much evidence of the growing economy in India’s wealthiest state in the countless building projects that rise from the plains. The road is bursting with a kaleidoscope of saris and equally colourful waving characters who wave wildly when they see the rarity of a European face.

Our destination is the town of Dasada and the Rann Riders Resort. The reason for being here is to explore the interestingly named desert area of the Little of Rann of Kutch. Upon arrival, we are struck by the aridity: this year’s monsoon was poor and so fields are already baked.  The excellent front of house manager is also a veteran ornithologist and takes us on a late afternoon walk around the fields: Pied chats, Plain prinias and Variable wheatears abound. Better still, our walk to our excellent cottage is punctuated by birds making for their evening roosts on the lake in the grounds – egrets, storks, night herons, ibis and Rosy starlings – and then we meet the welcoming local farmer and his trio of beautiful children whose welcome outshines even the dipping disc of red sun.

Day 8 – Rann Riders

After a swift coffee and taking a packed breakfast, we embark on our first safari here in relative darkness, led by the superb knowledge of Heider. The Little Rann of Kutch, at first glance, seems a barren expanse of dried salt flats; yet in the post-dawn atmosphere life resonates. Desert wheatear pop up and dip accusingly on thorns, the rough carpet of grassland trickles with the stop-start of larks and ginger-flame-winged Bee-eaters soar everywhere; Gujarat cattle with gnarled grey horns emerge to trundle ponderously amidst the reverberation of dragonflies.  A solitary Steppe eagle beats a retreat and shimmers darkly, colossally across the expanse.  The foreground of tiny stints and plovers gives way to a glassy mere which is bedecked with huge numbers of feeding flamingos, both Lesser and Greater and Dalmatian pelicans. Amidst their stilted progress, godwits, ruff, shovelers and avocets wander, always feeding under the burgeoning morning sun, blurring into ripples of heat.  As a wildlife experience, our first foray into the Kutch lands is unparalleled.

A late second breakfast and then time to relax in the swing seats on our verandah. The mercury is touching 40⁰, so it is not until late afternoon that we take a second safari.  This time our entry point was the maharaja’s ceremonial gateway which leads to colossal mountains of salt which, by mid-winter, fuel a hectic export trade throughout India. Behind this crystalline range lie the vast silvery flats which merge in mirage edges with the sky. Green island oases emerge, topped with dazzling white temples, but the 5,900 square km of salt plains are the dominant feature. We are in search of the famous Indian Wild Ass: only 3,800 remain here. As we pause to scan the breezy horizon, otherwise silent and still, we spot a group of 8, including several you nuzzling their mothers. Their gentle white and caramel hides lend them a gentle air and they were certainly worth the effort to locate them.  Then a lone Macqueen’s bustard trots past – a rare find indeed.

Our guide then takes us to the surreal salt panning area: 24 huge rectangular, gravity fed, linked troughs. After 6 months of transferring between the tennis-court sized enclosures, deep water salt crystals finally form. Over 10 families earn their living here in a Star Wars-esque setting.  Our route home takes thorn-lined lanes initially and, lo and behold, a nightjar to crown the day off, sitting in perfect position on the road, before cascading off into the gloam.

Day 9

Next day, the level plains of Gujarat are alive with bustle as we head south for 5 hours. We cross huge rivers and irrigated fields of cotton, cumin and corn until we reach the town of Gondal. Our hotel is truly exquisite and incredibly spacious, a throw-back to both the opulence of the Raj and the grandeur of the maharajas of Gondal whose residence this is. We move into the city with its tightly packed, shop lined streets, vibrant markets and, at every corner, scores of cattle wandering the byways.  A first stop finds us at the magnificent maharaja’s palace, now the Navlakha Museum, a wealth of eccentric collections made by the Gondal royal family, from toy cars to ceremonial turbans. 

From the eerie splendour of a materially elevated life, we move to the religious exuberance on show at Bhuvneshvari Mata Temple.  It is the feast of Dunga still and throngs of enthusiastic sari-clad women and children circle and twirl to a live band, having first paid homage to the altar.  The infectiousness of the beat draws you in and even some of the more reluctant male onlookers find their feet leading them to the dance floor.  As we return, the sun is losing its vigour and we briefly view the maharaja’s incredible vintage car collection, before an impromptu game of cricket in the shadow of the Orchard Palace Hotel, until the sweeping, soberingly huge forms of Indian fruit bats – reputedly the largest bats in the world – slide overhead and signal darkness.

Day 10

An excellent highway leads us through lusher farmland and grassy hillocks, and rapidly towards Sasan Gir Forest Reserve with its major draw – the only remaining population of Asiatic lions.  As our anticipation rises, the hazy forms of the Girnar Hills loom precipitously on our left and we tempted into a short side-trip into the Junaghad area.  The town itself is an interesting ethnic mix and the streets are alive with exotic smells and sounds. Our driver braves the circuitous way up to Upperkot Fort, piercing the old walls through a mediaeval-styled tunnel, clouded with incense from tiny cave wall shrines. The now uninhabited fortress commands magnificent views across the old and modern towns. A score or more of Black kites patrol the heated skies above as we pass through the elaborately carved multitude of columns within the palace and then onto the roof.  Behind us are Jain temple-strewn peaks. A fascinating stop-off point.

Upon arrival, we explore the spacious room with steps outside leading to a wonderful panorama across the treetops of the thickly wooded area.  Our accommodation at Gir Birding Lodge is cheek-by-jowl with the Lion Reserve, something that becomes more real when the manageress suggests we don’t wander the grounds by night lest we run into jackals, or bigger visitors…  There’s a short hiatus in which to wander the mango orchard in which the accommodation is set before a delicious buffet lunch and then the arrival of our safari ‘Gypsy’ jeep.  The mayhem of buying a permit for the park is survived and, nature guide aboard, we plough down one of the 13 designated safari trails. Gir Forest is unlike any landscape we’ve seen: lush, dense forest with grassy clearings and hills, pierced by a series of flowing streams and rivers.  The trails weave fascinating routes through a beautiful, complex landscape. Birding here is very productive – Yellow-footed green pigeon, White-eyed buzzard, Long-tailed shrike and even Caspian tern are some of the myriad of species seen.  Another lovely and regular sighting is the herds of spotted deer, solitary samba deer and bluebulls.

Day 11

Most people come to Sasan Gir to spot lions and so we set off at dawn on a second safari. The park contains 523 Asiatic lions, 600 or so leopards, 300 jackals and many other species of mammal and bird. On both drives the air thrills with news from other jeeps of prides of lions, a trio of males, two males fighting and we come across several sets of paw prints, as well as pausing in anticipation as the Langur monkeys give their leopard alert calls. However, despite our fellow lodge visitors seeing both lioness and leopard, we are unlucky and have to content ourselves with deer, crocodile, water tortoise, a plethora of birds and a wonderful viewing of a jackal.  October is perhaps just too green and in a few short weeks the autumn will have laid bare the forest so that the prospects of seeing lions become much greater.  The drive ends before breakfast and so we press on to Valavadar, through the highly productive agricultural heartlands of Gujarat.

The landscape changes perceptibly as we near the Blackbuck National Park – aridity rises and the billiard table flatness transforms into a huge scrubland habitat.  Velavadar, as it is also known, is a place that is truly unique: immense parched grasslands rattle in the breeze and with the constant movement of herds of innumerable blackbucks. Stopping at the entrance, we enlist the excellent services of Sikkander who gives us a masterclass in raptor identification.  This is, we are amazed to hear, the world’s largest harrier roosting site and even the most grudging ornitholophobes (!) could not fail to be dazzled by squadrons of circling, gliding, pouncing birds of prey. We climb the look-out post and are astounded at the variety of eagles, kestrels, besra, cranes, larks that fill the air; the harriers especially come ridiculously close and hold their station on the track until the last moment, before launching with angular, elegant shoulders, providing us with photographs that feel straight out of a wildlife documentary.

Today’s sunset comes as we traverse the salt-flats en route to Palitana.  A lightning fork of burnished gold cuts dazzlingly across the river’s meander amidst the surreal snow-like near distance.  We arrive at our accommodation in darkness.  Turning into an obscure, gravelled drive in what seems unusually rural isolation, we sweep under the huge gateway arch of Vijay Vilas Palace. This genteel gem is a grand manor house from a bygone era, with a covered carriage portico and a grand dining room in which we re to enjoy a marvellous evening meal, prepared by local cooks and in large proportions of Palitana’s traditional dishes.  The owner, exuding warmth and full of fascinating historical knowledge about the environs, shows us to a newly restored, spacious and delightful room on the garden courtyard.  After eating, we explored the grounds – with crenelated garden walls, beautiful orchards and endless charming corners in which to relax and soak up the antiquity of our setting.

Day 12

Rising at 5 seems like folly as we munch through toast and coffee with the stars still very much dominating the sky.  However, as we arrive at the foot of the 3,600 steps up to the temple complex at Palitana, our decision starts to look like one of genius proportions! It’s already 23⁰ and the sky is greying with dawn, so the ascent feels something of a race against the intensity of the sun; but we are well ahead of the game and four hours hence, as we descend, we thank ourselves that we are not amongst those attempting their pilgrimage in the heat of the day. In all, Palitana, the premium Jain holy destination, boasts a mind-boggling 891 temples, clothing the summits of two joined peaks.  Pilgrims of all kinds tread the route with us: men clad in immaculate white kurtas, smiling families with tiny children, even prayerful nuns and monks in full regalia. 

We remove our shoes at the summit portal to the holy site and wander, spell-bound, amidst the multitudinous mazes of sandy coloured shrines, which cast numerous ornate pyramids skyward. The ramparts afford breathless views across the hills, plains and huge lakes, all against the backdrop of the occasional cacophony of nesting parakeets.  Inside the chief temples we stand a respectful distance back as devotional acts with lanterns, incense and mirrors take place before us.  The site is a tribute to the skill and religious verve of its builders and the colonnaded corridors of countless statued shrines are utterly compelling.  In descent we are mildly impressed at our own achievements and are smugly relieved that we refrained from accepting a ‘dolli’ chair ride up instead!

Returning to the marvellous stately relaxation of Vijay Vilas Palace, we are treated to a sumptuous late breakfast from the attentive staff and then retire to our rooms to shower and relax on the lovely terrace. A worthy end to our time in this, the most diverse and enthralling of destinations.  Gujarat and Rajasthan have proved as surprising as they have enriching and compelling. The lack of foreign tourists has made every step of our odyssey seem all the more adventurous and pioneering and the history, people and wildlife have been simply incredible.

Mark Huggins travelled in India in October 2018.
 
You can visit Gujarat and Rajasthan with Undiscovered Destinations as two separate tours on our ‘Big Cats and Small Kingdoms’ 15 day tour and our ‘Rajasthan Encompassed’ 16 day tour.
 
Undiscovered Destinations can also provide private and tailored tours to Gujarat and Rajasthan, as well as several other areas of India. 

Contact us for details. 

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