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India 2003

Birding and Wildlife Tour of RajasthanIndia – Jan / Feb, 2003

Trip Report by Kate Pierce

Photos by Lorne Payne and Fran Fowler

(Kate Pierce lives on Vancouver Island, BC. Kate’s grandfather served in the British India Army and her mother was born in India.  Kate’s father also served in the British India Army and met her mother when he was stationed in Meerut, a short distance from New Delhi.  Kate has previously trekked in Nepal and was very much at home in India.- Kelly)

In late January 2003, six intrepid travellers, led by Kelly Sekhon left Vancouver for Rajasthan, India. Starting in New Delhi we alternated city sightseeing and wildlife safaris in the countryside, picking up local guides and naturalists along the way. 

Birdwatching took place everywhere and Kelly's enthusiasm infected us all, even at the Taj Mahal, where he interrupted the guide to show us our first Hoopoe.  One of Kelly's natural assets is his height; he towered over everyone and we simply followed his white hair as he led us around patiently, identifying birds and wildlife, translating menus, assigning rooms and dealing with the bills and tips, planning our daily sightseeing, birdwatching and safaris, and keeping the group together.

We travelled in a ten-seater bus, starting out early most mornings, passing village life and work in the fields, stopping for tea along the way, and for quick pit stops behind walls and bushes. We had great confidence in Jaswant, our driver, an imperturbable turbaned Sikh, who drove with much skill and verve despite the chaotic traffic.  In the cities, streets were full of pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, scooters, rickshaws, carts, cars, taxis (mostly Ambassadors - a blocky English-looking car), buses and trucks. In the countryside everyone drove straight down the center of the one- to two-lane rough roads in kamikaze fashion, dodging potholes, broken down vehicles (surrounded by rocks to protect them), pigs, cows and dogs, women carrying huge loads on their heads and vast loads of sugarcane or rice husks pulled by ox-cart, horse, camel or tractor as well as the usual pedestrians, bicycles and motorbikes. Everywhere there were horns blaring and speed bumps to slow us down.  It all seemed to work.  Kashi, Jaswant's helper carefully assisted us off the bus, made hand signals to other drivers, bought fresh fruit and water for us daily, paid tolls and kept the bus sparkling clean.  The bus was also their hotel: the two of them slept in it.

We stayed at maharajah's hunting lodges and converted palaces with beautiful furniture, immense bathrooms and ornate gardens with swimming pools. However we learned to carry a flashlight to cope with the power outages, and once there was no water.  Our meals were spicy, with lots of mild curries, rice and curds and very sweet desserts.  Lorne wanted to try some really hot curries and we found a tea shop that served spicy samosas that made us sweat.  Elspeth and Lois bought Indian outfits and wore them for dinner.  Everyone stayed healthy except for the odd collywobbles and a cold.

In New Delhi, we visited the Red Fort, Humayun's Tomb and the Qutab Minar. We  birdwatched by the River Yamuna with Mike, a keen birder from U.K., now living in New Delhi and we saw about 100 Greater Flamingos and other birds new to us. Next day we drove about 250 km northeast to Corbett National Park.  The weather was wet and cool, but dried off for our two-hour elephant ride to look for the tiger that was reported in the area.  This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. We were perched on what looked like an upside down table, four to an elephant, each with a table leg to hold on to and a board beneath our feet. Our two elephants communicated with a gentle rumble accompanied by a faint trembling sensation.  The undulating movement, as they ambled along placing their feet so carefully, contrasted with the excitement we felt when one of our animals became agitated, trumpeting and running.  It was incredible.

From Corbett we traveled back south, via New Delhi to Agra and the Taj Mahal, which was every bit as beautiful as we had imagined.  On a Sunday it was teeming with Indian families. We also visited the Agra Fort, a combination of Persian and Hindu architecture. 

On to Fatehpur Sikri, once the ancient capital of the Moghul Empire in the 16th century, but abandoned due to lack of water, and then to Bharatpur for two days of serious birdwatching.  Here we had a very close up view of a large Indian rock python.  We had an exceptionally good guide, Lakshmi, and saw many different species of birds and wildlife.  Fran had a go on a cycle rickshaw and deemed it very difficult to steer.  The drought in Rajasthan, after four years of no rain, was plainly visible, with dried up water courses and reservoirs and very few migrating birds in the parks.  Later on in the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary we noticed that water was transported by camel to fill small concrete water holes to help the wildlife.

On the way to Jaipur, we stopped at Sariska Tiger Reserve for a chance to spot a tiger on a jeep safari.  We saw lot of wild life and birds but no tiger. In Jaipur we visited the Amber Fort, the City Palace with its museums and the Jantar Mantar Observatory. In the evening some of us explored the old city bazaar and rode back to the hotel on rickshaws, in the dark, for added excitement.

South to Ranthambhore National Park, where we rode in a Canter, a large 4 x 4 open air bus. We saw many deer, antelopes, wild boars, crocodiles and monkeys.  We came within ten feet of a sloth bear, a rare sighting even for our naturalist guide. We had seen captive sloth bears earlier alongside the road, used as performing bears, some in very poor shape.  Lorne and Kate hired heavy Indian bicycles from the hotel staff and explored the village bazaar while others went on a short safari in the countryside to look for the beautiful Indian antelope called black buck. They saw a herd of about 20 antelopes and some other-hard-to find birds.

A long day's bus ride took us to Udaipur, where we toured the City Palace, a museum of folk art with a short puppet show, and enjoyed an evening boat ride to Jalmandir Island, with its 17th century palace.  On to Kumbhalgarh Fort, my favorite, where we were able to wander and explore without a guide and watch the local people who were working hard to restore the walls and plaster work, and grinding the plaster with stone wheels pulled by oxen.  The village was within the Fort walls and all the activity made the Fort very much alive.  Later on we took our most exciting jeep ride, nine of us squashed into a very small vehicle (locals ride about 20 people to a jeep, several perched on top and hanging off the sides and back), riding straight up and down an extremely steep rocky road in the Wildlife Sanctuary, several of us sporting bruises the next day.  Fran and Lorne both spotted a jungle cat.

Our last stop was Dungarpur on the southern border of Rajasthan, where we spent two nights in the most exotic palace, the Udai Vilas Palace Hotel (albeit with no water one night), located beside a lake with many water birds, including a large flock of pelicans.  We visited the Juna Mahal, a 13th century palace with lovely mosaics and paintings, mirror work, and a cupboard full of erotic paintings (for which the guide produced a flashlight).  We birdwatched from the gardens, ate fruit by the pool, dined in a baronial dining hall surrounded by stuffed tigers and big game heads, and gathered our energy for the long trip back to Delhi and Vancouver. On our last evening Helen thanked Kelly on behalf of all of us for our successful trip.

In total we saw approximately 165 species of birds and although our quest to see a tiger was unsuccessful (except for the stuffed ones at Dungarpur), we saw wild boar, antelope, jackals, sambar, spotted deer, langur and rhesus monkeys, five-striped squirrels, soft-shelled turtles, mugger crocodiles, Indian gazelle, black buck, a jungle cat, an Indian rock python, Indian grey mongoose and a sloth bear.

There are so many memories: mothballs in the sink, neatly dressed school children, the poverty and dirt, the exotic smells, the mass of people in the bazaars, the outdoor dining room at Corbett with a thatched roof (brrr.), the wedding processions, stuck in traffic in our auto-rickshaws, the pollution, the kindness and attention of the numerous hotel staff, and the slow pace of life, horses and riders galloping down city streets, the plump naked guru at a gas station, the colorful turbans and saris, the decorative stonework, intricate designs, inlay, mirror-work and wall paintings, cows wandering everywhere, dung patties, squat toilets, rose petal decorations and the flame trees...and the old sandal hanging underneath our bus to ward off the evil eye.  It was just a quick glimpse of life in India and we will have to return to see more.