There were 4 of us on this tour, all from New Jersey, U.S.A.: my wife and I and 2 friends. Most of it took place in Rajasthan.
Our aim was to see the cultural highlights of this region and to see as much as possible of the wonders of the natural world that are left.
We planned the itinerary ourselves, but all the logistics were arranged by Wild World India.
Our first stop was Agra where we visited the Agra Fort with an excellent guide who gave us as much information as we wanted about it’s history. The next day, early in the morning we went to see the magnificent Taj Mahal.
We have seen it before but we would not miss a chance to see it again. When one is in Agra it is a must to see one of the marble factories. The works of art that are produced there are truly amazing. On the way to Bharatpur we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri,
Victory City, which we have seen before but our friends did not. It is a wonderful example of Mughal architecture, definitely worth a visit.
In the afternoon we arrived to the city of Bharatpur. Our destination was the famous bird sanctuary, Keoladeo National Park, a World Heritage Site. We stayed in a comfortable hotel close to the refuge and were taken to the park every day by rickshaws. Our local naturalist guide was Brijendra Singh, trained by the famous Salim Ali. Although his knowledge of English was somewhat limited, Brijendra knew everything about Keoladeo: the geology, the plants and of course the birds. He showed us a lot of birds we would have never found ourselves, such as the large-tailed nightjar, the brown hawk owl (both at close range) and several Indian coursers. We saw 5 species of owls and 6 species of eagles as well as a flock of 200-300 white pelicans. We enjoyed several boat rides and saw quite a few mammals while we were looking for birds: good numbers of spotted deer, nilgai, sambar, jackals, rhesus macaques, striped squirrels, even 3 jungle cats.
Being of Rajput descent and taught us a great deal about Hindu customs.
He was one of the best guides we ever had.
We took the train from Bharatpur to Sawai Madopur, near Ranthambhore National Park. Most people who come here have one aim in mind: to see a tiger. Even if we had not seen a tiger it would have been worth it because the park is scenic and has a large number of ungulates (spotted deer, sambar, nilgai, wild boar) which is the prerequisite for having tigers. We also saw a good number of birds. However, after a lot of driving we were rewarded with the sight of more than one tiger: a mother and her cubs.
We spent 3 nights at the Ranthambhore Bagh in a comfortable Swiss tent. At the end of our stay a minivan
picked us up and we headed to Jaipur (the Pink City). There we checked in at the Raj Palace, formerly a haveli, belonging to Thakur Raj Singhji. The family can trace its lineage back to 1503. This was one of the highlights of the trip. The place was so artistically decorated it is worth to see a few pictures. One of the granddaughters, Jayendra spent a great deal of her time doing the renovations and furnishings.
In Jaipur we visited the Amber Fort. Elephants took us up to the fort. A local guide led us through this impressive monument and gave us a great deal of background information.
Then we flew to Jodhpur. We stayed at the Balsamand Garden Retreat, a pleasant place with a large garden that had many Hanuman langurs and a colony of Indian flying foxes. There was a lake on the property which, at the time we were there had a large number of shorebirds and ducks. The garden might have qualified for a botanical garden, with many nice specimen trees that were labeled. From here we made a trip to the Mehrangarh Fort, another highlight of the trip. A proud Rajput, Himmat Singh was our guide. He worked at the Fort for the maharaja for 15 years, so he had a good knowledge of the place and its history. He also gave us a good insight into Rajput life. For us it was very valuable to have this contact with the local people. We found all the locals we met to be courteous and helpful.
We spent a whole day at the Fort and its surroundings and could have spent even more time.
From Jodhpur a minibus took us to the little town of Phalodi. On the way we stopped at Osiyan to inspect the famous Jain temples. It seemed that we were to only tourists there at the time. Luckily a local young man spoke good enough English to explain the significance of the various statues and to instruct us on what we can and cannot do. There were several temples. We saw the Sun Temple (Suraya) and the Temple of Mahavira, the last prophet. The head Brahmin in the latter temple gave us a tour. We learned a little about the complexities of Hindu religion. We met school groups and
several worshippers as we walked through. Later on, on the way back from Phalodi we saw more Jain temples at Ranakpur.
In the afternoon we arrived to Phalodi. The reason we wanted to come here was to see the feeding of the Demoiselle cranes in the village of Khichan, which is near Phalodi.
Our accommodations at Lal Nivas Hotel were unique. The place was another heritage property with a lot of local flavor. The menu was strictly vegetarian with local recipes and was quite delicious.
Mr. Sharma, the assistant manager was extremely helpful and introduced us to the elders at Khichan. They were the leaders of the community, who were also the ones responsible for the various charities, such as the crane feeding and the operation of the local refuge for homeless cattle. Cows have religious significance for Hindus and are not harmed. In fact, we have hardly seen any animals hit by car in
spite of the fact that the roads are heavily populated with all kinds of domesticated animals.
Demoiselle cranes winter in many other places in Rajasthan but this normally vary bird can be seen at close range at the feeding station. We will never forget their sights and sounds as they flew over us and around us. A family allowed us to view the birds from the roof of their house. This was fortunate, as we had an excellent vantage point; we could see the sand dunes where the cranes were resting and the courtyard where the feeding took place was directly below us.
The next stop was the city of Rohet. From here we made excursions to the countryside. To our relief, one morning Himmat Singh showed up again to take us to a Bishnoi village. The Bishnoi are noted for their reverence for nature and are the guardians of the local wildlife. In fact, the only place we saw blackbucks on this tour was on Bishnoi land. Our experience with the locals here was again very pleasant and educational. We were invited by a Bishnoi family to their farm to see how they live. We also visited various craftsmen at Kakani village. We learned for the first time the meaning of common Indian names (Kumar=potter, Patel=farmer, Dhari=weaver).
After Rohet a brief visit followed to Ranakpur to view the Jain temples, then to Udaipur, where we saw the Udaipur Palace. We flew from Udaipur to Delhi. There we met our (by now) familiar drivers with the minibus and headed directly to Corbett National Park. First we stayed outside the park at Vanghat, a camp established by Wild World India. It is a rustic place in a picturesque setting, on the bank of the Ramganga River. It was a little adventure getting there; our jeep forded the Ramganga River several times.We spent 3 nights there and really liked it. The birding was good in the forest as well along the river. The soaring mountain hawk eagle, grey-headed and Pallas’s fish eagle became common sights.2 species of kingfishers, brown dipper, plumbeous and white-headed water redstarts, blue whistling thrushes, wagtails, lapwings made the river walk an enjoyable experience.
We often saw the pugmarks of a tiger as we walked along the riverbank and once a goral (goat-antelope) crossed the river and disappeared on the steep mountainside. Once we watched a flock of scarlet minivets bathing in a small stream. Unforgettable.
I almost forgot to mention the famous mahseer fish, a type of barb, that was numerous in the Ramganga.
The final leg of our journey was Corbett National Park. The landscape was beautiful. This is tiger country.
We saw pugmarks several times and had fleeting looks at 2 different tigers. There was plenty of potential prey: spotted deer, sambar, hog deer, wild boar. We saw a small family of elephants and a massive solitary bull that appeared to be in musth, judging by the draining temporal gland. Sighting the ancient gharial and the mugger crocodiles added to our reptile list. We looked for the diminutive small-clawed otters in vain. Although we did not come upon a tiger while on the elephant’s back, it was a unique experience. Afterwards we fed her some ‘jagaree’ (sugarcane loaf). She thanked us by saluting with her trunk.
Remarkable birds for us were the black storks, crested tree swifts, the beautiful green bee-eaters, the handsome black francolin, not to mention the different nuthatches and woodpeckers and the impressive cinereous vulture. We definitely would have spent more time at Corbett if we had the time.
We left with filled memory cards (in our cameras) and memories for a lifetime.
Photo credits: A. Major, A. Hoffenberg