Travelled with Responsible Travel – Indian Footprints.
25th November 2012 – Bhavnagar / Velavadar NP
I’ve penned so many words about India trying to comprehend the magnitude and glory and challenges of this vast, varied country. Somewhere east of the plane lies the path of the Ganges, the Taj Mahal, the sal forests of Madhya Pradesh painted with the tracks of Shere Khan’s descendants, and, I hope, the sloth bear who gave me my first glimpse of a wild ursid. That is the India that I explored as a teenager. That is also, I suppose, the India that Westerners most easily imagine. But there is so much more.
The plane is on final descent into Ahmedabad. It’s night, and the lights of the city streets shine irregular, so different from the regimental grid formation that I’m accustomed to seeing on my North American flights. Down there six million people sleep – or perhaps not. Outside of the airport, we are met by Mr S, a Rajastani native who is our guide for the next 10 days, and driven through streets where newspaper sellers sort the morning’s papers, and the pariah dogs – they’re everywhere! They sleep on the roadsides, on the outside bunks, on the fringe of the airport. Men huddle around streetside fires, and the cows and goats claim the road as their own. When the tropical sun rises, cotton fields stretch to the horizon, and black drongos – like blackbirds with absurdly long tails – perch on the telephone wires.
Closer to Bhavnagar, rural traffic dominates.
India is not, for the most part, wilderness, and hasn’t been for thousands of years. When the early Pharaohs ruled Egypt and the Sumarians were commencing written history in Iraq, another, even greater civilisation was flourishing in what is now Gujarat and the Indus Valley. The 6000 year old ruins of their cities have been unearthed in Lothal and Harrapa; we know they were a mighty people from the sophistication and scale of their culture, but their language has never been deciphered, and no tombs of their rulers have been found.
One forgotten king, maybe. I’m in search of another – there are more cats than tigers in India. But first there is a remarkable little reserve called Velavadar, a fragment of grassland habitat that, like the prairie parks of Canada, is exceptionally rich in animal life. Instead of moose, there are giant antelope called nilgai, and they wander in small groups across the grassy plain.
The females are tawny in colour.
They almost fearless of people. Gujarati culture is largely vegetarian, and despite all the challenges of conserving wildlife in a rapidly developing nation, there is a very strong desire to protect and save.
Velavadar’s most famous herbivore, however, is the handsome blackbuck. Long ago, the Asiatic cheetah hunted these spectacular antelope here. Even in the cat’s absence, the bucks keep watch over the grass.
Blackbuck are a vulnerable species, and have disappeared from much of their historic range. Here at Velavader, they are safe; the population is thought to be over 3,000.
There is much else to be found; by the park gate, rose-ringed parakeets watch from the bushes.
But it has been a long day. Tomorrow, there will be a dawn safari. For now, sleep.
Nov 26 – Velavadar NP
Wildlife in India is structured around the moods of the sun. The chill of morning coaxes the grasslands into life.
All mammals try to take advantage of the cooler spells around dawn and dusk. The next generation of nilgai lope across the grass.
They are spooked, a sign to scan the surroundings with all haste. There are no tigers here, but something is watching.
A striped hyena! Smaller and much more widespread than the better known spotted hyena of Africa, this extraordinary creature is neither a dog nor a cat, but a shy wanderer of open spaces from the Sahara to Iraq. I saw one at night in Kenya, years ago, and know it to be one of the most handsome of wild predators. This one loiters in the grass for a while, but never permits a clear photo.
As the sun climbs higher, an enormous blackbuck herd ripples across the road.
They seem a little uneasy, especially those that drift from the direction of some scrub. A predator of some description might be lurking in there, but it does not reveal itself, and the blackbuck gradually relax.
The young males haven’t yet acquired the ebony markings of their fathers, but spar playfully, preparing for the real fights of the ruts in seasons to come.
Still there are blackbuck on the road, and the park staff are forced to drive their bikes with caution.
Blackbuck are the heart of this park, but it has many other claims to fame. The UK has about 2,000 harriers nationally, and they are still illegally persecuted by gamekeepers. Velavader is thought to have 20,000, and they are highly valued as environmentally-friendly locust control. Pallid, hen and montagu harriers all roost here, but I’m especially pleased to catch a marsh harrier – I’ve never got this close to one in Norfolk 🙂
Exotic bird cries are everywhere, and their owners perch on cables and trees. This is a white-breasted kingfisher.
Green bee eaters are the jewel of the tropics 🙂
But the sun’s getting high, and the mammals retreat. Time for a siesta before dusk brings relief from the heat.
Nov 26 – Velavadar NP
I’m acutely aware of the spherical nature of the Earth on this trip, and how the angle of the sky changes depending upon where on the globe one looks up at it. The zodiac – the narrow band of the sky in which the sun, moon and planets move – is close to the southern horizon in Britain at this time of year, but in the tropics the sun soars high, and shadows shrink. Gujarat’s summers are grim, but even in November the sun presses down upon those who stray from shelter. But we have several hours before the afternoon safari, and venture back into the park on foot, aiming for the little museum half a kilometre or so down the road.
Activity continues, for wildlife and people – and sometimes both.
All English gardeners have been visited by hopeful robins. In India, it’s cattle egrets which join agricultural workers. Presumably this one is hoping for insects to be disturbed by the grass cutting.
A few footsteps in the reddish dust later, and a black drongo swoops off the wire, grabs some prey, and returns to its post.
Northern palm squirrels, the mischief of this habitat, stay upon their wall.
The hours tick by. The sun still reigns. The museum is cooler than the outside world, and offers information on Velavadar’s natural treasures – including one of unique interest to me.
The Asiatic cheetah is virtually extinct – a few survive in remote areas of Iran – but in the old days they were captured from the wild in their thousands for blackbuck hunting. (Note to cat obsessives: Indian cheetahs had different tail markings to the African subspecies, which is visible in this reproduction of a historic painting.)
But outside, something is very much alive. And noisy :insane:
Parakeets seem to have declared the exterior of the museum as their own. The object of their war is a surprise: an oriental garden lizard, apparently innocent in intent, but clearly not welcome.
I venture out into the throbbing sunshine, a little wary of snakes, but there are none to be found. The lizards pause…
…and show just how well India’s wildlife can adapt to human-built habitat.
An Indian roller watches nearby.
For the quiet time of the day, I have had plenty of wildlife watching. But I have higher expectations for this afternoon’s drive – surely the hyena cannot be so uncooperative twice.
26 November – Velavadar NP
Dust is a canvas. I’ve left the car to explore the edge of a little lake, human-dug, I think, to provide seasonal water for the park’s wildlife. Blackbuck appear in fragments through the long grass but the dust is more exciting for me. Written in it are the tear-drop tracks of a wild cat, the first I’ve found on this trip. They’re not huge – about fox size – and I think they are the insignia of a jungle cat Felis chaus. I just have an inkling…I scan the bushes, and I scan the grass.
There is nothing.
Back to the car, then, and back on the quest for the hyena, and back past wildlife that would monopolise my attention anywhere in Europe, but is so common here that it hardly wins a second glance.
The hyena isn’t being cooperative; down we head towards the little lake again, and there – :eyes: a cat! A jungle cat, a big male cat, fox-red, greyhound-sleek, bounding across the road. He stops, for a fraction for a second, and stares back through the grass, and then melts away as if he had never been. I suspect that I was within metres of him at the lake, and saw nothing. Cats :insane:
Half an hour passes. And then, incredulously, another jungle cat materialises. It’s not adult size, and not quite as stealthy as its peers. Apart from the trailcam’s capture of the bobcat last spring, it’s the first time I’ve ever caught a wild cat on my own camera :yes:
The cat family is comprised of around 36 members, most of which are quite small and very poorly known. Jungle cats are about a third larger than domestic cats, and enliven wild areas from Egypt to China. This one doesn’t stay in view for long, but still – a wild cat!
I’m happy with the afternoon’s proceedings 😉 We drive onwards. And then someone else appears on the road 😀
Striped hyenas are a rare example of a wild species whose appearance lives up to its name!
This hyena is much less social than its spotted African cousin. I’m curious at its gait; it waddles, almost, rather than walks. The hyena, for its part, is more curious in the local scents.
It might be merely wandering, rather than hunting; the nilgai do not seem to be concerned.
The sinking sun catches its ruff.
And that, by any standards, makes for a successful safari. The day is over: the flamingoes mark the sunset.
But something more is there – the Indian subspecies of the animal that has compelled me to travel the world from Vancouver Island to Madhya Pradesh. What it is to look into the face of a wild wolf – those are the moments that no wildlife photographer can ever forget.
The light is terrible, and the wolves do not tarry. They lope across the track and stride back into the heart of Velavadar.
Tomorrow our path turns southwards towards Gujarat’s most famous park. I will remember Velavadar as a good place. It is the home of wolves.
Nov 27 – travelling between Bhavnagar and Sasan
Tea on the street
Cleaning coconuts for sale
Roadside guava- and custard apple-selling 🙂
Carrying the hay
Ploughing the cotton fields
Roadside tea cafe 🙂
Always a pariah dog watching… :right:
Moveable houses of the nomadic Maldhari Tribals
Cattle egret and Maldhari-owned buffalo
Getting wilder – a chital (axis deer) wandering by the railroad
Today is not, technically, a safari day, but we decide to investigate the surroundings of the lodge. It’s the most extraordinary thing, looking for the world’s most famed predator in what is not wilderness – in the backstreets of a village, with a backdrop of motorbikes and human voices. But there is almost a ceasefire here between people and great cats, and it has led to a humbling and almost unique level of mutual tolerance.
Mr S stops the car close by the river, and beckons us to be silent. He’s listening for roaring – they’re out there. But tonight the forest rests, and instead a mild little black-naped hare catches the spotlight.
Back at the lodge, I play a hopeless game of photo-tag with an Indian fruit bat.
Tomorrow – safari at 6:30am. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time…
Nov 28th – Sasan Gir
What is it like to live on the edge of a national park? The scientific literature is full of examples of borders gone wrong. Difficult wildlife complicates matters in some places, and needlessly intolerant attitudes damage others. Run correctly, parks can provide employment and investment, and help local communities to co-exist peacefully with their wild neighbours. But in the end, there has to be an intrinsic acceptance of the value of wildlife, or all the money in the world will not mend the crisis. A century ago, Gujarat made a decision to protect this forest, and has maintained that decision through all the complications and challenges that have followed.
It’s working. This forest is not wilderness. But neither is it empty of the wild.
The streets of Sasan are relatively at peace. The chaos of the shopping hours and the constant bleat of car horns has been replaced by the rattle of open-top jeeps whose occupants huddle in multiple layers of clothing. It is freezing cold, and the rapid-fire tropical dawn hasn’t yet come. Past the park gate, chital deer and peacocks wander under trees yet to lose their monsoon-grown leaves. We are not the first travellers on this road today. Written in the dust are tracks of the creature that I’ve travelled half a world to find.
Tiger? No. This is the last kingdom of the Asiatic lion – the lion of the Bible, of Greek mosaics, and Assyrian statues; the lion of Babylon, Judah and Tibet. It exists on a thousand ancient museum exhibits, from carvings to coins to flags – surely no wild creature has ever been so proudly revered by so many different cultures – but living lions are extinct. Except here, in southern Gujarat.
The African subspecies of lion is a creature of open plains and fairly easy to find; Asiatic lions are a forest race, less social and more secretive. But I was taught long ago while looking for tigers in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh that help must be sought. Tracking cats in India means reading the mood of the forest. Chital are also looking for predators – albeit for different reasons.
They are quiet, suggesting no lions or leopards are nearby. Also relaxed are some sambar, a giant deer that somewhat resembles the wapiti of North America.
Never in all my travels have I been anywhere so liberally sprinkled with cat footprints. Lion, leopard – and these, the world’s smallest cat, common here but nocturnal, and virtually invisible.
It’s a rusty-spotted cat, about half the size of a domestic cat. It could probably sit down inside a lion’s footprint.
But the sun rises higher, and actually seeing any of these felines seems unlikely this morning. The birds present a pretty distraction 🙂
Tickell’s blue flycatcher
The village continues with its daily life. Cattle roam by the river…
…while the ladies complete the clothes washing.
A damselfly of some description perches by the water.
But I do find a cat…back at the lodge, investigating my room!
…and an Indian pond heron, tiptoeing along the footpath just outside. Hopefully it isn’t planning a visit as well.
Nov 28th – Sasan Gir NP
Chital and langur – one of the great friendships of the natural world.
They watch for each other, listen for each other, even feed each other – the fruits that the monkeys drop from the trees are gathered by the deer.
They are the watchmen of the forest.
When one barks, the other takes heed. So do I; their enemy is my quest. And this afternoon, the chital are crying the alarm.
If ever there was a country purpose-built for leopards, it is the hills of Gir. Dappled light and plate-sized leaves and twisted trunks – and those spots break up their outline. Down the road a guide from another jeep points into the morass of vegetation, and for a fraction of a second I see some inches of a cat’s back. But it is no mood to linger, and melts away into the shadows. It’s my 11th leopard sighting, and one of the most ambiguous.
But there is no doubt about the author of the tracks on the bridge.
The most famed kings in human history saw this cat. The ancient empires that revered it have mostly fallen into ruin, known only as relics in the desert or preserved in museums. But the lion itself still lives.
He’s not alone; he’s travelling with another male, probably his brother. But for now he is resting, in stark contrast to the agitated mood of his prey.
Their behaviour reflects their different habitat; pride sizes are small, and females and males live separately. Male coalitions, like these two brothers, defend a territory which typically includes two or three female groups. Physically, Asiatic lions are slightly smaller, with a distinctive skull shape and a unique fold of skin under their belly.
The day is drawing to an end. Over the Kamleshwar Dam, in the very heart of the park, the skies begin to pale.
This is the lion’s land, but they are not the only great predator here. On the edge of the lake, over a dozen marsh mugger crocodiles rest.
But it is a peaceful place, and the Maldhari herder who brings his buffalo to the water is quite calm.
These people know the forest, and its lions and secrets. For generations, they’ve lived here, keeping to a strict vegetarian lifestyle, gathering honey and producing ghee from the milk of their buffalo, and selling dairy products and wool to local villages. They lose many of their livestock to the lions, but have traditionally accepted it as part of the natural order of the world.
For my part, my first day in the Gir Forest has convinced me that it is a unique treasure. It is truly like nothing else on earth.
Nov 29 – Sasan Gir NP
It’s always a game of choices. We’ve reached a junction on the dusty track that is called a forest road, and the professional guide who accompanies us as per national park regulations is scouting. It’s another bitterly cold morning, and once again there are lion tracks – a lioness and her cub, and she headed outwards towards the cotton fields not long ago. We’re listening for the warning cries of langur or chital…but there are only the sounds of a forest at peace. She cannot be far away, but she’s still out of sight.
The enormous sambar bull deeper into the forest does not take such measures to conceal himself. My challenge instead is getting his antlers within a 200mm lens’ view.
Sometimes you stumble upon a wild cat at the most absurd moments – I’ve seen a cougar in a landfill site and a leopard in the grounds of a cement factory. Most of the time, the best bushcraft in the world cannot win a glimpse. I hope I know something about tracking wildlife, but the forest guides employed by the Gir National Park to accompany visitors have skills beyond anything I’ve seen in all my travels, spotting creatures within the dappled shade with a dexterity that an eagle would struggle to match. But all any of us can do is keep searching.
The langurs put on a starring turn.
Even when the cats are hiding, the Gir is not short of grandeur. A tawny eagle perches in the crown of one tree.
A buzzard (I forget the exact species) waits nearby.
Quiet within the darkness of the trees perches another raptor – the shikra, best described as an Indian sparrowhawk.
Very different in stature are a pair of yellow-footed green pigeons.
Most roads in Gir seem to lead to Kamleshwar. The lake is peaceful in the morning light.
The mugger crocodiles are still dotted around, but the white stork waiting by the water’s edge comes to no harm.
Waiting – so much of wildlife watching requires patience. It is clear that the cats are hiding this morning, yet the drive through the park has still been very educational and enjoyable. We leave the jeep to our driver and guide…
…and walk to a little observation tower above the lake. The Maldharis are driving their buffalo away from the water, and a cattle egret takes advantage of a free lift.
And there, in the midst of all the human footprints, the insignia of a lion shows clear.
Perhaps that is the mark of a true monarch: even when not seen, their presence is acknowledged and felt.
Nov 29 – Sasan village vicinity
My hapless game of photo-tag with the fruit bats hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed. The lodge manager, a superb naturalist who has recently returned from the relative chill of Ladakh, advises Mr S of a location near the village which is excellent for seeing Indian flying foxes. Naturally, we’re off to investigate.
The cows stand peaceful beside the village’s main road.
People, however, are working, and sweet black smoke fills the air. Mr S stops the car to introduce us to the employees of the local sugar beet factory.
The cane is ground mechanically, and the pulp boiled in a succession of cauldrons that remind me oddly of Yellowstone’s seething beauty.
The syrup-like final product is packaged up and sold as jaggery, an unrefined sugar much used in local recipes.
For another ten minutes, we drive through Sasan’s twisting streets, past dogs and people and houses. But in an open field utilised by a few resting buffalo, Mr S stops the car and asks me if I know where the bats are. For a moment, I assume the question is serious. Then I notice the enormous banyan tree on my left :eyes:
I remember that lecture at university about calculating the size of animal groups, but I’m not even going to try this one. Flying foxes hang from every branch, every twig, every shadow…
They might be hanging upside down, but they are not entirely asleep. Some are squabbling with each other. Many are fanning themselves with their massive wings.
After all these years of sitting foxes, photographing flying foxes is quite a treat 😉 But we have to return to the lodge. It’s not long until the evening safari…
Nov 29 – Sasan Gir National Park
The forest reveals its secrets in an odd rhythm. An hour into the afternoon’s drive – an hour of seeking lions and finding only tracks – our jeep is halted near an enormous banyan tree. From its twisting boughs hang combs of the jungle’s liquid gold.
The Maldharis do gather wild honey, but our guide states that the bees which produce these particular combs are considered too dangerous to approach. Regardless, it’s been an afternoon of banyan trees, and I decide to take a wide angle shot of this heavy-headed giant.
At least, that is what I think I’m doing. Within seconds it becomes clear that the tree is frequented by more than bees, and the first photograph has accidentally captured a small, very lively mammal – a mongoose :eyes: There’s a mongoose in the tree, and I’ve got a 55mm lens on the camera. I scramble to switch, but have no time to correct the settings, and the resulting picture is almost black. Cue visions of the upcoming RAW processing 🙄
But the agitation of that moment is subsumed by the peace of the forest. The atmosphere is rendered almost pastel-like by the pale dust, and the mountains are blue suggestions on the horizon.
Chital and peacocks wander the clearings.
And that, it seems, is what this afternoon will be: a safari to appreciate the Gir’s quieter treasures. Another hour passes, and dappled shade and dusty roads and the odd deer or wild boar seem to comprise the entirety of the world.
A jeep is coming towards us; the driver is from Gujarat’s Siddi community, centuries-old immigrants from Africa. He enquires after our drive, and his Indian customers show us photographs of lions that they have just captured on their mobile phones. Our own driver suggests that perhaps we had best leave the deer photography to another day…
And he flies down the track in a wave of dust, jeep groaning and leaping, and halts – there, ahead in the grass, after so many hours of searching – and more than that, after a lifetime of admiration of these most majestic of cats, it is uniquely humbling to encounter lions perfectly at peace.
Five lions are resting in the dying grasses. The lioness is accompanied by well-grown cubs. Their infant spots still show on their legs.
A young male is nearby.
Nowhere else on Earth is a sight like this possible: unarmed and unharmed, the forest guards watch their charges with nothing more than a shepherd’s stick for company.
I have heard the Asiatic lion called apathetically indifferent to human company. I’m not so sure. We are incidental to their lives, as we should be, but all intelligent creatures take note of the world around them, and I’ve been watched by idling foxes often enough. Perhaps they feel a little curiosity towards us, too.
I do know that I feel much respect towards them.
Nov 30 – Sasan Gir National Park
There’s a wholly different atmosphere this morning. Boarding the dusty jeep for the last time in Sasan Gir, I’m relaxed, even as the sun gives a red blush to the horizon and the chill starts to lift from the air. We’ve done we’ve set out to do – find Asiatic lions – and that nine times over. This is a peaceful day, to enjoy this treasure of a park at an unhurried pace, perhaps do some birdwatching, or look for reptiles.
You’d think I’d know by now that wildlife doesn’t adhere to human planning… :right:
The tree-shaded roads seem quiet – at first. A young monitor lizard dashes away through the dust, and our guide for the morning points out a termite mound.
The herbivores are calm, a sure sign that the lions are keeping their distance. A sambar bull hardly pauses at his browsing to watch the jeep rattle past.
In fact two hours go by, and the drive has been pleasant, but not particularly remarkable. But we turn down a deserted track, and – there’s something there, something standing in the mottled light. A small, tawny-brown ungulate with a pointed face; my brain says ‘chowsingha’, India’s enigmatic four-horned antelope, and a species I haven’t seen since my teenage years.
And it isn’t alone :eyes:
A leopardess bounds from the road into the cover of the forest – the chowsingha, as shocked as we are, bolts, and never returns. The leopard wastes no energy in the pursuit.
Indian poets compared the leopard to the soft morning mist, and she is silent, completely, but her innate caution is enhanced by a surprise duty, for down the tree leaps another blur of spots, rejoining her with noiseless grace. It’s a six month old cub 🙂
The cats vanish, as if they never had been. Hardly fifteen seconds has passed since the chowsingha was in view.
Drama past, but not forgotten, we explore a little more of the forest. Now it is the birds that dominate, including the spectacular mountain hawk-eagle.
An Egyptian vulture cruises in the air at Kamleshwar.
And that is that for Sasan Gir; it is time to head into Gujarat’s starkly beautiful wild west. It is not often that wildlife-watching feels dream-like, but the last 24 hours have been incomparable. But beyond the sheer magic of encountering these wild creatures, Sasan has been a humbling and moving lesson that it is possible to call a ceasefire in the endless friction between people and wildlife. It is not that there are never problems here, but there is a strong desire to live and let live. There is some peace.
Long may there remain so.
Nov 30th: Sasan – Dasada
Gujarat always seems to have been looking to the future. When the Harappa planned their cities here 6,000 years ago, they were amongst the advanced people of their era on Earth. Today, there’s an energy about the state – all its industry and factories and cement plants – but you could wonder if some sights will ever change much.
So many miles of Indian road. Dogs, horses, fields, people – banyan trees, shading, and hiding the mountains on the horizon.
There is an ancient country hidden in pieces within Junagadh. Ruins from the 3rd century BC survive in the midst of the town, but even the relatively recent architecture is astonishing.
The Moguls ruled what is now north-western India from the 16th to 19th centuries. Their legacy dominates the region, and their mighty buildings are like no other. The Mahabat Maqbara is a Muslim mausoleum of elegant design, built in 1892 over the tomb of Nawab Mahabat Khan II.
Red kites – such a rare bird in Europe – circle over the mausoleum.
You easily spend a day or two in Junagadh, but we have a long road still to explore. The landscape grows flatter, but if possible, even brighter :right:
Mr S introduces us to the workers at a local sari factory. They speak no English, but the process of putting patterns on the cloth is evident by the different stages of the work.
The markets which sell the final products are lively affairs, with a supermarket’s-worth of variety on show:
…and the odd dog wandering on a roof :right:
It seems endless.
But the land is changing. A Rabari shepherd pauses on the roadside; his goats share foraging with one of India’s rarest and most memorable wild creatures.
Not that there is time for a safari today – the sun is sinking, and after what seems an eternity, we arrive in the dust of Dasada, and consider the final lodge of this trip. It’s built out of local materials and strongly connected to the Rabari Tribal community, and also seems to function as something of a social centre. Women in the finest saris and tiaras stare at us from the forecourt, and men with first-class movie cameras survey the grounds. It isn’t immediately apparent whether we’ve walked into a wedding or a Bollywood movie set, and the lodge owner doesn’t clarify because he is busy shouting orders at a gigantic St Bernard.
Somehow he extracts a very lucky monitor lizard from under the dog’s heavy paws, and releases it on the nearest tree.
Evening falls almost without a star; the sky is dust, and the moon only a memory. Past the watered lawns and hedges of bamboo, the dining room is warmed by the usual mix of spices and yogurt. Our guide for tomorrow finds us there – he’s a veteran of this community, and projects a no-nonsense air of having withstood everything with which the Rann of Kutch has ever assailed him. He asks which species he should endeavour to find for us, and leaves us be.
We’re on the very edge of the desert. Cicadas chirp from the bamboo, and tropical frogs sing from the fountain. I don’t think anyone knows quite what to expect for tomorrow.
Dec 1st – Little Rann of Kutch
Daybreak: the tracks of a solitary wolf are impressed upon what was the bed of the Arabian Sea. A red sun rises, and white dust gleams.
This was the ocean, long ago. Now it is a gigantic salt plain, stark, sprawling, brutal and extreme. There are no roads – just cracked flat mud, and little shrubby hills called bets. It’s the simplest equation – sky and Earth – like Saskatchewan, but brushed over with an exotic hue, and galloped over by an ancient symbol of wildness and freedom.
Or khur, or Indian wild ass – they have many names. Wild donkeys exist in various subspecies in Africa and Asia, but they are all endangered, and Gujarat has saved the khur from extinction. The Old Testament prophets wrote that God gave the wild ass the wastelands for their home, and it’s hard to think of a better setting for them than this mesmorising plain.
They drift in and out of the bets, foraging or resting in a temporal rhythm. Their herds have order, but one young stallion defies it, and is put back in his place :eyes:
They watch for wolves, and perhaps for leopards, but little else here can trouble them. Not so for common cranes, which form the menu for many predators, including the spectacular Bonelli’s eagle.
But I’m really looking for something else :right:
There are ears in the bushes. And a brush that I’d recognise anywhere 😀
Red foxes, in this austere wilderness? Yes, sort of; they are a different subspecies to those which trot through English villages, and are locally known as desert foxes. Familiarity touched up with the tropical 🙂
Fox-watching is usually a fairly sedate affair. But as the jeep bounces onwards, jolting and leaping, and my bruise count from colliding with the metal frame steadily increases, white dust spurts outwards from a bet.
Tawny lightning blazes towards us, and past us, and our driver decides to pull parallel. I operate by a very strict code of ethics when photographing wildlife, and that includes not following any animal that is trying to get away, but it is clear that the gazelle isn’t running from us; perhaps it saw a jackal in the bet. Anyway, the decision is out of our hands. Forty kph, fifty kph – the worst rollercoasters I’ve ever endured haven’t felt like this – sixty, seventy… :eyes: At 80kph the jeep is just keeping even.
Chinkara – Indian gazelle – are traditionally respected by local belief, but are not often seen by visitors to the Rann. I don’t know if their top speed has ever been officially clocked, but they are certainly amongst the fastest land mammals. But they were hunted by the speediest of all. Cheetah are gone from India now, but the Rann offers fine habitat for them, and there is occasional discussion about a reintroduction.
The lithe spotted cat is probably the only thing that could make this heady wilderness more spectacular than it already is.
Dec 1st – Dasada
There are people in this desert, an ancient nomadic tribal community who raise camels and goats. We meet them as we leave the salt flats to the khur and the foxes, cutting firewood from a strange acacia-like shrub called the toothbrush tree Salvadora persica. I’m soon an unwilling expert on this plant because it is apparently no respecter of jeeps, and there is nothing to be done but duck as its pale green leaves and spindly branches swoop over, and inside, the vehicle.
A sign of people is man’s best friend, although some of the dogs here live almost like wolves, wandering free and foraging for their survival.
Fortunately, nilgai are too big to be at risk.
As the weary jeep rattles into the village, women from the Rabari Tribals pause in their duties to greet us.
Rabari means ‘path-breaker’, a reference to a far-off time when they migrated away from the invading Moguls. Today they live primarily in India’s north-west, although some communities are found as far south as Kerala. They are famed for their clothes – embroidered with small pieces of mirrors – and their gold jewellery. Most Rabaris are vegetarian, with milk and wheat forming important parts of their diet.
Wildlife drifts through their village. A purple sunbird (best described as an Indian hummingbird) hovers briefly in front of me, while the desert wheatears hop through the dust.
We’ve got company for the jeep’s final journey of the morning; our guide is approached by two men who wish for a lift back to the main road.
But as we return to the surprising world of tarmac, something looks up from the bushes. An Indian grey mongoose!
The tribal elders travelling with us could probably tell many stories of these famous carnivores, but although they are excited to see the creature, I speak no Gujarati and they speak no English. The mongoose, oblivious, considers the jeep with deep red eyes before continuing its morning.
It’s probably hunting for rodents. Despite their reputation, no mongooses are likely to do battle with cobras today; the advice we’ve received everywhere is that the monsoon season is the best for seeing Gujarat’s snakes.
In the meantime, the local boys are playing cricket on a pitch that contains the odd wandering goat.
And the sun is getting high. I think we and the jeep both deserve a rest.
Dec 1st – Rann of Kutch
I cannot say that I expected to meet an emu wandering around on the edge of the Rann of Kutch.
It is, admittedly, a tame emu, one of several unusual pets kept by the lodge; the St Bernard is asleep upside down in the manager’s office, and a sheep dozes on the balcony. Genuine wildlife is not far away, however; an Indian garden lizard clings to the wall of one lodge.
None of the pets show much interest as the beleagured jeep reappears for the afternoon’s safari. Within a few minutes, all occupants are painted with dust once more, and the driver is evading buses and cows on the road through the village. Overhead, a booted eagle scans for prey.
Houses, houses, dogs, people – and then, abruptly, the road veers through the claws of a 900-year-old gate, watching like a silent elder over the hubbub of rural life.
On the far side, some local men are painting a portrait of a warrior on horseback. But a few minutes further in the jeep, and all human endeavour is dwarfed by the mirage-softened sprawling plain of salt.
The khur are lingering near the bets…
…and rolling in the dust, turning themselves ever more tawny.
Wildlife is evading the sun, and is less easily found that it was this morning, but slowly the secrets of the Rann reveal themselves. Huge birds stride through the tough grass – Macqueen’s bustards, another rare species that has found sanctuary here.
There are others, of course: desert cats, close relations of the forest wildcat that is on the edge of extinction in the UK, and hyenas and wolves. Seeing any of them is no easy feat – but something is watching 😀
It’s not common to see red foxes out and about in the afternoon in this region; my father makes a quip about foxes following me around the world, and our guide gives me a rather odd look :whistle: but suggests that we try to approach this one on foot.
Into the bet, then, and it’s obvious at once that it’s perfect fox country, with shelter under the bushes and plenty of cover for leaping upon gerbils, bustards, or whatever other prey comes within reach. And in its centre, carefully ferried who knows how far from the site of its discovery, is…a half-eaten shoe! :eyes:
Foxes truly are brothers in ambition the world over :right:
But the day is drawing to an end. Flocks of larks swirl and dance over their roosting sites.
The sun repaints the sky.
Back at the lodge, the cicadas are calling again. I’ve got a house guest – or a house gecko, to be precise. Probably. I don’t have a gecko identification book with me and a species completely new to science was found in Gujarat as recently as 2007.
Tomorrow is our last day in India 😦 It remains to be seen if there are any further wildlife surprises…
Dec 2nd – Rann of Kutch
How does anything survive out there?
It’s bitingly cold, the sky is red, the ground is dusty and soft, and Babu – our guide for today – just smiles politely when informed that, really, we’d like to see a desert cat. It’s not technically impossible. Neither, admittedly, is finding King John’s treasure in Norfolk, and that seems elementary compared to scouring this gargantuan plain for one very small felid.
It is a desert, but it is also a place of living things – of khur:
Of marsh harriers:
Of red foxes, leaping on their prey in the bets.
So much space. A fox could lose itself in a land like this.
But there is more. Under the bushes in one bet, another pointed muzzle and thick brush are visible.
I can hardly believe it. I’ve seen Bengal foxes – a species unique to the Indian subcontinent – on previous trips, but only as eyeshine disappearing at night. This is a proper sighting 😀
Bengal foxes are rather smaller than their red cousins, and have a characteristic black tip on their tails. They somewhat resemble the swift fox of Canada, but are much less specialised in their habitat preferences.
This glimpse is a huge bonus. But as the sun rises higher, another canid lopes across the salt :eyes:
It’s not a wolf, although it could easily be mistaken for one. If the Bengal fox is the swift fox of India, then the golden jackal is the coyote. Much smaller than the ‘real’ wolf, but adaptable, intelligent and enduring, they embody the classic canid.
The jackals vanish into the endless horizon. Khur break the line of the mirages.
Maybe the Rann looked like this 1000 years ago. Perhaps it will still be recognisable in a thousand years’ time. Sadly this is the last safari on the plain; we have to move on, and this afternoon will be spent near the local salt lake instead. The birds watch us leave.
Dec 2nd – Rann of Kutch / Dasada
How can time fly in a land which feels so timeless?
We’ve come to the final safari of the trip, and Babu takes us once more down the tarmac road towards the Rann. Camels, pilgrims, motor vehicles; all use this road, and all fit together, somehow.
The little lake in this part of the Rann is a magnet for India’s magnificent birds. It reminds me of the surreal world of Bharatpur, over the border in Rajastan. Wherever you look, there is something with feathers and wings.
There are birds everywhere, and I’m staring at the mud. I’m amazed by the mud – it’s plastered with wild cat tracks. Some are undoutedly the insignia of the ever-elusive desert cat.
Others are much bigger, and suggest that this lake is frequented by either jungle cats or fishing cats. How I wish I could set up my trailcam army here! :cat:
But the evening is waning, and time has grown short.
A sounder of wild boar emerge from the horizon, foraging; they are formidable creatures, and have no fear of the lesser cats.
Tropical sunsets fall without tarrying. By the time we have finished our supper at the lodge, the sky is black, and toads are hiding under lilies in the fountain.
We leave at 9pm for the four hour drive to Ahmedabad. But our guides are determined to take us on one final safari; Babu introduces us to a local teenager who saw a jungle cat by the lodge gate only thirty minutes ago :eyes: Armed with spotlights and a jeep that can apparently defy the laws of physics by remaining in one piece, we head out into the night. Babu hands control of the vehicle over to his young friend, and scans, scans – I try to help, but the wildlife detection skills of these guides are so far ahead of mine that it seems almost pointless. I can still look, and that while my jeep-clash bruise count hits double figures :right:
There seems to be nothing except mud, mud, from one star-speckled horizon to the other. Babu shouts in Gujarati; the jeep turns, and stops. In the midst of all the earth, a nocturnal bird rests.
It’s an Indian nightjar! How Babu spotted it at a distance of 50 yards in a ploughed field, I will never know. The nightjar doesn’t flinch as it is admired and photographed, and soon the jeep is lurching over the broken mud once more.
Mr S and his car are waiting, and the road to Ahmedabad beckons. We will fly west; the sun is ahead of us, and we will not see another sunset for many an hour.
I came to Gujarat with the hope of seeing lions and wolves. I am leaving enriched by a renewed insight into the wonder of the natural world, and, perhaps, a little more hope that people and wildlife can share a land in peace. If the desire is there to keep animals alive, so much is possible.
Aavjo – for now.