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Published: February 4th 2019
Return to India 9 (click on 'previous' below the panoramas for earlier blogs)
2nd February 2018 Forts, Rats, Vultures ad Cranes Bikaner, Rajasthan Continuing the travels of two somewhat elderly brothers, David (of ‘the grey haired nomads’) and the younger, Mike, (aka, ‘keep smiling’).
It's mild enough for shirt-sleeves on our short stroll after breakfast today, from our hotel to the enormous sandstone Junagarh Fort on the edge of town. Like many of Rajasthan's forts this one is built to impress, that's for sure.
Constructed back in the mid-sixteenth century for ruler Raja Rai Singh, this truly massive fort covers an impressive 5.28 hectares! It's impossible not to stand and stare in wonder at its enormity; let's close our eyes for a moment and take a deep breath before we move on: past the boating lake, the shiny crash-helmet stall by the roundabout and the colourful balloon sellers on the freshly swept street outside the fort.
Once through the Sun Gate, today's entrance and ticket office, we'll follow the early tourists along the cobbled streets up to the many red-sandstone and marble palaces and temples within the fort's mighty 40ft high walls.
Of particular interest are the royal chambers, adorned with the most delightful hand-painted walls and interior doors, showing scenes and figures in wonderful detail. The intricate designs are quite stunning, so much so that visitors come to an abrupt halt, so we'll have to wait a while for our own viewing. The fort remained in the care of sixteen generations of Bikaner's rulers until 1949 with the coming of the Union of India. One might compare this fort with, say, Windsor Castle in the UK; it is surely of similar size. But there are so many great forts here in awesome India it makes our senses tingle with excitement! The best the USA can do at the moment is Hearst Castle at a guess, but Trump's wall might be worth a look if it ever gets finished. Tourism could well pay for it if he can't get the funds from Mexico or anywhere else.
Perhaps we should venture across the road to Gallops for a spot of lunch before we leave town today. We'll ask our driver to join us for his vegetarian option, though it's chargeable if he sits with us - it's only free if he goes
somewhere out back on his own. The portions are all double size - there's always so much food we'll burst if we're here for too long.
Mike has set us a demanding pace today. Our trip to the fort has taken up most of the morning and I notice from his detailed itinerary that we have three more visits planned and nearly ninety kilometres of driving to do before the day is out. I think he's forgotten that we have a combined age of 155 years.
As it happens, driving appears more disciplined here in Rajasthan - or is there less traffic perhaps? At this very moment a motorcycle is coming towards us in our lane on the dual carriageway as if to defy my observation! Camels and tractors are to be expected - or at the very least, anticipated. Sound horn and move over.
Being accustomed to zebra-crossings in the UK we take our safety for granted when crossing the road after looking left and right. It's not the case here; drivers take little or no notice of those pretty black and white stripes and we might as well not be there. The cows are doing
a better job of slowing the traffic in all the towns and villages, lying in the middle of the road like sleeping policemen, as Mahindra tractors, honking cars and hundreds of motorbikes wheel in-and-out between pedestrians, donkey carts and wandering herds of goats.
So it's back in the car for a short drive to Karni Mata, the rat temple, at Deshnok. Mike has been threatening me with this little diversion for a while, but I'm a grown lad and up for anything - or most things this country can throw at me. It's the done thing to remove one's shoes when entering a temple here in India but we're going to see if we can get away with leaving our socks on this time - you never know what you might tread in! We leave our shoes and take the ticket from the attendant before moving on. There are not many white faces here today, just lots of visiting Indians, many gentlemen and numerous families with their inquisitive and nervous, wide and wary-eyed children, hand-in-hand. I'm with them!
And indeed there are rats - rats everywhere. Twenty five thousand of 'em! Rats scurrying in and out of cracks
and holes, rats running along tops of walls and in and out of windows, rats up the stairs, rats scurrying in and out of temples, well-fed rats drinking from feeding bowls and rats running over our feet. Oh the mysteries of the Hindu religion! These rats are all rather friendly really. They're quite harmless, a nice shade of brown (there are some albinos we're told) and much smaller than our much-hated brown rat in the UK; our fear a throwback from medieval times of the plague no doubt. And here are the men and women, old and young, parents and children, all dutifully paying their respects to their numerous gods amongst the rough and tumble of swarming rats. These holy rats, known as kabbas, are revered, and worshippers travel great distances to pay their respects. The pied piper would have a field day here.
"Shoes please - and make it quick!"
Cows, on the other hand, are a fact of life here. There are millions of them, each and every one revered by Hindus as a sacred symbol of life for its placid nature and agricultural uses. As yet you are not required to carry a poo-bag for
Jorbeer Animal Carcass Dump
Never before have I seen so many raptors together: Cinereous, Egyptian and Indian Vultures, Black Kites, Imperial Eagles, Steppe Eagles, Himalayan and Eurasian Griffon...........
your cow - it can just wander the streets at will and leave its nice brown pancakes for us to tread in. Hindus are vegetarians as you might know, so you might wonder where the cows go when they pass to another life. Well, I'll tell you. We're going to the Jorbeer Animal Carcass Dump next to take a look.
The Forest Officer has been alerted by a good friend to meet us on arrival at the carcass dump, now designated an official reserve to protect the vast numbers of birds regularly feeding here. But we're not here to see dead animals - that's a bit sadistic for us - we're here to see the birds! The use of some specific agricultural pesticides that have decimated vulture populations in the past has now been banned and all carcasses: cows, bullocks and camels, brought here, are subject to close inspection before the bones are picked clean by India's raptors. After the regulation tea with the field officer, a ranger follows the dusty tracks by jeep through desert scrub: a few Neem, Salvadora and Khejri trees offering resting sites for the hundreds of eagles, kites and vultures, that inhabit this feeding
station on their migratory route. A dozen or more Steppe Eagles are perched on a single tree, watching with beady eyes as we approach, awaiting their turn at the table as a great gathering of scavengers feast on the day's offerings, however fresh or deliciously rancid. Hundreds of magnificent birds are in the air at any one time: Himalayan and Eurasion Griffon, magnificent black Cinereous Vultures, Egyptian and Indian Vultures, Black Kites and Imperial Eagle, plus scores of Steppe eagles, Egrets, Crows - all seeking out the best take-away in town. On the ground the fighting begins, a wild flapping of wings and striking out of beaks and claws amongst skeletal remains worthy of a horror movie. Believe me - there can be few such incredible birding experiences to match this wonderful extravaganza, though little brother Mike might tell you otherwise. Let's wait and see what else he has up his sleeve for me before making judgement.
I'm not exactly sure what your views are on camels - their breath is foul, they are not exactly pretty on the design scale of one-to-ten and they don't make for the best and most comfortable ride in the business.
However, across the other side of the city there's the 'National Research Centre on Camels', or 'National Research Centre on Camel' (singular) as the ticket, 200Rs, suggests. We chose to go on foot along with all the other visitors. It's a bit late in the day by now, they'll be closing shortly, but we'll take a quick look to see what they're up to. Camel research is serious business here as we're about to learn. The question is, what sort of camel do you want? Well, that depends on what you want it for apparently. I really had no idea there were so many different camels: the Bikaneri is good for milk and draught (for the desert), there's the sleek and trim Jaisalmeri with long thin legs for racing, the Mewari is a milk specialist, the Kachchhi, in addition to its good milking potential, is a strong and fast camel for pulling carts, and the Bactrian, the double humped one from the north, is best for tourism - the punters are less likely to fall off. There are camels in pens, camels in corrals and more camels in milking parlours - all rather interesting. As you will have gathered by
Mike takes a well-earned rest
At the National Research Centre on Camel
now camels are part of the landscape in this part of the world - 80% of India's camels are to be found in the desert region of Rajasthan and the government is working to secure its future with subsidies for breeders. There's yet another camel I forgot to mention, the Kharai, in Gujarat nearer the sea: great in the desert and a good swimmer, I'm led to believe. So there you are, pick your camel.
It's Saturday 3rd February and we're on the move once again, 165km, to Khichan, in the Thar Desert, a three-hour drive on a good day, where we'll be staying at the Kurja Resort. We're about to take a look up Mike's sleeve to see what's next. There's no end to Mike love of India, its people and its wildlife, for good reason - and he wants me to share in more of the particular delights he has previously experienced. This one is awesome, truly awesome. I've told you there can be no greater birding experience than that of the vultures and eagles at the carcass dump at Jorbeer. Now I'm not so sure.
As you might know, I have a particular
fascination for the migration of wildlife, be it animals: wildebeest for example, birds, or insects, like the Monarch butterfly. We shall never know how or why many of them navigate and the lengths they will go to in their quest for survival and procreation. One bird in particular that will surely touch your heart is the Crane, that sprightly, long-legged, long-necked, broad-winged ballet-dancer of the bird world. Around 100 Demoiselle Cranes came here to Khichan back in the 1970's following their challenging migration across the Himalayas from Siberia, Mongolia and China, to feed on grain left out for pigeons by the Jain people of the village. Today, more than 20,000 come each year, crossing the mountains at over 22,000ft!
Where are you going on holiday? I guess you'll be flying too.
These dusky-grey and white birds with a haunting red eye, roost in the fields during the day, but by early evening they are eager to gather together in large numbers for protection beside an acre of greenish water at the edge of the village. A couple of thousand are here this evening, sharing the shallow sunlight with us and a few other visitors, all of us captivated
More Demoiselle Canes
At Khichan - breathtaking!
by the incredible sight of these magnificent specimens proudly strutting to-and-fro from the water's edge on their delicate legs. Jostling groups take to the air as marauding dogs send them in a great flutter of wings to circle a while, before returning to resume their constant chatter, like a giant gathering of frogs. I'm speechless. That's a first for me. We'll see more of these birds early tomorrow morning if we remember to turn on the alarm.
Our alarm goes off at 06.30 and by 7am our ever-prompt driver is taking us a small distance across the village to Chuggar Garh, to see the cranes at the feeding station, a rectangular enclosure especially allotted within the village to protect the birds from predators whilst they feed. We'll climb the stone steps to a rooftop viewpoint to join a small group of other birding enthusiasts. Flocks of pigeons are circling in anticipation of a welcome feast before the cranes arrive and as the sun is slowly released from its overnight lair the cranes can be heard way in the distance, tiny dots above the hazy horizon, emerging as they grow closer as great skeins in flat V formation
a hundred feet above us. There are thousands, many thousands, in groups of a hundred or more, croaking, cackling, excitedly announcing their impending arrival and the feast that awaits ..... then continuing their flight, as strings of pearls a mile wide on a brightening sky, spreading their wide, finger-tipped wings, way, way into the distance, followed by more in waves, the sky a mass of birds like swarms of flying ants. By 9am the sun is warming our bones as we wait, patiently. Coffee and biscuits appear from somewhere. Most welcome.
At 9.15 one crane arrives and lands in the enclosure, strutting around as if to say, 'Where are you?' and merrily feeds on a feast fit for a thousand.
We wait in silence for a while and then another wave, a hundred croaking cranes, circling above us, casting fleeting shadows across the flat roofed houses as they pass, startling the pigeons, clapping their wings in frenzied flight. They arrive in waves, circling above us a number of times, checking out the lay of the land, but none thought to land and feed. Things are not looking good right now. A local enthusiast told us there was a
report of raptor predators a day-or-two previous, leaving the cranes somewhat nervous.
The lone crane stayed until 10.15. No others sought to join him.
We're not disappointed - well, not too much. Our evening of wonder at the pond will remain a lasting memory of yet another wonderful natural sight. Thank you brother Mike.
Now it's back to the car. We're off to Jaisalmer, 175km away, for more adventures. With luck I'll be asleep before too long if the road is not too bumpy; dreaming. What is there not to love about this country?
The rear end of The Grey Haired Nomads
Scroll down for more pictures and up to the top for the panorama show!
For brother Mike's are on the trip, click Keep Smiling
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