Birds, Parties and Leopards Return to India 7

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January 28th 2018
Published: January 31st 2019
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Return to India 7 (click on 'previous' below the panoramas for earlier blogs)

28th January 2018

Continuing the travels of two somewhat elderly brothers, David (of ‘the grey haired nomads’) and the younger, Mike, (aka, ‘keep smiling’).

OK. Hands up. It's a year since my brother, Mike, and I, trod these glorious paths on yet another journey of discovery through India - and one or two of you might have noticed the story was unfinished. No excuses. Sometimes hobbies other than writing blogs get in the way. The following four: Return to India 7 - 10, will open the door to the final few days of our adventure. Come in out of the cold and I'll tell you all about it.

Varanasi to Jaipur - Birds, Parties and Leopards

The moon passed through earth's shadow as it moved eastwards along its orbit last night. Engrossed in the delights of our evening meal, this momentous occasion almost slipped through our fingers. As chance would have it, we remembered half way through dessert, having missed the eclipse, to be rewarded with surely the icing on the cake, the glorious sight of a 'super blue blood moon',
Jal MahalJal MahalJal Mahal

The 'Water Palace', Jaipur
the second full moon of the calendar month. Now I'm well and truly moonstruck! You might want to make a note in your diary - the next super blue blood moon will be visible in the UK on the 31st January 2037. I might just miss that one.

There are few vehicles about at 6am as we finally leave Varanasi. Our taxi speeds through red traffic lights, a common practice here in India at dawn, and we expect to be at the airport ahead of time for our flight to Jaipur. Pilgrims are already out of bed and on the streets, heading out of Varanasi in long strands, carrying their flags, many walking more than 120km back to their villages having completed their lifetime ambition of a pilgimage to this most revered religious city on the Ganges.

Early morning fog has delayed our SpiceJet flight but we finally arrive at Jaipur just an hour or so late, the city's white flat-topped buildings seen from the cabin window, bright in the morning sunshine. You might recall we were lasthere with Janice in 2013 when we visited all the spectacular tourist sights of Jaipur, so this time we are here
Khandela Haveli HotelKhandela Haveli HotelKhandela Haveli Hotel

Mike in the frame
to experience a few of the more relaxed pleasures this Rajasthan capital city has to offer. The first thing you'll notice is that all the traffic is all going the same way down the dual carriageway. There's a marked sense of discipline here. It has all the enigmatic sounds and smells we associate with this part of India, but the city of Jaipur is also remarkably clean and tidy, suggesting a certain pride.

We'll be staying at the Khandela Haveli Hotel for a couple of days; a Heritage hotel of some considerable luxury, most beautifully appointed and welcoming. From previous visits, Mike is already known to our delightful hosts, Girdhar Pratap Singh and his family, who own this magnificent hotel and Girdhar is here to greet us as old friends and join us for lunch. A powerfully built man, tall, dark haired and erect in stature, he fidgets with his moustache whilst we dine and talk excitedly, rolling the fine-pointed ends between thumb and forefinger in true aristocratic fashion.

These are working hours for Girdhar, ever generous with his time, and this afternoon we are to be on our own to explore the city some more. At his suggestion, we are heading by taxi for the local Rajasthan Polo Club where Jaipur are playing Mumbai in the cup final! This is a new experience for both of us simple folk from Wembley, more accustomed to cricket, football and rugby than this sport of kings, princes and the top drawer. But we're sat amongst the finely attired gents and their ladies in the second row, having nonchalantly sauntered though the toffs' entrance for free on this most auspicious of days in the Jaipur calendar. Bagpipes of the smartly kilted 3rd Battalion Grenadiers herald the start of the game and sleek thoroughbred ponies thunder from one end of the field to the other, their riders' polo sticks swishing to-and-fro in great arcs sending the tiny white ball hurtling up and down the field at lightning speed. Jaipur finally snatch the cup, winning the day 7 - 6 after a couple of hours and five, yes five, thrilling chukkas! We'll have to leave before the presentations and grab a rickshaw to get us back to our hotel in time for a quick shower before heading out to a party!

Mike has many friends here in Rajasthan and tonight they're all invited to his reunion party. Thirty or more friends and their families are here. The colourful ladies are all over there with their boisterous children, bright brown eyes glistening in the spotlights set up for dancing and merrymaking, and I'm here with all the gentlemen, some of whom I have met before. It's Mikes' way of saying thank you for the bright star that India has etched on his heart over many years since his chance meeting with Lajpal, then forteen years old, in 1997. He is now a fully signed-up member of Lajpal's extended and extensive family. Tonight we'll be engrossed in joyful conversation with all these family members and friends, many of whom have travelled long distances to be here, drinking, dining and dancing to Bollywood music late into the night, but we'll have to leave before midnight - we have to be up in time to meet another of Mike's friends, Manish, at dawn. He'll be waiting for us on Man Sagar, the lake where Jal Mahal, the Water Palace, gleams in the sunrise each day to the delight of Jaipur's wide-eyed, colourful people, and a quick photo-stop for the many thousands of passing tourists on their way to somewhere else.

It's quiet away from the crowds, on the other side of the lake. Manish is a talented wildlife photographer and today he's toting his big lens on a tripod over his shoulder, sharp eyed but relaxed in his gentle way. He takes us beyond the roads, the lake shrouded in mist with fleeting glimpses of sunlight sparkling on ripples, pied kingfishers gather on overhanging branches and water-fowl: Spot-billed ducks, Purple swamp hens, Painted storks and Knob-billed ducks amongst them, splash playfully in the margins. Manish is not only a good friend, but also the perfect guide, allowing us time to stand and ponder the sights and sounds of Man Sagar. I'll not take a guess at the temperature today, but let's just say, it's mild enough for strolling by the lake in shirt sleeves.

We're planning to do some more birding with Girdhar tomorrow so perhaps we'll take some downtime in the afternoon to recuperate after lunch. Indian food is spicy. I can take it in small doses, but we're here for a month. That's twenty-eight breakfasts, twenty-eight lunches and twenty-eight dinners. They are all the same - hot and spicy and I'm on
Bar-headed geeseBar-headed geeseBar-headed geese

With thanks to Girdhar Pratap Singh
fire! Thank the Lord for bottled water ever at hand and a good beer - make it a large one.

It's Tuesday and another hectic day looms. Girdhar is taking us in his rather nice 4X4 for a spot of birding at Chandlai Lake, a half-hour drive south of the city. With luck we'll get to see the elusive Bar-headed geese he's promised us. This incredible bird migrates across the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau each year at heights in excess of 21,00ft; recorded as the world's highest flying bird! I've not seen one before as far as I recall - we don't keep lists, we just use birds as an excuse for a good walk. But anyway, it's got to be worth getting up early for.

And yes, there they are, on the water, perhaps thirty of them a short distance away, nervously aware of our presence, their heads jerking side to side saying shall we, shan't we fly, as Mike and I stumble rather noisily through dense scrub in our excitement to get a closer look. There are more birds on the water's edge too: Spoonbills, Little Ringed Plovers, Teal, Shoveller, three Pratincole, a bird rarely
Our group at Jhalana Forest Leopard SanctuaryOur group at Jhalana Forest Leopard SanctuaryOur group at Jhalana Forest Leopard Sanctuary

Girdhar in the middle, Dashrath on the right and Mike in the front seat where we can keep an eye on him.
seen in the UK, and a migrant Sparrowhawk quite oblivious to our presence. How fortunate we are to have such wonderful generous friends in a foreign land to take us to such places for these magnificent experiences. A great morning indeed, but Girdhar is not finished with us just yet.

Following a quick lunch back at the hotel we're off again, heading this time for Jhalana Forest Leopard Sanctuary a short drive the edge of the city. Amongst Mike's many friends at his party here in the city, I was introduced to a delightful and very distinguished gentleman, Dashrath Singh, the Private Secretary to the Minister of Forests for Rajasthan. We are to meet Dashrath at the gates to the Sanctuary where he has arranged for us to be joined by the Forest Officer, Surendra Sharma, and escorted into the reserve in a brand-new Jeep, clearly as honoured guests. Pink sandstone cliffs surround the plain of acacia scrub and valleys and plateaus that make up the sanctuary, home to around thirty leopards in recent times. But these extremely shy animals are hard to spot - if you'll excuse the pun, and an hour on the dusty trails has
View from The Hunting LodgeView from The Hunting LodgeView from The Hunting Lodge

Jhalana Forest Leopard Sanctuary
revealed little other than a few Nilgai, a Mongoose, a Scops Owl and a Sparrowhawk. Surendra has arranged for us to take tea and biscuits at an old Hunting Lodge, built back in 1835, overlooking the valley before we move on to another trail. You'll all know that soulful sound of a peacock calling on the wind, and it's this that brings us to the overlook to see peahens flying, one after the other, way-down into the valley below to roost for the night. Another wondrous memory to hang on to, great company, peacocks, tea and biscuits, but still no Leopards.

"If you haven't seen a deer in the forest," a wildlife warden once told me, "just stand and wonder how many deer might have seen you." That's surely true of leopards and much of our wildlife.

Access to the reserve has its time constraints and as daylight starts to fade and golden light strikes the sandstone cliffs our chances of a leopard sighting today are looking slim. Then our guide's phone rings and he's off at speed, dust spewing behind the jeep in great clouds as we head for a possible sighting by another group. And sure enough, a female, taking what seems to be a leisurely stroll through the scrub. Not the best sighting in the world, but there are many smiling faces in our jeep right now. We'll be back in leopard country again in a week or so, so we might well get luckier then.

I think Mike has earned his stripes in India! How fortunate I am to have a younger brother so well versed in the ways of India.

Tomorrow we'll be going on to the town of Khandela to meet Girdhar's father at his castle. Yes, at his castle!

Come with us.


The rear half of the grey hired nomads

Scroll down for more photos and up for the panoramic slideshow!

For brother Mike's take on this trip, click Keep Smiling

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


Peahens off to roostPeahens off to roost
Peahens off to roost

Jhalana Forest
Man SagarMan Sagar
Man Sagar

Some of the birds on our excursion with Manish
Grey-backed shrikeGrey-backed shrike
Grey-backed shrike

At Man Sagar with Manish

31st January 2019

It seems like a long time ago!
Oh, yes, it was a long time ago! Thanks for the memories - there are some photos there that I haven't seen before too. I still have a couple more blogs of our trip in the pipeline - well, not so much 'in the pipeline' as 'in my head'. Maybe I'll get around to publishing at least one of them today. Tomorrow will be today tomorrow, won't it?

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