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Published: February 18th 2019
Blog # 5 (February 18, 2019).
Time for some critters….and a rather well known building.
From Jaipur we drove East to Keoladeo National Park, a protected wetland that is choc-a-block with birds. How could I not stop there??!!! Along the way, we stopped at a huge old step well called Chand Baori - probably the largest in India - dating back to the 10th
century. A deep four-sided structure with a massive temple on one face, it was like an Escher painting, with zig-zag terraced steps on three sides leading way down to the well (water source). Step wells are out-dated and abandoned nowadays, superseded by modern plumbing. But they are culturally significant and lately many are being lovingly restored. We’d seen a few already, but this one was a doozy (see opposite). In addition, I finally got some good photos of the common rose-ringed parakeets here, or what I knew as boy as “Indian ringnecks” in the pet shop at Umina!
In the region of Keoladeo, we stayed at a guesthouse called Sunbird Inn, right next door to the national park. I planned to go into the park at dawn the next day. (sans Ross, too early
for my precious!) I strolled down to the park the afternoon prior, just to check out the logistics, etc. Typically, people hire bicycle rickshaw drivers to cycle them along tracks in the park. The other option is to also have a supposed “naturalist” accompany you. I had read that these “naturalists” were not very knowledgeable and were generally not worth the extra cost. When I arrived at the park entrance, I was immediately pounced upon by two of these so-called “naturalists”, each vying for my tourist dollar. One looked like an Indian version of Marty Feldman. The other, wearing glasses, looked like and Indian version of Dick Smith. Standing on either side of me, each insisted they could guide me in the park tomorrow, for 300 rupees per hour. I told them that I was visiting from Australia, and that I was keen on animals. Like the Honours students in the lab, I asked if I could give them a “spot quiz” to test their knowledge of wildlife.
“OK, “ I said, “may I check your knowledge and give you guys a quick spot quiz about animals?”
“A what?” they said.
I said to Marty Feldman: “A
spot quiz. To prove you are a naturalist, what is a gharial?”
A gharial is a peculiar endangered crocodile (reptile) endemic to India with a long thin snout that eats fish, and that I was hoping to see a few days later. Any naturalist in India should be well aware of gharials.
Marty said confidently: “A gharial, sir, is a type of bear with big claws. However, it is rarely seen in the park these days. You are unlikely to see one.”
Shocked, I said: “A bear! No, a gharial is a crocodile, a type of reptile.”
I turned to Dick Smith: “Where is the only place outside of Africa that you can still find lions in the wild.”
Dick said: “A zoo.”
“No, in the wild.”
“No, it’s here in India. In Gujarat State.”
“I know all about the lions in Gujarat” said Dick. “I can guide you there.”
“No thanks,” I said, “Gujarat is an hour’s fight away. I don’t have time for that and I’m actually not convinced you guys know much about wildlife.”
It was hard shaking them off, but in the
end I did and the next morning, I just hired a cycle rickshaw guy to cycle me round the park. And he was just fine, a charming guy who knew all the birds and special spots to see them. Saw heaps of cool species, especially waterbirds including lovely painted storks, Saurus cranes, pelicans, spoonbills, kingfishers, iridescent sunbirds, a flamingo or two, etc. I could have stayed there all day, but we had to press on, to the Chambal River, two hours drive away. There, I was keen to see gharials in particular. Yes, a type of endangered crocodile!
At Chambal River, we stayed in a really nice eco-lodge and went out in a small motorboat on the Chambal River – this time with a top naturalist. Had a great afternoon. Yes, we saw lots of gharials up close, lolling by the water’s edge with their long thin snouts poking up in the air (males with a bulbous protuberance at the tip of the snout). Oddly enough, Despite what the “naturalist” back at Keoladeo said, they looked nothing like bears! However, they were surprisingly skittish. If we got too close, they would turn and launch into the water. We also
saw large mugger crocodiles, more cool birds – including wild peafowl and rare Indian skimmers – and two special mammal sightings - a jungle cat and some golden jackals on the riverbank. Ross didn’t understand what the fuss was about with the cat, as it looked like a mangy tabby to him. However, the naturalist and I were rightly excited.
From Chambal River area, our excellent driver, Yugi, safely delivered us to the city of Agra, negotiating such obstacles as large brightly decorated trucks, zooming cars, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cattle, people on camels, people herding water buffalo or goats or old men wearing turbans ambling along on walking sticks. You may not have heard of Agra, but you have certainly heard of its main attraction; the Taj Mahal. Described by an Indian poet as a teardrop on the face of eternity, the Taj is the most visited place in India. It is an immense resplendent marble-coated mausoleum, built over only 22 years in 1600’s by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. It was built in memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth (though she was one of several wives!) It seemed fitting to me that such a
famous building should be a glorious monument to love! Is it the most beautiful building in the world? Possibly. We certainly found it impressive. Wonderfully symmetrical in all aspects, it dwarfed the people milling about its base. There is a long-standing tale that Shah Jahan planned to build an exact “negative replica” of the Taj Mahal out of black marble on the opposite side of the river as his own tomb. This would have been amazing. However, we know that he was actually buried alongside his wife in the Taj Mahal and as intriguing as this story is, there is no archaeological evidence for it. Having seen the Taj, we also really enjoyed the other major site in town – Agra Fort, often over-shadowed by its more famous neighbour. Agra Fort is well persevered; a glorious red sandstone Mughal fortification. We really enjoyed visiting the fort. While we were there, Mayur explained that Sha Jahan’s ruthless son ended up imprisoning his father here in the fort when the latter took over as ruler, and so the creator of the Taj spent his last eight years of life incarcerated in Agra Fort. Sadly, he was only able to gaze out at
his distant creation from the windows of his prison. At least he got to be buried with his beloved wife at the Taj when he died.
While at both the Taj and at Agra Fort, we were often accosted by random locals, asking for selfies with them. It clearly made sense. Obviously, they recognised me as Associate Professor Craig Smith, world renowned international expert on chicken gonadal sex differentiation. And they must also have recognised Emeritus Professor Ross Stuart, expert in Puns, Sarcasm and Reader in general tom foolery.
Food Footnote #5 : Mayur took us to try Marsala dosa, the south Indian thin rice crepe filled with spicy potato that I'd been hanging out for. You break it up and dip into one (or more) little dishes of condiments; spicy samba, dahl, coconut, etc. It was very nice. In Agra, he also took us to a very cool place that is something of an institution - a street food stall called Mamma’s Chicken. The place heaved with activity, music blaring and guys cooking up huge sticks of chicken satay, et al. We ordered and stood around at little tables eating melt in your mouth food. Highly
recommended in Agra ! We had the street food just before boarding an overnight train to our next stop, Varanasi.
Bye for now
Craig (and Ross)
P.s. Mum and Dad; we met a guy from Pennant Hills a week or two back who had just arrived in India and said that a local mall in Umina had been burnt out. Intrigued, I checked online. It appears to have been that crap mall on Ocean Beach Road, right? It surely must be suspicious, as I think anyone would do anything to get rid of that shithole of a place!?
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