India has been full of exciting moments. Top of the list has to be the unexpected marriage of our daughter, Libby, to Daniel.
To be honest, that didn’t happen in India, but we were in India when the ceremony took place in Australia. Check out the story of how we missed their shindig.
But two other amazing events are next in line. I’ve already written about the great show we got from the Asian lions in Gir National Park in Gujarat. And then Pench National Park outdid itself with two excellent sightings of Bengal tigers.
We loved Pench the first time we visited in 2013—in fact, it was probably our favourite park even if we didn’t see a tiger then—and this year it outdid itself.
It didn’t seem promising at first. Day one, a lone tiger was spotted having an afternoon snooze. He was far, far in the distance—it was a miracle that anyone noticed him. Dense trees and shrubs obscured him, and most of the time all we saw were a slice of his bum and a flicking tail.
As often happens in parks, word of a tiger sighting spread quickly and soon 15 Gypsies descended—full of noisy tourists. We know how to behave on a game drive, but so many people don’t. Every park would be wise to give guests a crash course on being quiet and respectful to the animals and fellow visitors.
Unfortunately, the most annoying Gypsy passengers were next to us. It was a large family with Dad complaining Where is it? I can’t see anything, mum pointing and shouting it’s there, it’s there and three teenage girls squealing isn’t he cute. Obviously the three girls have a thing for male bums.
Luckily the tiger raised his head for a few minutes and people could snap some slightly better photos. Then it was a mad dash to get out of the park before closing time. Gypsy drivers who return late are often heavily fined and barred from the park for up to a month.
But then came day two—the day of Libby and Daniel’s post-wedding party!
We set off in the early morning with a seasoned guide and driver, who both knew their park and its tigers. As an added authority, Anand, one of the naturalists leading our trip, was with us. He usually lives near Pench and knows it well.
The park guide and Anand must have had the hint of a sound, a whiff of a smell, a sixth sense, physic powers or maybe all of the above. Because they urged the driver to turn left down a side road. It seemed that no one else had gone that way.
Within 30 minutes of entering the park there she was—Junewani—a seven-year-old female padding through the forest. She saw us but ignored us, and kept ambling on.
A big bonus was that there was only one other Gypsy present, carrying a couple of tourists who did know how to behave.
We watched spellbound for quite sometime. It might have been hours, but I suppose it was only minutes. After she sauntered past us and into the bush, we zipped around a corner to catch another sighting. She did reappear and then strolled into taller grass and stopped for a lie down.
With her back to us and her ears poking up above the grass, we decided to move on to explore more of the park.
The thrill of this wasn’t going to wear off anytime soon. It had been the best and closest sighting of any species we’d had in something like 30 game drives over two trips to India in 16 months.
But another big surprise was to come. About an hour later, we came upon Collar Valley, an aptly named 10-year-old female who sports a tracking collar.
She’s the mum of the tiger we saw on day one, and she is most likely pregnant again. She strode across some open ground and no one had the heart to ask if we were seeing a baby bump or middle-age spread.
When we first encountered Collar Valley, there were only four or five Gyspies around but, as I said, news of such a find travels fast and vehicle numbers swelled quickly.
Meanwhile CV (you know who I mean) plodded on and the Gypsies followed, jockeying for the best viewing position. At one point, she slipped into a thicket of lantana and we thought she might hunker down for some privacy.
Then a couple of unexpected but breathtaking things happened.
CV crept on through the lantana and emerged from an opening almost beside us. While there’s no way of knowing what a tiger is thinking, it seemed she wasn’t all that happy to be almost surrounded by hordes of gawkers. She glanced around and growled. You can bet the three of us in the back of our Gypsy ducked down with our noses (and my camera) poking over the seat.
Suddenly she dashed across the road. There couldn’t have been more than five metres, possibly less, between our Gypsy and the one behind us. It’s not much when she could have decided to grab a quick meal on her way by.
Our cautious reaction didn’t last long. CV moved on and so did we. It seemed that she had her eye on a small herd of spotted deer, so we stayed on her trail/tail for as long as we could to see if she started to stalk. Tigers often give birth to four cubs, so if CV is pregnant, she is eating for five.
Amazingly, throughout the sighting, our Gypsy managed to maintain one of the best viewing positions. Even now when I look at the pics, I am gobsmacked to think I have been that close to wild tigers. I’m thrilled too.
Some tiger tidbits
My first childhood memory of tigers must have been Tony the Tiger, a promotional gimmick for a brand of over-sugared cereal targeted at kids.
Luckily, my knowledge has moved beyond that.
Now I know—in fact most of us know—that Bengal tigers are endangered. And no amount of pictures of tigers on the sides of cereal packets will bring them back.
But India is working on saving them, with varying degrees of success. Project Tiger was launched in 1973. It aims to protect and expand tiger habitat so the country can have a healthy population of tigers.
Within 11 years there were 15 tiger reserves covering 24,700 square kilometres. At that time, India probably had just over 1800 tigers.
Numbers doubled by 2002. Then, because of poaching and killings by locals, numbers plummeted dramatically. By 2008, tiger numbers in India were thought to be as low as 1400.
Methods for counting tigers are not foolproof—early censuses relied on identifying the footprints, known as pug marks, of individual tigers. But many reserves now use camera traps so India is fairly confident that numbers exceed 2200.
You’d think a tiger would be easy to spot. As the largest member of the cat family, males can weigh up to 325 kilograms or 700+ pounds. On average, males weigh 500 pounds and females about 350. By comparison, male African lions weigh 300–400 pounds. Including the tail, a typical male tiger measures 270 to 310 centimetres (110–120 inches). Females are a little less.
Every single tiger is distinctively marked and colours vary too. The coat is yellow to light orange. Stripes range from dark brown to black. The belly and inside of the limbs are white. The tail is orange with black rings.
Mothers and their offspring are the main social unit for tigers. Females give birth to one to four cubs after a gestation period of just over 100 days. Cubs suckle for about six months, which is about when mum starts to teach them to hunt.
The little ones leave their mum when they are 2–3 years of age. After the family splits, the female comes into heat again.
Without the family unit, tigers lead solitary lives, establishing home ranges that may overlap or at least be near other tigers, especially those of the opposite sex.
Which is good news for all of us who hope that tigers keep going forth and multiplying.
The country’s The Telegraph newspaper had another encouraging news item yesterday. In an effort to promote further conservation, India has decided to provide tigers and training to other countries.
I wonder how they’ll manage providing their favourite foods of chital (spotted deer), sambar deer and gaur (bison)?
Paint is one of the cheapest and quickest ways to transform your home—inside and out.
Some people love big bold colours in their rooms, while others (Poor John is an example) prefer muted colours. Off-white is his favourite, but I don’t let him choose all the colours in our house.
Exterior paint jobs run the gamut too, but nothing quite prepared me for the use of colour in and on Indian homes.
Because we’re travelling around India by road—we’ve already covered 10,000 kilometres on this trip—I’ve had plenty of opportunity to whizz by houses of every colour imaginable.
Once I got over the shock of seeing so many eye-smiting electric green houses with orange and brown verandahs and trim, I started photographing some of the most startling combinations, as well as the most, in my opinion, subdued, which you see just below.
Sometimes a homeowner builds a small shop as part of the house, so you may notice counters and goods. These are still predominantly houses and not businesses.
Virtually all of these photographs have been taken from a moving vehicle, so the angle, focus and amount of house shown vary, but they’re enough to show you just how the imagination takes flight. There are some fabulous ones that aren’t included here simply because I wasn’t quick enough with the camera. Such a pity.
At least interiors stand still and they can be equally creative.
Just above are pictures of Deepti and Anand dining in front of electric blue, and Gary trying to relax in an electric pink hotel room in Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Gary just happens to be a house painter and while he gets a kick out of the array of colours in use in India, he is appalled by the way paint is slopped around.
We know what he’s talking about when we hear him mutter,
Haven’t these people heard of drop cloths?
Doesn’t anyone know how to tape trim?
But Gary’s pink room is no exception. Pink and mauve seem to rule as house colours in India, along with shades of green (and almost never grey).
The exterior of our small hotel in Kalimpong in West Bengal is pink (no photo because the street is too narrow). Inside and out, the quality of work is fairly good; however, colour choice on the inside is another matter.
In just our room, the walls are chartreuse, the carpet is red (and has been pieced together so there isn’t any carpet under the bed), the trim is brown, the doors are white, the curtains are blue and white floral, the bedding has brown and amber circles, the bathroom has five kinds of tiles with five different colours and patterns, and the ceiling is timber. I’d take a picture but I can’t step back far enough to capture the full impact.
So I’m wondering. Do any of you out there have anything that can compete with these gems. I’d love to see them.
P.S. Interested in more colourful house photos? Let me know and I’ll keep taking and posting them.
P.S.S. If you saw the last post about our daughter getting married, I thought you’d like to know they have arrived in Paris. They’ve shared a sunrise picture from their temporary apartment. Needs a bit of colour!
Libby and Daniel got married almost four weeks ago in Sydney Australia. Poor John and I were in India at the time. In fact, we still are.
So how do parents miss their own daughter’s wedding?
Two things for the record.
They didn’t elope, and we aren’t in the midst of some family feud.
So here’s how it unfolded. About nine days before we were leaving for India and Bhutan (an 84-day trip that had been planned for many months), I called Libby from Moruya on Australia’s South Coast.
Hey hon, there’s a great sterling silver cutlery set for six here at the market. The price is right, shall I buy it for you and Daniel?
Thanks mum, but no. We’ll probably be moving and I’d prefer to travel light.
Hmm, moving? Could we have this ‘moving’ conversation now?
About three years ago, Libby and Daniel made the much loved Prinzregententorte for my cooking blog. Around that same time, they moved to Sydney. But recently they’ve been feeling ready for a change. Turns out that on the morning I called about the cutlery and after months of waiting and trying not to think about applications, Daniel was offered jobs in Melbourne and Paris, Yeah, the Paris in France.
He was going to take a few days to weigh up the offers and decide what to do. In the meantime, I wasn’t to buy anything. So I got off the phone and bought the cutlery. Good grief, I figured someone would need it.
Of course, he chose the job in France. We are thrilled for them. What a wonderful opportunity and adventure for a young couple.
Then a day or two before we went to Sydney to fly to India, Libby called to say there was a hitch in the new employer’s terms and conditions. For them to be entitled to all the allowances and considerations, they would have to get hitched.
Great, I said. We’ll be there Thursday and you can get married Friday.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple in Australia any more. Prospective couples must register their intention to marry, and then wait a month before going through with it.
So instead of going to the registry on Friday to see them marry, we went to see them register. And that night we took them out for a crash-hot ‘rehearsal’ dinner at the Almond Bar, a well-loved Syrian restaurant. Very appropriate because Libby was born in Damascus.
Given that we were going to miss the wedding, I did make one request at the registry. They registered on 23 January and would be eligible to marry on Monday, 23 February.
Can I make a suggestion hon?
Sure, she said.
Thirty-five years ago, your dad and I got married on a Tuesday. I reckon Tuesday is a good day to do anything so why not wait one more day.
So they did. But they kept it simple. While they intended to be together forever, they never planned to marry. Their simple ceremony was on Tuesday 24 February at the registry office with Libby’s sister and Daniel’s mum as witnesses.
In order not to disappoint their many well-wishers, Libby and Daniel organised a Saturday party at the Waverley Bowling Club near where they live. Ahem, we missed that too.
Now they are off to France before we get home. Their departure date is quite suitably 24 March—another Tuesday. And we’ll be going to visit them later this year—most likely on a Tuesday.
Oh, and what were we doing on the day Libby and Daniel got married? We were in Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. To make that adventure worthwhile we saw a tiger in the distance. On the day of their party we saw two tigers in Pench National Park. I could have reached out and patted one if I hadn’t cared about losing my arm. More about them soon.
A few words about us getting hitched
Poor John and I eloped. We hadn’t really planned to do that, but we were in the Middle East and it seemed a huge fuss to go back to the USA and arrange a wedding.
It’s a long story that I’ll tell another time. But enough to say we got married on a Tuesday in Ajlun in Jordan.
P.S. Libby says she’s not ready to share photos from her most special Tuesday. So the pics here are from other times. And I can’t share any from our elopement, because none were taken. Oh, and the cutlery is still sitting on my dining room table.
India and Africa are teeming with wildlife, but they aren’t zoos.
You might drive into the wilderness with promises of seeing all manner of wild beasts—but don’t count on it.
We’ve usually been lucky on our safari drives, but we’ve certainly had a few disappointments. Bagheera Camp in Rajasthan was one. Apparently sloth bears came through the camp in the night when we were sleeping. Leopards spent the next morning hiding from us.
The place we stayed after Bagheera Camp said don’t tell anyone you didn’t see a leopard. You must be the first group ever not to see a leopard.
You can imagine that had to make us feel bad—and short-changed—but the reality is there are never any guarantees when it comes to wildlife.
We’ve been in the mangroves of the Sundarbans these last few days (more about them soon) and had the extremely rare pleasure of seeing a tiger. Only a glimpse, but it was still a tiger.
The area around Bagheera Camp is supposed to be teeming with leopards and sloth bears, but we saw only a few peacocks and a lot of rocky outcrops.
In an effort to console us, our hostess took us to the best tea/chai shop she knew. It still didn’t quite make up for not seeing a leopard (we still haven’t seen one on this trip) but it was a fantastic cup of chai—and in the middle of nowhere.
The chai maker has quite a system going with a small fire surrounded by a metal shield to keep out the wind. He cranks a small handle to operate small bellows (I presume) to keep the fire going. When the chai is cooked/steeped/brewed, it is strained through a small sieve and transferred to another pan for dispensing.
The brew is served in small conical-shaped pottery cups that are usually smashed when the drink is finished. I couldn’t bring myself to smash mine, so it is tucked away in my backpack with one sock inside it and another sock cushioning it from the outside.
I’ll let you know if it makes it home.
But back to the chai itself. It was probably the nicest one I’ve had in India—and I’ve had lots. We’ve had one or two a day for more than 40 days. Our hostess says the chai maker has some secrets. He adds local herbs, and she says he can make a chai to perk you up or calm you down. I wonder which one we got?
P.S. We finally saw sloth bears in Barnawapara, but are still hanging out to see a leopard.
P.P.S. Bagheera is the black panther in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
P.P.P.S. We also got to see some local women coming to the communal well to gather water. When you have water flowing freely from taps in your home, it’s very sobering to see what some people have to do to get water.
You’ve probably heard of Baloo, the bear in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, written in the mid-1890s.
Baloo and Bagheera, the panther, save Mowgli, the young boy, from Shere Khan, the tiger. In the jungle book stories, the pair are conscientious mentors who strive to teach Mowgli the Law of the Jungle.
In Disney’s 1967 movie, The Jungle Book, Baloo is still Mowgli’s friend and mentor, but he’s much more relaxed. Rather than serious, this bear is cuddly, fun-loving, easy-going, irresponsible and ticklish. He sings and dances, with ‘The Bare Necessities’ being especially popular.
While Baloo is identified as a bear, there’s some disagreement as to whether he’s a sloth, brown or Asian bear. Kipling refers to him as being brown in colour, but all the other descriptions point to him being a sloth bear.
So I’m going to stick with Baloo being a sloth bear.
Maybe that’s because we have all so desperately wanted to see and photograph a sloth bear in India. It’s been a mission ever since Poor John glimpsed one in Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan in November 2013.
At that time, six of us saw it, but it whizzed by so quickly that we didn’t get any photos and we could ‘bearly’ describe what we had seen. It was black, furry, shaggy, speedy and low to the ground.
So since this current trip began, with five of the same six people on board, we’ve been hanging out for a decent sighting of a sloth bear. How many sloth bears will we see today?, has been a question to start each safari drive.
We’ve seen and photographed countless animals, but sloth bears have eluded us. That is until we got to the state of Chattisgarh.
Our first camp was at a lodge near Barnawapara. Nothing about the first safari there was promising. About 4:30am, an hour before the drive was to begin, it started to rain—heavily. Good grief, most of the animals we wanted to see don’t like being out in the rain. Leopards shelter under dense brush and sloth bears lurk in caves, all waiting for it to clear.
We decided to drive to the main gate, about 40 minutes away, on spec. It was still drizzling when we arrived and there was unanimous agreement that we wait until afternoon.
On the way back to camp, we were most surprised to see—no, not a sloth bear—a herd of gaur. Apparently they don’t care about rain. It was a great sighting and we spent 15 minutes or so just watching them plod along in the forest to the side of the road.
We saw plenty of gaur in November 2013, and I wrote about them then. But this was our first sighting on this trip. And we were thrilled to see so many of these enormous beasts. They are also known as bison and Indian cattle, and are the largest cattle in the world.
Anyway, the herd of gaur made the outing worthwhile and we returned to camp with big smiles and hoping the weather would clear for an afternoon drive. By 2:30pm, we decided it was worth another try, so headed back to the main gate.
About a kilometre short of the gate, there it was—a sloth bear scrounging around in the shrubs and leaves in search of ants and termites. We were spellbound.
It shambled slowly, about 15 metres from us, partially hidden by all the undergrowth and poking its nose where it did belong. We didn’t get very good pictures, but we watched for five minutes or so before it shuffled down the far side of the embankment and was gone.
Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow! We’d seen a sloth bear and we hadn’t even started the safari drive.
After the sloth bear ambled off we headed on to the main gate to get a guide and driver and board our Gypsy (small 4WD). As we came back out the gate, a fellow pointed excitedly over his shoulder into the bushes.
The Gypsy stopped and we all squinted into the undergrowth to see—another sloth bear. We watched for quite a few minutes—the sloth bear ignored us—and we probably could have watched for many more. But along came a group of nosey, giggling and curious teenagers on their way home from school.
Some were on foot, others on bicycles, and they began to approach the bear. It scared the dickens out of the poor thing. It barreled out of the scrub, across the road and into the forest.
Bummer! All we could think was that this had been a great start to a safari, and hoped it was a good omen for what was to come.
As it turned out, we didn’t see any more sloth bears or any of the hoped for leopards, but we managed to get very close to a couple of gaurs and then another herd of them.
It was only after these encounters that we heard that gaurs had attacked a couple of people in recent times—killing one man. The ones we saw didn’t seem at all concerned by our presence.
But sloths bears, which are native to the Indian subcontinent, are another thing. Remember the helpful Baloo of The Jungle Book and the fun-loving and carefree Baloo of the Disney movie?
Don’t be fooled. Most writings refer to the sloth bear’s aggressive and grumpy disposition. If you get in their way, they would just as soon rip off your face.
According to Robert Armitage Sterndale, in his Mammalia of India from 1884, the sloth bear is ‘more inclined to attack man unprovoked than almost any other animal, and casualties inflicted by it are unfortunately very common, the victim being often terribly disfigured even if not killed, as the bear strikes at the head and face.’
But they are cute. As I mentioned before, they are black, furry and shaggy, with a cream-coloured muzzle, white claws and a whitish V or Y-shaped mark on the chest. They are mostly nocturnal, and feed on fruit, flowers, honeybee colonies, ants and termites. Their sharp, curved claws and sheer tenacity allow them to destroy termite mounds so they can suck out the residents.
I was impressed to learn they could easily wreck a termite mound. In four hours. four of us with an axe couldn’t break through one in Kenya to make an ad hoc pizza oven.
Sloth bears have a lanky build and average about 130 kilograms (290 pounds) in weight and 60–90 centimetres (2–3 feet) in height. They can run faster than humans, climb smooth trees and hang upside down. They don’t hibernate.
Their sharp teeth and generally crabby disposition mean that tigers usually give them a wide berth. Elephants and rhinoceros (yes, there are rhinos in India) do not like them and may charge at them.
Funnily enough, sloth bears can be tamed. There is a history of them being kept as pets and in the 20th century as many as 800 were performing as dancing bears. This practice was banned in 1972, but the last dancing sloth bear was not freed until 2009.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the sloth bear as vulnerable and estimates there are 20,000 left on the Indian subcontinent and in Sri Lanka.
I feel blessed to have seen two. Even if the dense forest meant I didn’t get great photos.
P.S. The camel I rode in the Thar Desert was named Baloo. I’ve learned that the word stems from ‘bhalu’, the Oriya language’s word for sloth bear.
P.P.S. Stay tuned for more pics of the gaur.
P.P.S. Heading into the Sundarbans early tomorrow. It’s the largest block of tidal mangroves in the world. We’ll be out of touch for at least three days, maybe more.
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know I hate washing clothes by hand. Oh, I do it, but it’s my least liked household chore. And you might remember that I am also not very good at it.
But you can’t get away from doing it on an overland trip. It dogs me day after day. We wear an outfit for a few days—two is the minimum and five is the max and depends on how far away the next shower is—then change clothes and wash what we’ve been wearing. Luckily, Poor John is a good sport and does his share of laundry duty. We’re both reasonably good at stomping on clothes soaking in a bucket. However, he’s much better at scrubbing and I’m much better at wringing out.
Funnily enough, I don’t at all mind hanging out laundry, bringing it in or folding it. In fact, I take some pride in producing a reasonably well-hung line even on overland trips.
Which reminds me of a piece contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald by a reader a couple of years ago. I’ll share it here, and extend my thanks and apologies to the newspaper and Glenda Ellis of Brisbane (the author). I hope they don’t mind.
by Glenda Ellis
‘In the Laundry and Home Management classes at my school in the 1950s, I learnt to admire a well-hung clothesline. Not only did we sort the washing to be laundered, we sorted the washing to be dried, and it still irks me to see haphazard clothing flapping in the breeze. My daughter cannot understand my disappointment at finding a pyjama top far from its other half, let alone pillowcases separated from their pairs and far from one another.
‘Mrs. Frazer (or was it Fraser?) must have had a subliminal impact on me, because if asked to name a teacher who influenced my later life she would not have sprung to mind; at least not immediately. Lately, however, as I have hung washing on the line with new-fangled super-strong plastic pegs, I find myself remembering her classes.
‘She taught Domestic Science at my school during the 50s, and there would not have been a girl who did not regard her as awesome, to borrow a 2012 description. Her cooking classes were nothing like those on the television today. We girls were there to be instructed in the essentials of cooking using The Commonsense Cookery Book, and we were also there to learn Laundry and Home Management. It is the laundry lessons that remain etched in my memory.
‘Until I attended Mrs Frazer’s classes, I was unaware there was a right and wrong way to hang items on a clothesline. I watched my mother for many years as she struggled with the sheets, pillowcases and clothes, pegging things on the line then hoisting it up with the prop to catch the breeze. Her clotheslines were orderly and a pleasure to behold.
‘Mrs Frazer insisted that we peg clothes and other items with the smallest amount of overlap. On the rare occasions my husband puts the washing out, I am mortified to find the towels hung over the line at the top.
‘Doesn’t he know this increases the necessary drying time? His insistence that they dry just the same cuts no ice whatsoever.
‘My daughter has never learnt to arrange a line of clothes satisfactorily, despite my urging. It is not something one discusses over the dinner table, I suppose, and I don’t think it would be a point of debate at parent–teacher evenings nowadays either.
‘I still think of Mrs Frazer. I wonder how she would have managed the fitted sheets of today, and what she would say if she knew I leave my pegs on the clothesline? But I’m sure she would nod her head at my well-hung line.’
Unlike the author of the above, young people in India probably aren’t taught Domestic Science in school. Some classes might touch on cooking, but I bet there are no lessons on beating your clothes against a rock to get them clean. Not surprisingly, clothespegs (clothespins) are also very difficult to find.
This means clotheslines in India are rarely well-hung. Instead they are almost always haphazard, interesting and colourful. I shared some pics when we were here in 2013, and here’s another batch.
So tell me—how well hung is your line?
Poor John is never keen on riding animals. Horses are out. Bull-riding is out. Emus and ostriches are out. Donkeys are marginally okay because, as he says, it’s not that far to fall off a donkey.
So you can imagine he wasn’t at all impressed when he realised that our travels in India included two days in the Thar Desert on CAMELS.
Oh, you should have heard him grumble and grumble and grumble. But he swallowed his complaints, mounted a camel and was heaved high into the air.
He was never sure whether his camel was named Rajah or Roger—he really should have his hearing tested. Although to be fair, his confusion was compounded by the fact that two other camels on the trek were named Robert and Rocket.
You might remember that I was on Baloo, who nearly dumped me in a water trough in the first 15 minutes. But once we got past that scare, we were off with our food provisions, cooking gear, bedding, luggage and many litres of water securely tied on the rumps of eight camels.
Baloo had the dressiest ‘outfit’, Rajah/Roger’s gear look like men’s pyjamas, Robyn’s camel looked the most interesting with his naturally-occuring leopard spots and Sherry’s camel kept calling for his wife, who had apparently run away recently.
In addition to camel quirks, it was an awkward and uncomfortable start until we asked if someone could help us put our feet into the makeshift stirrups. Luckily, the guides were quick to oblige. Even though the saddles were well-cushioned and quite comfy, none of us would have survived two days on camels with our legs dangling in midair.
Musa was Baloo’s camel handler. He’s grown up in the desert and is a farmer and tour guide there. He said they usually grow two crops including one that provides feed for camels, but he said drought conditions for the last few years have hampered/killed most of the farming. I’m guessing tourism keeps him and his family going.
But Musa and the others are perfect for the tourist job. Whenever we arrived at a ‘destination’, they were straight into starting the cooking or setting up the overnight camp.
And they made excellent food, given the primitive circumstances. I wouldn’t want to have to build a fire and cook a half decent meal in a windy desert.
But the handler who impressed me most was a young boy who was aged no more than 10. A couple of the handlers seemed to think he was only seven. This young boy owned one of the camels, so was allowed to join us on the expedition and be its escort. No doubt, he should have been in school.
I never caught his name, so I’ll call him Mowgli. Mowgli was fearless when it came to camels. He had his own and everyone else’s under control. He also helped set up camp, care for the camels, gather wood for fires and serve meals. I wonder if true desert expeditions will last long enough to keep him happily employed for the rest of his life.
One of our stops was at the handlers’ village. Based on the artwork painted on doors and the women’s dress and preference not to have their faces photographed (the men didn’t mind), we wondered if the ‘tribe’ was originally for Afghanistan. They didn’t claim any such link and thought they and their ancestors had always lived in the Thar Desert.
But back to the expedition. Aside from my near tumble, the jaunt went smoothly. Oh wait, there was a stretch where the fellows got the camels trotting and all I could wish for was a sports bra.
When we camped for the night, most of the camels and crew went home for the night—we hadn’t travelled far and probably in a circle. The fellows who stayed behind cooked and offered to fetch beers for us. How could we resist after a day spent in the hot sun.
Then it was time for bed. We’d brought our sleeping bags and the crew provided mattresses and coverlets. After a couple of beers, Robyn, Sherry and I managed to completely miss the pile of mattresses and instead spread coverlets on the ground. The sand was soft enough but the extra thickness of mattresses would have provided some good warmth in a chilly desert.
Robyn scored some surprise extra warmth. In the middle of the night, someone tossed a mattress over the bottom half of her sleeping bag. In the morning, that’s where we found ‘Red’, the dog that had followed our entourage for most of the previous day.
Turns out Red—we gave her that name—didn’t belong to our fellows or their village. She’s a caravan groupie, following those who give her handouts and moving on to a new group when the current party disbands.
After we dismounted, Red trotted off quite happily. And we moved on for a night in a desert ‘resort’.
I get a kick out of the word ‘resort’ in India. This one promised luxury tents, hot showers, a buffet dinner featuring Rajasthani dishes, and a unique show of local dancing and music.
Oh my, the promises they make! The tents were large, a bit grubby and the canvas doors wouldn’t close. Toilet paper was not provided, but towels were. The water ran freely but never ran hot. Dinner came about 9pm (we were starving). And most of the show reminded us of one we had seen in Ranthambhore in 2013, except the costumes were much more elaborate.
I think we all would have been just as happy sleeping another night on the sand. Even Poor John had to admit that the trek was much, much better than the one he so hated in the Sahara Desert in Mali six years ago. But that’s another story.
About the Thar Desert
Also known as the Great Indian Desert or Marusthali (Land of the Dead), the Thar is the world’s 17th largest desert, and the most densely populated. It straddles India and Pakistan (about 85 per cent of it is in northwestern India) and has an average of 83 people per square kilometre. In India, it spreads over four states and covers 320,000 square kilometres.
We travelled into the Thar from Jaisalmer in the state of Rajasthan. I was surprised to learn that about 40 per cent of all Rajasthanis live in this desert.
Most of the desert is shifting dunes, and the high winds that occur just before the monsoon mean the landscape changes dramatically each year. Rainfall is scarce with no more than 20 inches a year and often as little as four.
That said, there is a rich mix of vegetation, human settlement and animal life. Wells and tanks supply water, and the Indira Gandhi Canal brings irrigation to northwest Rajasthan. This allows locals to grow some crops and raise livestock. In fact, almost 50 per cent of India’s wool comes from this area.
There are also concerted efforts to grow more trees in the desert, especially Prosopis cineraria and Tecomella undulata, which are valued as all-round trees. Camels, goats and sheep can eat the leaves, flowers and pods. The wood can be used for construction and made into farming implements.
Thar is also home to more than 110 species of birds, and almost 50 species of snakes and lizards, as well as varieties of antelope and deer. We hoped to see a desert cat or fox, but our wildlife sightings were limited to birds, a beetle and a couple of deer.
The landscapes reminded us a lot of deserts in Africa.