Our arrival at Keoladeo National Park aka Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, Rajasthan,was a bit of a kerfuffle…that is to say it got our feathers in a ruffle…rather apropos. The hotel is inside the park and the bird militia stationed at the gate wanted an entry fee, so we could get to our hotel…in the park….and a parking fee….to park, at our hotel…in the park.
They were seeking the standard entrance fee arrangement for most attractions here in India…almost free for Mrs. R (Indian National) and half a month’s salary for me (ExPat cum tourist).
I frequently rub my hands together in boyish anticipation of the day the evil empire of F.R.R.O (just kidding, love you guys) grants me my O.C.I card (citizenship) and I shall no longer be subject to these outrageous entrance fees! Either way, Mrs. R politely explained they could get stuffed, with their entrance fee, not unlike a Thanksgiving turkey (also apropos) and we wouldn’t pay for parking either….thank you very much…in the park. I strongly recommend, where ever you travel, marry a local.
While the entrance fee negotiations were going on, a small crowd of park rangers and guides had gathered around my “safely removed from the confrontation” position, astride Mina by the gate. We were having a grand old time, chatting pleasantly with the group and getting our picture taken… “Is she a 500?” click click, “Better than a Harley yes?” click click, “Where are you from?” click click click, “How was the ride from Delhi?”click click, “Do you like India?” click, the usual chit chat. My princess bride, still flushed from battle, appeared after procuring spot on directions to the hotel from an innocent bystander (half a Km and turn right) and we proceeded down the gravel path that was indicated.
I felt somewhat self conscious navigating our way between the families, photographers, and real live Ornithologists wandering down the path. Our bike is a lot of things…stealthy AINT one of them. DUG DUG DUG Mina purred…We were getting looks. These folks were here to enjoy nature, not be assaulted by some guttural moan from a piece of MACHINERY! Mina’s call of the wild was cutting through the serenity like a hot knife through butter…or rather a Santoku knife through a stork.
Some folks were on foot, some on bicycles or in rickshaws. Some with camera equipment bountiful it was slung over their shoulder like a Mexican Bandito Bandolier. There were camera lenses that resembled the barrel of M777 Howitzer. My god, these people were serious! Were they taking pictures of birds or sinking battleships here? I patted my trusty Blackberry phone with an awesome front AND selfie camera in my pocket…I intended to find out.
After we checked in at the hotel and put Mina down for a well deserved nap, we headed into the park. There was a generous selection of bicycle rickshaws outside the front entrance; I selected the fella with the meatiest legs and most charming smile. We settled on 100 Rs an hour and set off. Rejoining thee main path, we found it littered with the travelers earlier described. Luckily no one seemed to recognize us as the serenity disturbing couple with the mechanical child. Settling in, we started enjoying the landscape. It was lovely, kind of. Actually it was rather sparse, bland and dusty, populated with only dry grass and clumps of dirt. There were no trees and certainly no wildlife worthy of attention from a 155mm field artillery piece.
Then we arrived at the OTHER entrance to the park. It would appear we hadn’t cheated the hangman after all! Forced to pay the entrance fee this time we resumed our trek and within moments, the landscape transformed into a wetland wonderland. I was anxious to call it a mangrove, after all mangrove sounds so much cooler than wetlands, but apparently a mangrove forest is something all together different. Well damn, no matter, it was splendid to behold.
A welcomed cool descended as the canopy enveloped us. Refreshing after the long dusty ride. Our guide shoo’d us out of the rickshaw and motioned for us to continue on foot. He began whispering to Mrs. R in subdued Hindi as we strolled along the spit of land serving as a path. She translated to me the things we should be watchful for, what we may see if we were lucky and the creatures we were unlikely to spot. Our guide continued his hushed commentary, he explained a leopard had showed up in the park several days back. That immediately got my attention. After the failed tiger safari in Kaziranga I had been on a mission. I so desperately wanted to see a wild big cat.
Oddly, it was at just that moment he stopped us with a silent patting motion of his hand. Taking one more step forward he squinted into the distance and then pointed. I followed his gaze..….”LIZARD!!” They both spun back to stare at me, startled and with what appeared to be disgust. The remnants of my squeal was echoing and fading through the Rajasthani mangrove….I mean wetlands. “Wha?” I mouthed at them….”It’s a lizard”. I pointed right at it to prove and justify my excitement.
We continued deep and deeper into the wetlands…still walking….I was beginning to wonder why we were paying for the rickshaw. Our chaperon was extremely knowable however, stopping us from time to time, pointing out things that in all honesty, I would have stumbled right passed, on or over. There were parakeets, who apparently love playing peek-a-boo, all manner of bobbing ducks, storks and geese. We saw Eagles, wagtails and warblers. There were kingfishers, cranes and snakebirds. There was one very exciting moment where I spotted the leopard! That wasn’t a leopard, it was a neelgai (Indian deer) resting on a small island.
One highlight for me was seeing the largest, by large I mean huge, by huge I mean gigantic lizard I have ever seen live and up close. He was sunning himself on a tree branch, looking very docile and vegetarian. Obviously waiting for some imprudent ExPat to get close enough that so he could nonchalantly flick out his agglutinative mouth appendage (sticky tongue) and suck them in to satisfy his blood lust. Where was that bloody Howitzer camera now!? Not happening to this fella, I refuse to be part of a late afternoon all you can eat reptile buffet. No need to take any risks with amazing zoom capabilities of my blackberry! I stayed well back. However, I did make a mental note to tell Irving all about it upon our return….just to make him jealous. (See Living with Irving blog Nov. 13th).
I was snapping away quite contentedly with my Blackberry camera phone (with front AND selfie camera) while our guide, who I had secretly named Davos Seaworth as he was quite obviously the Sikh Liam Cunningham, named off various things with varying levels of interest. Varying levels of interest for me that is. Davos was definitely into it….I half expected him to dive into the water at some point and scream “I know the seas and rivers, the shapes of the coasts, where the rocks and shoals lie! I know hidden coves where a boat can land unseen!” then bite the head off a fish.
Speaking of which, there was an astounding moment when a snakebird caught a fish and as it was the wrong way round to swallow, tossed it in the air to flip it around and swallowed it whole. Quite astounding. Davos said photographers wait years to get a shot like that, even to see it is rare….I sheepishly glanced at my phone in my hand. “Some things are not meant to be captured on film,” I said “they are best captured only in memory.” Davos just stared at me blankly and Mrs. R chuckled.
We arrived at the end of the spit of land, on our left was a huge tree full of storks. Understand, I do mean full. There was not a storkless branch to be had. My inquiries as to where the safety nets were in case they dropped a baby were met with the same blank stare. I continued to try and explaine how in western culture storks bring babies. Davos told me it was mating season, “No babies time yet”. I decided to shut up. We retired to the little canteen on the right for a soda and to feed the birds.
After our refreshment stop, we finally climbed aboard our rickshaw and were peddled home in relative silence. The sun was setting and the calls of so many types of winged minstrels filled the breeze. The bride and I cuddled… just a little and let the wetlands slip by us. This was a wonderful way to end the day’s adventures. We smiled and joked with each other and when we arrived at the hotel, we bid farewell to our new friend.
After dinner we had a small stroll around the grounds, not straying too far from the lights of the hotel. It was the Rajasthan wild after all, we then turned in to get a good night’s sleep for the ride home the next day.
Look out for part three soon……