Friday, April 29, 2011

Four months since...

It's been 4 long months since I got the itch to come up with a post and also been 4 months since my epic journey across western India! Well it was a conscious effort to not blog about that particular journey 'cause I wanted to test my memory and also wanted to soak in all that I had expericed in those 15 days. Everything was so fantastic and the little things made it even more pleasureable! I had never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would end up doing something of this sort ever! Never thought I could get permission from mom to go solo into unknown lands! Can I conveniently say that I've grown up finally? May be only mom won't agree..

It all started with the beach side party at Alibaug. Great company, great music (Kings of Conveniece and Capoeira music), Capoeira, amazing barbeque, birdwatching, breathtaking sunset etc etc.. Alibaug had it all! Though I had to leave the party prematurely in order to take a train from Bandra to Bhuj, I made sure I enjoyed whatever time I spent at Mancha's den, to the hilt.

Had to take a boat from Mandwe jetty to Apollo Bunder/Gate of India to get to Bandra station. Thankfully, I had Spanty, Devika and Dhruv for company who made sure I made it to Bandra long long before the scheduled departure of  the train. On the way, a flock of Gulls kept following our steamer in the hope of some goodies from the passengers. This gave me a chance to get really upclose with these birdies.

The next day the train took me to a very very cold Bhuj. I had least expected the temperatures to be so low. Thought I could make do with just a sweatshirt but I was wrong. This was colder than even Mussorie in winter, or atleast it felt like! After checking into a hotel and managing to get a bike I rode off to the beach town of Mandvi (had 2 flat tyres!). Mandvi is the home of the Jadeja kings who ruled Kachchh pre Independence. The Vijay Vilas Palace stands as a testimony to the glory days of these kings.

The ride to Mandvi was quite an eventful one. I made several stopovers to click Indian Rollers, Drongos, Shikras, Cattle Egrets, Grey Herons, Purple Herons, Gulls etc. I even spotted the carcas of a Shikra on the roadside. The bird seemed to have been consumed by some kind of illness. Gave it a sort of a burrial in the field adjacent to the road. After a visit to the Windmill Beach and Vijay Vilas Palace, I returned back to Bhuj riding in the chilly cold Kutch evening. At one point I thought I would just freeze and die! I could feel my inner organs shiver to generate heat! Nevertheless I'll treasure this ride for ever.

After some authentic Gujarati dinner (can't recollect the names of the dishes but their tastes still linger!) I made it back to the hotel room and called it an early night 'cause another long ride to the Great Rann and the Flamingo city awaited me!

Flamingo city is this small town 25 kms from Khavda village where the world's largest gathering of Lesser Flamingos is seen each year. Khavda is the last motorable village to the north of Gujarat beyond which lies the Great Rann and thereafter the broders of India and Pakistan. Indian citizens are not allowed to go beyond an army check post called the India Gate which is 15 minutes from Khavda. A very interesting observation I made was that the locals looked very Pathani/Pakistani. Their attire was very Pakistani and also they spoke Kucthi with a Pakistani twang. I guess its got to do with the proximity to Pakistan.

This exciting ride to the extreme north of Gujarat took me past the Tropic of Cancer and through some breathtaking landscape! The Rann was beginning to show up after 40 kms into the ride but the birdlife had no limits. Lapwings. River Terns, Green Bea Eater, Spotted Dove, Shikra, Black Kite, Common Cranes, Black Shouldered Kites etc. they were all there! But all I wanted to see were the Flamingos! They were sole the reason why I had travelled this far. But alas after making it to Khavda I was told by the locals the Flamingos havent arrived yet 'cause the waters in the Rann haven't receeded. The Flamingos wade in shallow waters in search of food and also to mate and lay their eggs and in December 2010 the conditions were not appropriate for their nesting. With a heavy heart I decided to return back to Bhuj.

I must add Gujarat is the bird capital of India. I am not sure if so many species of birds can be spotted in any state and that to with so much ease! No wonder the state hosted the Global Bird Watcher's Conference 2010 at the Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary in Gujarat.

Decemeber is festival time in Gujarat. The Rann Utsav was in progress in the tent city at Dhorodo Village, 50 kms from Khavda. I decided to head there next. After obtaining the necessary permits I made my way to little known Dhorodo which is by the White Rann, a stretch of Salt Flats and part of the Great Rann. The place gives you the feel of Antartica 'cause whichever direction you look, its White! Spoke up with a duo from Bangalore who had driven here all the way from Bangalore in their Chevrolet Beat. Felt nice to be speaking in Kannada after quite some time. Though I am not a native of Karnataka but due to my upbringing in Bangalore, I somehow relate to this language as much as I do with Bengali.

Ok so something had to go wrong ne? The bike broke down just outside Dhorodo village on my way back to Bhuj and I was a good 100 kms away from the comfort of my hotel room. Night time was fast approaching and from my previous evening's experiece I did not want to be spending the night in this wilderness and cold. Thank God a passing truck offered to help me out and they drove me to Bhuj. Could live another day to tell this story!

After 2 days in Bhuj, I needed a change in scenery. Most travellers to Gujarat either head to the Little Rann of Kutch's Wild Ass Sanctuary in search of such exotic species as the Great Indian Bustard and the Indian Wild Ass or to the Gir Sanctuary, the last haven of the Asiatic Lion. From where I was, Little Rann was half a day's drive away (will do Gir 'nother time) and so I boarded an early morning bus to head to this quaint town called Dhrangadhra, the gateway to Little Rann and the Wild Ass Sanctuary.

I was on a tight budget for this trip. And there can be no better budget option than the Forest Guest House run by the Forest Department in every National Park or Wild Life Sanctuary in India. I asked the auto driver in Dhrangadhra to take me to the Forest Office with an intent to find a cheap accomodation in the Forest Guest House. But I was in for a rude shock. The forest officer instead of helping me out was directing me to expensive resorts that dot the outskirts of the sanctuary for a pricely sum of 5k per night! This is an all inclusive fare which also takes care of the forest officer's bribe and commision as concluded from the conversation with the officer and also backed by the friendly auto driver who also informed me about the other dirty tricks these guys play in order to leech out your money! I am not labelling baseless allegations. When I showed the officer a photograph of the carcas of a dead animal which i presume to of be the endangered Desert Fox, run over by a truck, the officer showed no compassion. His body language seemed to suggest "Oh this is just another highway death!". Ridiculous!

Disappointed I decided to explore my next option, Nal Sarovar near Ahmedabad. Now Nal Sarovar is also reputed to be a flamingo hot spot and once again the hope in my soul rose its head. So I took the very next bus to Ahmedabad for my night halt and make my way to the Nal the next day. On the way, i did manage to catch a glimpse of the famous saffron hue of the Asiatic Wild Ass from the bus. The spirit was high again!

Ahmedabad was warm to my liking. Its a bustling Indian city after all. Nal Sarovar was cold in the morning,  wilderness after all. Though I didn't get to see the elusive Flamingos but the Nal was a visual delight once again and of course thriving with bird life. Little Cormorants, Darters, Common Cranes, Rudy Shel Duck, Black Ibis, White Ibis, Purple Heron, Purple Moor Hen, Grey Heron, Great Egrets and the list is endless. I paid the boatman Alaudin (he knew only Hindi and Kutchi but he seemed to know the English names of all the birds!) an extra buck and he was happy to take me real close and even to some of the islands in the lake where the birds were nesting. We spent the whole day in the lake and even had Jowar roti made by a Kutchi lady on one of the islands. Time had come to a standstill that day and the images are still fresh in my mind!

I headed back to Ahmedabad and took the overnight bus back to Mumbai. Again the night chill got to me. Was so so relieved to get back to the warmth of Mumbai in the morning. I had an interesting conversation with my co passenger. He was an engineer in Surat but a complete movie buff who dreams of making a movie someday. There was something in common between us. Both were not too fond of being engineers!

25th December is Christmas as we all know and so I headed to St. Mary's Church in Bandra's Pali Hill area. This is Mumbai's biggest church and I had originally planned to spend the Christmas eve there. So I was really happy to have executed my plan! Oh and Mumbai time was coming to an end. The next eve i.e. on Boxing Day, caught up with the Capoeira gang for one last time at Cafe Brun where Naveen, Adam and the gang entertained us with Improv Comedy Show. Brilliant stuff!

It was time to bid adieu to Zorro and Mumbai and head to Ooty in the Nilgiris where I was uniting with my family for the New Year and also doing some photography work for Keystone Foundation in Kotagiri. Keystone Foundation is an NGO that works for the upliftment of the honey hunting tribes of the Nilgiris. Keystone launched their brand - Last Forests with a portfolio of forest based products and I volunteered to help them out with the product shoot for the same. Mr. Samraj, a member of the Badaga tribe, was my POC at Keystone and I got a learn a great deal about the Nilgiris from him.The family comprising of mom, dad and cousin went around site seeing while I shot at the Bee Museum, yet another Keystone venture.

And so the 15 days came to an end with the onset of New Year. Like a good boy I reported back to work as per schedule and henceforth have been lost in thought of the EPIC trip! The icing on the cake would  most definitely have been the Flamingos for sure but Alaudin the boatman has my number and he promised to call me as soon as they get to the Nal sarovar! Hang on... Am getting a call.. Oh my God! It's Alaudin!! May be the flamingos are here!!!! 4 MONTHS SINCE.....

Links to a few Images:

All my people..My Indian People


Western India Landscapes