Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaisalmer - 4 March 2017
04.03.2017 - 11.03.2017 35 °C
It’s hot in Jaisalmer, this desert jewel in Rajasthan’s crown. Last year, I was here a month or so earlier (Into the Thar and Farther Into the Thar) but now, in March, summer’s on its way to this harsh, arid land. When I arrived a week ago, it was still winter, reaching a mere 28oC by midday. Today, it reached 35oC. By April, it’ll start to climb to its 50o zenith.
There were some clouds today and rumours of cooling rain. As this city averages only eight days or so of rainfall each year, I took the predictions with a pinch of salt.
Then the heavens opened!
Torrential rain flooded the hotel’s rooftop. The roads were awash with muddy brown water rolling downhill at a rate of knots, carrying all manner of flotsam and jetsam with it. Children splashed with glee in the unexpected waves.
Then, almost as quickly as it arrived, the downpour stopped. A rainbow appeared in the sky. The sun came out and everything dried to its usual dusty self.
Over this past week, I’ve tended towards lethargy – winding down after two hectic weeks and preparing to wind up again for my final active week in Jaipur. I’ve found time though, between snoozing and blogging, to achieve the twin goals I’d set myself for this visit. One was to explore the desert in a little more detail than last time and, optimistically, to find the critically-endangered Great Indian Bustard. The second was to learn more about a group of gipsy people who preserve the musical traditions of these parts in the Kalakar (Artists) Colony next to my hotel.
So, once more unto the Thar...
My first foray this time was with Dileep Singh Pau, the proprietor of my hotel, in his slightly rusty jeep early one morning. Through the suburbs of Jaisalmer we went in the half-light of dawn and out onto the deserted desert road. The semi-desert of these parts is sand with yellow-brown rocks, acacia scrub, succulent but poisonous Aak bushes, and spindly cactus, punctuated only occasionally by a small hut with a goat or two tied up outside or a cluster of square, brick houses making up a sort of village. There are very few ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ type dunes hereabouts (those that exist tend to be infested with tourists on ‘spend the night stargazing’ excursions complete with uncomfortable camel ride, anyway).
Aak (Calotropis procera). A familiar desert plant throughout the Thar.
Sometimes known as The Apple of Sodom or Swallow-wort. It's highly poisonous and can cause blindness.
We stopped at a dusty little group of small flat-roofed houses surrounded by desert sand to collect Kundan Singh, a swarthy Rajasthani with a grand black moustache, who was my driver on a foray into the desert last year. I’d misheard his name on our first meeting and, amid much laughter, enquired why he was named after a contraceptive! Kundan was in the middle of digging a three-metre hole just outside his home in which to store water for his two horses. He willingly broke off to act as our driver again today. His local knowledge of the region, particularly the off-road terrain, would be invaluable.
There was a pond near that rocky hole in the ground, which attracted some small birds, so this became the start of what was to become a day’s bird-watching safari. Here were the usual Green Bee-eaters, White-eared Bulbuls, Southern Grey Shrikes, different species of Wagtail, ubiquitous House Sparrows and several other small unidentified brown birds. They weren’t what I’d come to see, but they were interesting enough to warrant a few photos before taking tea with Kundan, friends and curious children and then setting off towards the Desert National Park.
Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) & Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis)
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) & Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola)
House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) & Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus)
White-eared Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys)
I should perhaps say a few words here about the bird I’d really come to find.
The Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) is a large bird - about a metre tall, and is among the heaviest of the flying birds. It was once a common sight on India’s dry plains, most frequently found in dry grasslands and open countryside with thorn scrub away from farmed areas. Alas, the dry, semi-desert region where it was found here in Rajasthan has been altered by irrigation canals, principally the huge Indira Ghandi Canal that brings water from the Himalayas in the state of Punjab, hundreds of kilometres to the north. Much of the region has been transformed for parts of the year from barren desert to fields of mustard, wheat and cotton. Good for the people, bad for the Great Indian Bustard.
It’s believed that as few as 250 individual birds could now survive in the world. Its status was upgraded in 2011 from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Critically Endangered’. In 2013, the state of Rajasthan introduced a project to identify and fence the birds' known breeding grounds. Now, several parts of the Desert National Park, 45 minutes’ drive from Jaisalmer, are surrounded by wire fences – not to keep the birds in, you understand, but to prevent destruction of the grasslands by roaming goats and cows. I was told that these protected enclosures, covering many hundreds of square kilometres, hold only 11 or 12 birds. However, I’ve also read reports that, in December 2016, 11 new chicks were hatched and that these brought the total here to 151.* Whatever the true picture, this is still a very rare bird – not as threatened as the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat of Australia perhaps, but very scarce and difficult to find nonetheless.
Our journey to seek out this bird took us first on single-lane metalled roads, swerving to avoid occasional oncoming vehicles at the last minute and sending up clouds of dust behind us, then bumping and skidding on deep sand through unmarked off-road areas. The jeep’s four-wheel drive was essential, as was the skill of driver Kundan.
Along the way, we glimpsed a variety of animals and birds – a group of female Nilgai antelope, Egyptian and Indian Vultures, White-eyed Buzzards and Chinkara gazelle to name but a few. Alas, while we spent a good few hours skirting the outside perimeters of two or three of the grassland enclosures, the Great Indian Bustard eluded us.
Nilgain (Blue Bull) females
Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) & Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus)
White-eyed Buzzard (Butastur teesa)
Chinkara - Indian Gazelle (gazella bennettii)
We stopped at a village for a late lunch – a hard brown chapati made of millet flour, broken into pieces then mashed by hand into a lentil stew. I admit being dubious about eating from the communal bowl where the grubby hands of several people had done the mashing! It was unpleasant to watch and to look at but, bravely ignoring the potential after-effectcs, I politely tucked in. it was surprisingly tasty - and I lived to tell the tale!
I did, however, avoid drinking what Dileep said was ‘desert water’, offered to him by his village friend Rug Singh. I preferred my flask of cool mineral water laced with Robinson’s Squash’d, apple and blackcurrant flavour! (This was fortunate as the desert water turned out to be hooch, a strong raw spirit made from fermented sugar cane and, as you will learn later, it proved to be Dileep's undoing the next day - and the day after that!)
Then, it was off to the headquarters of the Desert National Park authority – a big hut in the middle of nowhere, with a straw roof topped by a female Peafowl.
Indian Peafowl (female) (Pavo cristatus)
My hotel proprietor friend Dileep was clearly well known here, for the boss immediately put his large jeep and three of his men at our disposal and sent us off into the enclosed grassland. Within ten minutes, we spotted a white shape, definitely a Great Indian Bustard, moving quite swiftly with a strange gait. We slowed to a crawl and I was able to get a distant photograph of this strange bird with its unmistakable black cap and pale head and neck. It quickly disappeared into the long grass and we moved on.
We paused near a hilltop to allow one of the park’s yellow-shirted spotters to scan the area with his binoculars, to no avail, Moving on, following tracks worn through the long grass, we saw another glimpse of white about a kilometre away, certainly another of these unusual birds. By the time we reached where we thought it was, it had gone!
Then, some 20 minutes of zig-zagging bumpy ride later, as the sun started to drop lower in the sky, there was another, nearer this time. We got down from the jeep and, keeping behind a tree in the bird’s direct line of sight, we walked, crouched low and in silence, closer and closer.
Judging the distance to be right, I stepped to the right and there it was - an adult male Great Indian Bustard. It’s the start of the breeding season for this bird and he was standing still, displaying with his black, crested head puffed up and his well-developed gular pouch inflated. He was probably ready to use the pouch to make the deep resonant call that’s part of the mating display – but, startled by my unexpected movement, he ran off and leapt into flight, calling in alarm at this unexpected interruption.
What an experience this was – I’d seen not just one of the world’s rarest birds today, but three of them! Those Grey Haired Nomads (my brother and his wife, both very keen ornithologists) will be so jealous!
A gap of two days ensued before we again drove out into the desert.
With guilt showing in his bloodshot eyes, Dileep told me the reason why he hadn't been seen or heard of for these two days was because he'd over-indulged on ‘desert water’ - not just at our village lunch-stop but on the bottles he'd smuggled onto his jeep that day without me noticing!
Today, just before sunrise, we found a familiar pond, one I’d visited very briefly a year ago, at Jessari. At this early hour, as dawn broke at this little oasis in the desert, a pair of Eurasian Spoonbills was joined in the shallows by a Grey Heron and a variety of other small wading birds.
The tranquil scene was rudely interrupted by the arrival of three tractors, noisily hauling water tanks. The birds flew off. The men filled their tanks and left. I’m told that 30 to 40 tanks of water are extracted from here every day, clearly lowering the already much-reduced water level in the pond.
When the tractors left, the birds returned. They were soon joined by Black-winged Stilts, a Green Sandpiper, a pair of Little Grebe, Common Kingfishers and White-breasted Kingfishers, a solitary Eurasian Collared Dove, even a Eurasian Sparrowhawk and a Common Kestrel.
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)
Green Sandpiper (Tringo ochropus) & Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). Commonly seen, seldom photographed by me!
White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) and a Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus) and Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
The rare Jaisalmeri Hotel Proprietor, Dileep Singh Pau, wrapped up against the chill of morning at Jessari and catching up on yesterday's news
After a couple of hours, with the birds committed to memory and their photos committed to memory card, we set off home. First though, we called in at a little village community where I’d photographed some of the children last year. I’d brought with me copies of the photo and, although many of the older children were at school today, those remaining were delighted to see themselves and to pose again, with the photo.
Our final stop was at a small mud-brick house in the middle of nowhere with the strange sight of a motorbike parked in front of what was a primitive dwelling. This was the home of Dileep's aunt and uncle and their extended family. While Dileep chatted with his cousins, his aunt was churning butter and other cousins helped with chores or just lazed around in a shaded spot.
We bid farewell to these folk, encountering Dileep's uncle wandering wearily home across the dry sand as we made our way back towards the road. It had been interesting to see first-hand how harsh life really is in this unforgiving desert. As you can see, it also plays havoc with your skin and hair!
*‘ Source: The Indian Express’ 15 December 2016 ‘Desert National Park records 11 Great Indian Bustard births’