Our plans to visit Jawai changed a couple of times - or rather the place at which we’d be staying changed. Originally, Lajpal had arranged for us to stay at a new guesthouse owned by a friend of a friend, but it turned out that it wouldn’t be finished in time. Then we were going to stay at an inexpensive hotel that Lajpal had been told about.
Then, we had that party with Khuman at Mount Abu – and everything changed.
Khuman, it transpired, had been to school with someone who lived at Castle Bera, a heritage pile in the heart of Jawai’s leopard country, which he’d converted into a guest-house. So, a short phone call to that old school chum, Winku – and Castle Bera (with the compliments of its proprietor) it would be. Proof, if proof was needed, that it’s not always what you know...!
The area called Jawai surrounds a vast reservoir created when Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur built a dam across the Jawai River in the late-1950s. The lake, when full, now covers an area of over 400 square kilometres and is the main water supply for Jodhpur city. If you’re looking for it on a map, draw lines south from Jodhpur, north-west from Udaipur and north-east from Mount Abu; where they cross is more or less the place.
The waters of the lake are filled with fish and, inevitably, crocodiles and many species of birds find a home here. Surrounding the lake is some fantastic scenery, arid but dramatic in parts. Jagged, weather-worn, sand-coloured hills contrast with huge outcrops of rounded, grey, boulder-like hills and plains of low-growing thorn scrub. Parts are verdant, productive agricultural land. Parts are dry, sandy terrain with little but scrub, cactus and stunted bare-leaved trees. Lajpal has interests with a partner in a plot of land here, currently being farmed, but with plans to construct a small hotel among the intriguing huge rocks. The region is home to a considerable number of leopards, 60 or so at last count, and this has lead to a growth in tourism over the past ten years or so. It’s still only visited by those ‘in the know’, however.
Castle Bera is a huge, family-owned heritage property, part of which is run as a guest-house, with only a handful of its many rooms available to fortunate guests. While simple and not in any way luxurious, it’s full of character with pictures of past family members and distinguished guests lining the walls and memorabilia from bygone times decorating the comfortable rooms.
Part of the complex is still occupied by other members of the family whose quarters are guarded by a very large and vociferous Saint Bernard dog, a rarity in this hot country. The part available to guests is ably run by the diminutive and utterly charming Thakur Baljeet Singh (known to friends and guests alike as ‘Winku’); his command of the English language is excellent and his hospitality is legendary. The food and service from a friendly resident staff are both excellent.
And so it was that Lajpal and I were welcomed at this fascinating place, our home for only two nights but with so much activity that it felt considerably longer.
We arrived from Abu Road late on Tuesday afternoon and were almost immediately whisked away by Winku in his own jeep for a ‘safari’ in the surrounding countryside, the first of several searches for elusive leopards.
Our first stop was a part of the reservoir with particularly fine views across the water to islands and hills beyond. It was still hot, even at 5.00p.m., so crocodiles and most birdlife were conspicuous by their absence. After, while we enjoyed the ride, we encountered an unusual sight of two Grey Francolin squabbling violently, and waited patiently near several rocky areas where leopards were known to live, but failed to spot that one difficult-to-see creature.
We returned in time for dinner, to be taken ‘en famille’ at a large dining table in a lovely room, with drinks beforehand in an adjoining green and tranquil garden. Unfortunately, I had a temperature resulting from a raging sore throat (suspected airline malady!), which saw me take to my bed with pills, but no dinner.
Fortunately, as Wednesday morning dawned, I was well enough to take the 6.00a.m. safari, again with Winku himself at the wheel. Our route took us to a particular rocky hill, where we waited quietly and patiently in that peculiar grey gloom before dawn – you know, that near darkness most of us only see if answering a call of nature in the early hours.
Shortly, a good 100 metres away on top of a large, round rock, a small shape appeared – a leopard cub, followed by a second. They played together for some minutes before eventually disappearing. The accompanying grainy photograph was the best I could do, given the distance and lack of light!
We continued our drive in an unsuccessful search for more, our only consolation being a variety of small birds – Bay-backed Shrikes, Red-vented Bulbuls, an occasional pretty little Prinia, familiar Eurasian Collared Doves, and numerous unidentified ‘LBJs’ (that’s ‘little brown jobs’ to the non-birdwatchers among you).
Later, we went to visit Lajpal’s piece of land. Since my visit last year ('Rocks and mountains' blog), his partner had invested in a water tank the size of a swimming pool on the site. The farmer employed by them to care for the site, was pleased to partly fill it from time to time from the land’s two deep wells using a pump and pipes previously supplied to him. It would require a costly filtration plant for it to be swum in, but its surround provided us with a good viewpoint to the hills and rocks of the area.
Satisfied that all was well, we retraced our steps to the shores of the reservoir, where we’d arranged to meet one of my new Facebook friends, Pareekshit, who’d driven on his motorbike from his home some miles away, just to meet me. It transpired that he’s actually still a shy student and not the professional graphic designer and photographer to which his Facebook page aspires! However, he is a very able and keen photographer. Together with his pillion passenger and another friend who happened to be nearby, he showed us one of the best places to see water birds. Pareekshit is the one on the far left of this photo; my dear friend Lajpal is on the far right.
Here, Great White Pelicans, Woolly-necked Storks, Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilts galore, and a multitude of ducks and waders had gathered in the shallows, a lovely sight.
After I’d taken some shots of the birds, Pareekshit bid farewell and we returned to Castle Bera – just in time for another safari!
This time, our luck was in. After a half-hour drive, a female leopard was spotted on the skyline. She walked downhill to conceal herself behind a rock. A group of peacocks kept a wary eye on her, giving us a good clue to her position. All we could see was the top of her head, her ears and eyes. Her camouflage was amazing, so much so that I’ve had to circle her for you on the accompanying photograph.
She later moved position, giving us a much clearer view.
As night drew in, the light faded, the leopard yawned and sauntered off into the rocks, unseen once again.
Our search for more continued. As night fell, high-powered lights were used in a vain attempt to pick out the glint of eyes among the scrub and rocks. We eventually admitted defeat and returned to the hotel for drinks in the garden and dinner in that pleasant room with a couple of other British guests.
Next morning, we set off even earlier than usual, around 5.30a.m., this time in a larger vehicle driven by one of Winku’s experienced drivers. We took a route not often followed by visitors, into an area heavily covered by scrub and trees, described by the driver as ‘jungle’. We encountered only one other jeep, also one of Winku’s.
Our route took us over and onto the gigantic rocks themselves, bumping and zigzagging our way in four-wheel drive to the foot of a large hill. Leopards - and sloth bears too - had been seen here on several recent occasions. Our driver spent a long time scanning the rocks from a variety of positions - atop a nearby rock, standing up in the jeep, squatting alongside it – all, alas, to no avail. Bagheera and Baloo (the Hindi names for leopard and bear used in The Jungle Book and still called thus by our driver today) were not at home. Wildlife never appears on cue!
We returned to Bera through the jungle, spying female Nilgai (Blue Bull), the largest Asian antelope, on the way.
Then, our cases re-packed, we conveyed our gratitude to Winku for his very generous hospitality, left an equally generous tip in the staff ‘tip box’, and boarded Lajpal’s car for the journey back to his temporary home in Abu Road. Traffic is never good in India, but here there were very few vehicles - just an occasional lorry and overloaded taxi - but lots of shepherds with sheep and cows.
Rajshri and Dhruvi were very pleased to see us after our nights away. It had been intended that I spend my last night at Lajpal’s apartment, but he and Rajshri felt I’d be more comfortable at a nearby hotel rather than in their spare room. Although the hotel was more suited to Indian visitors – I was one of only a handful of foreigners to stay there each year – it did prove convenient, as we had a small dinner party for some of Lajpal’s colleagues, friends and wives in its garden that same evening.
When Lajpal was still studying, his aspiration was always to become a government officer and he would know when he’d ‘made it’ because he’d then be driven around in one of those big white jeep-type vehicles with a flashing blue light on top. It became a form of encouragement from me for him to do well in his exams; I was always telling him that I would one day sit beside him in a car with a flashing blue light on top. Today, I visited one of his offices, met his boss and fellow workers – and rode with him in his white car with a flashing blue light on top! It was a proud moment.
Next day, we drove out to a place called Chandravati (say: chaan-dra-wot-ee) at the edge of the town of Abu Road. It was a new discovery for Lajpal as well as for me, even though Lajpal said his ancestry can be traced back to the Parmara dynasty which once ruled here.
Fragments of ninth to fifteenth century ruins are all that remain of what must have been an impressive city, attacked and sacked several times in its heyday. In the early 1820s, the first European visitors found many remarkable white marble temples and beautifully-carved statues here. By the 1870s, when excavations were conducted, little was left, most of the best materials having been carried off to help construct temples and other buildings in distant places. Other monuments were destroyed during construction of the railway and extension of Abu Road’s industrial area. What’s left is miserable, litter-strewn, unloved and seldom visited.
There’s a huge museum building at the site, waiting for someone, some day, to clear up the mess and present the ruins in a meaningful way. We located a caretaker, who opened up part of the museum to show us some of the dusty sculptures that had been identified and mounted on plinths. He also showed us a giant water vessel believed to be 1,000 years old.
‘Interesting but depressing’ is how I’d sum up Chandravati.
We returned to Lajpal’s apartment and enjoyed one of Rajshri’s splendid lunches together before my taxi arrived for the five-hour ride to my next destination, Jodhpur. There, I’ll continue my adventures alone until meeting up with Lajpal and his little family once again in Jaipur for the festival of Holi in about three weeks’ time.
Castle Bera, Via Jawai Bandh, Dist: Pali, Bera, Rajasthan 306126 Tel: +91 98298 77787
Contact: Thakur Baljeet Singh Bera (aka: Winku) or his son Yaduveer (Tell them Khuman's friend Mike sent you!)
This is a simple and intimate heritage building with excellent service and food. Deservedly awarded TripAdvisor's Certificate of Excellence every year since 2015, you're sure of a warm welcome here.