Shortly after we confirmed our flight bookings to be in Goa at the beginning of March 2020, a fellow birder called to ask if I’d be interested in visiting Desert National Park in Rajasthan to see the critically endangered great Indian bustard.
To cut a long story short, I spent 5 days in Goa with the family and flew back to Mumbai on the 4th of March, comfortably in time to catch the morning flight to Jaisalmer the next day.
The weather in Goa was good.
In Goa, March is the month that typically ushers in the heat and humidity of summer. Instead, the weather Gods treated us with uncharacteristically large doses of cool, gusty conditions.
Little did we know that in a few days we were destined to encounter the very same winds. Only this time we’d get a taste of their true power well before they were tempered by time and distance.
Desert National Park, DNP for short, is located in the Thar Desert near the town of Jaisalmer, in the North West state of Rajasthan, India. It is one of the largest national parks in the country covering an area of over 3160 sq. km.
As the name suggests it has all the trappings of a desert ecosystem. A flat, desolate terrain of rock and sand where water is scarce.
As in most deserts, weather conditions are unpredictable and extreme. From swelteringly hot on some afternoons to temperatures plummeting close to single digits at night. Strong winds contribute significantly to the harsh living conditions and are powerful and consistent enough to justify the installation of wind turbines that can be seen at several locations while driving through the desert.
And yet, as we were about to discover for ourselves over the next four days, against all those odds, this place throbbed with life!
Our flight arrived at about midday and it was about an hour’s drive to the park and the ‘camp’ where we were to stay. Visitors to the area are put up in resorts located just outside the park that are referred to as ‘camps’ and offer cottage or tented accommodation.
We stayed in two-room air conditioned cottages. It was cool indoors and the air-conditioning was never needed. Which was a good thing as, apart from the fact art the the electricity was highly unpredictable, the generator on the premises was a true relic of a bygone era!
Our request to switch on the generator when the electricity went off for the first time triggered a flurry of activity. It took a good fifteen minutes and five able-bodied men to get it started…
…following which all hell broke loose!
All four phases of the modified heavy vehicle’s four stroke engine pounded the desert air like an amplified metronome at super-speed on steroids. Intake… compression… combustion… exhaust. Over and over again until thankfully an hour later it sputtered to a halt and I could finally take my head out from under the pillows and come up for air.
Needless to say that was the first and last time that we asked for generator assistance.
While on the subject of relics, the same could be said for the wood fire-driven water heating system that provided ‘on-tap’ hot water to the room’s attached bathrooms.
Having said all that I must admit that I am doing our resort a gross injustice. The resort was well maintained and nicely spaced out. Our cottages too were large and clean, each room with an attached bathroom and the hotel staff very polite and extremely attentive.
Besides birds and wildlife, sand dune safaris is the other popular tourist activity in this area. A number of ‘camp’ resorts similar to the one we were at, line one side of the road while on the other side camels with their colourful Rajasthani saddles waited patiently to take visitors for rides on the sand dunes beyond.
Most of the birding is done off the main road along what can at best be described as an endless and seemingly aimless network of tire tracks that criss-crossed the vast expanse of dessert.
Our first safari was at 3pm. Sitting in the back seat of the open Gypsy vehicle that afternoon was like driving through the movie sets of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
We learnt later that we had caught the tail end of a storm that originated in the cold north and sent freezing winds howling down the west of India. The very same winds that had mellowed to an enjoyable gentle gust further south in Goa, up here were still raw and untamed.
The Isabelline wheatear above and the pallid harrier below were one of the first birds that I shot on this trip.
We were shooting hand-held from the jeep without a tripod. The strong wind made it extremely difficult to keep the camera steady to the extent that the birds were not even in the frame of many of the images!
Around this time we got our first sighting of a great Indian bustard (GIB). It was a male and must have been close to a kilometre away.
Out here in the desert the flat terrain allows one to see for miles around especially from the vantage point of a small hillock and that was the pattern that we followed throughout the trip.
We’d stop intermittently on high ground and the guide would scan the area with his binoculars. Greater Indian bustards, GIBs for short, are large birds. They stand about 1 meter in height yet we were able to spot only four of these birds during the five days we here. That too at extreme distances ranging from about 200 meters to over 2 kilometres where to the naked eye they appear to be tiny white and brown twigs moving slowly through the dry shrubs.
These birds are extremely shy. Over hunting and habitat encroachment has seen to that. Equally disconcerting is the fact that they are critically endangered with only about 75-100 birds estimated to exist in wild. Since the park covers an area in excess of 3000 sq km locating the bird is literally like searching for a needle in a haystack.
By now the wind had really picked up and playing havoc with the desert sand sending wave after wave of the powdered silica across the road and spiralling into the air.
It was then we noticed this enormous growing cloud of sand that dwarfed the trees below gradually blotting out the sun as it ominously made its way towards us.
The driver swung the vehicle around sped down the desert roads in the opposite direction. The growing mist of sand had cut the light significantly. Photography was pointless as evidenced by the the flat snapshots of a desert fox as it too dashed for cover and a cinereous vulture casting a baleful eye at us as we moved away from the aproaching threat.
Fortunately both the driver and the guide knew the area well and took us to one of the several homesteads that are scattered around the area. Belonging to a goat herder, his wife and three children it comprised of a 30’x30′ quadrangle bounded by three mud huts. A low mud wall completed the fourth wall and served as an entrance.
The hut to the right of the entrance was obviously the living /cooking area and while we were ushered into the shelter of the central hut we could see the rest of the family rapidly herding the goats and sheep into the hut on the left that opened into a large circular wire-fenced pen behind it.
I can’t begin to tell you what a relief it was to get out of the wind and sand.
The interior of the mud hut was dark and it took a few moments for our eyes to adjust. It was about 10’x15′. On the right were a couple of charpoys, (typical indian benches that doubled as beds and made of choir rope woven on a wooden frame with legs), one of which was stacked with quilts. Aided by the guides the herder moved the quilts aside to make place for us to sit. Hanging from the main beam of the low roof were a couple of plastic bags that I guessed held some of their worldly possessions.
Within minutes small glasses of tea were placed in our hands. As I sipped the piping hot brew a large goat stepped on the threshold and looked me straight in the eye not more that 3 feet away from where I sat on the charpoy directly opposite the door.
I was amazed by the hospitality shown to us by this family. The gave us shelter without a second thought unquestioningly sharing all that they had to make sure we were comfortable.
The farmer spoke Sindhi and could only muster a few words of Hindi. In the typical manner of a one-track minded city bred person I asked the guide to let us know how much was to be paid.
He looked back shocked, and insisted that under no circumstances was I to even hint of my intentions to pay for the hospitality offered as it would be construed as an insult and considered grossly offensive!
It was dark by the time the storm died down. The air had cleared of sand but the temperature had dropped considerably. As if his hospitality was not enough, as we sat on the back seat of the open vehicle, the old herder brought our a huge thick blanket and wrapped it around us.
That weather worn, musty blanket was worth its weight in gold as we clutched it tightly around us all the way on the drive back home.
From then on the weather got better and better with each passing day. So much so on the last day we actually ventured to wear tee shirts in the afternoon! Though still windy it was nothing like what we experienced on that first day.
Looking back it was a wonderful trip with plenty of great sightings and experiences.
For me personally, I had a great number of lifers. Including small birds like the trumpeter finch, the black-headed sparrow lark, Isabelline shrike, Isabelline wheatear, desert wheatear and chestnut-bellied grouse to name a few.
I also got great images of larger birds apart from the greater Indian Bustard – (GIB/ GB as we were now beginning to call it) – that we basically came to see. These included several spectacular morphs of the tawny eagle, steppe eagle, common kestrel, Eurasian sparrow hawk and Eastern imperial eagle.
As we traversed the desert we came across quite a few carcasses of cattle. These attracted several species of vultures including cinereous vulture, Eurasian griffon, Himalayan griffon and Egyptian vulture.
Apart from the birds we got to see other desert creatures like the jirl, the spiny-tailed lizards. I also got great images of both the desert fox and Bengal fox, Indian mongoose, the Punjab Raven and many many more.
It was heartening to see large numbers of the graceful Indian gazelle or chinkara and blue bull or neelgai, and we did get a couple of sightings of wild boar and one fleeting sighting of a wild cat caught in the headlights of our vehicle as we drove back home.
I took close to 5000 images. Well over 500 of which are printworthy. Each associated with its own little story contributing to a trunkful of treasured memories that I will document over time.
But none more than that of the hospitality of the Rajasthani herder and his family that unhesitatingly and happily opened his home to total strangers without even the slightest thought of payment or reward.
We city folk organise our priorities to maximise our acquisition of things like culture, etiquette, education, material posessions and financial wealth in our quest for Nirvana.
In the land of the critically endangered GB, now on the verge of extinction, was this I wonder, a subtle cosmic warning of the real and present danger of us missing the wood for the trees.