I don’t know how it will be possible for me to fit my Indian adventure into two posts. I think describing one day needs thousands of words. There are so many colours flashing before your eyes created by flowers, clothes and spices. The constant sound of car horns rings in your ears as you try to decipher this new form of communication. Humid heat wraps around you, but it makes you smile, you’re extending your summer. A fresh cup of chai leaves a cardamon zing on your tongue, the sweet and milky elixir brewed to perfection and delivered in there individual clay pots. India smells like heat and spices mixed with the muddy musk of cattle. And then there is your sixth sense, the one you use to really see India, to fully immerse yourself.
I’ll try my best, here goes…
So we arrived in Delhi. We being me, Pawel.S, Pawel.R, Michal and Tomasz. We were all exhausted, I didn’t get any sleep on the journey over. Passport control was testing, it took 2 and a half hours for us to get through, but we were through. The first bird I saw was a ferrel pigeon. Not exactly exotic, but it was soon followed by a Common Myna, already a new species to add to my list. We met our guide Sharad and trundled into the car for the short journey to our hotel. We were staying at Airport Hotel for our first night. We sorted out our rooms, I was sharing with Pawel.S and Tomasz. It was still really early in the morning and so we had some time to nap and shower. We all felt a bit more human after that. We all loaded into the car again and went to find food. Sharad took us to Haldirams, an Indian fast food place. None of us had any idea what we should have and so Sharad took charge and selected a small feast for us. We had roti which is a small, circular flat bread, various sauces using amazing concoctions of spices, paneer which is the mild and soft Indian cheese and then other vegetarian delights. There was a sweet curd filled pastry for pudding and another intensely sweet profiterole sized, deep fried delight. No meat and no alcohol though. We didn’t realise it would be so strict. Our first authentic Indian food was a delight. Refuelled and ready to explore, we headed to the Red Fort. Delhi is alive. There is constant movement, sound and smell. Even the various vehicles are painted in multicolour, most carrying the sign “Please use your horn”. Car horns are a constant, they are crucial to the Indian way of driving. Undertaking and overtaking, weaving and nudging. Cars eventually get where they need to be, just in a very different way to the European norm. And Delhi is hot. Even my knees were sweating!!! The Red Fort is a series of buildings that were once used by nobles of India and even common people. At one point it was occupied by the British when Indian was in the Empire. There was a Mahal within the grounds, Mahal meaning “grand residence”. The Mahal here was built for the same Queen as the Taj Mahal, she must have been really something! After our tour around the Fort we headed to a shaded patch for a cold bottle of coke and a rest. A woman came up to me with her young daughter and asked if it was okay if she met me. Of course I said yes, and the young girl appeared from behind her Mum and shook my hand. I asked her name, but it was extremely hard for me to say, but apparently it means “beautiful being” in Hindi, so I agreed it was a lovely name. My first impression of Indian people is a smiley one. The day ended with a stop off at one of the very few alcohol establishments for a cool beer and then some curry.
An early start for our second day in India. It was curry for breakfast, quite different from my usual yogurt and fruit. We ate what we could and loaded into the car. Our driver was called Sanjeev and he would be with us until our arrival in Haridwar. We had 350km to drive today, I slept most of the way. I was still exhausted from traveling. We stopped a couple of times on the way to Nainital. Obviously we needed lunch and obviously this was more curry. It took us 11 hours in total to reach our next hotel. It was high up in the mountains, surrounded by mist and away from the noise of car horns. We had an amazing surprise at tea time, they served us chicken!
Quite a leisurely morning. Tomasz and I went for a wander further up the hills to try and spot some new birds. We saw several Greater Yellownape, they were beautiful. After a curry fix at breakfast we wandered a 1km down to Sattal Lake. We thought it would be an amazing bird spot but when we reached it it was more like a small resort for local holiday makers. Not many birds after all. A Common Kingfisher made his turquoise presence known as he zoomed by to the nearby perch. We stopped for a coffee before heading back up the mountain. The coffee and tea in India is so different to back home. It is usually very sweet and milky with a mix of subtle spices, usually cardamon. Amazing. Our afternoon was spent in the city of Nainital. It was so busy. The city surrounded another lake and so we just walked down the waters edge. We treated this as a sort of pavement. At the end of the lake there was a small shop, behind bars, selling booze! We stocked up. I got a few beers and the guys got whiskey. Nothing like a cold beer at the end of a busy day.
Me and Pawel.S woke up early and went for a bird. Neither of us felt 100%, think the enormous amount of oil, curry and spices is a bit much all at once. The views further up the mountain are just incredible. Standing for a minute just made me smile. I’m so lucky. After a masala omelette for breakfast we drove off with Sanjeev and headed to Corbett National Park. On the way I was desperate for a wee and being the only woman in the group, it wasn’t as easy for me to find a spot to relieve myself whilst also keeping my dignity! Luckily Sanjeev understood and found me a toilet in a gym. No side of the road urination for me! After 3 hours we arrived at Gajraj Trails Resort. Curry for lunch and then off on our first safari. We saw Chital (a spotted deer), Sambar deer, Rhesus Macaques, Vervet monkeys and lots of new bird species. My favourite was probably the Greater Hornbill, it was huge. Peafowl were in abundance as well as the wild ancestor of our domestic chickens, Jungle Fowl. 3 hours into the safari and the only sign of a tiger were some footprints left in the dirt. We started heading to the exit and heard Chital alarm calls. A tiger was close. We stood in our jeep, silent and waiting. More alarm calls. Pawel. S had spotted it and so with his direction we were all able to catch a glimpse. A wild tiger. Words can’t describe. We all headed back to the hotel on a massive high. After tea we enjoyed some whiskey whilst being surrounded by hundreds of small, white moths. A nearby gecko was a bit spoilt for choice and just sat, confused as to which fluttering snack it should choose.
Early morning safari meant leaving the resort at half 5. Being in the jungle was amazing, but the early start, no food and macaron tablets didn’t leave me feeling brilliant. When our safari finished I had to quickly leave the jeep because I thought I might be sick. I was all shaky and faint. Nearby there was a small stall and so I bought a cola do drink and give my bloody sugar a boost. Felt a lot better after that. Beans on toast for breakfast. A nap and a dehydration tablet seemed to help and I was raring to go back out on another Safari. This time we were joined by Alan McElligott, researcher from the University of Roehampton who was also on his way to the conference. It was lovely chatting with him. His work is on animal welfare and the communication of goats, chickens and cows. Really interesting to talk to. We came across a group of monkeys using some rocks as a salt lick. We were so close and so just sat in the jeep for a while watching. Not far ahead we came across a small group of Indian Elephants. They didn’t stick around for long and soon disappeared into the vegetation. It still amazing me how something so huge can just disappear! On our way home a huge bull elephant was standing tall above some elephant grass. He was beautiful. They are quite different from African elephants. They have a lot smaller ears and they seem to have a more sloped back. Perfect end to another great safari. Table tennis after tea. Pawel. R was stuck with me. We were against Michal and Pawel.S. We lost. I’m really not very good. It was fun though.
Still felt groggy but got up early and all went for a birding session. We walked down the dried up river bed. Animal prints were left in the sand. Various bird species, monkeys, humans. A huge group of macaques were crossing, they soon ran into the jungle once they spotted us. We walked back along the main road, every now and then a jeep full of school kids would beep and hands would be waving frantically. Felt really shaky and faint again by the afternoon so skipped the last safari. I didn’t want to feel any worse.
The next day we headed to Haridwar for the International Bioacoustics Congress.