Tales for a rustic, rigged adventure?
By Ashok Kumar Singh
Driving along the highway from Jaipur to Kumbhalgarh via Ajmer is a divine driving pleasure. The roads are smooth as silk and the scenes of rural Rajasthan unfold before one’s eyes like an artist’s canvas.
As one approaches the turning point for Kumbhalgarh, it is very easy to miss it because the main highway goes straight to Udaipur. As soon as one takes the turn, a surfeit of rural vistas engulf the visitors. Idyllic villages, ongoing agricultural activities, gossiping old people, traditionally dressed women and above all, the colourful turbans – these are some of the sights that are going to make enduring impressions on all visitors.
Making an early start from Jaipur, Kumbhalgarh can be easily reached by lunch time, even after taking the Ajmer detour.
The entry to Kumbhalgarh is picture perfect – rolling hills of the Aravali Range span all around. Green fields, a flowing stream, a small reservoir and quaint houses, all add colour to the landscape. Just below the imposing Kumbhalgarh Fort, we take the left turn at the T point and drive towards Saira. A couple of kilometres later we reached our destination – the Wild Retreat, Kumbhalgarh.
The wild retreat
The resort is located on top of a hill and commands a good view of valleys on both sides of it. The place has been constructed with a great eye for detail. The individual cottages are large, airy and beautiful. The interiors, the furniture, the bathrooms are all in excellent condition. To add to it, just by drawing the curtains you can have good views of both the valleys on either side of the resort. The valley that lies on the rear of the resort forms a part of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. It is easy to identify birds and animals from their calls that come in great profusion in the evenings and mornings. At two in the dead of night I heard a leopard calling in the valley below.
After lunch and a short siesta we went to the famous fort. It was imposing. It was preserved in perfect order and I must give full credit to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for doing a great job.
You need to have a thing for walking and exploring to appreciate the beauty and artistic details of this fort. The climb is terrific. But the view that the fort offers will compensate for the troubles of the climb. The fort was constructed by Rana Kumbha, the father of Maharana Pratap, who was born there. At the time, the room in which Maharana Pratap was born was under renovation by this ASI.
Located on a high hill, the fort is strategically positioned with a chain of hills around it. The walls of the fort are the longest man-made structure in the world after the Great Wall of China. The fort saw action many times and, although it was difficult to win it by sheer force, it was still possible to capture it by first taking control of the outlying forts and posts that were made to defend it.
By the time the tour of the fort comes to an end, it is evening and in the backdrop of a beautiful sunset, the light and sound show of the fort starts. It is a very well choreographed programme and a must-see for those who are interested in the history of the fort. The drive back from the fort to wild retreat is done in darkness.
Next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we set out on the 80 km drive to Haldi Ghati which lies just before Udaipur. This proved to be another gem of a drive with narrow rural roads going through a very idyllic countryside and beautiful scenery passing by. We saw vegetable, cane and chilly farming and large herds of sheep and goats along with their shepherds dressed in their traditional dresses. The drive was so relaxing that I never wanted it to end.
After two hours we reached the neck of Haldi Ghati. Like its name, the ghati is formed of soil which has the colour of turmeric (haldi). We could not help but feel goose bumps at the place where the Maharana took his final stand against the Mughals. The Rakt Talai is situated at some distance where it is rumoured that a great depression was filled with the blood of dying Mughal soldiers stained by the Maharana’s forces. However, the tables were turned on the Maharana when his horse Chetak was grievously injured by a scythe that was attached to the trunk of the elephant of the Mughal general. To avert a rout, the Maharana retreated and along the way Chetak died succumbing to his severe wounds. A plaque and a cenotaph commemorate the place. A museum has been built by the tourism department that depicts the conduct and order of battle with the help of drawings, models and a documentary. All in all, a very rewarding excursion for people interested in history.
The drive back to Kumbhalgarh was again very relaxing. We spent the afternoon swimming and generally enjoying the place.
Drive for Bera
The next day, after a good breakfast, we started the drive for Bera which was roughly 100 kms away from the border of Gujarat. And what a beautiful and perfect drive it was! The entire drive was interspersed with rural scenes of great beauty and colour. En route, at a rural carpet-making centre we purchased some pieces that were really beautiful. We stopped for an hour to see the wonder the Jain temple of Ranakpur is. It is a simply exquisite all-marble structure with hundreds of fantastically carved columns. We were in luck to have arrived during the arti time. Another 40 minutes and we were at the Leopard’s Lair Resort, Bera.
The place is owned and run by Thakur Devi Singh Ranawat and his wife. It is situated in his private orchard and is vast. Apart from two rooms besides Thakur Saheb’s own private room, there are several cottages spread out in the orchard that are well appointed and catered to all the requirements of a modern day traveler. The place is comfortable but not luxurious as it is meant to cater to wildlife watchers. The food is good though.
Here we took four leopard tracking safaris, two in the morning and two in the evening. Interestingly, Thakur Saheb personally accompanied us on three safaris. Although we came near leopards in all the safaris, we actually saw them in only one. And what a sight it proved to be!
We heard several leopards growling and calling from deep inside the cave. As we waited with baited breaths, one fine male leopard came out, looked keenly at us and then walked up and away from us totally ignoring our presence. It lied down, rolled in the dust, stretched and then came toward us at a slow pace until it again went inside the same cave. After about 20 minutes the same leopard came out again and walked at an easy pace in the backdrop of a great black granite rock. Finally it jumped across a gap in the rock face and disappeared in the cave again.
We were all thrilled as none of us had seen such a good and clear sight of a leopard before. In the evening, Thakur Saheb drove us to his exquisite haveli to have dinner with his family. It was a beautiful haveli decorated with antique paraphernalia and the dinner was a very formal affair. Over all, Bera proved to be a great experience and we vowed to return there again.
Next morning after breakfast, we started for Jodhpur via Pali. We stayed in the city for a day and took a nice long look at the Mehrangarh Fort. The city is a good place for shoppers and offers reasonably priced genuine Rajasthani artefacts like clothes, shoes, turbans and several things made from camel leather.
Then we started on our final leg of our tour to Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer was the reason why we were in Rajasthan because it was here that we intended to experience the rigours of a four-day camel safari. The drive from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer was beautiful with rolling desert country on either side interspersed with rural scenes and grazing camels. On two occasions we observed chinkaras crossing the highway.
At 4 in the morning we were driven in a jeep on the Jaisalmer-Barmer highway to a place roughly 50 kms away. This was our starting point for the safari. Three camels (named Babuji, Alpachino and King Kong) were waiting for us along with their drivers Dina and Hukum Singh. Breakfast was taken after which we mounted our camels. We had been warned in advance that all along the safari food would be a very simple affair as it was difficult to preserve food items in the desert and that water would be at a premium.
The camel ride
It took us some time to get used to the jerky movements of the camels as we were riding on camels for the first time. This activity is certainly not recommended for those who have weak backs and problems with the spinal chord. Generally speaking, if you intend to ride camels for an extended period of time, then you have to be physically very fit.
The next four days proved to be a wonderful experience. We savoured the Rajasthani hinterland on camel-back where there were no roads and it was very far away from modern civilisation. In fact we forgot the sound of cars and horns. It was such a relaxing experience that it was hard for us to believe we were in a country populated with humans.
In the sea of the desert, tiny villages appeared in a few oases that we encountered. In all such places the traditionally dressed women and colourful turbans of men were a constant. Children loved the sight of our camels and made a bee line for us whenever we stopped near them. Women were very shy even though we had a female amongst us and it was always the males who came forward to answer our queries. There was a small baniya’s shop in almost all the villages. Although the variety of food items available in such shops was meagre, we tried to replenish our stocks as best we could.
The days consisted of hectic riding and walking sessions and the evenings were spent camping. The most notable part of the camel safari was the camping that we had to do every evening. By 3 to 4 pm every day we started to hunt for places to make camp. Usually we camped on the dunes that were many. One night we stayed in the Bagzi Baba ki Dhani. As soon as we got off our camels we had to do some vigorous stretching exercises. Then it was time to collect firewood for cooking dinner as well as for making the campfire.
The desert nights were bitterly cold. As we relaxed on our bedrolls, with a crackling fire beside us, watching the stars come up was a heavenly activity. In the clear, crisp desert air, the stars appeared so bright that they seemed very near to us. We were usually lulled to sleep by the warmth of the fire and the singing of Rajasthan songs by Dina and Hukum Singh.
The camel safari taught us the importance of water conservation, especially in dry areas. Once, our water can got dislodged and fell on the ground, spilling all the water in it. We pitied our camels, who had not had water for a day and a half, who tried to drink the water from the burst can but in vain. The ground was so dry that all the water dried in a second.
The safari also taught us how frugally our village folk live. Whenever we got the opportunity we went inside their dhanis and were amazed that they all had only the bare essentials of human existence. We could not help but compare their lifestyles to our opulent city way of life in which we cram our houses with so many undesirable and useless things. Indeed, it was a lesson for us to see how these people lived totally at peace with themselves and with the surrounding nature.
Very soon, before we realised it, our four days were over and we were back at the starting point of the safari where the jeep had come to take us back to Jaisalmer. Coming from the desert as we were, Jaisalmer, a very small city by Indian standards, appeared big and crowded to us. It was a memorable safari and we have vowed to do it again.