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Magnificent Manas

+ Nameri ~ Adventures in Assam (and momentarily Bhutan)

semi-overcast 25 °C

A waterfall of orchids hanging from the trees in mid-March.

A waterfall of orchids hanging from the trees in mid-March.

I had been to Assam only once before. In April of 2010 I'd had a brief a 3-day visit to Kaziranga and although I enjoyed that trip, nothing prepared me for the wonder we experienced in this longer visit; which might just be the best overall wildlife trip I’ve taken, among so many remarkable ones. Manas in particular seemed somehow more ‘wild’, and so wonderfully tranquil.

This northeast state, known to the west primarily for its tea, is such a wonderful state, and relatively less-traveled when compared with many other wildlife spots in India. That alone makes it a nice respite from the frenetic tiger chasing of many parks in central India. For the wildlife traveller, it is also a much more affordable trip than other wildlife destinations – accommodation and food being often far more reasonable. The people you find here were without exception super-helpful in planning the trip, although the ability to use your credit card is even more rare here than India in general. This makes it a bit more challenging to plan without a local representative to help you, or expensive money transfers from overseas… unless you enjoy carrying a suitcase full of cash with you!

When I started planning this trip, a simple accommodation query to the venerable Wildgrass Resort in Kaziranga resulted in an email chock-full of information to help my planning – not just for Kaziranga, but for of the entire itinerary! Similarly, a query to the Field Director in Manas resulted in a response that was so welcoming and helpful for booking the remote lodge we stayed at.

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Onto the Adventures in Manas National Park!

But first, a brief description of this massive Park (over 2,600 sq. km), situated along the border of Bhutan. Designated a Unesco Site, the park’s wildlife and landscape are incredibly diverse. Rolling grasslands; dense, tangled forests with massive Silk Cotton trees; and, tumbling rivers winding their way from the Himalaya foothills. Most of the animals found in the more famous Kaziranga can be found here, plus many many more. The only caveat to that is that they are much harder to see. For me this is somehow more rewarding and special when you have an encounter.

Manas has seen a lot of turmoil and many people are still worried about travelling there. I had heard of devastating poaching and forest destruction stemming from the violence between the indigenous Bodo people and immigrating Bengali Muslims in the 80s and 90s. Problems do still arise, but it is mostly calm these days. Not knowing how empty the forest might be, we decided to visit for only a couple of days. We want more! There was much more wildlife activity here than either of us expected, and staying in the Mathanguri Lodge is the only place to stay! At least as far as I’m concerned.

River border between Bhutan and India.

River border between Bhutan and India.

We arrived by flight from Delhi to Guwahati on March 17 and stayed overnight at the affordable, clean and efficient Hotel Rialto, planning to head out before dawn to Manas the next day. The Rialto was a great bargain at 1200 a night and though the rooms were small, they were comfy, decently clean, and had AC that worked, albeit at arctic levels. The real surprise was the Hotel’s restaurant food. We had a hot and sour chicken soup that was to die for! Not like many I’ve had before – so much chicken! not very sour, and a good handful of cilantro – yummy!!! The Hakka chicken noodles were really good too, and the tandoor chicken (starting to cluck now) was good, if not great. I’d go there for that soup alone!
We met our driver Siraz the night we arrived as he popped in to arrange our departure time the next morning. What a lovely man he is! Professional, helpful and kind – it quickly became apparent that he was to be one of my favourite, of many, drivers in India. Barpeta Rd., which is the town at the entrance to Manas (and a rail station head), is about a 3-hour drive from Guwahati, through a rich and bountiful farmland. We passed incredible crops of vegetables and countless carts on their way to the marketplace.

Masses of veggies heading to market on our way to Manas.

Masses of veggies heading to market on our way to Manas.


... and more veggies

... and more veggies

Arriving at the forest office near the gate to Manas (we mistakenly carried on there instead of pre-clearing at the forest office in town), there was a bit of scrambling, but the Forest Officer was kind and wrote up an entrance ticket for us after phoning the Field Director. Then, walked across the road to the Immigration/Foreign Registers Office! I had to explain to the customs officer, set up at a wooden desk on a ramshackle porch that I wished to enter Manas for wildlife, and not for any nefarious Bhutanese activities! The border to Bhutan runs through the forest itself, and trucks of goods, and people cross over quite regularly.

Paperwork taken care of, and all documents appropriately stamped, we were off for the 1.5 hour drive to the Mathanguri Lodge. The drive to the Forest Lodge is a safari in itself. We stopped to watch dust-bathing elephants, trumpeting a warning (or “Hello”?) to us. Wild buffalo and Hog Deer popped out of the greenery to see what we were up to. What a spectacular place to spend my birthday this year!

Peek-a-boo with a Hog Deer

Peek-a-boo with a Hog Deer


A rather large Welcome to Manas from an Asian Elephant!

A rather large Welcome to Manas from an Asian Elephant!

Arriving at the lodge, our rooms were set up on a rock ledge, overlooking Bhutan with the Benki River running between us. Topped off by the beautiful soaring Himalayan foothills as a backdrop. The government-run lodge itself was much nicer than I expected. Spacious, but basic rooms, complete with mosquito-netted beds; a massive, relatively effective bathroom (though no hot water); and, a startling evening alarm call from what was described to us, as the Gecko Gecko – a large, shy reptile that lived in the buildings. We stayed in Rooms 4 & 5 but next time might try for the second floor rooms for the extra view. There is no fan, or AC, but it was still cool enough at night, though wouldn’t bet on it much further on in the season, at least for us foreigner’s averse to heat. We had a very strong wind storm our first night. Wonderful howling to fall asleep to.

The view from our forest home, looking into Bhutan.

The view from our forest home, looking into Bhutan.

Colourful beetle at Mathanguri Lodge

Colourful beetle at Mathanguri Lodge

Food no longer has to be pre-arranged and carried in to Mathanguri. They now have organized this themselves. It’s à la carte, and very tasty and fresh, but basic, fare. Plus, you get the extra added bonus of semi-feral kitty company at mealtimes! I miss my cat when I travel, so this is a good thing for me... cats being more popular here than many places in India. Power is only turned on for a couple of hours in the evening, which made the place even more fabulous to me, but be aware, can be tricky to charge all the gadgets we tend to carry these days. It is widely advertised to be on from dusk to 9:30pm, but was in reality turned off about 8. Kerosene lamps are provided in the evening, but I prefer to turn them off because of the smell. There’s no power in the morning before the dawn drive, so bring a good light with you.

If you are squeamish about critters (you are in the middle of the jungle) and/or want more luxury in your wildlife, there is the more expensive, full-service lodge (Bansbari Lodge) by the main gate.

The only downside we encountered here was the quality of the jeeps (loud and smelly) and drivers available to hire for your safari. We ended up using our own driver from Kaziranga for a few of the drives, taking the mini-van out instead. This isn’t ideal, but, was in reality a better experience overall. I’m sure there are people that are good, but will have to investigate further on a future trip, but with the park not hugely travelled, it might be difficult. Our forest ranger was young and inexperienced but completely accommodating and helpful. This wasn’t a big problem for me, since I had brought my own naturalist/guide along again on this trip, and CV spent as much time helping me get the shot, as training the ranger, who to his credit was eager to learn.

Fantastic trees, with loads of ficus (fig family) fruit for the creatures of the forest

Fantastic trees, with loads of ficus (fig family) fruit for the creatures of the forest

We only had two nights here and I want more! In fact, I hope to revisit Assam in the spring of 2014 so if you are interested in joining me, drop me a line!

The Capped Langur checking out what we were up to - a first sighting for me, in a trip of new primates.

The Capped Langur checking out what we were up to - a first sighting for me, in a trip of new primates.

On to the safaris and what they brought us!

One of the most wonderful creatures in this part of the world are the charismatic water buffalo. Listed as an endangered species, the buffalo in Manas are considered to possibly be the only pure strain of the species left today, all others diluted by cross-breeding with domestic buffalos. Their horns are quite distinct and impressive, creating a bit of a challenge walking through the brush, perhaps that's why they walk in such a posh and distinctive way, with their heads thrown back and nose in the air.
The wild water buffalo, walking in the peculiar way they do, nose in the air!

The wild water buffalo, walking in the peculiar way they do, nose in the air!


Time for a good nose-hair trimming!

Time for a good nose-hair trimming!

The bird-life here was quite fantastic as well and I was able to add many new birds to my 'list.' When we came across a pair of very large owls in the distance we had a bit of a laugh. Our 'naturalist' and our forest guide insisting they weren't owls! Now, I'm no vast expert on the avian varieties, but I think I can be relied upon to tell if a bird is an owl! We pulled out our bird book and identified the two, rare and impressive owls as spot-bellied eagle owls and showed our intrepid guides. Who then had a brief conversation and announced that they called them something different in that part of the world!

Jeuvenile (right) and adult spot-bellied eagle owls (or are they...). Very far off in the trees.

Jeuvenile (right) and adult spot-bellied eagle owls (or are they...). Very far off in the trees.


Great Indian Hornbill. These massive birds made an awesome sound when they flew, their wings displacing so much air.

Great Indian Hornbill. These massive birds made an awesome sound when they flew, their wings displacing so much air.


Outstretched, almost translucent, wings of the Great Indian Hornbill.

Outstretched, almost translucent, wings of the Great Indian Hornbill.


Scarlet Minivet... going, going, gone!

Scarlet Minivet... going, going, gone!


Asian Fairy Bird

Asian Fairy Bird


Always stunning, though rarely posing so nicely, Red Jungle Fowl!

Always stunning, though rarely posing so nicely, Red Jungle Fowl!

One of the creatures we really wanted to see was the beautiful and endangered Golden Langur, but when we arrived we were told that they resided on the Bhutan side of Manas Wildlife Sanctuary. Sometimes, we were told, you could see them across the river. Quite sad we were, till someone came to our aid. After waiting on the road to Bhutan for a bit, and numerous, high-level, walkie-talkie conversations, it was announced I could visit to quickly photograph them! So, smuggled down to a boat, under cover of darkness.... no, not really :-) But they did row me briefly over to Bhutan in a rowboat, then a short hike up to the trees where we were able to photograph a troop for 10 minutes. Such fun!

The beautiful, and aptly named, Golden Langur.

The beautiful, and aptly named, Golden Langur.


What's so funny? Do I have banana on my face?

What's so funny? Do I have banana on my face?

Another benefit of staying at Mathanguri Lodge was the ability to stay out past sunset! This forest was pretty magical at night as it lit up with a veritable swarm of fireflies. Little fairies dancing in the darkening wood. We also had another spectacular Moment -- sighting a black leopard! The sun had already set and there was little light left, when CV spotted the cat run across the road in front of our jeep's lights. I saw the shape run into the scrub beside us, where it froze for a couple of minutes, feeling safely out of our line of sight. Elated I still tried to snap a photo. Dialing up the ISO and opening my shutter, I took a few shots with different focal lengths and managed one clear shot of its back. Now, I know to y'all this shot is probably nothing special, being about as record as a record shot can be... but, for us - Wow!!!

the back-end of the our leopard!

the back-end of the our leopard!

Another denizen of this forest was the capped langur. It was another first for me, and one of my favourite creatures. I loved the perpetually startled look they seem to have - eyes wide open and hair going all Enstein. Although it was the most commonly sighted primate for our Assam trip, this langur is listed as threatened, due mostly to habitat loss.

The Capped Langur

The Capped Langur


Malayan or Black Giant Squirrel is listed as Near-threatened, due mostly to hunting for food - slightly smaller, and not as red a coat as the Malabar Giant Squirrel.

Malayan or Black Giant Squirrel is listed as Near-threatened, due mostly to hunting for food - slightly smaller, and not as red a coat as the Malabar Giant Squirrel.


Massive old silk-cotton trees throughout this fabulous forest.  Look closely and you'll see my intrepid guides spanning the trunk.

Massive old silk-cotton trees throughout this fabulous forest. Look closely and you'll see my intrepid guides spanning the trunk.

Nameri National Park

Beautiful Nameri with its imposing elephants

Beautiful Nameri with its imposing elephants

After saying goodbye to Manas, we were off for brief stop at Nameri before heading down to Kaziranga. The drive was about 7 hours long, and made longer by an unexpected stop. On our way we came up to a road block. There apparently had been demonstration in a Bodo village and the authorities were taking no chances. So, we were idling away in a line of traffic, waiting for our army escort to return and take us through the village. When we finally got going again, in the army escorted convoy, it was an eerie feeling as we made our way through the village. Not a soul could be seen. If you’ve ever traveled to India before, you’ll know how strange this is, in a country teeming with life.

Still, it was an uneventful drive after all, and we arrived safe and sound to Nameri Eco Camp, a wonderful collection of permanent tents and cottages. A large British Birding group was encamped, so we were put up in a bungalow designed for visiting scientists, naturalists, etc. Was perfect – two rooms on either side of a central kitchenette area. Can’t speak to the regular accommodation, but this worked well for us. Our hosts here were extremely accommodating and helpful, as we’d come to expect from our travels in Assam. A troop of capped langurs was seen in the camp throughout the day, and the resident puppy became a constant companion once it was discovered I carried dog biscuits with me! No, I’m sure it was because of my personality! Uh huh!!

Curious George? Capped langurs in our camp.

Curious George? Capped langurs in our camp.


Fabulous male Great Indian Hornbill, part of a nesting pair in a large tree at the Eco Camp. The female seals herself into a nest that is hollowed out of a tree until her chicks are ready to leave. The male makes trips back to feed her through the small hole left open.

Fabulous male Great Indian Hornbill, part of a nesting pair in a large tree at the Eco Camp. The female seals herself into a nest that is hollowed out of a tree until her chicks are ready to leave. The male makes trips back to feed her through the small hole left open.


Pigmy Hog, an endangered small wild pig, in the conservation centre in Nameri

Pigmy Hog, an endangered small wild pig, in the conservation centre in Nameri

Located in the eastern foothills of Himalayas it is quite close to Kaziranga (couple of hours drive), the nearest city being Tezpur. The Assamese portion is quite small (200 km sq) and wonderfully, you investigate the park by boat, or on foot. The forest is an excellent habitat for wild elephants, as well as host to many endemic and migrating birds. Apparently hikers have also come across the odd tiger! That would be a bit scary I’d imagine, though you are escorted by an armed forest guard, primarily for the elephant danger. We had a wonderful hike through the lush green forest, led by a young local boy with pretty impressive bird skills, arranged for us by the camp.

Hey! It's a Sensitive Plant! growing naturally all over the forest. Who remembers having these as a kid? Mimosa ~ called locally the 'Do Not Touch plant.'

Hey! It's a Sensitive Plant! growing naturally all over the forest. Who remembers having these as a kid? Mimosa ~ called locally the 'Do Not Touch plant.'


Verditer Flycatcher on wing.

Verditer Flycatcher on wing.


Loads of Wreathed Hornbills flying over the park. Our only sightings of these fellows.

Loads of Wreathed Hornbills flying over the park. Our only sightings of these fellows.

Our boat ride was lovely, though we went in the afternoon and was a bit warm for a lot of life. Still saw a lot of birds and people fishing on the Jai Bharali River. Was nice to be heading down the river on a raft too. So much quieter than the usual diesel-chugging tourist boats. The river has quite a few rapids to bump over, though at this time there wasn’t that much white water.

Fishing for the wonderful Golden Mahseer used to be a popular pastime here but has been banned for some time. Sadly, as in many other instances, once the tourism-driven anglers dissappeared, so did the fish. With nobody watching, it’s amazing how quickly poaching can decimate a species. At the eco-camp, they’ve started a fish hatchery and hopefully repopulation will be successful, along with a return to controlled and regulated sport fishing.

Fishing on the river with pretty cool-looking nets.

Fishing on the river with pretty cool-looking nets.


Heron Silhouette

Heron Silhouette


Brahminy Ducks or Ruddy Shelducks, depending on which edition of the bird book you have.

Brahminy Ducks or Ruddy Shelducks, depending on which edition of the bird book you have.

All in all, well worth the stop, especially if you are a birder. To be able to walk through the forest and to raft was a treat!

Massive Agenor Mormon male butterfly posing nicely at our camp!

Massive Agenor Mormon male butterfly posing nicely at our camp!

Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 13:42 Archived in India Tagged birds wildlife india langur assam manas golden_langur capped_langur black_leopard black_panther hornbil nameri Comments (0)

Wonderful Wildlife ~ The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!

...but mostly good!

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Green Bee-eaters all lined up in a row in Bandhavgarh

Green Bee-eaters all lined up in a row in Bandhavgarh

Final India Installment for Spring 2012 and it’s all about wildlife! This blog will be Photo-Heavy and Info-Lite since all the parks here are repeats for me and all of you intrepid readers. The last three weeks were pretty much spent wildlife-ing, with Sandra in Panna and Bandhavgarh, where we explored with Yugdeep and Bejoy. I ended up with what will likely be my final attempt to love, Ranthambhor and a quick visit to Kanha my indispensible naturalist guide, CV Singh.

Sirkeer Malkoha singing for a girlfriend in Panna!

Sirkeer Malkoha singing for a girlfriend in Panna!

Panna

Brown Fish Owl waiting for dark...

Brown Fish Owl waiting for dark...

...and then takes off at dusk

...and then takes off at dusk


Wonderful displaying Wooly Necked Stork

Wonderful displaying Wooly Necked Stork

So excited to be heading back into the forests! My return to Panna introduced me to my first jungle forays with Bejoy, a lovely naturalist from Kerala. We had wonderful drives in the park, although the vulture gorge, one of my favourite places to visit, was closed because Bithri (my first tiger) was staying there with her very new litter of cubs. I always love returning to Panna, especially to visit with friends. This trip, I brought out Canadian Maple syrup, Canadian bacon and flour (Indian flour doesn’t work very well with western baking) to make a pancake breakfast for the gang. They set up a couple of burners outside, which was a relief cause I’m sure I’d have melted if I’d tried to cook in the kitchen!

A family of Pied Kingfishers we watched for ages on the river.

A family of Pied Kingfishers we watched for ages on the river.

Pied Kingsfisher Acrobats!

Pied Kingsfisher Acrobats!


In the gorge of the falls.  Temples are carved into the sides of the gorge.

In the gorge of the falls. Temples are carved into the sides of the gorge.

Seems amazing given the times I've been here, but I hadn’t made a trip to the falls before. This was a real treat! We climbed down into a really beautiful gorge, with the falls only a trickle at this time of year, but still lovely. It was so lush and green with a rich deep pool filled with fish and feeling of serenity that was pretty amazing. It was obviously a favourite spot for bears, since the claw marks were evident all over the trees, some incredibly high up. I'd love to be able to stay overnight there and see all the activity that must happen in the evening. Panna is always, and most definitely on the 'Good' for me.

Grey Headed Fish Eagle deciding what to do

Grey Headed Fish Eagle deciding what to do


Fab dragonfly

Fab dragonfly


Langur at dawn

Langur at dawn

However, we had 'the Bad' towards the end of our stay. Another guest joined the jeep and he was pretty amusing. He had some very strong opinions – "look over there, a peacock is dancing!" Bejoy would point out. Said our intrepid companion, “I don’t like.” Uh oh… There was actually quite a bit he didn’t like, including drives that were too long. Too bad, cause we like ‘em! He certainly liked the pretty village ladies, and spent his time trying to get someone to introduce him to one! I’m thinking if you want to dally with an Indian lady, a village is not the best place to try to do so!! All kinds in this world!
Sunset in Panna

Sunset in Panna

Bandhavgarh

Sunrise in Bandhavgarh

Sunrise in Bandhavgarh

Panna was unusually wet for this time of year and that meant bugs! Which do not go well for poor Sandra!! So, heading from the more rustic Ken River Lodge, to the super luxurious Taj Banjar Tola in Bandhavgarh was just what the doctor ordered for her final stop. We met up with Yugdeep and like always, had wonderful sightings and experiences. He’s pretty great, both as a naturalist and as a friend and we had a fantastic time with him.

The new dominant male in Bandhavgarh's Tala zone - Bamera.  Was very excited since this was my first sighting of Bamera.  We saw him at the beginning of the drive, sleepy in a pool of water.  Yugdeep wisely said he'd likely be there a few hours before moving, so we left the 'hoard' and explored the rest of our route, before returning just before he got up and moved to sit and watch us.  So great having a good guide!!  We would have missed so much if we'd stayed watching the sleeping back of a tiger all afternoon.

The new dominant male in Bandhavgarh's Tala zone - Bamera. Was very excited since this was my first sighting of Bamera. We saw him at the beginning of the drive, sleepy in a pool of water. Yugdeep wisely said he'd likely be there a few hours before moving, so we left the 'hoard' and explored the rest of our route, before returning just before he got up and moved to sit and watch us. So great having a good guide!! We would have missed so much if we'd stayed watching the sleeping back of a tiger all afternoon.


Interesting way to clean out your nose?  Bamera's nose was damaged during mating with a tigress!

Interesting way to clean out your nose? Bamera's nose was damaged during mating with a tigress!


Green Bee-eater taking a drink

Green Bee-eater taking a drink


Common Hawk Cuckoo actually sitting still!  More commonly known as the brain fever bird

Common Hawk Cuckoo actually sitting still! More commonly known as the brain fever bird

We had some unusual sightings, including two Brown Wood Owls, which are not supposed to be there. Got a record shot only though. There was also a rather big fire in the non-tourist-zone, which was upsetting, especially knowing all the nesting birds at this time of year. All those beautiful chicks in the line of the fire would have had no chance. There was no word on the cause, but most likely people in the forest illegally. It was pretty smoky for a day in the camp, and at night, you could see the red glow of the fire from our terrace.

Black Ibis coming in to land!

Black Ibis coming in to land!


We call him Frank! A blue-eyed tiger in Bandhavgarh!

We call him Frank! A blue-eyed tiger in Bandhavgarh!


Came across this beautiful Changeable Hawk Eagle moment after catchin the hapless squirrel!  It was a bit uncomfortable because the little guy was still alive as the eagle started picking at him.  Yugdeep said playing dead was a strong defence instinct.  He'd known a jungle fowl to be picked almost clean of feathers by the Changeable Hawk Eagle, only to get up and escape when the eagle thought it dead and let go of it.  Maybe that happened to the striped squirrel too!  yeah, that's what happened!!

Came across this beautiful Changeable Hawk Eagle moment after catchin the hapless squirrel! It was a bit uncomfortable because the little guy was still alive as the eagle started picking at him. Yugdeep said playing dead was a strong defence instinct. He'd known a jungle fowl to be picked almost clean of feathers by the Changeable Hawk Eagle, only to get up and escape when the eagle thought it dead and let go of it. Maybe that happened to the striped squirrel too! yeah, that's what happened!!


Hello?

Hello?


Guarding a salt-lick cube from the troop!

Guarding a salt-lick cube from the troop!

Panna and Bandhavgarh easily, and expectedly were The Good part of this wildlife visit, as always! Wonderful luxury in the jungle and then back to Delhi for Sandra to catch her flight, and me to head off on the train to Ranthambhor.
Racket-tailed Drongo in the sky

Racket-tailed Drongo in the sky

Ranthambhor

Peacock diving off the fort wall in Ranthambhor

Peacock diving off the fort wall in Ranthambhor

Now, on to The Bad! You may remember that I’ve not been a fan of this park, more specifically the way it is managed and run. I thought I’d give it one more try, utilizing new contacts and information from the lovely Usha at Khem Villas. Ranthambhor has a lottery system for jeeps, which means, there are a large number of jeeps, and drivers (aka naturalists [sic]) get the same amount of work whether they are good or not. This also means that 9 times out of 10 you get a tiger-chasing driver (and I mean chasing – the speeds driven inside this park are criminal), with no knowledge of the park outside tigers. It also means that you are jammed 6 people into a jeep (if you’ve been lucky enough to book a jeep), which affords you no real ability to take photos or comfortably see the park. At this time of year, we were able to get cancelations for the days I hadn’t been able to book online (there are quite a lot of block booking scams that happen so a large number of cancellations also happens, and it isn’t the high season).

The peacock stood out so strongly.  It's vibrant colours against the dry brush background was lovely.

The peacock stood out so strongly. It's vibrant colours against the dry brush background was lovely.


Finally my first tiger in Ranthambore!

Finally my first tiger in Ranthambore!


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Incredible forest at Ranthambore

Incredible forest at Ranthambore

So, here we are, in Ranthambhor, comfortably set up, camera in hand, and… Tiger census was happening. I understand the need for an annual census, but, it would be nice if they could actually plan and organize this effectively, alerting visitors to this. I had only booked one month in advance, which should have been plenty of time for them to know this would be happening. Nope, that would be too efficient I’m thinking. Our morning safaris were an hour late starting because of this census, and then, a whole day of safaris was cancelled. No reimbursement, no switches, no nothing. Not even a head wag! Beware – in and around the full moon in May, do not go to Ranthambhor. [note: after writing a letter of complaint to the forest department, and having a friend forward the same letter to the Minister of Forests for Rajasthan, a reimbursement was paid, although no acknowledgement of my letter was made. I'm not sure which of the letters made a difference.]

Battling Rufous Treepies

Battling Rufous Treepies


Breeding plumage on a Great Egret

Breeding plumage on a Great Egret


Useful fishing platform!  Egret fishing from a Sambar

Useful fishing platform! Egret fishing from a Sambar


Thirsty Indian Hare

Thirsty Indian Hare

So, I saw my first Ranthambhor tiger, but still likely my last. Never say never, but I won’t voluntarily go back there. This is said with some sadness too, because the park itself is spectacularly beautiful. There is an abundance of birds and animal activity you notice as you speed by. The jungle, the ruins of the old fort and the rambling buildings taken over by the jungle are so atmospheric. So much potential here, but of all the parks I have visited in India (and that is a lot) for my money, it is hands down the worst-run park in India.

Quiet moment at the fort

Quiet moment at the fort


Langur surveying his kingdom up at Ranthambor Fort

Langur surveying his kingdom up at Ranthambor Fort


Asian Paradise Flycatcher

Asian Paradise Flycatcher


Peacock Pose

Peacock Pose

On the good side, finally made the hike up to the Fort, which was really lovely and offered the best photography moments. Also the pond out back at Khem Villas, which was sadly some of the best wildlife watching and where we were treated to a pied kingfisher fishing.
Pied Kingfisher diving for dinner!

Pied Kingfisher diving for dinner!

Pied Kingfisher. Missed the fish!

Pied Kingfisher. Missed the fish!

Resident Crocodile in the pond at Khem Villas

Resident Crocodile in the pond at Khem Villas

Spend a wonderful few hours watching a Pied Kingfisher hunt in the pond at back of our Lodge

Spend a wonderful few hours watching a Pied Kingfisher hunt in the pond at back of our Lodge


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Kanha

Quintessential Kanha!  Beautiful Barasingha at dawn

Quintessential Kanha! Beautiful Barasingha at dawn

The Ugly? No! not the park, that was wonderful, and such a contrast to Ranthambhor. For my money (and admittedly basic-knowledge), Kanha is one of the best-managed parks in India. The Ugly came on the overnight train ride to Jabalpur from Sawai Madhopur near Ranthambhor.

You’ll have heard me rant about ‘VIPs’ in India before, but this took the cake. It was easily the worst, almost comically and stereotypically-bad experience with VIPs I’ve ever had. We boarded our train and settled down for the ride, before stopping to pick up our cabin mates for the evening. A married couple by the manifest. Mr. & Mrs. M. were ushered in. He, a train bureaucrat, of middling importance I’m sure, but of massive importance to him and even larger importance to his wife. They entered the cabin (meant for 4 people) along with lovely little sycophants, who proceeded to spread out in the room and hallway, while Mr. M held court and they all nodded and laughed and smiled with great sincerity. The two servants travelling with them served the tea and snacks, weaving in and out of the throng. "Holy Crap", I texted CV sitting squished into a corner and avoiding the gesticulations of a hanger-on. "Holy Bureaucratic Crap", he texted back.

This went on till past 10pm, when they finally settled down to snore and snort through the night. No need for an alarm call though -- up at 6am, to make and receive calls... and of course the steady return of the entourage. Including a Mrs. Sycophant, who made sure Mrs. M felt equally important. Yeesh!!! Get me to the jungle!

Resting Barasingha before the day heats up.

Resting Barasingha before the day heats up.


Tree filled with so many honey bee hives! More than I've seen before.

Tree filled with so many honey bee hives! More than I've seen before.


Smallest baby gaur I've seen.  Very curious, and mum was pretty protective!

Smallest baby gaur I've seen. Very curious, and mum was pretty protective!


Right inside the Park ~ a man up a pole!  But, how did he get there?  No ladder, or pegs?  A mystery!

Right inside the Park ~ a man up a pole! But, how did he get there? No ladder, or pegs? A mystery!

After that wonderful night, we were thankfully off to the fabulous Kanha. We stayed at a lovely place - The Kanha Jungle Lodge, which was really remote and set in a rather dense forest. The lodge is run by the family of Mr. Kailash Sankhala, one of the founding people in Project Tiger in India. A real VIP! Someone who had done such wonderful things for conservation and the sometimes seemingly endless and frustrating fight for the tiger and India’s forests.

The only tiger we spotted this trip in Kanha & really far away, climbing a tree tho!

The only tiger we spotted this trip in Kanha & really far away, climbing a tree tho!


What a kid will do to get a drink!

What a kid will do to get a drink!


Poor one-horned Barasingha

Poor one-horned Barasingha

Our naturalist was very good, the drives slow and absorbing and our time wonderful. I will always be excited to return to this park. And that is that!

Seemingly endless quest to catch a good shot of a racket-tailed drongo in flight!

Seemingly endless quest to catch a good shot of a racket-tailed drongo in flight!


Fighting for the ladies can be hazardous to your Antlers!  Barasingha deer

Fighting for the ladies can be hazardous to your Antlers! Barasingha deer

I am hopefully returning in the fall of 2012 and then again in the spring of 2013, but for the first time in 4 years, I haven't committed to take with me. So, if you, or other friends/family are interested in photography, wildlife, culture, adventure, food, shopping… really the star’s the limit in India… let me know. I will take up to 6 people, and singles are welcome.

India is a daunting place for the first-time visitor, especially on a shorter time-frame. But one you go, and I bet you’ll be hooked! This has happened for everyone I’ve brought, most of whom had no desire to visit the country (this includes myself!) before hearing, reading and seeing about my adventures there.

Check in to the travel and photography website www.cheekymonkeytravel.com for some sample itineraries or contact me if you're interested. I’ve been to, and/or taken people to all the main tourist destinations of the country, and more interestingly for me, many of the less-touristed locations. If you have a small group wishing to explore India, any number of combinations can be arranged. My focus and passion is for wildlife and photography, but not to the exclusion of everything else that is so wonderful in India. Being open to the unexpected creates some of the most amazing Moments.

Turkey Blog is Next ~ not the Christmas dinner!

Namaste!

Full moon over Kanha National Park

Full moon over Kanha National Park

Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 09:11 Archived in India Tagged birds wildlife tiger full_moon egret langur sambar drongo pied_kingfisher changeable_hawk_eagle barasingha brown_fish_owl wooly_necked_stork grey_headed_fish_eagle sirkeer_malkoha indian_hare Comments (0)

Birthday Party with a Really Big Fish!

Corbett National Park

sunny 30 °C

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Arrived back in India on March 11, and Lynn’s house is filled with puppies! Beautiful little Miss Sookie Stackhouse was anywhere from between 2-5 months old and was rescued from the street by Lynn with a broken leg. She was understandably very timid at first, especially since her leg had to be rebroken to be set. By the time I arrived she showed no signs of her tough start in life. Sweetest little girl, so loving and filled with energy, running all-over and sliding down the hall in her cast. She loved toys and promptly took all the ones I brought out straight to her basket. She was also very good with the 5 other puppies here (3 weeks old when I arrived). But, when one of us would put a toy in with the puppies, who are just starting to figure out how to do something other than eat, sleep, poop and pee, Miss Sook would watch it so intently, and at the first chance, dive into the blow-up puppy pool and retrieve said toy, taking it straight back where it obviously belonged – her basket!

puppies at 4 weeks

puppies at 4 weeks


Typing this is so heartbreaking because while I was away in Corbett, Sookie very suddenly got sick, with what is thought to be an aggressive recurrence of distemper, that she must have picked up when she was on the street, and died two days later. It’s been a week now, and so far the puppies all seem healthy, but knowing how contagious it is, we are very nervous for them.
Miss Sookie Stackhouse

Miss Sookie Stackhouse

All in all, a lovely first weekend in Delhi: off to Ahujason’s to pick up a couple of pashminas for the cooler Corbett nights (yes, I do need more!); a fantastic brunch at the Hyatt’s TK; and, of course a visit to Mr. Mogha and the beauty parlour at the Meridian. Spent the rest of the time hanging out with Remy and dashing about town before finally heading to the jungle on Wednesday – Corbett National Park, about 6 hours north of Delhi.
Northern Zone looking across at our tented camp

Northern Zone looking across at our tented camp

Stayed at the Hideaway’s Riverside Lodge for 3 nights, which was wonderful and the food fantastic, but the trip River Retreat was the real adventure into the heart of the northern zone of the park. The lodge was a beautiful little tented camp where we were the only guests for the first night, so spoiled royally by the attentive staff. There’s no electricity in the camp, which made the night sky stunning, even with the full moon lighting the camp. Our ‘Commander’ Agam, who runs the camp, was so hospitable and interesting. He’s worked in a number of wildlife places and including a stint as a wildlife photographer. He spent 5 months photographing snow leopards for National Geographic (5 months, but as he said, was 5 months waiting, with a last minute lucky sighting and photography session). Over a billion people in India, and he was an alum of the same college as CV Singh, the wildlife guide I was travelling with, as well as many of the naturalists and lodge owners I’ve become friends with over the last few years. Small world!
Chital Stag

Chital Stag

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Our drives in the park were good, but no exceptional sightings, though with CV's help, managed to check off a load of new birds. Did see a lovely large herd of wild elephants and had fun watching macaque monkeys at one rest-stop. One youngster had stolen the rear view mirror off a jeep and was endlessly fascinated by his reflection. They are generally not-so-nice monkeys and can be very aggressive, unlike the langurs, but still fun to watch. The young ones especially have such funny old faces.
Naughty Macaque

Naughty Macaque


Fed up baby macaque

Fed up baby macaque

Hanuman Langur

Hanuman Langur


The langurs here are different from central India, something I didn’t notice on my first visit 2 years ago, being an Indian jungle newbie then. They’re much lighter in colour, with a large ‘mane’ and a flattish head. Also tons of barking deer this trip. Quite small deer, with a curious set of canines, leftover from the Jurassic period? They aren’t man-eating deer… I hope!
Male Barking Deer

Male Barking Deer

Strangler vine around a hapless tree

Strangler vine around a hapless tree


I love the old growth Northern Zone of Corbett. It meanders down steep valley sides, through weird and wonderful twisted strangler vines wrapping around massive trees, over rocky streams before reaching the Ramganga river valley. A beautiful Pallas Eagle nest with an almost grown fledgling sat on top a lone tree in the river stream path. Our tents were set overlooking the valley and beautifully quiet. You don’t realize how much noise electricity and modern appliances/air conditioners/heaters make till you experience the absence.
Palas's Fish Eagle

Palas's Fish Eagle

Palas Fish Eagle in Nest

Palas Fish Eagle in Nest

We took an elephant safari one morning, which Agam gifted to me for a birthday present. So kind. But the piece de resistance was fishing for the Mahseer in the river pools below our camp. Our fishing guide Raju led us down the often steep shale pathways (wasn’t looking forward to climbing back up, no longer being in the Incan shape I was in SA!) to two spots that were deep enough for the larger fish. Mahseer have a fearsome reputation among fishermen. They are really good fighters, especially the golden mahseer, and these certainly lived up to their reputations. They reminded me a bit of fishing for salmon in the Pacific, the way they would run the line, rest and then run again, just when you thought you’d finally be able to land it. They are also very smart fish. Our guide kept varying our bait, casting angle and numbers of hooks to keep them biting. Even so far as making our visibility on shore different. Really interesting, because each time something was changed, they would go straight for the bait, but the second time using the same method, you could see the fish milling about the line, nibbling away, but no good bites.
Indian Roller

Indian Roller

Golden Mahseer

Golden Mahseer


As we approached dusk, we had successfully landed 4 smallish golden mahseer, about 4-5 lbs, when the big one took the bait! Wow, what a difference! It took me 42 minutes to bring it in, and at one point almost all the line was in the river so we had to follow it along the rocky shore to keep it within line distance. As I was bringing it in closer to me, a wild goat (goral) and her baby appeared on the cliffside above us. Was a surreal moment, playing the line, and trying to get a glimpse of the goral, at the same time trying to set my camera up on automatic mode CV to take pictures of the fish, the goral, me… yikes! Completely spent, the poor fish was finally close enough to heave out of the water and grab a few pictures before releasing back into the river. Poor bugger! He just lay there in the water for a while, and I was a bit scared for him, but he finally got the energy to drift into the deeper pools. Such a beautiful fish! And apparently good eating, though boney. Every year I seem to say the same thing… but I think it will be really hard to beat this birthday!
Golden Mahseer catch n release

Golden Mahseer catch n release

Holi in the jungle

Holi in the jungle


It was Holi on the 20th, so nice to be away from the festival chaos in town, and there to take advantage of the full moon, which peaks on Holi. After our elephant safari, the staff included us in their Holi celebrations. Painted with wonderful colours and having Bhang, a very tasty Holi drink made with almonds, sugar, milk, masala and cannabis! Yum! Then, along with other snacks, pakoras of potatoes, spices and cannabis leaves! So smart, taking care of the munchies all in one go! Not too much of a ‘bhang’ tho – sadly I think they gave me the ‘tourist-strength’ version.
Himalayan Bulbul

Himalayan Bulbul

I think next time I come to Corbett, I’d head straight to this bit of paradise.
Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters having a heated discussion

Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters having a heated discussion

Back in Delhi and the arrival of Kathleen, Sandra & Traudi. Did a whirlwind tour of Delhi and now on the train to Amritsar. Popped into a local ATM to get money for this trip and at the conclusion of the transaction was given the choice: “Get Money” or “Get Advice and Get Money”. Unsure I chose Get Money. Turns out Get Advice would have given me the receipt…. And maybe a little note? I could just see it… Lisa, do you really need to buy that pashmina? :-o
Corbett National Park, Northern Zone

Corbett National Park, Northern Zone

Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 09:47 Archived in India Tagged birds fish wildlife safari langur macaque corbett chital barking_deer chestnut_headed_bee-eater himalayan_bulbul mahseer Comments (0)

Fun in Delhi and Rajasthan

...and the sari stayed on!

sunny 30 °C
View India ~ 2010 Part B on LisaOnTheRoad's travel map.

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Back in Incredible India! This is my 4th trip in 2 years and it's a very different visit for me, being shorter and more socially-driven. With sightseeing not being a focus, I’m finding it a very relaxed trip so far.

I arrived ridiculously late on the 19th of October with a mission. Find the perfect sari for the Canadian High Commission’s biggest social event of the year – the Thanksgiving Ball. This would be my first attempt at wearing the fantastically beautiful garment that Indian women wear so easily and gracefully throughout the country. While men in India have largely adopted western attire, many women still wear the sari. Tied in different ways depending on regional areas and traditions, and made of a variety of fabrics and colours. Sparkled, painted, patterned and plain, the women add an incredible array of colour to the landscape in India. Whether walking the streets of the bustling cities and markets, working on the roads, construction sites, fields or home, it is done with incredible grace and beauty in the sari.

So... all of you who know me, can understand my nervousness at doing the same – grace and beauty not being the first 2 adjectives that come to mind! Still, I don’t often let fear stop me from trying something new. So, off to Sarojini Nagar to shop with Sabrina, my friend Lynn’s housekeeper. This sped things up considerably, since she was able to quickly tell if the shop didn’t have the very specific colour I had in mind and I didn’t have to spend 20 minutes as shopkeepers pulled out every colour and fabric type completely opposite to my requests, all the while nodding and assuring me they did indeed have that colour/fabric… “one moment madame”... before ultimately throwing their hands up in frustration at the foreigner who quite obviously didn’t know how to pick the right colour/fabric for the sari she wanted to wear.

So that was Wednesday. Thursday saw me heading to SouthEx and Ahujason’s to pick up a shawl for cooler Rajasthan nights, as I was heading to the parks on the following Monday. Then the embassy to get my guest pass set up and of course Hanuman Mandir, to my favourite bangle stall, to get the bangles to complete the ball outfit. After a Friday at the spa, a stop at Mr. Mogha’s in the Meridien to pick up some suitably sparkly rings, Lynn and I were off to a pre-Diwali party hosted by an embassy client.

On Saturday, we went to DLF mall and the Inglot store to have our make up done. As someone who prefers a more natural look with make-up (read too lazy to deal with cosmetics), I was a bit leary but figured I could always wash it off and start again. I was in luck – the young man who worked on me was an artist! Using colours I never would have picked in a million years. I think that I must keep him with me wherever I go from now on, the results were almost unrecognizable.

Wrapping a sari seems so complicated and precise, but the lady who came by to wrap us made it seem so simple and I was bundled up in a matter of minutes. Panic started to set in tho when I realized that she put in only 2 safety pins – one at the shoulder and one to keep the front pleats together. I kept asking if I should put more pins in, like every inch or so, only to be reassured that it wasn’t necessary! Oh boy!

Lynn, Remy, Vrinda and me

Lynn, Remy, Vrinda and me


All done up and off to the High Commissioner’s house, where the ball is hosted. So beautiful! The tables were set up throughout the garden, fairy lights strung through the trees, the air warm and sultry. And to top it all off, a full moon pushed valiantly through the Delhi smog to add a glow to the glittering guests. Of course, a complete turkey dinner crowned the evening. We danced and laughed till 1, then moved to the Taj’s nightclub and finally a house party in Vasant Vihar. Back home at 5am, feet a tad sore, but sari still securely on! Major mishaps avoided and what a fantastic night.

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Sunday was spent doing absolutely nothing, resting up before heading out on Monday for a wildlife fix. This time of year starts off a bird migration period in India, so I was excited to visit the UNESCO park, Keoladeo Ghana National Park. Had a comical drive from Delhi, with a driver who couldn’t seem to go anywhere without getting lost, even with specific instructions. He had a seemingly uncontrollable urge to take “short-cuts”, whether he’d done it before or not/ whether it was shorter or not/ and whether it was even heading in the right direction or not. Funny… after the fact!

Painted Storks greeting each other

Painted Storks greeting each other


We stayed at a wonderful lodge, run by a highly respected Indian birder, The Bagh. It was set in a 4-hectare former royal orchard and was so lush and filled with trees that you often couldn’t see beyond the next building. The naturalist provided by the lodge, Mr. Rajveer Singh, was similarily exceptional.

Cool looking bug eating fruit in the park

Cool looking bug eating fruit in the park


I love the wilder areas of India, and look forward to exploring them, but in most cases, the naturalists are not of a dependably high calibre. So, I decided to hedge my bets and try something new – I hired my own naturalist/guide for this trip. It made such a difference. Rajveer was unexpectedly great, but Sarkiska guides were what I have come to expect. Mr. CV Singh, from Udaipur, is one of only 2 exceptional naturalists I’ve been lucky enought to travel with in my many park visits within India. Luckily for me he began private guiding this year and he immeasurably improved my experience on this trip. In addition to the wildlife aspect, I was able to experience places, foods and insights that I would have completely missed out on without his wonderful company. Helped with our direction-challenged driver too! He was similarily impressed with Rajveer, which says a lot more than my good opinion.
Monitor Lizard

Monitor Lizard

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Keoladeo is a relatively small 29 sq km sanctuary made from diverted water by a former Maharaja’s desire to have a ready hunting ground. There is a plaque in the park, which highlights the shooting successes of that bygone time. For a duck, not so much a success. One listing, in November 1938 saw over 4000 ducks shot in a single day.
Green Bee-eaters

Green Bee-eaters

Little Egret

Little Egret


The area constantly battles to gain access to water these days, which needs to be diverted from a nearby dam. Competition from local farmers and villagers and the highly unpredictable monsoon rains make the park’s water levels virtually non-existant some years, putting the UNESCO designation at risk. Luckily this year the park has water and was lush and green, but the last few years has seen the park dry, which has greatly damaged this important bird breeding ground.
Painted Stork

Painted Stork

Indian Pond Heron

Indian Pond Heron


With no motorized vehicles allowed in Kaleodeo, we actually got to walk most of the time, which was such a treat! Can also rent bikes to explore. How wonderful to walk through your safaris. The big excitement in the park while we were there was the tiger! Yep, you heard right! A tiger had wandered over from Ranthambore national park and settled into one of the areas. Must have seemed like paradise to him – loads of deer and antelope, and no other competition! It really was all everyone could talk about. At one point, CV planted some pugmarks on the side of a path to add to the excitement. I knew that’s how those pugmarks got there in all those parks I visited without seeing a tiger! Hah!
Brown Fish Owl far off in the trees.

Brown Fish Owl far off in the trees.

Soft Shell Turtles

Soft Shell Turtles


So a wonderful 2 days in this park, with loads of birds, massive turtles and the lizard, and we were off to Sariska Tiger Reserve a few hours away. Our driver had received detailed, direct instructions on how to reach the Alwar Bagh resort, so of course we went another way… and got lost…

Beautiful cliffs in Sariska

Beautiful cliffs in Sariska


Alwar Bagh was a lovely, family-run hotel and our hosts were so welcoming. The resort is adding a new more luxurious building, built of beautiful pink sandstone, so the resort was quite empty with construction to be completed this month. Lovely peaceful grounds to relax during the afternoon and have evening drinks, filled with trees and surrounded by the Aravelli hills. A bit of a trek to the park (about 30 min drive) but didn’t become tiring as we feared it might.
Flameback Woodpecker

Flameback Woodpecker

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Sariska – wow! This park is so beautiful. From the towering, stark Aravellis hills and cliffs; the brilliant greens of dense, old-growth forests; plentiful water holes, streams and lakes; and patches of open grasslands. The beauty of simply driving through it was spectacular.

Chital reaching for a particularly good leaf!

Chital reaching for a particularly good leaf!


This park is wonderfully quiet and less travelled, which I loved. Sadly farming and cattle are strewn through the park as well, which doesn’t bode well for its future ecology. After being wiped out a few years back, there are now 5 tigers reintroduced into the park. The absense of tigers helped to make the population of leopards high, and there were pugmarks everywhere. We had a dramatic tracking one evening, following the warning calls of sambar, chital and langurs, accompanied by the very loud growls and calls of a leopard. It seemed only a few feet away hiding in the dense vegetation, but unfortunately remained hidden from us.
Langur posing in the sunlight at the Hanuman Temple

Langur posing in the sunlight at the Hanuman Temple

Beautiful little jungle cat at dusk, posing for us

Beautiful little jungle cat at dusk, posing for us


Lots of animal action here, but no big cat sightings. Tho did have a beautiful sighting of a jungle cat as were racing out of the park at the end of the last day. Also had a dramatic face-off between 3 Indian mongooses – is that mongeese? – and red-wattled lapwings as they searched for eggs for dinner. Also had a fab sighting of an Indian hare – but missed the shot! followed by the comment that I’d never get a chance like that again :-S Had such a wonderful time on this trip, and loved, loved, loved this park. Oh yeah, and I finally learned to eat curry and rice with my hand! sort of...
Mongoose being confronted by anxious Lapwing as it searched for eggs

Mongoose being confronted by anxious Lapwing as it searched for eggs

Sadly this adventure closed, it was back to Delhi for the Halloween party and to relax with friends before heading out to Sri Lanka for the Diwali weekend.
Halloween party in Delhi.

Halloween party in Delhi.

Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 06:25 Archived in India Tagged people parties birds india halloween safari forest birding tiger langur balls mongoose sari jungle_cat Comments (0)

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