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Journey to Middle Earth

Rajasthan’s Chambal river holds many surprises for wildlife lovers.

 The ruins of Amar Niwas; a long-billed vulture; a sloth bear; and a flock of cormorants. The ruins of Amar Niwas; a long-billed vulture; a sloth bear; and a flock of cormorants.

Manan Dhuldhoya

Floating on the Chambal river, and awestruck by the sheer cliffs towering over us, it was natural to feel we were The Fellowship drifting along on The Anduin, carrying the fate of Middle Earth in our trembling hands. Only the calls of the cormorants sounded real. Now for someone who grew up on a healthy dose of Bollywood, the mention of Chambal can bring only dacoits and gunfights to mind. So, when we signed up for a safari on the Chambal river, Kota, in Rajasthan, we hardly expected to be transported to the land of elves and bowmen.

On a road trip through southeast Rajasthan, two of my friends and I stopped for a few days in Kota. After a day spent photographing ornate palaces, stunning cenotaphs and museums around town, we decided to unwind on a boat safari. We wound our way down to the river’s edge and met Mr Tomar, the man who started the Chambal river safari in 2001. He led us to our boat, helped us clamber in, strap on our life jackets and waved us off to a unique wildlife experience.

Just a few seconds after setting out, Gopal Sharma, our boatman and guide, pointed to our left and announced, Brown Fish Owl. We peered into the tangle of branches to spot a stately looking bird staring back at us. Motoring along, we passed the regal ruins of Amar Niwas, the hunting lodge of the erstwhile kings of Kota. Before the Chambal dam came up in the early ’60s, Amar Niwas was perched on top of the cliffs, offering its owners a vantage point of the valley a few hundred feet below.

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Soon after, Gopalji pointed out to a cliff face, where an Egyptian vulture, also called the Pharaoh’s Chicken, sat protectively on its nest. Its white body and orange face, set against the ochre cliffs on which it nests, makes for canny camouflage.

Before Peter Jackson brought the cliffs of New Zealand to the world’s notice, any The Lord of the Rings fan visiting this place may have wondered if JRR Tolkien spent some time here, considering that Rudyard Kipling is rumoured to have written Kim in the neighbouring town of Bundi. The cliffs rising up in defiance of the relentless river, the crags with their crannies that could harbour orcs and storks alike, the fjords that made us wonder what lurked on their rocky shores — it is more Middle Earth than lower Rajasthan. The boat gently rocking to the beat of the waves was all we needed to feel like Hobbits, floating along on the Brandywine without a care in the world.

Watching the sun set over the cliffs while its dying rays lit up the waves was mesmerising. Until Gopalji decided to break the spell by calling our attention to a pair of woolly-necked storks roosting on the far bank. Tall, striking looking birds dressed in white and blue plumage, they glanced askance at us like a pair of shy boys, all suited up and wondering how to approach the belles of the ball.

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On a particularly tall cliff, we spotted a pair of long-billed vultures at their nest. The vulture population in India has nearly been wiped out by the use of the drug Diclofenac. Though their numbers are slowly increasing, any sighting of a breeding pair is a cause to celebrate. This stretch of the river is home to some of their largest colonies.

A little later, my attention was drawn to a very unusual shape in the rocks. It was the fort of Kotiya Bhil, the tribal chieftain after whom Kota is named. Unlike the rest of Rajasthan with its royal origins, the Hadoti region (comprising Bundi, Jhalawar and Kota) was ruled by Bhil kings a millennium ago, before the Hada Rajputs dethroned them. Already humbled by the tales of the region’s origins, we had little idea that the river had more secrets to share.

Suddenly, Gopalji jumped up in excitement. We followed his gaze to find a sloth bear shuffling along the cliff’s edge. Even for someone who plies the river for a daily living a sloth bear is a rare sighting. Maintaining a respectful distance, he ensured that we kept pace with the bear for nearly 10 minutes. None of us now remember when it got too dark to continue taking pictures, but we will never forget when the bear finally looked over its shoulder, snorted at our antics, and ambled away over the boulders.

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Night was setting on the Chambal,  but the best sights were unfolding only now, with flocks of birds returning home  to roost in the cliffs. We looked up at  the silhouettes circling the full moon, pretending they were Nazgul waiting for Sauron’s command. Of course, Gopalji’s eagle eye would unfailingly tell a vulture from a stork.

Manan Dhuldhoya is a  Mumbai-based travel writer

First published on: 27-04-2014 at 12:39:48 am
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