Sunday, April 4, 2004

A road less travelled
Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu

The imposing Ater Fort in Madhya Pradesh
The imposing Ater Fort in Madhya Pradesh

A crocodile basking in the sun on an island in the Chambal river
A crocodile basking in the sun on an island in the Chambal river

CHAMBAL. The very name invokes visions of an untamed land — raw and powerful. A land that has harboured, over the years, innumerable mavericks — from blue-blooded kings to dreaded dacoits. A land that never in our wildest dreams could have been envisaged as a recreation destination. A recent visit to the region brought about a quick volte face. As a guest of close friends, this winter — at their ancestral Lodge at Jarar near Agra, on the banks of the Chambal river, I embarked upon a truly unique adventure, one that gave me the opportunity to explore the natural, cultural and historical heritage of the Chambal valley. It was the Chambal Safari.

The Chambal Safari, a wildlife safari that acquaints you with freshwater dolphins and crocodiles and a favourite with the birding circuit was started five years ago, as a bold initiative to popularise the hitherto neglected Chambal river and its surrounding ravines and terrain. It is promoted by the Chambal Conservation Foundation through its chief patron Kanwar Ram Pratap Singh, who moved back to his ancestral farm after opting out of a career in engineering. Soon after, he started developing an eco-tourism infrastructure in the National Chambal Sanctuary in the form of the Chambal Safari.

The one-day safari began at the lodge, with a hearty breakfast to sustain us for the four-hour-long boat cruise on the perennial Chambal river, that meanders through the sanctuary — a veritable haven for ghariyals, crocodiles, turtles and gangetic dolphins. As we leisurely chugged along, I was more than pleasantly surprised to turn a bend in the river and come upon a little island infested entirely by sun-basking, motionless ghariyals. A lone crocodile lazily eyed our boat (mercifully, it was way past his breakfast hour!) before turning its attention to a couple of adventurous turtles. The shutterbugs amongst us got down to business while the remaining few tried to mirror the stillness around us, for fear of being noticed by the toothy predators. The sight was awesome, conjuring up images of a mini Jurassic Park.

A bird watchers’ paradise, the banks of the Chambal are an ideal habitat for numerous migratory and resident birds. The most easily sighted (pointed out for my benefit) were the Indian Skimmer, Brahmani Duck. Spoonbill, Flamingo, Pelican and many others. We were also informed by the trained naturalist accompanying us that Sambhar, Nilgai, Black Buck, Chinkara and Hyena are found here.

On our return to terra firma, we were greeted by the sight of a parachute tent, under which had been laid out a buffet lunch of the local cuisine — daal bhaati churma and haath ki roti. After a leisurely meal, we began the historical leg of the safari — a one hour guided tour atop an excruciatingly slow camel (well I chose it over the jeep-ride, for fear of being labelled faint-hearted) to the imposing Ater Fort, located a kilometre away in MP.

The Ater Fort is situated on the periphery of the National Chambal Sanctuary and is accessed by traversing a pontoon bridge. As we passed through the small villages on our way to the fort, we caught an interesting glimpse into an ancient world. It also offered us another opportunity to discover the cultural diversity of the region. This fort was once a strategic stronghold that lay at the forefront of numerous battles between the Rajputs, Mughals and Marathas. The crumbling edifice now stands a lonely sentinel over the Chambal Valley and brings alive the romantic glory of a bygone era. The bone-creaking ride back to the lodge — this time by 4W drive — was a rather tame one. Each one of us, mulling over the events of the day. Each one of us, reliving our experiences in this ancient land full of ravines, wildlife, legends and folklore.

All the other guests were returning to Agra via Bateshwar — the crescent-shaped temple town on the banks of the Yamuna. I stayed on to participate (as a marshal, I must clarify) in another exciting, adrenaline-pumping activity — The Grand Chambal Safari.

Recognising the need to create further awareness, the Grand Chambal Safari, a car rally through the ravines, encompassing some of the toughest terrain in UP, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, was introduced to acquaint more people with this region. The aim is to address the security concerns voiced by highlighting its untamed beauty rather than the infamy it gained on account of the resident dacoits in the Seventies. The rally is flagged off from the Mughal Sheraton, Agra, and passes through some extremely challenging turf , culminating at the Safari Lodge. Such events have ensured that, along with the world famous Taj Mahal, other destinations around Agra are also appreciated.