By Sapna Nair-Purohit and Jugal R Purohit
“Maidam, aapko pata hai, mor pankh kyu failata hai?” asked Totaram, as his namesake, a parakeet, flew by. I answered enthusiastically, “Girlfriend attract karne ke liye.” “Naheee!” he replied, visibly glad that he was about to impart a valuable trivia to an urban babe in the woods, “phemale ko rijhaane ke liye.” Well, okay then.
Our trip to the the Keoladeo National Park, formerly Bharatpur bird sanctuary, a World Heritage Site was full of such amusing moments and more.
Situated four-and-a-half hours away from Noida (180km), this is a good weekend getaway. The journey is made easier by the fact that Yamuna Expressway connecting Noida to Agra is your road for most part. The worst begins once you get off that road at its Mathura exit and make your way to Bharatpur. Upon crossing the chaotic town followed by its cantonment, you will be greeted by the 40km-long State Highway 33 to Bharatpur. It is preferable to cover this in day time since the flyovers, roads are ridden with potholes and random speedbreakers that people have erected. The average speed drops to about 20kmph. A pitiable condition given how famous these two destinations are! We could not even see a single decent dhaba on that route.
Coming to Bharatpur, we had booked a two-night stay at Hotel Sunbird. At first sight, we were troubled by its proximity to the main road. But once inside, we felt adequately insulated from the noise and chaos. Our room was tastefully done, and the hotel owner was kind enough to offer us weary souls hot cups of masala tea. The place was just 5 mins away from the park. We had an early dinner (greasy as most Rajasthani foods are) and retired. We had to be up at 6 to start on our birding tour next day. Our hotel staff was accustomed to this and ensured breakfast was packed and ready.
While Masai Mara has hot air balloon safaris, Bharatpur has cycle rickshaws. 150 rupees an hour; rickshaw puller doubles up as guide; stop as many times; ask anything – too good, right? Old man Totaram was our ride and guide. Armed with a packed breakfast and a pair of binoculars – a last minute crucial decision – we jumped into his cycle rickshaw. Totaram gave his pedal a shove and off we went with many other rickshaws into the wilderness.
For the more serious bird watchers, there are guide services available. Totaram was a knowledgeable fellow but incoherent. We couldn’t quite grasp most bird names but it seemed like he knew most of them (or we knew nothing at all). Teal Duck, Saras crane and Snake bird are a few birds I can identify if I really strain my memory. But the excitement of spotting a rare bird through the binoculars, hearing their calls and cries and seeing the world’s tiniest bird – tailor bird – in front of our eyes are experiences that I will cherish.
Keoladeo National Park is recognised as one of the world’s most important bird breeding and feeding grounds. The royal hunting reserve of the Maharajas and the British – where Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy of India from 1936 to 1943, famously shot thousands of ducks with his hunting party in a single day – was declared a national park in 1982. Today it is home to over 370 species of birds and animals such as the basking python, painted storks, deer, nilgai, hyenas and more.
Birds fly in from places like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Central Asia, China, J&K, Mongolia and Russia; some to escape the harsh winters of their regions and others in search of food. According to UNESCO, the park was the only known wintering site of the central population of the critically endangered Siberian crane. But, mysteriously, Siberian cranes have stopped visiting since 2002, locals inform.
One has to traverse 12 km to be able to see the park in its entirety. We managed to cover 6 km in 4.5 hours. With the sun beating down hard, we decided to head back from the mid point – which is what most people do. Despite the influx of tourists, the park is clean, boundary walls in place, there is no untoward traffic. If you buy a packet of chips from one of the inside shops, it will be served on a plate, so there’s no chance of littering. Garbage bins are actually used diligently.
Winter has started and birds too have begun arriving. However, planning a trip in January is a better idea as, by then, all the migratory birds come in and the weather is perfect, too. While planning take into account the fact that you’ll need at least two trips inside to get a somewhat complete picture of the park. Also, located very close to the main gate is the interpretation centre named after ornithologist Dr Salim Ali.