The drizzle has stopped. The wind picks up, and the sand joyously soars on it, gliding a few inches above the quavering surface of the dune. In a few dusty but dramatic moments, the dune changes its colour. The darkish brown wetness gives way to the lighter glow of the drier silica. But the skies are getting blacker and it starts to rain again; so much rain in the desert seems strange. The camels and their patrons have disappeared along with the sun, leaving us to gape wondrously at the desolate tract stretching to the horizon and beyond. It’s wet and chilly in the Great Indian Desert!
And then we notice the barrenness coming to life. A part of the desert moves, and then another. There are two of them or may be a herd, we are not sure. They are chinkara, light chestnut-coloured antelopes more or less the colour of their surroundings. A while later, a rustle in the bushes behind makes us turn back, just in time to catch a fleeing apparition with a white-tipped bushy tail, a distinctive feature of the desert fox. Then, another fox crosses our path. We are in the sand dunes close to Khuri Village on the edge of the Desert National Park. The 40-km long drive from Jaisalmer till here had been hard and rocky. Yet, the first sight of the dunes is picture-perfect, like a painting with perfectly contoured shadows of ripples and undulating crests.
It is easy to see how deserts can be one of the most incredibly beautiful, thrilling, eerie, treacherous and inhospitable places on earth, all at the same time. And it’s easy to see why people flock to gaze at them, to get their photographs clicked with camels in the foreground and sunset in the background. It is an out-of-the-world experience. We are so enchanted with the sandy knolls that we don’t even notice that because of the rain, the romantic ‘sunset on the dune’ experience hasn’t even taken off.
The Wildlife Department officials tell us that the best way to see wildlife, especially the rare Great Indian bustard, in the Desert National Park, is to go to Sudashri, about 50 km south-west of Jaisalmer. Next morning, our jeep hurries on the deserted flats and the brownish piedmont plateau past the famous sand dunes near Sam, where we stop for just enough time to take in the red sun rising over the cool and clean golden sand. Some dunes spill on to the road, the wilderness claiming new tracts. We turn off the road, which goes on to the Indo- Pak border and, in earlier times, would have led into Sindh.
Sudashri is a 2,000-acre area enclosed with barbed wire and, at first sight, the enclosure seems like an unlikely place to visit for a wildlife experience — patches of clumpy sewan grass, a few shrubs and, an occasional tree, mainly acacia. Plus six camels wandering around, grazing busily. We are offered a choice between walking and riding a camel cart to traverse the 4- km long trail. We choose the the camel cart and immediately, the process of assembling it begins. One of the wandering camels, Babloo, is fetched, the cart — actually a wooden plank on two wheels — is hitched to it and a mattress placed on it as a favour to us city dwellers. We are to be accompanied by Uma Ram, our guide, who seems more excited than us about the prospect of spotting the Great Indian Bustard. He considers it a great privilege to be able to see this bird, which is nearing extinction.
As we make ourselves comfortable on the cart, slowly we become aware of our surroundings. That twig is, in fact, a pallid harrier; there is an Indian robin on that shrub; the flock above are sand grouse. There are a couple of chinkara behind that clump of bushes. Often we stop and the binoculars are passed around. The desert is teeming with life. We realise that the sparseness of the vegetation provides an excellent wildlife viewing opportunity. There is far less occasion for the animals to disappear than there would be in a heavily wooded jungle. The possibilities to observe animals and birds are better, sometimes even when they have taken shelter.
And then we see our first Great Indian Bustard. There are two of them, tall birds, greyish in appearance, walking away from us slowly and elegantly. Females, we are informed. And another one, a female again. Occasionally, they pick something from the ground, maybe a berry or an insect and steadily keep moving from us. But Uma Ram is trying to draw our attention to a tree further away under which a chinkara is standing gazing at us. Realising that we have noticed it, the chinkara swiftly withdraws behind the tree, but is still visible. By the time we turn again, the bustards have covered quite a distance and disappeared behind shrubs. However, we are in luck. Uma Ram has spotted another bustard, this time a male (it’s taller), and what fortune, there is not just one but two, three and why, a fourth too! One of the big birds is fearless and stands its ground, giving us the opportunity to take a good look, while the rest start walking away. Now they are behind a tree but soon emerge on the other side.
I learn that most visitors barely manage see three or four bustards. A sighting of seven or eight is considered very good. But we are moving well beyond all these benchmarks. Uma Ram is avidly counting, and by the thirteenth spotting he is excited beyond words — and more are still crossing our path. Once or twice, he ‘spots’ bustards in places where we can only make out the vegetation. By the time it’s sunny and we end our excursion, Uma Ram has counted 21, and we have seen 17 or 18. This is a record of sorts. Nobody at Sudashri remembers anyone seeing so many Great Indian Bustards in a single day!
State: Rajasthan Location In the Thar Desert in south-west Rajasthan, near the border with Pakistan, spread over Jaisalmer and Barmer districts
Distances: 689 km W of Jaipur via Jodhpur, 317 km NW of Jodhpur, 42 km SW of Jaisalmer Route from Jaipur NH8 to Beawar via Ajmer; NH14 to Pali via Sojat; NH65 to Jodhpur; SH to Pokharan via Balesar and Dechhu; NH15 to Jaisalmer via Odania and Chandan; district road to Sam Village (Desert NP) via Dedha
When to go: Open throughout the year, but the ideal time to visit is from Oct to Feb. At this time, the maximum temperature is 20º C and the minimum around 6º C. Light woollen clothing is best
Go there for Great Indian Bustard, desert fox, chinkara, desert cat
About the Author
Amit Mahajan started his career as a journeyman engineer, making journeys on engineering pretexts. These days he practices reflexology. Travelling has persisted as a primary urge.