|Final Statistics: Alex & Maz||Total distance: 93,550km|
|Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ||Now settled in Sydney, Australia|
|Final Statistics: Martin||Total distance: 79,698km|
|Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia||Now settled in Bristol, UK|
Santa's helper eventually finds us
India, Country 15, Diary entry 28th Dec 2005 - 4th Jan 2006, Total distance in India: 7064 KM
Next in our series of guest writers is Damien (Maz's brother) who came out to join us for a 3 week 'holiday' just after Christmas.
So, off to India for a nice relaxing 3 week holiday with Maz, Alex and Martin. I’m not sure if I actually expected this, but I knew it would be interesting and I was sure it would be different to anything that I had seen before, never having ventured out of Europe/North America previously. I certainly didn’t expect what I saw.
On walking out of the airport terminal I was obviously new tourist blood and within seconds was surrounded by many people offering me taxis or hotels, and asking me questions about where I was staying. When they realized I wasn’t going to get into their car they soon moved on to the next potential victim coming out of the airport. After a few minutes Maz and Alex arrived, soon followed by martin, and took me to the car. Martins’ brother was arriving a few hours after me so we went to get some breakfast at a little café whilst we waited. The guys went up and ordered some food. They thought they had ordered omelettes, but told me to expect them Indian style – with chillies. Sure enough they did! The man came round to clear the table. Apparently this consisted of picking up everything from the table and throwing it over the wall into what used to be a stream, but now was just a floating mass of old paper plates and cups. Richard arrived and we set off for the centre of Delhi.
Entering the centre of Delhi was quite a scary experience, mainly due to the driving. None of the cars seemed to have wing mirrors, and those that did had them folded in. Everyone drove like maniacs. There was no apparent system to how the traffic was flowing. You could go anywhere as long as you were beeping your horn as much as possible. There also seemed to be a hierarchy of the vehicles; Lorries > buses > 4X4’s > cars > rickshaws, and anything was allowed to take on a pedestrian who strayed onto the road. We attempted to find some accommodation for the next couple of days. The 1st place we stopped at wasn’t very nice. I didn’t see it myself as I was left looking after the cars, but apparently the mattress was crawling into the corner by itself! We carried on looking, found a suitable room in Connaught place and unpacked our stuff.
Deciding not to let such things as jet-lag steal a day from us, we had a quick latte at Costa coffee (which the others were desperate for, having not had one weeks) before setting off for the red fort. We travelled there by rickshaw, quite an experience, almost being knocked off the road by everything near you whilst travelling in a small tin can. Seeing life on the streets of the city was quite a shock. There was so much poverty: people begging everywhere; what looked like dead bodies in the roads (however I think they were just sleeping); children living on the streets with nothing more that a bit of cardboard to keep them warm, and apparently any type of wall is a public toilet.
We had a guided tour round the fort. It’s an impressive structure with sandstone walls extending for 2km, but its whole history seemed to relate back to the fact that it was amazing till the British came and stole all the precious stones (now part of the crown jewels) and turned it into an army base. The British colonial era was very obvious around the fort, with beautiful red stone buildings flanked by grim looking concrete water towers that we, the British thought would fit in nicely. After the fort we went for a wander round the city and for some food and a drink. I’m not sure if everyone was celebrating Richard and I arriving, or merely that they could drink again legally for the first time in a few months, but we managed to sink several pitchers of kingfisher beer (surely the best way to recover from a long flight) before retiring for a semi-comatosed nights sleep.
The next day we left Richard and Martin to their devices and we had a good look round Delhi. Jumping into a rickshaw (I was getting very familiar with this form of transport now) we headed for Humanyun’s tomb. From the outside it’s quite an impressive example of Mughal architecture, surrounded by well kept gardens and walls, but the tombs inside are quite rundown now. We then managed to flag down another rickshaw to take us to India gate. A tall, stone memorial that bears the names of 85,000 Indian army soldiers who died in the campaigns of WWI, the Northwest Frontier operations of the same time and the 1919 Afghan fiasco. We had a walk round and watched the guards before bartering for another tin can to take us down Rajpath to the President’s House, a palace-like building with a blend of Mughal & Western architectural styles.
We then headed for Old Delhi – this in itself was quite a different experience. We visited Jama Masjid, the great mosque of Old Delhi. The first mosque I’d ever been in and it was pretty impressive. You ascend a broad flight of steps leading to the imposing gateway, where we then had to leave our shoes before entering the expansive courtyard. We climbed one of the minarets (Maz was only allowed because we accompanied her) to be rewarded by superb views of the city and Red Fort.
Back to the streets which were very much a slum and so dirty compared to the new city, but this is part of the attraction I guess. After wandering round and getting lost taking in the sites, sounds and smells of the small lanes, we managed to find our way back to the main road and head back for dinner with Martin and Richard.
The next day, Martin & Richard headed off to Agra before us, as Alex had to apply for a new passport as he’d used most of the pages in his current one. After a tiring, long drive, missing cows, pedestrians, rickshaws and the occasional car, we caught them up in the hotel they’d found and then ventured the streets to find some food, leaving Martin behind feeling ill. Agra must be the most disgusting cities that I’d seen yet with litter and sewage everywhere I looked. Cows still roaming freely, they ate anything they could find including the plastic bags flying around.
The Taj Mahal was next on the list and after bartering a good price for the guide (Maz works her magic again) we spent the morning wandering round the huge, ornate white marbled structure surrounded by neatly manicured gardens. It is as impressive as the guidebooks say! With it being New Years Eve, we booked a place at a restaurant which was cooking a set meal – all the restaurants brag about having great rooftop views of the Taj so we went to check it out. The view was good, so were looking forward to bringing in the New Year overlooking the Taj, not many people can say they’ve done that. What we hadn’t factored in was the Taj is not lit up at night…. D’oh! It was a bit of a different night to how I would usually spend it, especially as the restaurant ran out of beer at 11.45pm!!! But we had a good night and with such little beer inside us, felt great the next morning for the drive to Ranthambore National Park.
Martin chose the short straw and had to get up at 5am to organise the tickets, as you couldn’t pre-book. Typical Indian style! At 6.30am wearing hats, gloves and warm jackets we boarded our ‘canter’, a 21-seater open top bus with anticipation of seeing a tiger. Unfortunately, after 3 hours of searching the great tiger remained elusive. At this point, the group decided to split and after lunch we said our goodbyes.
Once Martin and Richard set off, we attempted to get tickets for the afternoon safari. The process was no easier then what martin had described earlier. It mainly consisted of crowding round a man sat at the table, who was randomly writing down names on a list. Alex had drawn the short straw and so was attempting to get our names on one of the lists. I was pleased it was him rather than me, as I believed he was far more accustomed to this sort of random process than I was. He eventually managed to get our names on a list, then a different list and then a list all to ourselves, which was semi-worrying as to whether we would actually be going at all. We were assured that everything was ok. We went out the front of the car park to wait for our bus. We were allocated bus 7, which was of no real use as none of the buses seemed to have numbers on them. A bus eventually arrived about 30mins late which had a 7 contained somewhere on the number plate, so we jumped on, and didn’t get thrown off, so we assumed it was correct. Then round the other hotels to pick up the other tiger hunters.
When we got into the park it was obvious that the driver was not as good as the morning man, and we didn’t appear to have a guide to try and spot animals for us which was disappointing. The driver seemed unwilling to stop for any animals, or for anyone to take photographs. Everyone was getting fairly annoyed, to the point when Alex went up and asked the driver to slow down. His comments seemed to have a slight effect for a little while, with the driver occasionally slowing down for wildlife, and at one point stopping so we could take some photos. There was a similar array of animals as there was in the morning: deer, peacocks and blue-bull antelope type animals. We even found a baby crocodile on the banks of the lake. Just as Alex was about to take a photograph with one of his many zoom camera lenses, the driver suddenly jerked the bus back into gear and started to drive off. We were all very unimpressed, until we realized why he had driven off…….
Just round the corner a jeep had pulled off to the side of the road with its occupants staring intently into the woods. As we approached the driver of their vehicle was making frantic gestures for us to slow down and be quiet. We pulled off the road and looked in the direction the others were staring. At first we couldn’t see anything, and thought we were staring more in hope than expectation. Then movement! Not enough to define what we were looking at, but enough to know something was there. The monkeys were going mad, screeching at the top of their voices and jumping from tree to tree in agitation. Slowly but surely, the outline of a tiger appeared. I don’t think any of us were truly expecting to see one. Not only because of the fact that the park is over 1000 km2 with only 41 tigers, but also due to the skills, or lack thereof, of our driver. The tiger slowly emerged from the woods and approached the river which separated it from us. It didn’t seem to be flustered at all by the fact that there were two car loads of people watching it intently from the other side of the river. The creature started to walk along the bank of the river for about 10 mins, occasionally disappearing back into the woods, but then reappearing a little further down the riverbed. Soon it reached a head of land from where it had nowhere further to go. We all expected it to disappear back into the woods but it didn’t. Instead the tiger just sat down by the bank of the river. It was just as if it was posing for pictures, doing occasional long yawns so we could see its menacing teeth (maybe just to leave us in no doubt that if it so desired, it could easily rip us all apart!).
After the 5min photo shoot, the tiger decided it had had enough. It got up and started to look around for where to go next. To our surprise, the tiger started to cross the river towards us. I think it was one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. This great animal not trying to get away, but actually coming nearer. But it was the manner in which it did it which was truly spectacular. The tiger seemed to be afraid of the water, or at least didn’t want to get its’ feet wet. It was slowly hopping from stone to stone, very carefully planning its next move. It negotiated the river and did indeed stay dry. Then it continued on its journey towards us. People on the bus were starting to get slightly nervous now, as the tiger could have been no more than 20 metres away, and the bus only offered minimal protection if our friendly tiger did decide to attack. The tiger continued to get closer until it eventually passes within about 5m of the front of the bus. Then, the tiger gave a small roar towards the jeep opposite us, and disappeared back into the woods. All in all we had 45minutes of watching this amazing creature in its environment and it was incredible to see.
We continued on the safari through the dust tracks of the park, although most people were not taking much in as we were still all far too excited about our tiger encounter. It was starting to get dark, and we passed a waterhole where all the animals from the jungle were starting to gather for the evening. Quite an impressive sight. Then, another call on the radio. More tigers spotted near by. The driver set off trying to get to the location. There was indeed another tiger, but it was only visible for about 30 secs before it disappeared. People on some of the other buses were getting quite excited, but it was nothing really compared to what we had already seen! We started to drive towards the exit of the park when we once again found buses parked at the side of the road. There was a tiger in the woods somewhere, but it was hardly visible, and we were all far to blasé about the fact that it was our third tiger and that there wasn’t much point hanging round trying to see an outline in the woods, so back to home we went for a quiet tiger hunters celebration meal.
The next day we set off in the direction of Jaisalmer. We were fully aware that we wouldn’t get there in one days driving, but didn’t want to stop en-route at the big cities, as we would have to come back through them on our return from the desert anyway. We did however stop for some “drive through” tourism (as Alex described it) in Jaipur, and that was exactly what it was. We drove thought the city, stopped the car in the middle of the main road (which only caused slightly more chaos than was usual in city centres round here), took a few photos of a nice looking building and then off to the amber palace for some sightseeing.
We arrived by the palace and started the ascent upwards. It wasn’t particularly far, but the path was fairly steep so it took a little while. We crossed another path with the occasional elephant coming up it. Realising that there were elephant rides to the palace, we decided to go down the hill again, even though we had almost reached the top. We found the stand at the bottom and enquired about a ride. To our surprise we were told we couldn’t get a ride for over an hour. Why? Because there weren’t enough elephants? Because demand was too high? No, because the elephants were on their lunch break! So, off we set walking back up the hill again to finally arrive at the palace.
After we left the palace we continued on our journey and went to find my first nights proper bush camping. It was quite an experience. We found a track leading off the road and followed it until we found somewhere that looked semi-sheltered to camp. It looked fairly isolated, but within 20mins some locals had found us and were chatting with Alex. They didn’t speak much English, and I couldn’t really understand them. This was possibly a good thing as it transpired that they were saying something about guns. Did they think we had guns or were hunters? Were they going to shoot us if we didn’t move? Who knows, but it made me a little nervous. We set up camp and cooked an evening meal of (out of date) tortellini. My first none curry meal since I’d arrived. Not that I don’t like the curries, but it was quite nice for a change. We had a quiet night round the open fire then went to bed, although I’m not sure the roof top tents were designed for 3 - it was quite cosy. We rose fairly early in the morning, packed up camp (to an audience of what seemed to be a whole village of gawpers) and set off on the road for the desert……
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