The Chambal

By: Sumit Chakraborty
The Chambal National Park is a rare, unspoilt place off the tourist circuit where you can enjoy the sight of the Indian gharial, and flocks of Indian skimmer in their natural habitat.

‘Aap Calcutta se Chakraborty sahib hai?’ I nodded in affirmation, to be issued a command ‘Chaliye, hume Bhaiji ne bheja hai,’. Before I could ascertain the whys and wherefores of this ‘Bhaiji’, the broad-shouldered young fellow hauled up my camera bag, while his assistant lugged my heavy rucksack and strode right ahead. I had no option but to trot obediently behind them to the SUV parked across the road. A perfunctory instruction to the driver for destination ‘circuit house’ was given. In 10 minutes’ time, the vehicle entered a huge compound where I was instructed to wait in the lobby, while the team proceeded to select the best room. My luggage was finally dropped in a huge suite that could easily accommodate an entire badminton court. Alongside the ceiling fan, a big handmade ‘pankha’, a legacy of the Raj, adorned the room. This earnest effort to maintain a ‘period’ flavour elicited mixed feelings within me about whether to enjoy the ambience or berate the servitude.

I had left Bharatpur, Rajasthan, at break of dawn under a thick veil of fog, with the intention of clicking the gharial and Indian Skimmer in their natural habitat at the Chambal National Park, 125 kms away, but the weather made it difficult to even read my own wristwatch.

Of course memories of Chambal’s notorious past made me apprehensive, my expensive camera and photographic equipment could well be in danger, I thought.  I dialled an old acquaintance, a senior forest official who had once served in the Chambal, who assured me that the region was safe and informed me that unlike many other rivers in India, the Chambal continued to be relatively pollution free. Thus reassured, I decided to set out for Dholpur, a well-connected town, which would serve as my base for touring Chambal National Park, roughly 50 km away.

I lay on the king sized bed in the circuit house, my mind racing back to the morning and the anxieties about being kidnapped, when I  found my two ‘abductors’ peeping in. Once beckoned they gingerly stepped into the room and clarified that my senior forester friend had requested one of his old acquaintances to help me on my trip.  This was the ‘Bhaiji’ they were referring to!

After an early lunch, I left the circuit house in a lighter mood. Amit, the person-in-charge who had received me at the Dholpur bus stand, gradually opened up as we drove. At just 26 years of age he was in charge of the administration of three polytechnics, an engineering college and five schools, all a part of his family business. He was into active politics as well and was striving to prominently place Dholpur in the tourism map with its rich historical heritage, Rajput architectural marvels and spiritual sites.

In the meantime, we had crossed the Chambal (river) and entered Morena district in Madhya Pradesh. Descending from the bridge we turned left, driving carefully on a sandy track. Amit parked the car opposite the forest camp—miniature versions of circus tents, fastened with ropes. As we moved towards the River for our boat safari, Siyaram, the guide-cum-boatman handling our 4-seater speedboat, greeted us with a happy smile. He informed me that there were no skimmers sighted in the last 3-4 days. Alongside the jetty, a gigantic pipeline was withdrawing river water for supplying to Dholpur town. A few ruddyshel ducks were swimming about. They allowed us decent proximity, which allowed me to capture excellent frames. Moving ahead, we found a baby gharial perched on its mother’s back, basking in the sun on a small islet. I sighted several mixed flock of river lapwing, Egyptian vultures, three different varieties of kingfisher, the Asian soft shell turtle, black winged stilts, spoonbill, river tern, lapwings and ruddyshel ducks enjoying the morning sun and feasting in delight. Gangetic dolphin sprung out of water several times, both in front and behind our boat; but the leaps were so sudden that I could hardly aim my camera at them in time and manage a shot. Seeing my interest in the creatures, Siyaram drove the boat in a zigzag pattern and resultant turbulence saw the dolphins leap up at least ten times in number, all around us. But the glimpses were momentary, and partial. I still couldn’t manage a single shot of an entire dolphin.

Back to shore, we drove down to a hilltop fort that lent us a mesmerizing view of the Chambal valley. The red, barren soil, stony hillocks eroded into undulating ravines looked unworldly under the setting sun. As I busied myself to capturing the landscape, I imagined how it would be to face a dark moustached dacoit galloping through the ravines with a red ‘tilak’ besmeared on his forehead. In a few hours, as the daylight dimmed, I headed back and tucked myself into a comfortable bed, retiring for the day.

A lazy morning was followed by a post-lunch sojourn to the Morena Gharial breeding centre, where I met experts who had dedicated their lives to the conservation of the gharial. Moving from there to the jetty, we found Amit’s brother Naveen and a few of his college mates waiting for us. This time, we opted for a 12 seater speedboat for our safari. I was anxious, as I had failed to encounter a single skimmer so far. Siyaram tried to cheer me, ‘aaj dikhayenge Sir aapko Skimmer’ and added that a flock of around 20 skimmers that had been seen a few minutes ago, which I had a fair chance of encountering.

True to his word, I managed to get an eyeful of the elusive Indian skimmer. There were 26 birds in the flock, enjoying an afternoon siesta. Siyaram switched off the engine and silently cruised as close as possible. As soon as the sun softened, the birds stirred into activity. Flapping their wings, they ‘skimmed’ the waters in their unique style, giving me ample opportunity to record a great deal of bird activity, making my safari memorable—one that I would most definitely want to repeat.

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