Scream if you wanna go faster...
The day started promisingly clear for our boat trip on the Chambal river. The big species to see was the Ganges River Dolphin, another one which probably won't be around for much longer - the Yangtze River Dolphin is already sadly gone for good. We are however, now being blamed by our guide for bringing the rainy weather with us from England. No sooner had we reached the village, than thunder rolled and a flash flood looked imminent. Well, okay so it wasn't quite that bad but it was enough to stop the cars driving down to the riverbank for fear of getting stuck in the mud. So out we got and walked - no bit of damp's gonna stop us, we're British don't you know!
The walk was through hilly scrubland - where Bollywood movie 'Bandit Q' was film apparently - and made for a pleasant stroll. I'm glad I wasn't the one lugging the boat fuel down though. The hills afforded us a view of the wide flood plain on either side of the river, which was dotted with boats being mended and a group of ladies taking a bath - at least I think that was what they were doing. Their sweet singing drifted across to us as we walked and added to the morning's quiet tranquility.
I managed to complete the boat boarding manoeuvre without falling in or indeed, getting wet at all. If you know me well, you'll understand what an impressive feat this was as I seem to have an extremely hydrophilic nature. Apart from one other safari boat, the river was empty but we sincerely hoped it wasn't empty of river dolphins. Happily, there was an abundance of birdlife (including Thick-knees, Black-bellied Terns, Black Ibis and an Eurasian Eagle-owl snoozing in a tree) which the guide was adept at spotting. But the main event was harder to find.
Everyone told us it was pure luck whether we would see it or not and it depended on your eyes simply being on the right patch of water at the right moment. Unlike their marine cousins, River dolphins are blind and spend very little time on the surface so sighting opportunities are brief at the best of times. We slowly cruised up the river, scanning the water like feverished bargain hunters looking for a half price sale. The jumping fish and sinking crocodiles really didn't help matters but eventually, a glistening grey back crested the surface. With an loud and undignified whoop of joy (I was quite keen), I turned to Mark with a grin spread across my face. Argh, he hadn't seen it so we continued our search with increased vigour as we now knew they were out there. For the next half hour, we played a game of cat and mouse with both the guide and myself getting good views of the dolphins breaching but poor Mark kept, uncharacteristically, missing it. Finally he picked the right patch of water and got a decent view so with smiles all round we moved on to our next target species - the Garial crocodile.
Before we spotted this however, our guide called out and there on the bank, slinking through the bushes, was a Jungle Cat. Sightings of this nocturnal mammal are notoriously hard to get so we were very pleased with this bonus catch!
The Garial crocodile has a long thin beak instead of the usual flat snout. It does still have all the sharp, pointy teethies however, and they look particularly sharp and pointy as they poke up at all angles from the tip of it's beak. For the most part, all we saw were beady eyes and nostrils before they sank, ever so slowly, under the surface. When we did spot one basking on a sand bar with jaws agape in typical scary monster pose, it gave me the willies to think there might be one currently under our flimsy craft. Happily I can report, we made it back to land with all limbs accounted for.
Back at the lodge, we grabbed a quick lunch before setting out on the next long drive. This time to Kuchesar, a one night stop-over on the way to Corbett National Park.
I feel I should mention health & safety at some point and now seems as good a time as ever. I, of course, knew there wouldn't be the same paranoid level of H&S encountered at home and was quite looking forward to the freedom this would bring. If I wanted to pat the tiger as it walked past the jeep, I understood that any injuries sustained were my own look out.
Where else would you see a moped being driven by a man in flip-flops, carrying a woman sitting side-saddle with a sleeping babe in her arms and a young kid balanced on the fuel tank? You could argue that, done with care, this was okay. However, if you add in that at the same time they are being overtaken by an overloaded rusty truck carrying 20 odd tons of wobbling bricks, over a speed bump and wearing no helmets, perhaps a rule here and there, might be a good idea.
Unsurprisingly, we've passed several crashes whilst here, although not as many as I'd have thought (also saw an elephant/bus crash - NB elephant not harmed). I've pretty much got used to the driving style by now and barely bat an eyelid as we pass within a whisker of yet another bus. Night time driving however, is a whole different kettle of fish. Some may describe it as 'exciting' or even 'exhilarating' but I think 'mind numbingly terrifying' better fits the bill.
You see, not only do you have all the normal daylight obstacles (e.g. aimless cows, moon craters, small children with camels) but you now get to traverse them without the luxury of actually seeing them. Street lights are rare and although some vehicles have headlights, many don't (elephants definitely don't due to wiring difficulties). Those that do, have them on full beam permanently so night vision is non-existent. The really 'fun' bit though is guessing what kind of vehicle is heading full pelt towards you. Don't, whatever you do, rely on the number of lights - it could be a tuktuk overtaking a truck with one light, or two trucks with one light each, or an elephant, a bike and a bus with one light between them. Trust me, the combinations are endless and very often surprising. Hence, the long, dark, insanely bumpy drive to Kushesar was fairly interesting but mostly terrifying.
It was a shame that we did not get to see our hotel (the oddly named, Mud Fort) in the light as not only was it dark when we eventually arrived, it was also dark when we left. It was a heritage property with a history that went back before the British colonialists pinched it off the locals. Turned out we were the only guests that night so we were waited on like royalty which was nice if a bit weird. The huge bathroom had a slight institutional feel to it as if we should be getting hosed down and the pillows were rectangles of solid sponge, but after the evening's drive of a lifetime (and an uber early start in the morning again), I really didn't care at that point.