Bird Nerd Paradise with a Cultural Appetiser and a side of Tiger!
Mantra Jungles and Himalayan Foothills
By Georgina Steytler
That’s what we ordered when we first contacted Reena Tory of Mantra Wild Adventures about designing us a trip to India. I was interested in Mantra Jungles and Himalayan Foothills Tour. I am the bird nerd. My husband is a perfectly sane human being. I admit, it’s not an easy order to fill. It requires a delicate balancing of culture, nature safaris, iconic sights, lots of good food and accommodation and, of course, plenty of birds. Did she deliver? You bet.
Warning: the following may contain bird references…
The Cultural Appetiser
Our customised Mantra Jungles and Himalayan Foothills trip began in Delhi, an impressive city with over 11 million people and almost as many Black Kites wheeling around in the air above it. Old Delhi is what it says on the label: a hub of history, culture and food. Our Old Delhi food and heritage walking tour through the chaotic alleyways, overstuffed spice bags, baskets of flowers and lackadaisical dogs ended at the ‘Best Kachori in Delhi’ – the best street food I have ever tasted in my life. My tongue is still singing. Welcome to India!
Our cultural and historical forays didn’t end there. A drive through rural India is a visual feast that we devoured as we traveled from Delhi to Agra and Jaipur, and then ventured north towards the Himalayas, rounding off our three week Mantra Jungles and Himalayan Foothills journey in a luxurious mountain retreat sandwiched between moss-covered oaks and red-flowering rhododendrons.
Madan, our ever-patient driver, negotiated the carts, bicycles, winding roads, wandering cows and hungry pigs with aplomb and made sure to keep us (me) in an adequate supply of chocolate, Masala Munchies and a cup of hot Masala tea (the original ‘chai latte’).
Even for a birder like me, the Taj Mahal, the jewel of Muslim art in India, was a ‘must see’ part of our itinerary (Reena – we added this part in for Georgina!). As you turn the corner into its vast grounds, it rises up before you like a shimmering marble mirage, nesting on the river’s edge amidst swathes of greenery. The immensity of its scale and its perfect symmetry, convey a palpable sense of serenity. As you near it, you discover that the ‘sheer’ walls are each their own works of art, broad marble canvases into which have been inlaid precious and semi-precious stones in exquisite floral and geometric designs.
In contrast to the glassy glamour of the Taj Mahal, Jaipur’s Hindu styled Amer (or ‘Amber’) Fort is a rustic red sandstone hilltop palace set amongst the arid landscape of Rajasthan. The former home to the Rajput Maharajas, it is spread over 4 levels in a maze of courtyards (including one for his queens and mistresses), colonnades, ramparts and secret tunnels. One of the highlights is the Sheesh Mahal, or mirror palace, a stunning area of marble inlaid with mirror mosaics and coloured glasses designed to glitter in the candlelight.
By now our appetite had well and truly been whet with all things Indian.
Bird Nerd Paradise
After the cultural teaser, it was time to leave civilisation behind and venture into the Indian wilderness… well, not quite. Starting the day with a hot cup of coffee in bed inside your luxury tent, followed with a touch of tiger spotting and rounded off with a breakfast of fresh pomegranate, yoghurt, cereal, and/or a masala omelette can hardly be called uncivilized.
It turns out that indulging in nature in India does not mean sacrificing comfort. From Ranthambhore and Jim Corbett National Parks to Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in the lower Himalayas, we stayed in gorgeous accommodation with fantastic food and service, and the odd tiger pug mark at the front door.
Khem Villas, near Ranthambhore, is located on 25 acres of natural habitat that is an oasis of wildlife with a couple of small lakes (complete with common and pied kingfishers, moorhens, long-tailed shrikes, red-wattled lapwings and a crocodile and babies), a dense forest (with the occasional tiger, deer or leopard hanging about) and open grassland buzzing with pipits, Indian robins, silverbills and lots of other lbjs (‘little brown jobs’).
Even the hotel lobby had its share of wildlife. Apart from the greater goldenback on the palm tree out front and the civet cat living in the bamboo, CCTV showed to us by the manager, showed a leopard on one night, and an hyena on another, strolling along the outer corridors (to the horror of the pet cat).
At Jim’s Jungle Retreat near Corbett National Park, from the luxury of our own balcony, I photographed pygmy woodpeckers, sunbirds, bulbuls and hornbills as well as a troupe of grey langurs that, to my delight, and the gardeners horror, set about causing chaos amongst the pond lilies.
In fact, there are few places in the world that can match Corbett National Park for birdlife, with over 600 species recorded. To put that in perspective, that is half the bird species of India present in 500 square kilometres. Welcome to bird nerd nirvana.
As a birder, however, it was Vanghat Lodge, tucked away in a remote valley on the other side of Jim Corbett National Park, that provided the richest pickings.
Away from roads, and perched beside the Ramnagar river (which you have to cross on a raft) Vanghat Lodge offered unrivalled peace and tranquillity amongst spectacular natural surroundings. With cliffs rising high on each side, the warning calls of deers and langurs could be heard echoing down the valley, revealing the presence of a predator somewhere nearby. At night, we saw a porcupine snuffling in the grass and awoke one morning to find the tell tale signs that an elephant had spent the evening helping himself to the plants outside our bedroom door.
When not hunting wallcreepers, crested kingfishers and cute little white-capped redstarts by the river, I was busy madly photographing the incredibly beautiful slaty-headed parakeets feeding on the fruiting trees outside our room or the Himalayan rubythroat, white-headed laughingthrush, grey treepie or the exquisite little red-billed leiothrix in the garden (to name just a few).
As to the safari trips, of course, any safari has to start with the proviso that animal sightings, especially tigers, are not guaranteed. But here’s the thing. Even if you don’t see a tiger, you get to spend the best hours of the day driving around some stunning scenery. From cliffs to sweeping plains, forest ravines to pebbled streams to (in Ranthambhore) the ruins of a UNESCO declared World Heritage Site sitting high atop a mountain, the national parks were a treat of their own. Throw some wildlife into the mix, such as a leopard, jungle cat, yellow-throated martens, crested serpent eagle, the massive Brown Fish owl, griffon and red-headed vultures, mountain goats, spotted deers, Sambar deers, Indian scops owls, spotted owlets, wild boar, blue antelope, Indian Gazelle, Indian Peafowls, grey langurs, sandwich-stealing rufous treepies and a couple of sloth bears (which, it turns out, aren’t hanging from trees), and you have a recipe for traveller’s (and photographer’s) heaven.
A side of Tiger
What about the tiger I hear you ask? The answer is yes. On our last safari in Ranthambhore we were fortunate to come face to face with a magnificent male Bengal tiger. Of all the experiences on our trip, this was the most unforgettable.
You can check out the photos from our holiday at: www.wildandendangered.com.au/
Georgina and Chris Steytler travelled in India on our Mantra Jungles and Himalayan Foothills Private tour. We also customised this tour further to Georgina’s interest of birding.