Posted on Monday, March 28th, 2005
The exotic Equitours horseback riding safari in India is one of my all time favorites and I am so pleased to be returning now for the 8th time with a group of old clients. 15 years ago I went for the first time and there were plenty of bugs in the beginning. We got lost and arrived in camp after midnight one night and the horses were not appropriate, but I could see the tremendous potential this country has for vacations on horseback. The ancient culture, which long predates that of Europe, has a rich complexity very different from our own. The architecture is some of the most beautiful in the world and enormous castles and palaces dwarf those of Europe. The world’s largest democracy with over a billion people is finally shaking loose from the enterprise killing socialism which bound it for decades and is now going through a period of rapid economic expansion of 7% or so a year. If that continues, it will soon make India an important player on the world stage. As one begins to understand the tremendous size and potential strength of the country it seems incredible that the British could have dominated the subcontinent for so many years. Of course the reason is that tiny Britain could only accomplish it because when they arrived India had fallen into a chaotic state of division which allowed the British to play one group against another. Two centuries earlier a united India would have been many times more powerful than Great Britain.
This riding vacation was timed to coincide with the Nagaur Camel Fair where 20 or 30 thousand camels are brought from hundreds of miles around for sale each year. This is not a tourist event like the Pushkar Fair and very few foreigners ever visit it, so that only camping accommodations are available. Here is our itinerary day by day:
Day 1 – My wife, Mel, and I arrived in Delhi after an overnight flight from London to be met by Arun, who has masterminded these trips from the start, at the airport and taken to the sumptuous Imperial Hotel. It is certainly one of the best hotels in the world with superb service, classy restaurants, luxurious rooms and a pervasive charm which takes one back to the glory days of the Raj. The buffets often have 50 or 60 choices of different kinds of food, both Indian and European. For those who prefer European food there is also an excellent Italian restaurant. There is a broad choice of shops nearby and our guests spend far more on shopping in India than on any other trip we handle. We spent the rest of the morning resting and the afternoon checking out the stalls and shops near the hotel. Most of the other guests had arrived in time to join us for cocktails and a fabulous dinner.
Day 2 – In the morning, after a delicious breakfast with many dishes available including fresh juices and fruits as well as omelets cooked to order, we had a tour of some of the highlights of Old and New Delhi seeing the magnificent sandstone government buildings, built almost a century ago and the 14th century Jamaat-Khana Mosque. The afternoon was given over to visiting the impressive Mausoleum to Humayun (1565), a precursor to the exquisite Taj Mahal, and then on to a carpet store with a huge choice of different items where they gave us detailed explanations of how they were made and the significance of the designs which are often tribal in origin and go back thousands of years. Few of our group left there without having at least one rug shipped home. That evening we made our way to the railway station to board the overnight train for Bikaner, an ancient town on an oasis in the Thar Desert, which is an overnight trip to the southwest near the border with Pakistan. With the help of nearly a dozen turbaned porters we made our way through crowds at the station to our sleeping compartments where we had a picnic dinner as the train rumbled southwest into the night. The seats folded out and we had comfortable beds so that most of us slept well through the night until we arrived at Bikaner.
Day 3 – Early next morning we pulled into Bikaner and went to our rooms in the Maharjah’s magnificent red sandstone palace now converted to a lovely hotel. After cleaning up and having breakfast we headed out to visit the old maharajah’s palace which has now been turned into a museum. This desert city was a major trading center on the old caravan route from central Asia to ports on the Indian coast. After lunch we toured the Government camel farm where different types of camels are raised and their breeding and training is studied. These amazing animals which can go for days and even weeks without food and water carrying huge loads are still used by the army to patrol the long border where it runs across desert areas for hundreds of miles. There used to be extensive smuggling of opium and other contraband across this sparsely inhabited desert. There was just time for a quick visit to the miniature painting school where some beautiful work is being done in the old style. Dinner at the palace again presented us with a broad range of food buffet style or a la carte. I greatly appreciated the chance to savor the Indian dishes lamb biryani and chicken tika so different from European cuisine.
Day 4 – That morning we were excited to be heading out toward Nagaur to meet our horses and begin the ride and we left by car soon after breakfast. The famous rat temple of Karniji at Deshok was en route so we stopped to pay a quick visit to this unique shrine. It is home to hundreds of rats which are considered sacred in the temple where they are fed and cared for. They run harmlessly about under foot unmolested and the place is a manifestation of the Hindu belief in tolerance for all God’s creatures.
We arrived at camp near Nagaur in time for lunch. There we were greeted by Kr. Raghavendra Singh Dundlod known as Bonnie, our guide and host, who owns the horses, accompanying vehicles and camping gear. He has been guiding our trips for 15 years and runs one of the best organized rides we have around the world. He belongs to an aristocratic family of Rajputs and has his own palace/castle in another part of Rajasthan at Dundlod. Our roomy tents were pitched in a semicircle facing the cook wagons and tents for the staff of about 30 people to look after us and the horses. In between was a dining table and chairs where we would sit for meals. The horses were picketed nearby and a toilet trailer with a shower room was behind our tents. This is the kind of thing we cannot provide in a wilderness pack trip from our own Wyoming dude ranch. A cold wind had begun to sweep down from the Himalayas to the north and the sand was starting to blow so we took shelter in the dining tent to eat a delicious lunch. After a short rest we were introduced to our horses and mounted up for a ride to the fair which was about four miles away. Unfortunately the wind was still blowing hard so we had to wear warm jackets and Bonnie tried to avoid going directly into the wind which the horses did not like. When we arrived on the edge of the fair grounds there were camels everywhere as far as the eye could see. Narrow lanes were left open between squares where the camels were picketed and where their owners camped which was often under their carts. Some of our horses were not entirely comfortable with such close proximity to these large animals, but the camels were usually unperturbed. We made a quick tour of one end of the fair and then headed out of town to put our horses through their paces. The sandy tracks and flat country were ideal for some fast canters and we stayed out for a few hours getting used to our mounts before returning to camp for cocktails and dinner. While we ate we pulled up our chairs around a blazing fire. Happily the wind had gone down, but we were glad to have the warmth of the fire as we ate. That night we all slept soundly in comfortable beds in our own spacious tents although it did get down to freezing temperature before morning and we bundled ourselves up in a good supply of sleeping bags and blankets. It can be cold sometimes in the desert.
Day 5 – The day dawned clear and much warmer as the cold snap had passed. After breakfast we headed to the fair by jeep so that we could visit it on foot to get a closer look at the camels, cattle and horses. There were also tents set up in some alleys where tack, cooking utensils, clothing, spices and many other things were for sale. People had come from all over Rajasthan to attend this sale and it is the biggest event in the area. Camels have played a large part in the economy for thousands of years and there seem to be more of them than ever despite the advent of tractors and cars which are beyond the reach of most people. Camels sell for $300 to $3,000 and live for years. They seem to keep well on things like tree branches, leaves and straw and are extremely well adapted to this desert country. The owners obviously care very much for their animals and many of them are clipped in patterns and have their faces painted.That afternoon we headed out again on horseback in another direction and again we had some good gallops side by side across the near desert landscape. We passed a gypsy encampment some distance from the town. Apparently they are not allowed to make their camps too close to town because of their reputation for stealing. We returned to camp as the huge red orb of the sun was setting in the west. One can look straight at it as it drops near the horizon because the light is so filtered by haze and dust.
Day 6 – In the morning we packed up and the staff broke camp as we mounted and headed north toward Kaku, a two day ride away. By this time our guests had become accustomed to the Marwari horses with the ears that curve inward at the top. They used to be war horses, averaging about 15 hands and are bold and exotic. We were all happy with the way they were performing and grew to appreciate them more and more as the trip went on. We were impressed with their endurance because after galloping for 7 or 8 minutes they weren’t even breathing very hard. Bonnie has been using them with his team for endurance races against the Indian Army Cavalry with considerable success.We rode along that day through gently rolling hills, sometimes following camel paths and sometimes just cutting across the fields. This was semi desert and I doubt that American farmers would have even tried to grow crops here, but in India the people have learned over the years to carve out an existence in this austere climate. The only time there is much rain is May and June when the monsoons usually come and if they fail there is starvation. Thus despite the temperate climate there can be only one crop a year, mainly millet and wheat.After three or four hours of riding we stopped for lunch at a little oasis beside a small temple where banyan trees gave us shade. The grooms came forward to hold our horses and lead them away to water and eat during the lunch break. The jeeps had already set up a table and chairs for us. Cold drinks and beer were in the cooler. The staff had spread out a carpet and sleeping mats. A group of women in colorful saris stood quietly watching us. The buffet table was set and 8 or 10 different dishes were offered. We ate our lunch in the shade and then some of us took a short siesta before mounting up again. It is hard to imagine better service anywhere and even our horseback riding safari in Kenya, which is excellent, falls a little short of India.
Day 7 – Another beautiful day with little wind dawned and after a breakfast of omelets, toast, cereal, fruit, coffee and tea we mounted up again and started out for the town of Kaku about 35 kms. away. Trees and grass are sparse today and the wind and shifting sand have created spectacular dunes here and there which tower above the plain. We sometimes had a marvelous view of the surrounding countryside as we went over the tops of dunes. Today we encountered many of the elusive desert foxes and enjoyed watching them as they zigzagged away from us. We passed a few villages and remote farms despite the austerity of the landscape. Camels are well adapted to the conditions and they are prized animals here. One of the main sources of camel food is the kedjeree tree which has roots going down up to 100 ft. and is one of the few things to grow well. The branches of this thorny tree are pruned and for the camels and goats. These amazing trees also have a bean which is a high protein food for humans.
Day 8 – We headed out for Tantwas village for another camp in the desert. We often sighted the wild chinkara gazelles which survive well in the desert. They are beautiful and graceful animals which treated us more with curiosity than fear. Bonnie was in frequent radio communication with the jeeps which usually were able to stay within a mile or so of the riders without being obtrusive in case we needed anything. The trucks meanwhile had gone on ahead to pitch the evening camp for us. On this day the jeeps had some trouble getting through the sand in places and the staff sometimes had to get out and push. Horses and camels really work better in this country. Once we tried to hire a camel so that we could take turns trying a ride, but the camel we picked turned out to be pretty unmanageable and after one of our party had a rather hairy ride the rest of us declined.Our camp for the night was near an isolated village where the head man greeted us with warm hospitality. He was a picturesque fellow with a patch on one eye and a shotgun slung over his shoulder. Bonnie told us that in his younger days he had been active in smuggling across the border from Pakistan.
Day 9 – By this time we are all getting into the rhythm of life on the trail and it seemed to me in a way as though we had been traveling like this for ages. Horse and rider were accustomed to one another and the routines of camp were familiar now. Concerns from a busy life at home had been forgotten or faded into a better perspective. Living like a nomad on horseback for a time certainly has an undeniable appeal, especially under these ideal conditions.Near here on a previous trip we had come across an isolated farm where the whole family was weaving a beautiful rug which was nearly finished. Their ancestors must have used much the same techniques for centuries. They said it had taken them nearly a year. We tried to buy it, but they said they could not sell because the materials had come from traders in Jodhpur who would no doubt make a large profit. That night our colorful tents were at the base of a large sand dune which looked especially picturesque as we rode up. I greatly enjoyed quenching my thirst with a bottle of the excellent local Kingfisher beer.
Day 10 – On our last day of riding we headed out for Khimsar. We rode through small villages and farms and had more splendid gallops with our standard bearer as always carrying the flag of Dundlod fluttering proudly from the pole he supported on his boot. We passed through a reserve dedicated to the beautiful and rare Black Buck Antelope and pushed on for a late lunch at Khimsar where centuries ago a dream castle/palace was built on the edge of an oasis. Today it has been restored as a luxurious hotel with a lovely swimming pool, sauna and the traditional Ayurvedic massage. The shower trailer on the ride had been adequate to keep us clean, but we all luxuriated in the bathrooms attached to our attractive rooms in the hotel. The outside walls still show the scars of ancient battles and the place would be an ideal movie set. Regretfully we said goodbye to Bonnie who was off early the next morning with his horses and grooms to compete against the Indian cavalry in an endurance race and we all slept the healthy sleep of those who have had plenty of exercise and clear desert air.
Day 11 – In the morning we are off by bus on the four hour journey across the desert toward Jaisalmer which towers far above the surrounding desert like “a mirage of golden stone”. It reminds me of Carcassonne in southern France though it is far larger. I know no other city in the world which invokes such a feeling of exotic magic unless it might be Machu Pichu. Its long history of triumph and tragedy, full of heroic deeds and passionate romance, lives up to its outward appearance. This citadel is perched on a vast outcropping of rock which makes the fortress nearly impregnable. Massive walls enhance the natural defenses of this fabulous city which is over a thousand years old. Its position on the spice route gave it a rich source of revenue for centuries by levying taxes on the vast camel caravans coming from as far as central Asia. The wealth of the city faded somewhat in the 18th century as Bombay (now called Mumbai) began to develop as a sea port.
Rivalries with neighboring cities like Bikaner and Jodhpur caused frequent warfare. Legend has it that in the 13th century after a siege of seven years the residents realized that the situation was hopeless and instead of surrendering they primed themselves with opium, killed their women and children and sallied forth to sell their lives as dearly as possible.We arrived in time to see a camel display put on by the Border Security Forces of the army which involved 50 or 60 magnificent camels doing complicated maneuvers in a huge arena. These animals can carry a small arsenal and are trained to lie down on command so as to form a barricade for their riders to protect them from enemy bullets.
Day 12 – A day is a short time to take in the elaborate architecture and the intricate stone work of this fairy book city. The trouble is that one’s capacity to absorb is limited and it is difficult to take in so much in a short time. The stone work on the facades of the havelis (dwellings for the families of the rich) is incredibly intricate. The affluent Jain merchants built many of these havelis where dozens or even hundreds of family members and servants were housed. The Jains also built a series of temples full of painstakingly carved stone figures which cannot fail to impress the viewer. The effect is somewhat claustrophobic as the figures seemed to press in on us as we passed in narrow passages. In keeping with their respect for all kinds of living creatures (they are vegetarians and do not use leather), we had to remove our shoes and belts before entering the complex.
The shops in this town contain fascinating treasures including jewelry with many kinds of semiprecious stones set with great artistry. Textiles of all kinds from cashmere shawls to ethnic bedspreads are appealingly displayed in a setting as stimulating to the imagination as the most fascinating tales from the Arabian Nights.
Day 13 – The next morning we were up early to drive to Jodhpur which was the former capital of Marwar State and the second largest city of Rajasthan. Our home in Jodhpur is the palace belonging to the royal family. This is a fine specimen of Rajput architecture made from red sandstone and surrounded by extensive, lush gardens which is really a botanical park. We slept in the palace in beautifully decorated bedrooms above the 13th century artificial lake which makes a superb setting and we felt as though we were being treated like royalty. We visited some of the glorious monument of Jodhpur’s illustrious past, Mehrangarh Fort, which is on a hill 400 ft. above the city. Inside the fort one can see exquisite lattice work in stone. Some rooms inside the palace have been turned into museums where one can see the emblems of a bygone age like miniature paintings, palanquins, howdahs, arms and personal heirlooms. The view of the town and the surrounding country from the walls of the fort is breathtaking.
Day 14 – We took the early morning train for Jaipur and arrived at the comfortable Raj Palace Hotel (still owned by the royal family) for lunch before visiting the city in the afternoon. This walled city is known as the “Pink City” because of the beautiful red stone used for many of its largest buildings. Houses with red lattice stonework line many of the streets and the effect is very striking, especially at sunset. Rugged hills surround the town and many of them are crowned by fortresses used to help protect the city against attack. The town contains many noteworthy sites including the Maharaja’s palace with its gardens and museum. Jaipur’s craftsmen are renowned for their gem stones, brass inlay work, lacquer work and printing on muslin among many other accomplishments.
I must confess that at this point I am starting to miss my horse and the activity of riding which I love so much. Sitting in a bus and wandering around like any tourist only goes so far with me. The exercise and excitement which come from travel on horseback with some sight seeing mixed in is the ideal combination. Travel on horseback off the beaten tourist path is how I like to spend most of my time and it is the best way to see the true heart of the country.
Day 15 – The next morning we left by bus to see the Amber Fort and then to continue to Agra and the Taj Mahal. We climbed aboard elephants to go up the hill to the 17th century Amber Fort which is certainly a splendid architectural achievement. The inlay work in the stone is incredibly intricate and produces an effect which makes it seem to glow in certain lights. It is staggering to think how many hours of work from hundreds of skilled artisans went into producing this wonder. After our visit we took the bus on to Agra where we arrived for dinner.
Day – 16 Many far more talented people than I have described the stunning magnificence of the Taj Mahal and I will not waste time in attempting it. Suffice it to say that for me it is one of three places in the world which stand out above all others and arouse a feeling of awe inspiring grandeur. Machu Pichu (link to our ride in Peru), though totally different, makes me feel that way and so does that fabulous place on the escarpment of the Mara Plain where we camp on our Kenya rides (link to our ride in Kenya). This is the place they used for the picnic scene in “Out of Africa” and it has a view of the country below which stretches into Tanzania’s Serengeti. No picture can do these places justice. One has to be there. It also gives me a realization of what a tiny spec I am in the greater scheme of things.That evening we boarded the overnight train to Jabalpur and spent quite a comfortable night in the beds in our sleeping compartment while the train rumbled southeast through Asia’s vast subcontinent.
Day 17 – In the morning we climbed down from the train in Jabalpur and went to a restaurant for breakfast before mounting up in jeeps for a three hour drive over back roads to Kanha Park which many say is the finest park in Asia and probably the best place to see the fabulous Bengal tiger. We arrived in time for lunch at our attractive lodge on the edge of the park where we were greeted hospitably by the manager, Sanjiv. It was soon evident that Sanjiv cared tremendously about the preservation of this park and its wildlife with which he is very well acquainted. His encyclopedic knowledge of the amazing bird life added to our understanding and interest. The approach here is to head out on jeeps before dawn and spend a few hours in the morning driving through the park. We would then return for lunch and set off again in mid afternoon since the hours around sunrise and sunset are the best for seeing game. So that afternoon we boarded our jeeps and headed into the park for our first view of the wildlife including many species of deer and antelope as well as birds of scores of different varieties. After our drive we returned to the lodge for drinks and what I though was really splendid dinner.
Day 18 – We were up at 5:00 in the morning for a cup of tea and a drive to the park. Soon after entering we ran across a herd of gaur, or wild cattle, herds of which roam the park. These fascinating animals may not have the cachet of the tiger, but they are most impressive and weigh up to a ton. They have a short striding gait, but can move very fast and are extremely powerful. We spent that morning and afternoon exploring this wilderness area with its huge trees of many kinds and interesting topography which ranges between 1,500 and 3,000 ft. in altitude. Again we saw many kinds of deer and antelope as well as wild boar and wildcats, but nary a tiger. There must be about a hundred of the animals in the park, but it is huge and much of it is thick forest where the road is like a tunnel with tree branches above as well as on the sides. We could often see monkeys leaping from tree to tree. They are a favorite food of the leopard.
Day – 19 That morning at 5:00 I was a bit bleary eyed and almost wondered if it was really worth it to struggle into my clothes and climb into the jeep. Chances of seeing a tiger seemed rather bleak, but soon I was back in the spirit of things and enjoying watching the other animals and birds. Then Sanjiv, who was in our jeep, got a radio message that a tiger had been sighted in the bush and that we could mount an elephant and go in search of it. With alacrity we headed for a rendezvous with an elephant and four of us climbed aboard behind the mahout with the help of a wooden ladder. Then we plunged off into the bush in search of the tiger which had been spotted while courting a tigress. To our amazement, within 15 minutes our mahout had brought us within 100 ft. of the tiger who was resting on the ground. The mahout obligingly convinced the elephant to remove a small tree with his trunk which had been partially obscuring our view. The tiger remained rather unconcerned until two other elephants with other members of our group arrived on the scene. After that he got up and went down a bank into a nearby stream where he proceeded to take a bath. We were able to watch him, fascinated, for some time. That night at dinner we had plenty to talk about.
Day 20 – Next morning we were off again and enjoyed another tour of the park, but after the view of the tiger from elephant back it was a bit of an anticlimax. It was with some regret that I said goodbye to Sanjiv and his appealing lodge. I greatly respected his obvious dedication to the preservation of the park and its wildlife. I could have happily stayed on for several more days or even weeks in this place.
That evening we boarded the overnight train again for Delhi where it was another goodbye to Arun and our friends before heading back to London on the plane. I can’t wait to return to this country and I have the feeling that our friendship with India will have enormous importance to Americans in the future.