Among winter destinations in India, regal Rajasthan is undoubtedly at the top of the pecking order (ok, there is one more contender). This also makes it well-trodden ground. Surprising then that it still continues to surprise. We dipped into this treasure chest and came up with gems. We took a walk deep into the heart of India’s oldest mountain range. We stayed at a fort that has stood the test of time. Jaipur, no coy mistress, spilt her secrets to our correspondent. We spotted a luxurious new train chugging through the desert and took a ride. We’re back. Now it’s your turn.
"Udaipur? For a trek? Why?” asked many a disparaging acquaintance. The one or two trekking enthusiasts whose acquaintance I enjoy think lofty thoughts of the Himalayan kind. They reserve their exertions for the high-altitude challenges offered by Garhwal or for the trans-Himalayan charm of Ladakh.
The Himalaya is steep, young, lush and within six hours of Delhi. From Delhi’s belly also emerges one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. But the humble Aravalli is considered appropriate only for physically undemanding activities like birdwatching, mining and public interest litigation. So when I was presented with the opportunity to investigate the trekking potential of the Aravalli for the greater common good, my neck wasn’t going to hesitate from sticking itself out.
This mission took me to Ghanerao, a small town in a pass in the Aravalli, between the tourism powerhouses of Udaipur and Jodhpur — for the better part of four centuries, it managed a delicate balance of power between Mewar and Marwar. Enquiries about the rawla took us to the Ghanerao Royal Castle, built in 1606 and converted to a heritage hotel 15 years ago. We settled down in a marble pavilion with the proprietor, Himmat Singh Ghanerao, and his sons, Shakti and Janmejaya, to work out a trek schedule. They offered us their best trekking guide, Udaram.
The next morning, after breakfast in the pavilion, we began our trek. We set off from an old banyan tree in the outer reaches of Desuri. Within a few yards came the wails of women from a house, a family mourning a death. We ambled along a narrow canal that looked quite old, and soon saw a new one that had been dug right next to it. The construction work displayed all the finesse characteristic of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme. A concrete embankment on a hill lay to the east of the path and farmland lay to the west. We climbed the hill to get a view of the water, and got evidence of drought.
The vegetation was mostly the resilient, ugly and invasive ganda bawal (crazy babool; Prosopis juliflora). My fellow trekker Sanjoy discovered, to his discomfort, that a plant this destructive to ecology cannot be too kind to Homo trekkus. Three thorns entered the sole of his right shoe, one managing to emerge through the insole and greet the ball of his heel. It took several minutes and the labours of two thorn extractors plus Udaram to expel the guilty party.
We were late starting out, and the sun punished us for our tardiness. A film of sweat told of stagnant air and lack of vegetation. The real reason for the discomfort, though, was the time of year: we were a month too early for an Aravalli trek. I had been looking forward to the wild berries. The ber trees had fruited but ripening was a fortnight away.
Along the path lay 15-ft cactuses, droves of butterflies, an abundance of quaint insects and reptiles — all questioning the wisdom of our choice of time and space. Inching northwards, we entered a grove; the vegetation became real and diverse, and birds began to appear. There was more moisture in the soil, the air cooler.
Soon, Udaram stopped us to point out the pugmarks of a bear. The reticent man of Garasiya extraction proved to be a keen reader of the forest. As the forest became thicker and the air got cooler, Udaram had more things to point out, more uses of plants to explain. Mid-forest, there were several spots where one could sit for a while and tune in to the acoustics of wind and vegetation, with bird chirps and monkey calls thrown in for effect. In most parts, our cellphones had signals. There were lots of text messages with Diwali greetings. I thought of the Diwali pyrotechnics I’d exchanged for this quiet, and thanked the commissioning editor.
There were stretches where the underbrush provided cushioning that Nike and Adidas cannot. Udaram, though, wore blue rubber slippers that were strangely proof against thorns, sharp-edged rocks and lack of traction. He walked with an economy of effort that showed years of negotiations with forest paths. He pointed out leopard pugmarks and the excrement of various fauna. (If you have not seen nilgai poop, let me assure you that it will make you rethink the causes of deforestation in India.)
The forest got sparser as we approached the forest rest house in Sumer towards the end of the 13km trek. Janmejaya had driven over our lunch, which we ate greedily. A short walk through a Rabari village brought us to the end of the day’s exploits. We got into the open jeep and headed for Jungle Lodge, an old hunting lodge inside the forest, set right at the edge of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. The family had given this to Shakti Ghanerao, who has developed a very comfortable lodging facility in the heart of an arboreal retreat. We had a cup of tea and went for a walk in Udaram’s village, a short walk away. In the middle of the drought, there was evidence of a decent maize crop. A village dog took a liking to us and accompanied us right up to the lodge, where we settled into garden chairs to sip cups of tea and soak in the peace.
A troop of langurs had its home in the large trees of the garden. As the sun descended, we watched them play games with the dogs. The sunset — about the time Delhi would have gone fireworks-crazy — was just perfect, with some cloud patches lending colour and texture to the sky. The forest began to smell different with the death of the light and heat.
We drove back to the castle for dinner in the hall, its walls covered with memorabilia. After dinner, Sushila Kumari, Himmat Singh’s mother, regaled us with stories of her childhood in Jodhpur and her move to Ghanerao after her marriage. We decided to return to the Jungle Lodge for the night. The drive back was in an open jeep, and the clouds had disappeared. The glittering sky owed nothing to Diwali. The temperature dropped. When we reached the lodge, we were hungry for more. So we drove into the forest with a carton of assorted beverages. At the Thandi Beri forest guesthouse, there was a group partying. Shakti drove us a little further, parking the jeep next to a stream.
For more than an hour, we sat drinking and staring at the sky, the forest dark and quiet save for the insects and the occasional langur. For once I thanked the timing of our visit, for it was getting cold. The night was every bit as good as the evening; we lay in comfortable beds, enjoying air-conditioning and a well-appointed bathroom — the seven rooms of the lodge are close to ready for the tourist season. I got up at 5am and sat outside in the hope of sighting a bear or some wild boar. Langurs were all I saw.
The next morning we were late starting out again, but Shakti decided to accompany us on the 15-odd kilometres between the lodge and Kumbhalgarh fort — through the sanctuary. It was clear from the outset this was a superior trek to the ground we had covered the previous day. We stopped at a small dam and saw a crocodile move about in the water. The forest was thick and the path well marked by jeep tracks. The air was more pleasant even at the edges than in the heart of the Sumer forest. There were hoopoes and some raptors I could not identify, and towards the upper reaches we encountered the steady sound of something hard falling on tree trunks. We tried to sight the woodpeckers but failed.
About halfway into the trek, exhaustion was creeping in and I was beginning to see sights and hear sounds that others could not. I saw a flat coil on the track — the remains of what was a snake before a jeep wheel flattened it. We reached a bifurcation in paths, where Udaram asked us to turn away from the short trek up because it was too steep for us. We refilled our bottles from a handpump above a well, discussed water purity issues, avoided Gujarati tourists on jungle safaris and began the home stretch, which was cobbled for long stretches and steep enough for us to thank Udaram for not taking us through the short cut. Maintaining a good pace, I reached the end of the climb sooner than the others, where Janmejaya waited in the jeep to drive us to the Kumbhalgarh fort for lunch and then to the castle. The ride back was nice but I did not notice much, dozing off my tiredness.
Arriving at the castle was like a homecoming. I sat outside our suite, in a lobby that overlooked an inner courtyard. There were signs of maintenance but the character and history has not been renovated out of the edifice. I climbed to the top floor, the highest point in town excepting the mobile transmission towers. The geography of the town became clear in an instant with a view of the Aravalli range and the pass. We got the balcony seat to a grand sunset, followed by dinner. We crept under clean sheets and slept like tired souls sleep at home.
Getting there: Ghanerao is accessible from either Udaipur (125km) or Jodhpur (175km), both of which have airports. A taxi from Udaipur airport charges Rs 1,400 for a trip to Ranakpur (11km from Ghanerao), after which you pay Rs 5/km. The nearest railway station is Falna (36km).
Where to stay : The Ghanerao Royal Castle has 17 rooms. During tourist season, a suite costs Rs 4,000, a double Rs 3,000, and a single Rs 2,500. Breakfast is Rs 200, lunch Rs 350 and dinner Rs 375. The Forest Lodge at the edge of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary is expected to be ready soon and will offer seven rooms. A suite here costs Rs 4,800 and a deluxe Rs 3,800. It has a gazebo and a spectacular garden, with plans on a spa. For bookings, call 02934-284035. See www.ghaneraoroyalcastle.com.
Treks: The best trek in these parts is to the Kumbhalgarh fort through the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. The treks to Ranakpur and from Desuri to Sumer are also full-day treks. They cost Rs 600 per head and include a guide and a picnic of snacks. Half-day treks like the one to the Thandi Beri forest rest house, which overlooks a dam with crocodiles, cost Rs 300 per head. This region is famous for its beautiful baodis (stepwells), which is a half-day trek. It helps to have shoes with heavy-duty soles, especially for treks through the forest. Carry an extra bottle of water. Entering the sanctuary requires permission from the forest department, which the organisers provide. You need some luck to view a leopard or a sloth bear or a wild boar. There are several other treks to nearby villages. Tell the organisers your requirements and they’ll devise a suitable route.
What to see & do: The Kumbhalgarh fort is impressive and a major tourist attraction. The views from the top are scenic and the 36km-long walls and the towers are the stuff of legend.
Also visit the Ranakpur complex of temples.