Day 152: Agra, India. We were up and about early today for our trip to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, around 50km west of Agra.
We had a quick breakfast at a local eatery, where coffee was served in small paper cups with a logo that we can only assume is a direct rip off of Nescafe. Unless Nescafe now has a sub brand for use on Indian paper coffee cups in small local cafes, which we tend to doubt.
We walked down to the nearby Taj Mahal gate and ordered an Uber to take us to Idgah bus stand. Along the way, the car got rocked from side to side by a bunch of rowdy cows that were pushing their way through the early morning traffic. However it was nothing compared to the jolt we felt a couple of minutes later, when a bus ran into the back of the car.
Chaos ensued, with the Uber and bus drivers shouting loudly and making increasingly animated hand gestures at each other. A nearby traffic controller wandered over, but didn’t manage to control much and just shouted even more loudly at both of them. Very quickly a gang of other onlookers came to check out the action, so we locked our doors and waited in the car. A guy on a bicycle came over, clocked the Uber driver around the head, then pedalled off again. Eventually the traffic controller shouted at both of them to move their vehicles, so the Uber driver got back in and we continued on our way. How you sort out insurance on that one – or whether anyone actually has any insurance – we have no idea.
We arrived at the bus stand and wandered into the ticket office. We scanned the room but couldn’t see where we were supposed to buy tickets. A helpful guy pointed to two recesses which looked more like boarded-up windows than open ticket desks. We bent down and peered through the screen, and yes there were people in there. With the help of Lil flapping her arms to indicate ‘birds’ (which to most people probably looked like she was suffering some kind of fit) we got two tickets to Bharatpur.
The bus was a bashed up state government number which looked like it might have been in many accidents with Uber cars and cows. We were assigned two seats at the front of the bus on a three seat bench. Unfortunately the guy by the window was rather chunky, so Jim squeezed in next to him and Lil hung off the edge of the seat, only one metre from an open door, which stayed open for the entire journey.
Before we set off, a man climbed on with a pile of flower wreathes (called mala) and hung one on the rear view mirror of the bus. Then another guy got on and did some sort of sales pitch, shouting loudly down the bus while waving small containers over his head. From what we could see it said ‘Super Vicks’ so we assume it was a rip off of Vicks VapoRub. Thankfully no one bought any as it was a little early in the day to endure the strong menthol smell of Vicks.
We arrived at Bharatpur and started the lengthy process of buying tickets and agreeing transport. The options were walking, bicycle, auto rickshaw or jeep. We decided to hire bicycles which turned into a bit of a comedy sketch. They only had two mountain bikes, and they were both tiny – we would have been constantly applying band aids as our knees scraped off the ground. The guys didn’t seem to think it mattered that they were kids bikes – they said “once inside the park you go slow anyway”.
The ladies regular bikes were too small for Lil, so she got one of the mens bikes and Jim just had to make do with the largest mens bike they had in the place, which still made him look like a chimp pedalling around in a circus ring. We got our briefing on the park, and were heavily pressured to rent a naturalist guide (who we were told knows where to find all the birds and animals). We really didn’t want a guide, but agreed to hiring one for an hour just to get out of the briefing area and onto our bikes.
Our guide was called Gobin, and he was pretty good at spotting birds – though to be fair, we could have spotted 95% of them ourselves. He also pedalled ridiculously slowly – perhaps due to the fact that he had a whopping great telescope perched on his shoulder.
We saw a couple of owls (which looked startled at being disturbed during daylight), an Egyptian vulture which was very cool, then we stopped at some wetlands and saw a whole bundle of birds wandering about around the water. A very impressive sight, and made all the better by being able to peer through Gobin’s high powered telescope.
Next we visited a temple close to the wetlands. Gobin said something about large turtles so we parked our bikes and followed him through the gates. We walked through a clatter of monkeys that were a little too active and erratic for us, then down a few stone steps to the side of a pond. And yes, there were lots of huge turtles in the water – Gobin said some of them are about 350 years old.
A guy from the temple sat on the steps next to us and started mixing up some flour and water, and making odd noises which must have been some sort of turtle lingo, as the turtles quickly started swimming to the steps. We watched as the feeding session got underway – it was pretty cool to see the turtles up close, though we could have done without some of the mad monkeys scrapping over the food.
As we left the temple, an old guy approached Jim and asked for a donation to help fund the purchase of chapati flour for the turtles.
At that point our hour with Gobin was up. He did his very best to try and convince us to hire him for another hour or two, but we firmly said our thanks and goodbyes and headed off on our own. We had a quick stop for tea and pop at the park canteen, where we had to wake up the guy who was managing the place, then headed off on our bikes.
A sign warned that there are leopards in the park, and tourists are advised not to roam outside the tracks and ‘to take necessary precautions accordingly’. We have no idea what ‘necessary precautions’ are, but we headed on and just hoped for the best.
We spent the afternoon pedalling on rough paths around the national park, with our bums getting increasingly more sore. The scenery was spectacular, and we saw a huge amount of birdlife including storks, vivid blue kingfishers, egrets and black ibis. We also saw an antelope, lots of deer, wild boar, heaps of squirrels and monkeys, and Lil nearly ran over a metre long water monitor lizard which ran out in front of her bike.
When we’d finished at the park, we dropped our bikes back and walked across the main road to catch a bus back to Agra. We saw a bus approaching and waved our arms like loons to stop it. It was packed, but they moved a bunch of luggage and people around and allocated us a top sleeper where we sat squished and cross legged for the journey back to town. At least we were sitting down – there were about a dozen people who stood for the entire journey.
When we got back to the hotel, we were happy to find Lil’s replacement credit card had arrived by Fedex, so that’s all three cards now sorted.
We got showered and changed and headed our for dinner. We went back to Joney’s Place and were again impressed by their food, and still very impressed by how they cook it all in such a tiny kitchen.
And so to bed to recover from the long bike ride today. Tomorrow we’re planning to visit Agra Fort, a couple of kilometres away from our hotel. Which means we can walk there without having to rely cars, buses or tiny bikes.