Saturday, June 27, 2009

So, what's the big deal about the Dead Sea?

  • Its the lowest point on dry earth
  • Its salty, very salty
  • There's no life in it
My son did not seem very impressed with these points, as a reason to visit. I argued with him, we're never going to stand on the highest point, so lets atleast go to the lowest point!

OK, we did not go all the way from Madras just to check out this geographical phenomenon, but happened to be in the neighbourhood.

6th June 2009. Amman, Jordan

10 am, and we set off for the 45 min drive to the northern tip of the Dead Sea. My son did not think this was a good idea, especially since I packed swim trunks - What? You're going in to the Dead Sea?, he enquired querulously. His mood improved significantly on seeing our mode of transport - a Mercedes (dont ask me which one), with our friendly driver cum guide, Fadi.

All through the journey, Fadi chattered on incessantly, about Jordan, the Dead Sea, the benevolent dead king, the dynamic current king, etc etc. The roads were good, his driving even-handed and the sun outside sharp. I feared that I would drop off to sleep with the drone of his voice and the gentle motion of the car, and so made sure that I asked questions every now and then!

So I learned about the therapeutic effects of the Dead Sea, the lousy neighbours that Jordan has to suffer (I didn't tell him that we had the same problem), the political problems of sharing the river Jordan and even some biblical history about Moses!

Suddenly, he brought the car to a halt, behind a huge tourist bus, and as I wondered why, I saw this board, on the roadside!

We were at sea level! Needing to descend another 300 m to reach the shores of the Dead Sea. See those red spots, thats where we were. The altitude of Madras, and where we would find the Mediterannean Sea as well.

It reminded me of another board a long time ago. 4,000m, Rohtang Pass!

So, we stood besides the board and had our pictures taken dutifully, as our driver took several quick puffs on his cigarette - I suspect that's the reason they stop at this board. So they get their puffs and we get our photos!

Here's the other marker in the sand, to convince us that we were at sea level! The terrain around is rolling hills, with olive groves in some of the valleys but generally bare.

We could see the road drop down, and the driver pointed out a blue speck in the distance as the Dead Sea.

But doesn't the river Jordan flow into it? The river is dry, declared our driver flatly. Dammed by Israel, Jordan and Syria, so there's no water from the river into the Dead Sea. At this rate, soon there will be no Dead Sea. Already, the southern end has become mud flats, since the Dead Sea is really a lake, a very large one, and so needs the water to flow in.

We soon reach the bottom of the Dead Sea valley, the Jordan rift valley. Uh oh, should I be nervous? Isn't a rift valley not a very safe place to be? Arabia moved away from Africa many million years ago, and we have this huge "crack" in the earth's floor? I think thats a simple enough explanation for me.

The road is now flat and straight like an arrow. we reach a T-junction and turn left. The driver points out to me that this is not a T-junction but a four way crossroad - the fourth direction westwards, being the road to Jerusalem through the West Bank, and so blocked off and unused.

Now we were on the east bank of the Dead Sea, but it was hidden from view. Suddenly there was a check-post ahead, and cars were being stopped and papers checked. I did not have a jot of identification on me, having left everything behind at Amman. Hmmm, lets see how this pans out, I thought. But, Fadi was probably well known in the area and friendly phrases were exchanged, and all I could make out was "indo"...I guess he was telling the policeman we were from India, and we were waved through.

So, we arrived at the Dead Sea Spa Hotel. The oldest hotel on the block. How it works is like this. There is a "public beach", but we were advised against going there - its dirty, was the reason - and we were told to take a day pass into one of the private-hotel owned beaches, which is what we did. So, the package typically involves giving you towels, providing showers and a changing area, and there's a lunch thrown in.

We walked through the hotel, and on to the "sea front", to see this.

We came all the way to see this drab and still "pond" and these barren shores???, my head screamed out, but I maintained a non-commital face (Cant show the son how I feel can I?). Where are those dramatic cliffs and salt-encrusted rocks that I have seen in pictures? I must say, that I did feel let down at this moment. (Turns out, that the spectacular scenery is on the Israeli side. Oh well.)

I looked around and to my chagrin, the changing rooms were located behind this picture, if you know what I mean. So, we had to trek down the entire distance in our swim suits!! I began to chicken out, and then looked around and saw all the visitors quite happily roaming around in the briefest of swimwear, with nobody giving them a second look, and I said, oh what the hell, come on nobody knows us here, lets go!

So we did change and marched on down, the sun by this time quite sharp.

My son had this, oh-no, what-have-I-got myself-into, look, and so I had to lead from the front so-to-speak!

But reading this board, he perked up. Oh, so I dont have to swim, swim, and I dont have to put my head in the water. I just have to float and do nothing. Not so bad!

So it was, that we entered the waters of the Dead Sea, tentatively at first, but then with more gusto and verve. After a while we were enjoying ourselves! Its a bizarre sensation, especially if you are used to swimming in a pool or fresh water. The salt and mineral content push you up, and you can "walk" effortlessly in the water.

This is the view from the water, looking up at the Jordanian shore. Not very interesting is it? And there are hotel projects still coming up...

In case you are wondering about those people who look like they are wearing a scuba-diving outfit, they are visitors covered in the Dead Sea mud! I did it too, much to my son's disgust, but in order to prevent this blog from being rated as "horror" or grotesque", I shall refrain from posting visual proof!

Soon, it was time to leave, and here's a final look at the cliffs of Palestine...there was not a soul on the other side of the Dead Sea...I wonder if its a restricted area...

We showered away the oily waters of the Dead Sea, and attacked the buffet lunch with our healthy appetites!

Fadi was quieter on the return, though he did the usual touristy thing of taking us to a souvenir shop, where I bargained down the price of a Bedouin rug pretty dramatically, bought some Dead Sea mud and posed for a picture with the traditional Arab headgear!

It was an interesting day out. But since we were not into spa experiences or therapeutic swims, I wonder if it would have been better if we had gone off to the Mujib Nature Reserve, further south along the Dead Sea? Again, our Amman hotel concierge discouraged us from this. It was not a good season for such a trip I think.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Ranjit Lal and Bharatpur

The Crow Chronicles is Ranjit Lal's delightful bird-tale set in Bharatpur. Looks like he's visited again!

The Hindu : Magazine / Travel : Bharatpur resurrected

Bharatpur resurrected

After a period of neglect and devastation, Bharatpur is alive with the songs of birds again…
Photo: N. Sridharan

The birds are back...
It’s a trip after several years — perhaps the first since the Gujarat earthquake. And then Bharatpur, once a mandatory annual excursion, fell upon bad times; all but written off like so many big-name banks today. Now tales of a miracle, w hich had to be checked out… The approach is not promising; the road outside the sanctuary, as I remembered, was two-lane and shady; today it’s a four-lane highway for which all the trees have been sacrificed. And as you enter, more signs of devastation: the canopy is all but gone, the landscape looks bombed out. But wait, this is all for the good, because what’s been blasted and uprooted out of existence — permanently — hopefully, is that rabid coloniser, Prosopis juliflora alias Vilayati keekar.

In the hazy blue of early morning comes that heart-warming sound: the roar of thousands of waterfowl wings as ducks rise en masse, from the waters, like a Mexican wave getting airborne. Pintail, and common teal, shovellor and gadwall speed through the gossamer mists as their perennial extortionist the marsh harrier comes calling. They swirl and settle, only to be roused again within minutes. In the maroon azolla-covered waters, purple herons stand stock still, merging beautifully with the marsh grasses, and egrets dazzle in pristine white. A flock of bar-headed geese fly past, honking in that conversational way of theirs, and on a branch just off the path, a little cormorant yawns…

A trip around the drier sections of the park has less on offer — flocks of squeaking silverbills, pied bushchats, the odd shrike and that easy-rider the black-shouldered kite. Past Python point and the old hunting lodge and on to the waters of the Mansarovar which are teeming with birds. Just off the path, a pair of immaculate sarus cranes feed; and grey herons wing away with hoarse squawks of irritation. Here, the main attraction is those enchanting musical ducks — lesser whistling teals — bright-eyed and perky as schoolboys in their tobacco and copper plumage, showing off tints of blue-grey and dark grey on their wings as they fly in circles and splash down. They are resident ducks as are the naktas, or comb duck, which have a delightfully snobbish air about them, despite their ink-spattered faces! Purple swamp hens in their shot blue silks and size 16 feet and vivid red frontal shields and bills look like the ultimate viragos, and it suddenly strikes you that the birds here seem somehow more vivid and richly coloured than their compatriots in Delhi. This impression is reinforced by the rufous tree pie you meet at the canteen later; its brown and white is newly minted and rich, unlike the faded versions you see in Delhi.

A rickshaw ride from the check post to the Keoladeo temple is another “must do”, for you get to see and meet all the main tourist attractions of the season: Sleepy collared scops owls in the date palms, dusky eagle owls glaring at you from the rims of their huge twiggy edifices, grey nightjars impersonating branches, dozing away the afternoon, a smirking monitor lizard, flapshell turtles, holding their heads high — all impossible to spot unless you had inside information, which the rickshaw pullers do. Again, the importance of actionable intelligence… We’ve been told that pythons have been sunbathing everywhere but don’t meet any this time. Also, we haven’t done too well with raptors so far, a greater spotted eagle on a faraway perch is all we’ve bagged, until another one flies over and circles around us, giving us all the time to admire its broad chocolate wings and wedge tail. Late breeding painted storks are still caring for ravenous adolescents, some adults squatting on the backs of their “knees” look pretty done for! We catch but a furtive glimpse of a black bittern, and of the three normally encountered kingfishers, the sapphire-spangled little (or common) kingfisher, is the last to mark its presence, but squats unconcerned on a stump, softly backlit in the early evening sunlight ready for all admirers! Darters strike their crucifix poses, one looking especially martyred as it changes the position of its head every now and then, and then starts preening.

There appear to be more Indian than foreign visitors trundling down the path and happily, they’re better behaved than I remember from past visits, even if a little bewildered by the variety of birds. Everyone is delighted that Bharatpur has recovered after the trauma of past years; it appears that one good monsoon and a little good sense has made all the difference. There are plans now to ensure that it never experiences that devastation again by arranging a perennial source of water so that both breeding and migratory birds can be happy. Better cross-border relations with surrounding villages have hopefully also been forged (villagers were allowed to cart away the hacked Prosopis for firewood), though there were the usual, unavoidable transgressions. Bharatpur is a man-made ecosystem, dependent on human management for its existence and well-being, with a helping hand from nature of course. We’ve seen what neglect and deliberate anti-conservation measures can do. It’s time we ensure we never travel down that disgraceful route again and that the plans for its eternal resurrection and happiness are actually implemented.

Quick facts
The Keoladeo National Park (formerly Bharatpur Bird Sacntuary) was originally created as a duck-hunting reserve for the Jat Maharajas of Bharatpur and is a major wintering ground for aquatic birds from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China and Siberia.

The park is open throughout the year. Best months are August-November for resident breeding birds and November-March for migrant birds.

Bharatpur is well connected by road from Agra (56 km), Delhi (176 km) and Jaipur (176 km), all of which have airports. The Bharatpur railway station is 6 km from the park.

It appears that one good monsoon and a little good sense has made all the difference.