Trip Start Mar 12, 2012
49Trip End Aug 06, 2012
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After a short sleep, I woke up early to catch my 6:30AM train. When I arrived at 11:30, I went walking around Haridwar Junction looking for a resort representative. It was the typical train station shuffle, "Hey! Where you go? Tuk-Tuk? Taxi?" I refused all offers, but couldn’t find my ride. I saw a guy beating a man with a stick and punching him in the face
From that point on, my day was lovely. Pulling into the gated compound, I was met by the most friendly and attentive staff I could imagine, and brought to a spectacular suite overlooking the Ganges from a private patio with a Jacuzzi. (It should be mentioned that this is not the same trash-filled, corpse-laden Ganges hundreds of miles downstream in Varanasi, but clean, quiet and peaceful) I was invited to a personal lunch at the hotel restaurant with two of the managers, where I’m pretty sure I ate the best dal I’ve ever had. Mr. Sodhi, the General Manager (who is referred to by the honorific Sodhi Sahab Ji) talked me into taking an afternoon safari at nearby Rajaji National Park. Arvin, the Hotel Manager, decided to come along. We were driven into the park via jeep by Aalia’s on-site naturalist, a cool dude from Nepal whom Arjun described as “legendary”.
Both Arvin and our guide made it clear that we might see nothing at all, and mentioned occasions when guests have gone out for five days in a row and seen only a handful of birds. I happily accepted this, knowing none of us had the power to summon animals from the woods. For the first hour or so, birds were pretty much all we saw, although I still found it interesting, particularly the peacocks and parrots. But then, we came upon a watering hole and witnessed eight Asian elephants. It was truly a sight to see. After that, I was quite content with the fact that I’d seen the first wild elephants of my life, and happy just to be rolling though the forest, sans the car horns and noise I’d grown accustomed to in India.
After seeing some wild boar, and a lot of deer, we stopped at a spot where our guide told us he’d once come across an elusive leopard. Although he’d only spotted the spotted cats a handful of times in his career, we got excited when we heard loud noises in the brush. He told us it was the warning call of the gray langur monkey, and we could even hear them nervously grinding their teeth. All of a sudden, two male langurs came bolting out, one chasing after the other. We were informed that this was merely a territorial dispute, and if there’d been a leopard around neither of them would have left the safety of the canopy. Oh well.
As the sun began to set, we came across another group of elephants, even closer than the first. This was just icing on the cake as far as I was concerned. Then, a little ways down the road, our guide slammed on the brakes, and excitedly whispered “Leopard! Leopard! LEOPARD!”
I don’t know how he sighted him, because he was at least 50 yards away well camouflaged, but sure enough, it was a genuine jungle cat. Seeing him with my naked eye was great, but through the binoculars it was like I could touch him. We all sat there in awe, just watching him walk around, lay down, and turn belly up to scratch his back. It was not only my first time seeing a leopard in the wild, but also an unprecedented event for the hotel manager, Arvin. After the feline footed back into the bush, we drove out of the park talking about it to one another. Our Nepali guide just kept saying, “So Lucky…So Lucky.”
On our way back, we stopped by a roadside stand where Arvin bought us samosas and cups of chai. A storm was brewing to the West, and it wasn’t long before the power went out (like in Agra, pretty common here). It was another great new memory made, laughing about leopards and having tea in the dark. We got rained on as we drove back to the resort, but none of us cared in the least. After our return, Arvin told the staff in Hindi about the leopard, and everybody replied with, “Very lucky!”
Lucky is right. Not only because of the leopard, but because if I hadn’t happened on Arjun in Thailand, then I certainly wouldn’t be here now. I plan to relax for the next couple of days, use the pool, maybe the spa, take lessons from the resident yoga instructor, and possibly drink fine cognac at the bar (I’ve never tried cognac). Following that, I’ll be heading to Rishikesh where I’ll stay for four nights until I return to Delhi 48 hours before my flight to Africa. Initially, I had only planned to stay at Aalia two nights as opposed to three…but you only live once, right? Well, I mean, in India you don’t, but I’ll use any excuse to hang out here a little longer.