Bandits & crocodiles in the way beyond

IMG_3661We should have known that we were in for an adventure. “You go where? You go where?”, “Chambal Sanctuary”. “Why you go? no good no good”. After at least half of explaining the location of Chambal Sanctuary, we found a taxi driver somewhat confident that he knew where we wanted to go. The next morning the incessant beep of the alarm awoke us at 4:00 am. The taxi driver said it would take a couple of hours to reach Chambal.

It seemed as soon as we left Agra that the roads got progressively worse, almost slowing our ride down to a crawl, pressing on to reach the haven we had heard about. Our taxi driver was not amused that we got him up at the crack of dawn to drive on the worst roads we had encountered in India thus far. With every bump the driver muttered “Road very bad, road very bad, Chambal no good why you go, Crocodiles dangerous”.

IMG_3710In fact, we were on the hunt to see the critically endangered Gharial, a strange species of crocodile that is found in Chambal Sanctuary. Chambal became a wildlife sanctuary in 1979 to try to protect the few remaining Gharials in the wild. The Gharial has a very distinctive snout that is used to catch fish. They are one of the longest crocodiles reaching lengths of up to 20 feet (6.5 meters) but they are no threat to man. They once thrived and lived all across India, but hunted for their skin and for trophies, their population was decimated. In recent years, constant pressure from a growing population has also had a negative effect on their chances for survival. It is believed that less than 1,000 are left in the wild, and their numbers are declining. Hunting is no longer a threat, but loss of habitat from dams, irrigation and sand mining are taking a devastating toll.

IMG_3713The constant bumping of the taxi as well as the early wakeup call had everybody on the edge. Especially our driver, who I am sure by now was cursing our names. To make matters worse, it turned out he had no clue as to where we were going and had to ask everyone on the way where Chambal was. By some miracle we eventually reached the park gate only to find the lone park ranger in his boxers looking utterly confused. The ranger got dressed in his official uniform and with a big smile welcomed us to Chambal. “You very lucky, last day safari”. It turned out we literally arrived hours before the park would close for the season. A minor fact not mentioned anywhere online. Now if we could only find a boat…

There is not much information let alone infrastructure regarding Chambal National Sanctuary, a wilderness park not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. It is just around 50 miles (77km) from the Taj Mahal in Agra but still way off the tourist track. There are just a few hotels in the area that arrange boat safaris. It is quite a shame that nobody knows about the sanctuary, but this is one of the reasons it has remained unspoiled and magical. There is a great variety of bird species as well as eight endangered turtles, and the critically endangered river dolphin.

IMG_3734The forest ranger led us down to the river where we would try to find a boat. How hard could it be? There had to be someone with a boat trying to make some extra cash, right? There were no boats in sight as we neared the river’s bank. By this time the sun was high in the sky and temperature was quickly rising. Our guide insisted it was time for a nature walk. With the temperature scorching well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit we braved the heat considering we had traveled far for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. ,Just about when we were about to collapse, we heard the welcome sound of a distant boat’s engine. “Is this our boat?” we inquired, and the ranger called the boat over to the bank. Words were discussed (we are guessing something along the lines of “let these tourist on, they paid me money”) and after short negotiations we hitched a ride. To our surprise there was an American journalist from the Associated Press and his photographer on the boat. “What are you doing here? No one ever comes to Chambal” he asked us. At this point we just had to laugh.

IMG_3685The Journalist, Tim Sullivan, explained that Chambal Sanctuary was actually saved by its remoteness. For years, bandits had roamed the area making travel impossible and the area was feared by Indians from all over the country. People said the river was cursed and no one wanted to be anywhere close to it. That along with the impenetrable land making the building of roads near impossible makes it the least polluted river in India, and the sanctuary is pristine.

Dreading getting back on the road, we couldn’t help but smile at how lucky we had been. Last day for safaris and getting on the last boat on the water, what are the odds? Things become quite special when the adventure chooses you instead of the other way round!

You can visit Chambal Sanctuary’s official website here

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