The self-professed tourist guide wore tattered jeans and an equally dirty shirt. We were in our car, he on his bike, at the fringes of the road leading to the Nalsarovar Bird sanctuary, as we discussed terms of his service. He talked about a famed island in middle of the huge Nalsarovar lake (120 sq km ), lotus ponds, bird nests, exquisite Kashmiri grass (12 feet high) and sightings of migratory birds from distant northern lands.
It was getting late in afternoon, so we quickly reached an agreement. He would take us around the bird sanctuary in his boat and show all the possible features of one of the largest bird sanctuary in India. When I requested him to wait as we wanted to have some snacks and drinks, he assured that we will get everything at the island. The main season had yet not begun so the presence of tourists was scant. There were various rules at the government operated entry point where we had to leave our car and take emission free vehicles to the jetty.
We had to take a wooden rowboat but the rowing was not the usual way. The boatman will use a long pole and push the boat ahead by sticking it on bottom of lake as the waters were shallow. Hardly four feet. The shallow waters, marshes and hundreds of islets were the main constituents of bird sanctuary. The birds live on the little islets across the lake, feed off the marshes and vegetation in shallow waters. But now, almost 100 boats were lying turtle at the side of the lake in want of tourists.
Our guide handed us over to a smiling, bearded Muslim boatman assuring us that he will show everything promised to us. The boat was big enough to carry 15-20 people. We were only four. It was 3.30 pm, soon the sun will start its descent in the west, but at the moment the heat was palpable. The lake was stretching to the horizon till one could see on the western side. There was that famed island at great distance from the jetty on the northern side and there were a plethora of marshes, islets and little trees on the eastern side. As such the large water body was amazingly tranquil. The boatman asked us, whether we want to go to the island first to have snacks or want to go bird watching.We enthusiastically chose the latter option.
The boat waded placidly towards the marshes while we got used to the sudden silence of nature around us. We were the only bird watchers in surrounding area and we were making lot of noise with this new-found dominance. And then the boatman whispered from behind me, ‘ShahbJi, Sahabji’. I was alarmed by this conspiring whisper and looked back at him. He was pointing towards a tiny strip of land far on our right. There stood a pair of birds with white feathers but with a huge dash of black on their wings, randomly picking up something to eat with their distinct red beak. Their legs though not visible clearly in the mud were also red. The boatman mouthed the name of the bird which I was able to understand after asking him to repeat. It was the white stork. I came to know later on that this bird breeds in Northern Europe, South west Asia and north-western Africa and migrate to Indian subcontinent to south Africa during winters.
In any case we moved forward, the boatman pushed the boat through a thick patch of marshes and we found ourselves in another secluded water body. On one side, nestled along with a bunch of vegetation were scores of lotus buds riding on thick stems almost a foot above the water. This was the lotus pond which our original guide was talking about. None of the lotus were blooming. Our boatmen explained that it is because of the heat of the day. But he smilingly bent from the boat and broke a lotus with a long stem. He opened the bud with his hands, literally made it bloom and punched little notches on its stem giving it an ornamental look. He tied the loose end of the stem with the other end and bingo! We had a flower garland ready.
He than moved us into thick maze of vegetation, sharply turning the boat at some places as if he knew each grass and plant on the way and parked us right at the side of a bird’s nest ensconced in marshes. There were three cream-colored eggs in the nest made of twigs and grass almost a size of a football. He mouthed stressing every letter that the nest is of purple heron.
Though I had started liking the simple man from village but did not really know what made him to bring us in this wilderness to the nest. So I asked him to show the bird. He nodded with a grin and took the boat off from heavy marshes. A few minutes later he whispered from my back and we all fell quiet. There was purple heron, a slender grey colored bird sitting on a little mud island, her back glistening from the waning sun. Again a bird that breeds into northern part of world and migrates to India, Africa in winters.The little noise we made in quiet lake disturbed the bird and she took a flight revealing several of her colors, she had purple-brown feathers and reddish-brown breast. Its ‘S’ shape neck sticking out as it searched for quieter pastures in the lake. We proceeded and passed through another lotus pond. There were many other birds, The boatmen kept on telling the name but it was difficult to remember.
We saw an Asian bill stork. A large bird quite like the White Stork which we saw first. There was a flock of these birds sitting on a small tree in the middle of small island. They were more of a local bird and breed in Indian subcontinent.
We missed watching many star birds like flamingos or pelicans as they arrive only in deep winter. Our boatmen had ticked off all the items on this list of guide and now leading us to the famed island. The sky blue color watch tower was visible from the distance and we were expecting some good snacks and a cup of tea to relax with. We approached towards almost a storey high Kashmiri grass and Shangri la of our imagination was just after that. The boatman, a truthful and honest man,warned that the eating place on the island might have closed by now. But we were far from reality, keeping our great expectations with the place high. I remember the guide telling us that the snacks, kathiawadi food, cold drinks and tea everything will be available. And when we reached the muddy little dock of the island, the hopes were crashed. Just little ahead of the dock was lying upturned aluminum utensils on a stone deck covered by patchy cloth. There was brick-kiln at the side for cooking. This was the eatery our original guide was talking about. The lady who runs this place was already off to her village due to fewer customers. I was a little upset with the boatman but his response was that he never told us all this, it was the guide who misrepresented. Nevertheless, we ambled towards the sky blue watch tower leaving the boatmen on shore for his evening Namaaz. There was nothing on island except bushes, plants and anthills. Some birds scampered here and there. But as we climbed up the tower the scenery changed. The sun was setting in west and tranquil water around the island was glistening. With many birds crisscrossing the lake, the surroundings were looking beautiful. This was certainly a good place to be but it was ill maintained.
We returned straight to jetty from the island as it was getting dark. As we bid goodbye to the boatman, I handed over him a tip. He was certainly one of the most pleasant men I might have met in a year. We were all hungry and tired and speeded towards our resort to get our fill.
About the Author: Rohit Agarwal is a 39-year-old marketing professional,who works in the mid-management level in a textile company based in Ahmedabad. He is a textile Engineer from MSU, Baroda and MBA from Rajasthan University. His debut book Love, Job or Country was published in November 2014. You can read a review of his book here.
He resides in Ahmedabad with his two kids and wife.