The leopard was only a few feet from the Rabari herder’s head. We couldn’t see her, but we knew she was there, crouched on a ledge behind a big granite boulder, because we’d seen her approach from the other side five minutes earlier. If the goatherd was aware the cat was about to pounce on one of his animals he was playing it cool, hands cupped over a bidi cigarette, murmuring quietly to his livestock as the sun dipped slowly behind the ridge. The drama of the scene was only heightened by the knowledge that our Rabari guide, seated next to me in our Jeep, must have been desperate to warn his kinsman of the looming predator, but clearly felt unable to do so for fear of angering his boss – our host and resident naturalist, Yusuf Ansari – in the front seat.
For his part, Yusuf, I surmised, would have been weighing up the angry reaction of the locals if he didn’t warn the herder, against the breathless expectation of his clients, who thought they were about to witness something rarely seen in India: a leopard kill at close range. The outcome of this little standoff didn’t, as it turned out, involve any bloodshed, but it did yield one of the most remarkable wildlife sightings I’ve ever had.
Heading for the hills – The Jawai Leopard Camp, in southern Rajasthan, is a unique place. I’d first heard about it through the tweets of author and India aficionado, William Dalrymple, who raved about the extraordinary landscape and sleek, mysterious’ leopards he encountered on a stay there. On one occasion he and his party had seen five big cats together, basking in the late evening sunlight. There were some tantalising images from an iPhone of serene boulder hills and a glassy lake strewn with flocks of pink flamingos. lf there is a landscape more sublime in India, I’d like to see it,’ enthused the author of White Mughals. Now, I’m not averse to roughing it when the need arises.
But I’m equally happy to indulge in a spot of luxury if it opens the door to a really special experience, and this steer from Britain’s Greatest Living Travel Writer seemed to promise just that. So after little more time than it took to get a visa, I jumped on a plane and, wide-eyed at the transition from drizzly Britain to the brilliance of Rajasthan in late March, found myself in a taxi, driving through the gorgeous countryside of the Aravalli Mountains. Jawai is located on the far side of the range, on a vast, shimmering plain studded with huge outcrops of granite. Disappearing into the heat haze of the Thar Desert’s eastern fringes, this ethereal flatland is known as Godwara, part of the ancient kingdom of Marwar. Having emerged from the hills, the road reaches level ground and cuts through a chain of scruffy market towns. Camels hauled water from village wells while women wearing day-glo veils and heavy silver jewellery carried the liquid in metal pots on their heads. Groups of elderly men in bulky red or white turbans looked on, lounging in the shade of banyan trees.
By the time the tarmac came to an end, the Aravallis were just a brooding rampart in the distance – and the shadows were lengthening. My driver made a call on his mobile, and soon a Jeep sporting a Jawai logo appeared out of the bush to speed me and my luggage down a tangle of tracks to the camp gates. Greeted in high style by a pair of proud-looking Rabari herdsmen in matching scarlet turbans and handlebar moustaches, I accepted a glass of cool lemon water and was led to my quarters. I hesitate to call it a ‘tent’, for the term falls well short of the scale and sophistication of the space, which featured a king-sized bed, en suite bathroom, silver tea set, writing desk, tin trunks and an unfeasibly large number of cushions. There was also, I’d noticed on the way in, a rather tempting swimming pool with a wonderful view. No time to luxuriate, though. The evening wildlife drive was about to set off.
Walking the leopard path – My guide for the first outing was Adam Bannister, a South African big cat expert and ace photographer from Kruger National Park. He’d been lured to Jawai by the opportunity for daily encounters with animals rarely spotted elsewhere. “This is a very special place,” he said. “As far as I know, there’s nowhere in the world with such a high density of leopards – where the cats share their day-to-day lives so intimately with humans. The Rabari literally walk the same paths as the leopards. They see them virtually every time they drive their flocks home.” The reason for this extraordinary state of affairs is that the area used to form part of the private hunting reserve of the Maharaja of Jodhpur.
However, only he was allowed to shoot the big cats; to encourage the Rabari to leave them alone a compensation scheme was put in place whereby the herders would receive payments for any livestock taken. After independence, when the Princely States were dissolved and maharajas’ lands impounded, the scheme was continued by the government-run Forest Service, which still employs a warden to verify whether kills are legitimate and pay out compensation. “But it’s not just about the money,” Adam explained. “The Rabari also seem to revere the leopards when they’re in the hills. Most outcrops have small Hindu shrines on them, and my hunch is that the cats are associated with the sacredness of these places.” He went on to tell us about one temple nestled amid the granite boulders where leopards would congregate during the day, unperturbed by the presence in their midst of a saffron-clad priest. And he had photos to prove it, displayed in spectacular panels around Jawai’s communal dining area.
As we listened, a wild peacock fluttered from the wall of a shrine by the side of the track we’d been driving along, startled by the alarm call of an invisible langur monkey. Adam scanned the rocks on the opposite side of the valley for signs of a female leopard he’d seen here the previous day. “There she is,” he whispered. It took a while to pick her out, even with the aid of expensive Nikon glass, because a leopard’s camouflage is perfectly honed for this mottled landscape. Unless your eye is well attuned, you could pass one at 20m and not see it. “And there’s another! A large male.”
I lowered my binoculars to watch the animals, no more than 50m away, with my naked eyes as they picked a path through the shadows to the top of a boulder. Here, the female reclined, panting in the heat, watched at a distance by her would-be mate. Behind them, framing the scene beautifully, were ranks of desert hills receding to a lake in the distance. It was to this reservoir – built by Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur in the 1940s – that we travelled early the next morning in the predawn darkness, wrapped in blankets against the freezing air. The sun was just rising as we arrived at the lakeshore, momentarily bathing the boulders in an otherworldly pale-orange light. Paddling through the shallows in the magical glow were flocks of flamingos, herons and egrets. Giant sarus cranes grazed in the nearby fields of ripening chickpeas and mustard, their scarlet face-markings mirroring the crimson flame trees flowering around the base of the hills. Overhead, honey buzzards wheeled on the early thermals, as a watchful crocodile drifted silently along the edge of a sandbar.
Catwalk model – Even if safaris aren’t generally your thing, it’s hard not to be seduced by the beauty of Jawai, and by the constant presence in its hills of those exquisite cats. We saw leopards on nearly every game drive during our three-night stay – sometimes two or three. Without our eagle-eyed guides, though, we’d probably have stumbled around for hours without spotting anything. And that’s really what you’re paying for by coming here: the expertise of people like Adam and Yusuf, who’ve spent hours tracking the leopards, getting to know individual animals, their habits and haunts. It was Yusuf, a renowned historian as well as naturalist, who led us on our final drive to the spot mentioned earlier, where we’d waited for the female leopard to spring.
Yusuf, thankfully, was the one who ‘blinked’ in the end, asking the Rabari man accompanying us to tell the herder about the leopard crouched only a few feet from his turban. The flock moved off hastily. We then rounded the boulder where the leopard had been hiding, only to find her sitting upright on her haunches, barely a stone’s throw away, staring mournfully at the retreating goats. Before heading back up the granite slab we’d seen her creeping down earlier, she turned to us for one final photo call, yawning disdainfully for the cameras – a vision I shall never forget, and a wonderful parting gift from the local feline population.
India’s Great Wall – The Aravallis, however, had a couple more treats in store. I’d decided to break my journey back to Udaipur at Kumbalgarh Fort, an eagles nest citadel crowning a hilltop on the far western extremity of the range. Daytrippers pour through to visit the palace of the legendary Rana Kumbha – an extravagantly domed Rajput fortress with stupendous views over the Godwara plains. But I had come with another aim in mind: to walk the ramparts encircling the great plateau from which the fort rises. So steeply undulating are the crenelated walls of Kumbalgarh, and so wild and thorny the ravines plummeting from them, that the battlements are frequently dubbed ‘India’s Great Walk That might be stretching it a bit, but they’re a truly amazing sight, and walking them turned out to be a great adventure. I’d recruited a 54-year-old Gond tribal man, Mr Ram Kumar, from the village huddled below the fort to guide me, and we set off at dawn, just in time to catch the first rays of daylight illuminating the citadel. For the next four or five hours, we negotiated a succession of knee-crunching steps and beautifully paved ramparts, passing derelict gateways and weed-choked Jain and Hindu shrines.
Langurs crashed through the mahua trees; I even spotted a rare civet cat sprinting silently along a deserted forest path. We hadn’t encountered a soul by the time we reached the midway point at around noon, when I realised my dwindling water supply and cronky knees weren’t going to get me the whole way around. Instead, I said goodbye to Ram Kumar, who skipped home via a shortcut, delighted that he wasn’t going to have to tackle the final, toughest stretch of the circuit in the blazing sun. Now alone, I followed an ancient-looking paved path to a temple I’d spotted earlier. Sprawled in the shade of a banyan tree, under the watchful gaze of a row of white marble deities, I blissed out on birdsong and the sound of the breeze in the branches above me.
The perfect goodbye – Moments of peace, solitude and serenity are rare while travelling in India, but seemed in abundance in these hills. My final destination in the Aravallis yielded several more. To round off the trip in style, I’d booked a night at what is without doubt one of Asia’s most romantic palace hotels. Devi Garh is just 45 minutes out of Udaipur in a town called Delwara, on the edge of the Aravallis. Enfolded by waves of scrub-covered summits, the former princely abode rises like a vision from Lord of the Rings above a splash of pastel-painted, cuboid houses – a perfect base for day walks.
You can wander for hours along the tracks and terraces surrounding the town, following goatherd trails and drystone walls to the ridgetops, where little temples marked with saffron pennants rise from the shaley soil. It’s ironic that I chose to spend most of my stay at Devi Garh outdoors, because the hotel is renowned above all for its interiors – the sparkling ‘Hall of Mirrors’, elaborately carved jarokha balconies projecting from the upper apartments, the views through its cusp-arched windows and stylishly minimalist suites. Best of all, though, after a long day walking in the sun – and I write as someone who’s never stepped into one before – was the Jacuzzi bubbling on a terrace overlooking the valley.
I had the thing to myself, and made the most of it, wallowing for an hour or more in the churning water as the light turned from lemon-yellow to gold on the surrounding hills. A herd of cows returning from the fields trailed a plume of glowing dust on the edge of town, and the sound of puja bells and drumming drifted from a temple somewhere below. To mis-quote Mr Dalrymple, if there is a more sublime way to say goodbye to a magnificent landscape, then I’d like to experience it.