I am on the side of a road in India watching a kingfisher*. It sits in stillness watching, waiting before diving down into the pond below, which is unexpectedly clean. It emerges victorious, a silver fish glistens in its large red beak. A beak that seems too heavy for its small, plump body of iridescent colour. Ioan is about 100m behind me, he is talking to a man in a white cap. They have been discussing something for a while now, but my attention has been focused on the play of nature before me.
Dilip Singh was riding pillion on his brother’s motorbike when he spotted two foreigners cycling in the other direction. Seizing his opportunity he stopped his brother, jumped the flower-filled central reservation and introduced himself to Ioan. He worked on a farm below a leopard cave and they were were setting up a new tourism project. He invited us for lunch saying: ‘Just give me one hour‘.
‘How far is it?‘ I asked when they reached me and explained the offer.’4kms‘ – not far. 13kms later we are still following Dilip but we are unphased. We had turned left off the main road and in the west before us are a series of rocky hills that rise like curved pyramids from a sea of flat land. We had noticed these strange shapes earlier, resembling a dragons tail stretching down from the body of Mount Abu. We cycle through a series of small villages where rural India went about her business in all her usual colour, but here there seemed to be more calm than clamor.
We pass a small pond of water where naked boys, water buffaloes and birds cool off. Turning right onto a yet smaller road, we pass a temple complex built around the boulders that form these hills, weaving our way through a herd of buffaloes taking their siesta. Just after the road gives up to dirt we go through the rust red, unmarked gates of the Siranwa Hills Hideaway, beyond which lie fields of fennel. The scent of the tall plants purified our senses as we entered this new world. Beneath a semi-circle of trees two chairs had been placed facing the hillside. Between them a pair of binoculars sat waiting on a small table covered with a white cloth embroidered with peacocks and flowers. Upstage there are wooden tables piled with wildlife books and travel guides. Bamboo vases hold peacock feathers and porcupine quills.
We walked into this most inviting set and gave Dilip his requested hour, during which we were served a delicious, freshly prepared thali of local Rajasthani food. One hour, turned into an afternoon that included a post-lunch outdoor snooze, which was only disturbed when were awoken to see a sloth bear making his way to the cave on the hillside just above where we lay.
Afternoon turned to evening and we pitched our tent under the neem trees before being taken for a ride on the farm’s characterful old Massey Ferguson tractor. We bounce along a dry river bed that flows into life during the monsoons and watch the sunset over the hills. Later under the light of the nearly full moon we were led through the cool fields of fennel to a secluded spot in the river where a circle of lamps and candles illuminate our dinner spot. And that one hour, that one night turned into two weeks sleeping under the leopards cave.
We are not the first visitors to have found the area surrounding the village of Nandia too magnetic, too compelling, too friendly to leave. In the 80s a young Australian woman found her spiritual home in the Shiv rock cave next to the farm. She stayed for 12 years and is considered a saint by local people. Ioan and I also found spiritual solace in these hills in an undeveloped corner of the Araveli Range. Formed over a billion years ago they are the oldest mountains in India. Once as mighty as the Himalayas they have been weathered down by time to a fifth of their original size. Water and wind has curved them, creating caves that house hyenas, sloth bears, leopards and sadhus. These lands hold secrets and stories that our friends are only too happy to share. We made friends here, met people that protected and nurtured us, who taught us and appreciated our skills. Who laughed with us and with whom we made a lasting bond.
Bhanwar Singh grew up exploring these hills. Inspired by the landscape he studied for an MSc in Geography before taking over his father’s farm, which he still farms with his brother Manwhar. They grow different crops on rotation, this year it is fennel. A highly prized variety that is used in French liquor making. But farming is hard and more than that it does not always sit happily with Bhanwar’s desire to protect wildlife. The farm is surrounded by protected forest and wild animals regularly make their way across his land. He is a man with an ambitious dream, that one day he will be able to afford to return the farm back to nature. By starting up a small, ecologically minded tourism project he hopes to be able to not only ‘rewild’ the farm but also set up schemes to educate other local farmers, shepherds and tribal villagers about the importance of protecting the forest and wild animals.
*There are so many tales to tell from our time in the Siranwa Hills, so many vivid memories captured beautifully by Ioan to share with you. But for the first time on our travels I was ‘blocked’ when trying to write about our experiences. I wrote this blog back in January, but I was unsatisfied with it so failed to share it. I’m only pressing Publish now so I can move on and update the blog to the present day where I sit looking out at the rain falling on the bare, ancient oaks of the Forest of Bowland. I want to tell you tales of tea with camel herders, of spotting leopards, of sitting around the campfire listening to the devotional music of Rabari tribesmen. Of moving on and cycling down the Konkan coast to Goa, where we gave our bodies a break in the sunshine and waves. Where we learnt to hang upside down and taught our muscles to forget bad habits. Of a final few days in Mumbai, before our return to here to now.