Out for a duck in Rajasthan

The magnificent Keoladeo National Park is alive with some of the richest wildlife in all of Asia. Malcolm Smith takes his bike and goes in search of birds, deer, and the elusive Indian python...

Making progress through the thorny acacia scrub wasn't easy. "You stay here, Mark," (names were not my guide's strong point). "I'll call when I find more tracks. He is very close." The trouble was, in the sharp-spined thicket, we could see little of the sandy ground.

Making progress through the thorny acacia scrub wasn't easy. "You stay here, Mark," (names were not my guide's strong point). "I'll call when I find more tracks. He is very close." The trouble was, in the sharp-spined thicket, we could see little of the sandy ground.

Occasionally we had spotted a body-smoothed path - about four inches wide - in the hessian-coloured soil. My mind had raced. A four inch-wide track; it must have been made by a pretty big python. And we had passed some holes larger than rabbit burrows. Snake tracks led out of them. Or in. I had no idea which. I wondered how fast a python would move if it felt the urge to get somewhere. And which direction it might come from? I just hoped that Satto Singh, my guide for the afternoon in Rajasthan's Keoladeo National Park, knew which way this python was slithering.

Suddenly a call. "Over here. I've found him. Come quietly." A couple of arm-scratching minutes later, pushing through more acacia scrub, and there he was (or she for all I knew), in a loose coil in the shade. The Indian python was at least two-and-a-half metres long and a beautiful gold and mud brown colour. Slowly it slid off into deeper shade. It was worth the scratched arms.

As Satto was quick to point out, this was a small python. They can grow to over six metres. Killing their prey by squeezing it to death, they have been known to take on animals as large as young deer and devour them whole.

We retrieved our bikes from the roadside and cycled off along the single surfaced track through the park, Satto leading, me wobbling behind. Getting around Keoladeo is slow. Not because travel is difficult - quite the contrary. It's easy - and cheap - to hire a bike or a cycle rickshaw with a "driver". And the ground is flat. The problem is that you stop so frequently because there is so much to see.

A couple of delicate little chital or spotted deer came into view on the parched grassland, their antlers appearing large and ungainly. A flock of green pigeons landed in a roadside tree. A flash of iridescent blue signified a white-breasted kingfisher with a huge scarlet beak. We hadn't pedalled for more than a few minutes when we came across another guide and his group photographing something by a roadside pool. There on a low branch was a huge bird of prey devouring a snake.

It was an appropriately named crested serpent eagle and it was giving a bravura performance, tugging off lengths of flesh with its huge beak while holding the remnants in its talons. The last gulp was the head - pretty big but downed in one.

Further on we parked our bikes and walked along one of Keoladeo's many tree-shaded paths so that Satto could show me why this place is reckoned to be one of the richest wetlands in southern Asia. All was soon revealed. Flotillas of birds were swimming and wading on the shallow water and marshes that stretched as far as we could see. There were four types of white egret; ibises in two different colours; darters swimming in the water with only their thin necks visible; dozens of chicken-sized purple swamp hens, their iridescent plumage contrasting with their scarlet faces and gangly legs. Satto knew them all. And ducks. Thousands of ducks. Most of them were here for the winter, having flown south from Russia. It was ducks that originally made this place famous. A large plaque in the centre of the park commemorates key events in its history including: "1938: A shooting party headed by the then Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, shot 4,273 birds on 12 November". It was reckoned to be the best duck shooting in the British Empire. And the Raj exploited it.

Keoladeo's freshwater pools and marshes cover around 10 of the park's 29 square kilometres. However, the extent of the wetlands differs from year to year. It depends on how prolific the monsoon has been and how much water has been diverted away illegally by farmers. These days quite a lot never gets to the park, so the boat trips that used to be an attraction are now a thing of the past.

The wetlands are in fact man-made. Bharatpur town, just two kilometres away, used to be prone to flooding during the monsoon, so a dam was built to protect it. The hollows from which the earth was removed filled with water. That was in 1760 and Keoladeo's wetlands have been here ever since. Designated a national park in 1982, hunting has been banned - officially, anyway - since the 1960s.

Away from the wetlands, the rest of the park is dry acacia forest and grassland with scattered trees reminiscent of the African savannah. Even if you have no interest in birds or mammals, it's hard not to be entranced by Keoladeo. If you leave your bike and walk away from the crowds that stick to the single (though thankfully car-free) road, you can soak up the tranquillity.

Eagles soar in the blue sky. Excitable black and white magpie robins jump about on the paths. Black drongos - jackdaw-sized birds with lyre-shaped tails - pick insects off the backs of bluebuck, India's largest antelope, or the semi-wild cattle that graze the grassland. And groups of elegant sarus cranes, pale grey birds with blood-red faces, strut amongst a plethora of storks and herons. But don't expect silence in Keoladeo. Without warning, a posse of screaming rose-ringed parakeets, all lurid green and scarlet-beaked, will launch a noisy fly-past. Then there is the occasional blood-curdling, child-like wailing that gathers volume as more screams join the chorus, only to fade away as abruptly as it has all begun. It's a pack of golden jackals - more grey than golden and bigger than foxes - that are a common sight here.

For your last photo opportunity, a rest and a much-needed drink, head to the primitive cabin near the Hindu temple at the park's centre. At the little grey temple to Lord Shiva there's an orange-clad holy man who encourages photographs for a few rupees. "He's a businessman as well as a holy man," comments my guide. "At dusk when people leave, he goes home to his wife."

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

Bharatpur is on the Mumbai to Delhi rail line. British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com), fly from Heathrow to Delhi.

STAYING THERE

Doubles at Bharatpur Forest Lodge (00 91 5644 222722) cost from 1,296 rupees (£16), room only.

VISITING THERE

Keoladeo is open year-round. Daily entry costs 200 rupees (£2.50). Bike hire is 25 rupees (31p) a day/part day. A two-person cycle rickshaw plus guide is 60 rupees (75p) per hour. Satto Singh charges 750 rupees (£9) per day; 350 rupees (£4.50) for a half day. Guides congregate at the park entrance.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Prophylactic malaria treatment is essential. For other innoculations see your GP. British passport holders require a visa to visit India. Contact India Tourism (020-7437 3677; www.indiatouristoffice.org) for further details.

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