‘Wild life’ travel is an expensive business. Add the mountain of difficulty in getting accommodation inside the sanctuaries, further add the randomness of the routes allotted to you in the Jungle, and you think twice before embarking on such trips. But the thrill, unpredictability, green cocoon, sounds and smell, and visuals offered are unparalleled so we always end up coughing up the money beyond our reach.
However, a few sanctuaries in India, like National Chambal Sanctuary, though not as glamorous as Jim Corbett or Bandhavgarh or Kabini, do offer similar experiences without making a hole in your pocket and with ease of booking. Tal Chapar is yet another in this less glamorous list. Hiding in Churu district of Rajasthan, it is not on the common tourist radar. Winter is the best time to visit but if it is the raptors that you want to see then early and late winter is the best time.
Many a times, specially folks from Delhi NCR have asked us about off beat places in Rajasthan, having exhausted all well-known places after multiple visits. When we suggest about Tal Chapar, pat comes the question what to expect at Tal Chapar besides Black bucks. It certainly does not have any of the big cats, but let me reveal its charms to you and then you make your own opinion.
1. To meet the creator of this Grassland Odyssey:
First and foremost is to meet the living legend: Mr Surat Singh Poonia, the Range Forest Officer, Tal Chapar wildlife sanctuary.
This sanctuary, before it was declared a sanctuary, was a hunting and horse pasturing ground of Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner. This green grassland was nothing more than an invaded territory of Juliflora proposis, commonly called Angreji Babool, when Mr poonia was appointed in charge. Mr Poonia and his small team, manually uprooted it and planted ‘Mothiya’ grass. This grass derives its name from ‘Moti’ meaning pearl, as its seeds look like pearls. This grass is liked by Blackbucks and its seeds are liked by many birds. Today the flourishing grassland is heaven for many insects, thus providing a pyramid for food chain.
Before Mr Poonia Ji took charge, the area had a documented list of only 100 bird species. Now the count is more than 300. His efforts in maintaining the grass land are clearly showing results. But he did not stop at just that. He started a documentation initiative, recording a daily database of species spotted. This simple practice revealed the amazing rarities visiting this small heaven like Kashmiri flycatchers, spotted treecreeper and likes.
Despite all these achievements, he is a simple man, humble to the core, passionate for the sanctuary, and an expert on the birds of the area. So much so that he identifies raptors with such ease and expertise that even seasoned birders pale in front of him. Yet he is always willing to help even unimportant visitors as us. He sat with us to look at our blurry pictures, identified and explained how he identified these, offered us to take for a drive to find spotted tree creepers, engaged kids wholeheartedly, and directed his staff to take kids for a night safari in the campus to find the hedgehog.
You will fall in love with Poonia ji and his sanctuary.
2. Of course Blackbuks
Blackbuck is a handsome antelope who is native to and found mainly in India. There are many sanctuaries protecting black bucks. However, this one shelters more than 2500 blackbucks. There are no organised safaris or route restrictions or timing constraints. It is open from sunrise to sunset. It allows you to roam on your two feet, giving you a chance to pause and praise the various herds; all female, all male and yes, bachelor herds.
Since there is no probable danger in this sanctuary, you can spend as much time as you want, just looking at the Blackbucks in various moods and actions. The young ones of Blackbuks will steal not just kid’s heart but yours also. Watching the very young ones leaping and sprinting will make you skip your beats.
The LEKKING strategy of males to attract and win females will keep you hooked for hours. At one moment, we found ourselves in the centre of this LEKKING strategy and were forced to make strategy for our safe exit.
Others making it to the list are Chinkara (Indian Gazelle), Indian Wolf, Indian hare, Desert Fox, monitor lizard and spiny tailed lizards, and snakes.
3. Bird Watching:
Yes, you read it right. It is as popular in birding world as Jim Corbett is in Wild life world. Its star attractions are Spotted Creeper and impossibly crowded assembly of Raptors. The checklist of birds is already at 300+ and increasing every year with more and more rarities arriving. This impressive avian diversity alone is a big draw for any visitor.
But foremost and most endearing is its status as “Raptor Country”, with species of Vultures, eagles, hawks, buzzards, falcons and kites dotting the grassland, specially as passage migrants. With patience and some luck ( during the season), you can tick 10 to twenty raptors in a single day!
Then there is Stolizcka’s Bushchats’s Puff and roll routine. Watching it walk with its chest puffed up is delightful and amusing.
Peacocks are aplenty and you will surely get to see them at close quarters.
4. Stay in the FRH at Tal Chapar:
When we think of FRH, we usually think some old quarters in dense jungles without creature comforts. This one is the exception. It is minimalist in design and somewhat an amalgamation of Rajasthani and colonial style; quiet, airy, well-lit, spacious and very comfortable place to forget yourself. And for a change, it is surrounded by grasslands of the sanctuary and Chapar town, so there is no obstruction between you and the blue sky in the day and dazzled star lit sky in night. They serve simple food, which for us is a positive point. Those who want to go birding early morning, will have to go empty stomach. They do not serve breakfast so early.
5. Soothing Drive from Delhi:
TCS is some 350 Kms from Delhi and the drive soothes your nerves instead of tiring you. The route is less travelled, sparsely populated, and roads are good barring a few kilometres.
6. Star Gazing
Rajasthan is sparsely populated and this part of Rajasthan is even more sparse in population. Climate is always dry to very dry, air pollution in such small towns is non existent. This gives a very clear night sky almost throughout the year making sky gazing a delight.
Once we reached Chapar at around eleven pm in night and when kids got out of car and walked like zombies, they somehow got a look at sky. In that sleepy vision and sleeping mind, they were awestruck by the density of stars in the sky. So much so that my younger one, who was only five then, wondered if sky in Chapar had many more stars than all other places. Later, when he was seven and we visited Jaisalmer, he was again wonder struck by the dazzling sky.
7. Chapar Town:
The town is no match to the havelis of Shekhawati but still a stroll in the town gives an idea of the riches of Rajasthani Havelis. The town also lets you feel the rhythm and flow of interiors of Rajasthan, sans the touristy-ness.
Enough reasons to pack your bags and go.