Sunday, 28 November 2010

Baba ji does the camel fair

An early morning hazy mist hung over the countryside, light cloud cover took the heat out the sun, prolonging how long it took to burn off the overhanging mist. Whilst not looking stormy and dense, the clouds done a good job of holding off the full intensity of the sun, making it pretty damned good riding weather.Our fourth day of riding was to take us over the Aravelli Mountains and into the regions bordering theThar desert, it was due to be a long slow slog, picking our way over difficult rocky terrain, battling our way through dense, thorny scrub. It wasn’t to be a day we might enjoy a faster pace of riding, so there was no need for me to feel deprived by the lack of cantering or galloping.Up to that point any attempt by Jesal to lead an orderly, controlled trot or canter had ended in complete disarray. After three days the advanced riders within the group had failed to get their mounts into any semblance of control; as soon as increasing the pace to a trot it all started going wrong, every time.We’d barely broken into a canter, managing less than 30 metres before a rush of horses from behind brought bedlam to the proceedings, bringing it all to a dissatisfactory halt before it had even got under way. Laxshmi, as lead horse, was skittish and halted my progress by bouncing from side to side, as Jesal reined her in harshly whilst kicking her hard and whipping her face. In the meantime Dunraj and Kumari would rush down each side, crowding closely in on Poonham, blocking me in and spooking Poonham. Disconsolate I rode, my frustration clear to Jesal, for prolonged periods I let the reins drop loose, my feet out the stirrups, only using my dangling legs for communication with Poonham. I guess my dissatisfaction couldn’t be ignored, it was that obvious; apparently not though, no other punter noticed.Nor did they equate their lack of horse control with the lack of cantering or galloping, despite my gentle assertion that until people managed to maintain control of their mounts, the guide could not risk picking up the pace. I was still piggy in the middle, which I only now realise the full predicament this put me in.I was a self-declared newcomer to horse riding, on this basis alone the other party members would take little notice of anything I had to say about horse riding. To suggest any failing on their behalf was beyond belief to them, what did I know, they were advanced riders, and they had their own horses. The criticism should have come from the safari organisers, I assume it didn’t because the others were not making any complaints about the pace of riding, they seemed content to plod along, day in, day out! I wasn’t, I’d planned the two together as a natural progression to my riding, the second safari was supposed to be a harder faster ride, needing more effort, more endurance, and more experience Personally I can’t see how they managed to ride at all, with their heads shoved so far up their own backsides. At no point did any of the three question any of their own actions or attitudes, everything was always a problem created by someone else, they could never be at fault. (Photos: Camels and herders - Pushkar fair, Rajastan)

I wasn’t alone in my criticism of the standard of riding, Jesal completely agreed with my analysis of the problem. He knew how I liked to ride, he’s seen me take my first and every subsequent gallop, he’s watched as my confidence and competence improved, given praise at the speed with which I’d progressed since arriving. In an effort to appease me he invited me to continue alone into gallop if Laxshmi was prancing from side to side, the relief was instant, nothing to hold me back, I couldn’t wait for the next trot! True enough, a short trot and as we tried to canter Laxshmi her antics and Jesal just waved me on. Straight into a canter, not bothering to seat myself I lifted out the saddle and kicked Poonham faster. Being slightly reluctant at first, she wasn’t used to being out alone like that, she was up to speed as Dunraj drew alongside. No way was he going to pass us, we were almost flat out and he hadn’t the speed to pull further past. I didn’t care though, being up out of the saddle, balanced well and going like thunder was all that mattered. Not knowing whether she was enjoying the experience or scared shitless I continued, savouring every second of it. The sight of a highway looming in the distance meant reining in, giving myself plenty of time before meeting the road. Kumari hadn’t been too far behind, and we all stopped safely on the edge of the road. Everyone had taken pursuit when I took off, unable or unwilling to rein in, only then did I inform them it’d previously been agreed for me to continue alone. Of course that was a bone of contention for some! And that really put a smile on my face, they hadn’t been able to hold the horses back! Sometimes my sense of humour appals me! (Photos: Horses, the cute and the ugly - Pushkar Fair, Rajastan)

Beyond caring whether anyone else enjoyed it or not, my only concern was having a good ride. A second opportunity presented itself and I was off again, a similar situation occurred. Poonham and Dunraj were almost neck and neck, mother and son striding out together, with Kumari close behind, ever the competitive one. When a village hove into view, it was time to rein in and regroup before entering the narrow village streets. Us three at the front pulled up nicely, just at the junction of the first street, without spilling over onto the concrete road surface. The next two didn’t, though the guides behind them managed fine, and rushed through gaps between us, onto the road. Bitter complaints followed, rules being laid down by punters; apparently whichever person is in front must look behind to check how close the others are before reining in. I was stunned, that would have meant entering the village doing at least a fast trot, I had to point out the basic premise about riding or driving behind anything, “keep a safe distance”. All this had happened in those first three days, already I reminisced about the delights of riding the first safari compared to this. The riding failed to improve in the following days, but that was the least of our worries. Our fourth day was a real humdinger! (Photo: Hanging at the fair - Pushkar Fair, Rajastan)

As soon as setting off we began the climb taking us over the Aravelli mountains, without putting hoof to tarmac a rough track began, wide enough to allow a jeep and the horses to pass easily. We travelled similar trails to the ones I’ve done over mountains on my motorbike, only up to a point though, once out of the higher valleys a bike would have been useless. There were some rocky sections, very narrow ones, with drops of a hundred metres, later in the day we fought through thorny scrub for hours to find our way through a dried up ravine, even losing the scant cattle trail we entered by. Gorgeous mountain villages perched on impossible outcrops of rocks, the houses built into the rock itself. They were hotchpotch affairs visually, I’m sure they’ve stood the test of time though. Folk were awesome, so pleased to see us, lining up to greet us at the side of the road, coming forward to shake my hand, thanking me for coming to their village. Jesal said it was the first time the safari had come through that way, the heartfelt warmth of their greetings suggested as much. What did take me by surprise, was their state of dress, it was almost impeccable. It might have been wet and muddy, they may have been working in the fields, but even the slightly worn garments looked well laundered, even the Dohti wearing oxen plougher looked clean. The tranquillity of those upland pastures was superb, the people real gems, the purity of riding silently through such areas didn’t escape my attention. When I did talk to anyone it was to point out flora and fauna to Jutte, who rode Dunraj, to pass back the info. At the few brief stops I could only think to exclaim how beautiful the area was, rarely enticing any confirmation from anyone but Jesal. (Photo: Cattle doing what they do - Pushkar fair, Rajastan)

It was like following old herder’s trails, dipping up and down between hills, passing through villages every hour or so. In the shelter of the mountains the land was still very moist, oxen ploughed silently, their work eased by the recent rains. Cresting our last ridge the trailhead came to another village, and the first accessible road for a hours. As usual our arrival elicited a high turnout of local curiosity seekers, people and horses milling everywhere. Having gone to pee behind a bush I don’t know what happened, the first I heard was the loud, frightened neighing of a horse in distress, closed followed by Sylvia, the Italy rider, screaming as well. (Photo: Camels enjoying sunset - Pushkar fair, Rajastan)

By the time I got there she was face down in the gravel, rigid, screaming at everyone to leave her alone. Unbelievably they were actually going to, I mean all the other safari members, so I gently sat down a metre away and asked her if she could talk to me, so we could find out what the problem was. It worked, eventually, a bit of breathing control and a few gentle words established the nature of what happened, it also got her talking and helping to assess possible damage. When rolling over was deemed possible, even desirable, things didn’t look drastic to me. She’d been caught full kick by one of the horses, in the melee of horses, riders and trying to get one of them to hold all their horses, so they could go for a pee. Our guide hadn’t been any slouch, by the time Sylvia was on her feet one of our vehicles was almost with us, luckily being within about 20km when it happened. As I loaded her into the car and discussed whether she should go to hospital, I heard Andrea declaring how unsafe the horses were and they shouldn’t have horses on safari if they were likely to kick. Being calm and rational gets a point across better than hot-headedness (I must be growing up at last), what surprised me was the most experience rider, blaming the horse for getting spooked by too many people and horses close behind. I felt obliged to confirm with her that one of the golden rules of being around horses, was don’t get too close to their hind quarters. Maybe people grow complacent with their personal horses, who supposedly never kick, but it’s still the most basic knowledge, a horse could kick! I probably shouldn’t have pointed out about their constant complaints, or inability to control their horses properly, and it was this which prevented us from cantering or galloping; at least it was managed without any anger or the slightest raising of my voice. And I’m glad I didn’t blow my cool, I made fair comments but still needed to live amongst these people. Much later we found out it was only a cracked rib, which I thought it might be, at worst. But it meant the end of riding on her holiday. Now we were down to four, with me being the odd one out; at least I wasn’t an aggressor. Cool, calm and rational I can handle; I like this man! (Photo: Going home empty handed - Pushkar fair, Rajastan)

What I wasn’t prepared for was the onslaught that followed! Leaving the village put us straight onto gravel paths again, as we picked out way downhill all the memories of Cai’s accident flooded back. Seeing him spread across the freeway, lying, dying. Only then did I question my actions and decisions when dealing with Sylvia’s accident, doubts about possible internal injuries, though such concerns were rapidly washed away by the grief.

Three days without rain, exactly as desired, except it was too hot for people then. What we needed was a good gallop, allow the cool fresh air to cool us down. Of course we couldn’t, could we? Attempts to achieve canters always ended with Dunraj and Kumari coming either side, crowding Poonham and eventually even she starting laying her ears back and getting nervous in the crush. After two more days of this any patience I might possess should have been long gone, eruptions should have been due, instead I withdrew a bit, remained polite, passed the time of day with them, even tried to be helpful, but kept myself more and more to myself. If sat for more than ten minutes listening to them talk exclusively in German I would remove myself, have a cigarette, or just sit in my tent, happier with my own company. But every day plodding along wound me up further, by the end of day five I realised that I was not getting what I wanted out of the safari through no fault of my own. Rather than make demands and cause problems about it I decided to leave, so told Vishan of my decision just before supper. Rather than leave I got my own guide and a promise to pander to my needs where the riding come into it. And didn’t we just canter and gallop! Stretches of highway were avoided, we’d loop round off the road at a canter, joining it a kilometre of so later. Boy, they really put me through my paces. Poonham lost a shoe, which slowed her a touch, and my right knee and ankle swelled in sympathy. They were fine the next day, just a sign of the rigours of riding hard and fast all day, it’s a good thing to be aware of. (Photo: Balloon rides over the fair - Pushkar fair, Rajastan)

Then it was back down to thunderous deluges, our last day before Pushkar, next stop the camel fair. A downpour became a deluge, became a thunderstorm, stayed with us for hours. It got to the stage where the everything was sodden and the horses were becoming chilled, they needed exercise but none of the other three would ride them, they all refused to ride because it was raining. I only realised at the last minute, no-one came to inform me in my tent, I threw my boots on and set off on Poonham, all the other horses were ridden by staff. Not one item of rainwear was offered them, the guys were in heavy rain with only thin cotton shirts, whilst they used what they had to shelter them while they got in the 4 X 4. And the ironic thing was the ride was one of the best, of either safari, and not just because the others weren’t there. Surrounded by excellent countryside the route was empty of people, the colours were gorgeous, heightened by the persistent rain. As we got to small villages a trail of people could be seen, as we criss-crossed the dirt tracks leading different ways towards the fair. Trucks would squeeze through the minute village streets, loaded with Marwari horses, cattle or even the occasional camel. We stopped in a filthy hovel for chai, the guys needed to warm up, I was fine I was soaked through, but warm…ish. In fact as soon as the rain stopped I had my cape off, my jacket open and revelled in the warming rays. Given a last chance to ride into Pushkar everyone else reiterated their refusal to ride that day, so it was left to us to ride the horses into Pushkar. (Photo: It was that way last year! - Pushkar fair, Rajastan)

For a couple of hours we rode through a land of smaller scale crop production, small orchards of a local fruit, fields of Marigolds and Roses, our first cotton plantations. The journey in was along a soft-sanded track, great for a spurt of speed, give the beasts a chance to stretch, make the most of the conditions. Don’t they just love the feel of wet sand beneath their hooves? Camel herders drove their camels past, groups of up to a couple of dozen, nose to nose with the horses, who were a tiny bit uncomfortable with this. Approaching the site it got busier, countless trucks with horses, herds of cattle and more and more camels; I couldn’t imagine a better way to arrive at Pushkar Camel Fair. A touching moment that brought tears to my eyes, filled my mind with thoughts of Cai. It seems to be the way, whenever I experience a moving moment it brings it all back to mind. I can live with that! (Photo: Part of the well used test track - Pushkar fair, Rajastan)

Rounding Pushkar off with a ride through the showground was also an exceptional finale to the horse riding experience in Rajastan. Again, I went with only staff members, they rode with pennants aflutter, using the chance for some free advertising, I rode feeling a bit special, having achieved something special. I also got the chance to have a good gallop up and down the test track, avoiding camel carts and young kids. I thoroughly enjoyed it,had a bit of a pose, got photographed by tourists, and had the chance to have a solo ride. Poonham didn’t want to canter off on her own, so it took a bit of persuading, once she trusted me to take her back to the others we made the most of the chance, galloping up and down the 500m track. The rest of Pushkar fair was alright, maybe I should have wandered round the bazaar, but I couldn’t be bothered, I wasn’t interested in buying anything, I’d done what I set out to do and hadn’t fallen at any hurdle. (Photo: Jesal and the guys - Princess Trails, Adventure Safaris, at the camel fair, Rajastan)

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