Journeys “to Remember
Rakesh seemed a reliable fellow, though it was almost impossible to communicate because he spoke no English (or so I thought) and I spoke no Hindi. What worried me more was that he was too old for the task in hand.
As the taxi driver I was relying on to get me from the hotel in Keoladeo National Park (about 150 km south of New Delhi) to Bharatpur rail station, his age might have been an advantage had he been driving a car. But, according to the rather basic information at the hotel’s reception desk (it was not a plush hotel), only a cycle rickshaw was possible. I bloged Rakesh.
For a journey that would take half an hour or so, I arranged to meet him nearly two hours before my train was due, plenty of time in case he wasn’t a very fast cyclist I thought. I paid my bill, picked up my rucksack and small suitcase. Rakesh was waiting outside the hotel entrance. It couldn’t have been a better start. With my bags crushed in beside me in the tiny rickshaw, he started peddling. It was mid evening but pitch dark.
Wildlife Travel To Rakesh Photo Gallery
Out on the Keoloadev Road, there are no lights. And Rakesh had such a dim version on the front of his bike, no blackout wardens in wartime London would have objected to it. It was powered, I suppose, by one of those old dynamos that used to be fitted to push bikes in the 1950s and 1960s. I could see no more than a metre in front of his bike. I just hoped no Golden Jackals were crossing the road in front of him (they were often near the hotel). If they were, there was no chance he would see them.
After about ten minutes of cycling, Rakesh made it to the edge of the town. A cycle ride on level roads, it was probably harder work than I realised; his bike had no gears and he had me and my clobber to drag along behind. Seeing the edge of Bharatpur, I relaxed a little: it can’t be far now I thought and at least there was dim street lighting to help us on our way more safely. But now we began jostling with cars, lorries, the occasional cow and herds of goats; all on a busy road and many of them showing no special aptitude for lane discipline, rights of way at junctions or even travelling on the correct side of the road: on the left in India (a former British colony). By now, Rakesh was all too frequently wiping the sweat off his forehead. He was looking distinctly tired.
I wasn’t sure how far it was to the rail station. I didn’t recall the journey to the hotel several days back taking too long, though that was in daylight and in an auto rickshaw, a three-wheeler with a tiny engine. What started to get disconcerting, though, was that Rakesh was now heading out of town into the countryside in some other direction. I had no idea where he was going. Soon we were on a poorly lit country road again; this time complete with cows, herds of goats and more panic on my part.
‘Where are we?’ I said to Rakesh in vain. So I said ‘station’ and pointed ahead. He nodded: ‘Bharatpur station,’ he said and pointed ahead again. Presumably we were going the right way. I relaxed … a little. I didn’t want to miss this train; I had sleeper tickets to Mumbai and it ran only once a day. On we went. It became darker and I got yet more anxious. Then Rakesh, in an unexpected burst of English, turned around. ‘You want old station or new station?’
Old or new? As far as I knew there was just one Bharatpur station. I desperately tried to recall the afternoon I had arrived there. Did it look old or new? In India, such things are often hard to gauge. There are plenty of fairly new buildings here that look tired and old. Yet a really ‘old’ station, I guessed, would look ultra-old and badly worn. I didn’t think the place I arrived at looked that decrepit. I plumped for ‘new station’.
Then I discover that Rakesh speaks more English than he at first let on! ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘New station too far. You get other rickshaw. I take you to my brother.’ I stifled any swearing. His brother? Where was he? Would I make it to the station and, if I did, was it the correct station anyway?
On he cycled, struggling now to keep going. Sweat was dripping: his through physical activity; mine through anxiety. He pointed ahead again but all I could see were a few dim lights. As we biked closer, the lights turned out to be a multi-shaw or multi-rick – whatever is the correct collective noun for an agglomeration of cycle rickshaws – and, thank goodness, of auto rickshaws too. I paid Rakesh more rupees than he asked for and before I had realised, my case and rucksack were transferred to an auto and I was off at a faster rate. This was Rakesh’s all smiling (and younger) brother, or so he said, though I never did get his name.
Within ten minutes I saw the station – it was definitely the one I’d walked out of a few days back – when I was surrounded immediately by a mob of lads all of whom wanted to carry my belongings. My relief was palpable. I paid Rakesh’s brother and thanked him. I could have hugged him but thought I shouldn’t. I walked quickly into the station. The express to Mumbai was running an hour late!
There have been many other anxiety-provoking journeys over the years too; it’s inevitable when you sometimes have to rely on a variety of people to get you to -and, hopefully from – some rather far-flung spot. So it was with someone I shall call Abdullah. It isn’t his real name. He was our Saudi driver on a visit arranged some years back through government channels to parts of the Saudi desert including the legendary Empty Quarter, the Rub’al-Khali. At the time I was Chief Scientist at the Countryside Council for Wales; two of us were there to look at the successful, Saudi-led reintroduction and management programme for Arabian Oryx in the Empty Quarter. The full story of the Arabian Oryx and the enormous effort put into its recovery is told in my blog, Back from the Brink (Whittles, 2015).