There was barely any light when we first saw her, moving slowly at first then bounding into the castor fields; caught in the act of killing a porcupine. I had just finished relaying the sighting report to Adam Bannister as a message crackled the jeep wireless into life again. The voice was Jaisalbs, radioing in from Camp to say antelope alarm calls outside his tent were bellowing the presence of a leopard nearby. We were about 10 kilometres out from Camp already so stayed in our position, waiting for the light to rise on that extraordinarily cold December morning last year, sitting metres away from an adult leopard now enjoying feasting on her porcupine kill.
Soon enough, Adam drove round the hill with our guests Maria and Nomi and I retreated a little way away to give them the front row seats on this the first sighting of our first drive of JAWAIbs first season. Soon the sun rose and the shadows retreated into the recesses of the hills. The leopard, a female we have since come to call the Temple Female manifested herself ascending a rock, as if to catch the first rays of the sun hitting her winter coat. It was the 11th day of the 12th month of the 13th year of the second millenium, and our first day of operations at JAWAI. 11.12.13. is JAWAIbs birthday.
Today, exactly a year later, JAWAI and our team have just completed our first year of operations. We were all blessed by a wonderful sighing of leopard this morning too, an unidentified young male, displaying himself against the dark, granite rock faces. Between that drive and this one today, we have carried out over five hundred drives across the area, looking for new species, sighting new leopards and discovering new experiences.
Our Field team has compiled an enviable dossier of information. This is a veritable database about our surreal rock formations, the creatures that live around them, visual records of the topography changing through the seasons and stories of the hardy, hospitable and charismatic people who have happily shared this land and their lives with us over this last year.
JAWAI was born out of a determined and pioneering spirit to create an establishment that wedded best eco-tourism practises with spoiling luxury to one of the remotest corners of rural Rajasthan. In May 2014, JAWAI, five months into operations, the Camp was already on the Conde Nast Travellerbs bHot Listb which said, bThere are now quite a few sophisticated safari lodges and camps in India, but none comes close to JAWAI for extraordinary wildlife encounters.b In June, the CNBC-Awaaz award for the bBest Wildlife Experience in Indiab was presented to JAWAI for 2014. All of us at SUJAN, who had pushed ourselves to an bunhealthyb degree of determination and resolve, to open camp in record time, suddenly felt a pride that cannot really be articulated. A year down the line, we are thinking of the next stage in our evolution here, in the heart of Rajasthanbs Godwar region.
Our relations with our local communities are based on mutual admiration, benefit and trust, built over this last year. Over 80 per cent of the staff at JAWAI are local lads, who earn an income at their doorsteps rather than slogging away for years in a distant and unforgiving metropolis. On their daysb off, they still assist their families on their farms and with their herds yet today they have an additional talent that has honed their natural proclivity for hospitality into a professional skill.
The SNS Foundation our CSR arm is already active in the area working on cleaning villages, planning veterinarian services for local cattle and working out exigencies for other projects to bring benefits; economic and educational to the region.
The guest experience at JAWAI continues to grow more diverse by the month.
Apart from game drives and wildlife we have introduced hiking, mountain-cycling, yogic exercises and a chance to observe and even participate in the lives of our local communities. At Camp, plantation of indigenous grasses and trees at a zealous pace has meant the bird life is now flourishing in what used to be cattle kralls and wheat fields. Our camera traps around camp have caught some wonderful images of the smaller mammals scurrying about Camp; including squirrels, hedgehogs, porcupines even the rarely seen Asiatic wildcat on occasion. What remains constant is that there is never a bbad day at the officeb and even on the most difficult drives that require patient waits, no one is ever without a dramatic view of the landscape that William Dalrymple has described as bother-wordlyb.
For me personally, the transformation from the farmland I discovered last May into what is one of Indiabs finest luxury tented camps is sometimes still bunrealb. Anjalibs creative magic has woven JAWAI into life as the details get more detailed but never complicated.
If ever the spirit of a team could be visible it is here. And as another chromatic sunset performs its daily ritual, never the same and always inspiring, over the horizon a rush of pride, close to adrenalin rushes through us; particularly as we all look back to what has been a year of grace and achievement.
Words by SUJAN’S Director of Wildlife Experiences, Photography by Adam Bannister, Head of Field Team at JAWAI.