It’s 31st August, which means only one thing; the annual Field Team Training Programme has finally made its way back round the SUJÁN calendar. All members of the field department (rangers, drivers, trackers) in all our three camps take part in various tasks that encourage team unity, education and training. This year, JAWAI’s Head of Field, Vedant Thite, hosted and ran the three-day programme.
The first day was a physical exercise of cleaning routes we use on our game drives. The monsoon, which hits JAWAI in late July, through August and early September, floods the surrounding land as well as filling up the vast reservoir. This rainfall will provide the land with a life giving breath to many of the plants withering away in the summer heat.
A total of 16 members, split into two groups set off out of the camp, one group heading north with the other south. Armed with kootios (local knife used in the same way as a machete), two backpacks one of which had water and the other: a pair binoculars, camera and first aid kit.
It seemed almost immediately as we got to work, threatening, dark grey clouds were pushing their way towards us and shortly after, the rain started falling. Now the downpour wasn’t torrential, nor was it drizzle, it was an almost unnoticeable blanket of tiny droplets which in a short time would soak your clothes to the skin.
We continued on, wanting to finish as soon as possible and escape getting drenched. As quickly as we tried, the pace hardly sped up, the reason being that we had to navigate through bushes that were encased by a shield of thorns. In the dry seasons (September-May) the water in areas away from the reservoir’s basin completely recedes. Consequently these plants naturally want to conserve as much water for themselves and so these thorns are a defence mechanism to ward off the hungry and thirsty animals around. Despite this, it did seem though that all these bushes had gained wind of our coming and wanted to make it as difficult as possible for us to prune their flailing branches.
Our end point was the Jeevda Mata ji Mandir, a temple used by the local Rabaris dedicated to the Mother Goddess. However, just before the finish line, one of the groups saw a sounder of about 20 wild boar rummaging around the scrub land digging with their snouts for roots and then sensing the group approaching sprinted in the opposite direction.
On arrival, the rainclouds had blown away and we were greeted by the priest with a warm cup of chai and a place to sit. As the priest and Rabaris very kindly prepared our dinner; daal and bhati (a local bread), the new recruits gave a theoretical presentation on the basics of navigation such as using a standard compass and following techniques to find North without using a compass.
An early night followed soon after with everyone grabbing a blanket (again very kindly offered by the temple’s priests) and finding a place under the stars…ready for whatever will be thrown at us tomorrow.
The next morning’s alarm being the morning prayer ceremony the temple held at sunrise was a rhythmic clash of drums and the chiming of bells, sounds that are usually heard with hospitable ears but at 05:45 in the morning I think the majority of the team wished they could have put it on snooze and roll back over.
Sadly, this was not the case, but to make the wake up pleasant, the smell of a warm cup of masala chai offered to us by the courteous host did the trick. Filling up our water bottles from the well, we set off to meet Vedant for breakfast at Silent Valley. However, in this programme, the reward of food doesn’t come so easily and again we had to clear the roads from our thorny nemesis. Being a valley that flows directly into the reservoir and in an area that can have a heavy monsoon, I’m sure you can imagine the task at hand. With every victory we had, the bushes had their own share in the action, retaliating with their own stabs and scratches.
Two hours passed and we eventually made it to Sujan Hill where our breakfast awaited: boiled eggs and pakoras. The hill offers a beautiful view of the lake which at this time of year is filled to a whopping 61ft, and with the sun slowly getting brighter as if the curtain of a stage is raised and slowly the audience envisions a gorgeous backdrop of the expansive water with the mountains in the distance.
The food was all eaten in a record time of 15 minutes, so we decided to go to this water body that houses many of the local muggers (Indian Marsh Crocodiles, not bandits) to cool off. Although we were all replaying the memory of our mothers telling us that we had to wait 45 minutes before swimming after eating, it was far too enticing to be able to resist.
Showered and feeling much fresher, we headed off for the next task for the day. The original plan was to be given a tracking course before lunch by Vedant, however as he had to return to complete set errands in preparation for the camps opening, we decided to all play a game of Kabaddi. To put it simply, how Kabaddi works is that there are two teams on each side of the pitch. The objective of the game is for one member of the team to go to the opponent’s side of the pitch and touch as many players as possible while also getting back and past the halfway line with any part of their body. Sounds simple enough but this all has to be done on one breath and continually saying “Kabaddi”. By working together the objective of the opponents is to stop the player by any means possible from getting past the halfway line (leg pulling, tackling, arm yanking, etc.). If they succeed the player is out and the play changes over, but if they do not succeed all the opponents that were touched by the player are out.
Vedant was finally able to pull himself away from camp. He brought along his mentor, the man who had taught him everything he knows about wildlife, Mr Chaoji, one of the trainers in the exercise. Mr. Chaoji sat us all down and taught us how tracks and sign identification are hugely important not only to tracking and finding the animal but also for research. From one set of leopard tracks, you are able to ascertain its age, gender, size, how fast it was moving and most surprisingly whether it was pregnant or not.
If you have seen a leopard pug mark, their toes are the tell-tale sign to determine its gender: the males have much rounder toes while the female’s shape is more pointed, similar to a raindrop. The size of the whole pug mark will determine the age: for a male 11cm is the typical length of an adult while 9cm is the typical size of an adult female. To find out the size you need to be able to recognise a pug mark made from one of the hind legs and then measure the distance to where the next mark of the same hind leg is made. This method is most accurate when the leopard giving these prints is walking, but it can also be measured while running. Leopards are, by nature, creatures of stealth and therefore when moving around, they would want to move as quietly as possible. A leopard when walking slowly, say for example, when stalking prey, will place their hind paw in the same place where their front paw has just stepped (this is called registering). When running the hind leg paw will over step the front paw and the distance in between these will determine how fast the leopard was running.
The most surprising fact to hear was that by a leopards gait, you are able to determine whether the leopard was pregnant or not. The gap between the left paws and the right paws is very small and are almost in a straight line however as the cubs grow larger and heavier, the distance between the two widens.
As the sun was beginning to drop, we had to make it back for the second of our educational courses…astronomy. Again hosted by Mr. Chaoji. He prepared a couple of presentations, the first being an introduction to stars, their life cycles while using a couple of examples. The second was then reading the night sky and how throughout the year constellations will come and go.
The next morning, we had one more task left for the new recruits before finally finishing the gruelling three day, an unassisted walk from a surprise location.
The new recruits and others who wanted to lose their summer weight were dropped off on a dirt road with no water, first aid, torch, map or compass and had to navigate back to camp.
At first it was difficult to get our bearings of where we were in respect to camp, but as we all found the nearest highpoint to scan the area we were finally able to see the two large hills that JAWAI neighbours, Baliraja and Bisalpur Hill. Fortunately it didn’t seem too far away and the landscape that stood in between us and our destination seemed pretty flat. We cut across scrub land and side-stepped around recently ploughed fields. Finally as the area started to become familiar we picked up the pace to reach camp as soon as possible. Vedant had been kind, the walk came to a little under 10km. We had finally finished the three days of physical exhaustion wielding the solid iron kootios and walking in rain, as well as under the blazing sun cooking the air.
The purpose of going through this physical excursion wasn’t because the management get a feeling of schadenfreude, the whole reason is to build team cohesion and unity. We had a system where one member would cut back the bush while the other member was holding the branches in place and then clear up the thorny debris from the road. It’s in time of challenge where cooperation is vital:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” (John Donne).