The odd ends of a desert

The edge of the Asian desert announces itself in little ways. Little odds and ends which you notice all add up to the feel of this dry region. For example, there are not many places where water birds congregate, nor do you find the fruit eaters. But if you are on the lookout you see lots of small birds everywhere. Some are seed eaters like larks, but many are sparrows out to raid humans. I heard a quarrelsome sparrow scream itself hoarse at a roadside eatery. Looking around, I saw it was a house sparrow (Passer domesticus) in a war with its own image in a mirror. Every escalation was met with an equal response, and the quarrel spiralled out of control until the bird was exhausted.

These birds are not weaklings. A female was hopping about on top of a wall. I watched it closely. This region sees three species and several subspecies of sparrows. The males are quite distinct, but it takes me a lot of effort to tell the females apart. As I took a shot, the female jumped from a standing start on the wall to a perch on the bush above it. This was a hop of four to five times its body length. For a human it would be a standing hop of eight to ten meters! Note to Marvel/Disney: Sparrow Man would be quite a superhero.

There’s a large number of ships of the desert beached here at its edge. We walked through a camel research center (trigger warning: don’t waste your money on it) to look at the animals resting in a corral. This madonna and her daughter gave me curious looks, but went back to bonding. The research center is more innocuous than it sounds. The main line of work is to try to make camel’s milk (very salty) more palatable to people. The other is to process camel wool to make it more acceptable in the market.

In these parts camels (technically the dromedary, Camelus dromedarius) replace cattle as the primary domestic animals. We passed herds of camels trudging by the highway, their long stride makes them quite fast even when they move without any haste. There are odd carts hitched to them. The carts are extremely short, and always balance on a single axle with truck tires on them. Why are the carts so short? Does the camel give less traction, or is it just that shorter carts are more maneuverable in sandy terrain?

Rather late in my recent wanderings around this desert I began to wonder why this biome seems to have only prickly plants. The prickly pear (Opuntia stricta) by the side of the road began to flower as I pondered this question. Thorns of cacti are modified leaves which are adapted to prevent loss of water, but even the leafy plants in this region have spiky branches. There has to be a reason for this convergent evolution of thorns in many different families of plants which grow in this region. Is it that growth is so difficult in this place that plants need to defend themselves better against passing foragers? I wish I could think of some way to test this idea.

This thorny nightshade (Solanum virginianum) is another typical dry area plant, with its vicious prickles being a deterrent to most passing browsers. I like its attractive flowers, and always stop to take photos when I notice them. The plant is full of potentially harmful chemicals, which is why extracts from this nightshade are often used in folk medicine. The poisons are concentrated even further in its yellow berries, to deter potential predators (remember, this dry biome has no fruit-eating birds).

These dry areas are hard for many kinds of animals and plants, especially the ones we like to have around us. As a result, the inhabitants are often strange creatures, bound into a strange ecology, into food webs which are unfamiliar to me. Also, because of the same reason, worldwide there is a tendency to call them wastelands, and not mind at all if “development” destroys these webs and wipes out these gene pools.

New Year? Get outta here

On my last night in the desert, a friend asked me whether I’d taken any photos of camels. “Too trite”, I replied. But when I woke before dawn the next morning I remembered the question. I walked out into the sands outside our little mud hut and looked at camels munching away on thorn bushes. The sun was just breaking through the clouds while the camels looked terribly bored and sleepy.

“You got up just to look at this s***?”, it seemed to think. “Why did you even bother?” it might have asked in that sleepy, the morning after the night out look, that a camel always has. I couldn’t forget this image. So, at the crack of a dawn that brings on a new year, I’m posting this photo.

“New year? Really, why did you think it might be interesting?” the supercilious chap seems to ask. I don’t want to argue with it, but a happy new year to you.

Camels with everything

The last week came with a long weekend. I took the time out to travel with friends to Ranthambore national park. We flew into Jaipur and drove for three hours. The weather was worse than I’d expected when I looked at the prediction the previous night. The afternoon temperature was 15 degrees Celsius and we drove through a thunderstorm. The Family remarked "If the weather does not change, we aren’t going to see any tigers." The Victor was very cheerfully replied, "We aren’t going to see them anyway."

We were on a four-lane divided highway, with a very monotonous vista of scrub land around us. The light was dull and we were deep in conversation about the merits of Ranthambore as a national park when suddenly we spotted camels on the horizon. Not one, but a whole herd of domesticated camels were on their way towards us. We knew we were in Rajasthan. The desert of thirty years ago is slowly giving way to agriculture as canals and irrigation systems reshape the land, but camels remain ubiquitous in the towns of Rajasthan.

Camels on the Jaipur-Indore highway

Traffic rules do not seem to apply to camels. The bunch spilled over more than one lane as it travelled the wrong way down the highway. I had a quick glimpse of one of the camel drivers as we moved past the herd. I’m told that traditional social and caste divisions in Rajasthan can be read off from the way the turban is tied. I’m a non-starter in reading these signs.

We settled back for another couple of hours of monotony, with the heavy rain drumming on the car.Overloaded tractor on the road in rural Rajasthan But the camels had energized us. I had my camera in my hand and was looking around for more signs that we were driving through rural Rajasthan. Tractors overloaded with hay waiting on the side of the road are common all over India. There’s nothing about it which spells Rajasthan. But we also sped past congregations of men with large turbans and a very few women, with faces completely covered, which told us where we were. By late afternoon the weather cleared up, and we passed Sawai Madhopur station and turned into the road to the Ranthambore national park and our hotel.

Of course, camel carts shared the road with tractors and jeeps.