Fairy Chimneys

We flew in to Kayseri airport and ran through a thunderstorm to a bus which was to take us to Göreme. We dried off during the long bus journey as we looked out at the landscape which turned from green fields to the white rock chimneys which Cappadocia is famous for. Every guide and guidebook tells you how the word came from a Persian source which means Land of the Beautiful Horses, but a very interesting news story from four years ago throws some doubt on this etymology. Even Wikipedia, never known for scholarship, treads very gingerly around the issue of etymology. But it is a good story, and I don’t mind opening with a scene we came across in our first walk through the countryside which echoes it.

We dumped our baggage in our lovely room in the hotel, a modern house backed into a cliff of the volcanic material the area is famous for, and rushed out for a short walk. It was too late to walk to the nearby outdoor museum, but we took a side route into the Zemi valley and Görkündere ridge. This little-known walk is a wonderful introduction to the special landscape of Cappadocia. As you can see in the photo above, the flat landscape has been eroded into a succession of chimneys. Around Göreme you can see clearly the layers and varying colours of rock laid down in epsiodes of volcanism through the last 10 million years. Erosion can be seen today from about 5 million years ago. So the landscape would have looked roughly similar throughout human history. But of course erosion continues to this day. As evidence you can see at the bottom of the landscape, modern houses are several meters below the ancient rock-cut caves.

I love to see my landscape up close. The photo above shows the lovely textured rock which the free-standing chimneys are made of. It looks pretty friable, and I’m sure with a chisel and hammer I could make a pretty big dent in it. Many of the caves were probably carved out with these ancient tools. This mixture of pumice and compacted volcanic ash called tuff has a name; it is called Ignimbrite. This completely useless piece of information clutters up my mind. I hope that putting it down here will help me rid my mind of it. The darker rock at the top of the chimney is a harder cladding which protects the chimney like a roof.

The thunderstorm had left the place cool, and we needed our warm jackets over our tees as we walked. Now, when I look that this photo, I recall a guide’s story about why these structures are called fairy chimneys. According to him, people used to brew alcohol in these places, and sometimes the fumes would catch fire and be seen from far as a blue glow; so the name. Not very believable, but a nice story anyway. The huge vertical cracks in this rock will reduce it to rubble within a generation or two. Erosion is not always a slow process, nor is it uniform.

The walk was lovely; we saw birds, wild flowers, and insects, enjoyed the weather, and the slow change of light. The day had been stormy, and, as a result, the evening light was spectacular. One of the last things I could photograph was the light of the setting sun putting a lovely glow on clouds and rocks. Fairy chimneys? Enchantment? You better believe it.

Rao Jodha Desert Park

We hadn’t heard of the Rao Jodha Desert Park before we looked at a map of the area around Mehrangarh. Nor, it seems, had the auto driver. We had to coax him along the well-marked road to the visitor’s center. An enthusiastic young man called Denzil then marked out a short route for us on a map of the park and explained what was special about the place.

The 700 acres within the old city wall of Jodhpur was painstakingly freed of an invasive species of plant, and local species were planted into the holes left by the deep roots of the invader. Repairs to the city walls were completed in 2005, and the process of recovering the desert ecology was started the very next year. The unlikely banker behind this army of eco-warriors was the Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

Mehrangarh, the fort which Jodhpur grew around, stands on a hill of volcanic rock made of hard rhyolite, the mineral which also forms the volcanic plugs called the mesas of Arizona. Here, they stand in flat slabs which you see everywhere. Around this is a softer rhyolitic rock called welded tuff, which is made of volcanic ash pressed together while still hot. There is a red coloured welded tuff which is commonly known as Jodhpur sandstone. Our walk took us down an ancient aqueduct quarried out of the crack which formed between a face of the welded tuff and the hard rhyolite, so we got a good look at both (see the two photos above). You can easily see the difference in the photos here. The path led down to Ranisar lake (featured photo). Very logical for an aqueduct to drain into a lake, I thought. The blue city and the fort can share this water. Wonderful planning against sieges which seldom happened.

We passed many different kinds of trees and bushes. Over the next few days I learnt to recognize the cactus-like bush of thhor (Euphorbia caducifolia), the leafless spurge. This was also my first view of the tangle of leafless stalks called the kheer khimp (Sarcostemma acidum) or rambling milkweed. The kheer is added to the name because of the milky sap it exudes from a broken stalk. There were stands of geedar tambaku (Verbascum chinense) and many other shrubs and herbs which I still cannot recognize. You can see some of them in the photos (do let me know if you can help me identify them). Many of these can also be found deeper in the Thar desert.

The desert park behind Mehrangarh with red welded tuff

Later on our walk we met Denzil again, when he showed us one of a pair of vagrant Eurasian Scops Owl which had nested in a thicket of trees. Walking back with him we learnt a little more about the effort involved in restoring the ecology of the area. That’s a story which newspapers have carried, so I won’t tell it here.

A rare find

I’d found a description of interesting geological features called welded tuff just behind the walls of Mehrangarh in Jodhpur. The simplest way to get there is to drive out to the road to Mehran fort, and take the fork away from it just before you get to the parking lot. The visitor’s center for the Rao Jodha Geological Park is well marked. A young man sat there with a ticket book. He explained the layout of the park and suggested a trail which would take us half an hour to walk. When we said that we were interested in birds as well, he livened up.

We introduced ourselves. He was Denzel, a local bird enthusiast. It turned out that we had common acquaintances. The bird-watcher’s community in India is still small enough that two degrees of separation connects most enthusiasts. Denzel told us that the area we were in was not the best for bird watching. We thanked him and left.

On our way back from the walk to Ranisar pond, we heard someone calling our names. We looked around, and found Denzel peering out from behind the thick bushes near the path. He asked “Want to see an Eurasian Scops owl?” Didn’t we? I’m always game for owls, although I didn’t know then how rare this species was in India. I found later that there is a population of this migratory owl which winters in Pakistan. Occasionally some stray briefly off course and are seen in India, although most reports (this, for example) of Otus scops in India probably confuse them with the similar Pallid Scops owl, Otus brucei.

Denzel pointed to a small gap in the foliage of a tree. The Family spotted it immediately. After some searching and fumbling, I managed to take the photo which you see above. Taking a good photo was difficult, since the gap was small and the sun lit the front of the owl. We did not hear the owl’s call, nor did it move at all, to shown other features. Denzel was very excited, and said that he’d spotted a pair here first on 22 September, and expected them to leave soon. Now, on 16 December the pair was still around (one was mobile and did not appear until we left).

We mentioned this to a group of bird enthusiasts the next day, and one of them had heard about this pair. He said that several enthusiasts from Delhi had been to Jodhpur to look at them. Vinod, whom we met later, had recorded this bird on 9 October. My photo did not remove all doubts in Mandar’s mind, but Adesh seemed persuaded. He argued, “If they have looked at this pair for months, then they must have checked and eliminated the alternatives.” That’s a good way of saying Occam;s razor. Nothing is certain, but some things become more and more likely.

After many conversations in the last week, I will mark this sighting down as a lifer, but continue to watch announcements. The long stay 500 kms away from the normal wintering ground of this pair is especially rare.