Recently Ali, Abbey and I had the chance to visit Ali's home village of Kurouli in Uttar Pradesh. Below is a short account along with some photos of the fantastic trip. A big thanks to Ali for making it all possible and being such a good host.
Hope you enjoy,
All the best, Scott
Abbey suddenly started shouting, pulled me over to the door and pointed to a small herd of animals standing in the fields that lay be the side of the railway. Three beautiful Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) stood grazing on the lush green crops ignoring us as the train screamed by heading for its final destination of Rae bareli. We were heading for Kurouli in Uttar Pradesh, the native village of Angler Ali , where we planned to stay for around a week of fishing wildlife and bird viewing and general enjoyment.
A Nilgai to greet us on the way to Kurouli
I had read Ali’s account of his last trip back home (a sorjurn to childhood haunts) and having heard more stories of the place during the train journey I was excited to arrive. Having spotted more deer form the train window, this time big herds of what we guessed were Chinkara (Gazella gazella) as well as numerous Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) we were ready to see the famous Blue bulls/Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) when we finally climbed out of the train at Rae Barelli.
Rhesus Macaques crossing the railway line
From Rae Barelli Ali’s cousin Ali Husain arrived to welcome us and after loading a tempo with our mountain of luggage we set off for a 40 minute drive to Carauli village. The Blue bulls didn’t disappoint as before we arrived at Ali’s house we spotted a herd of around 15 fine specimens grazing in a field near by the road. These fantastic looking animals ignored us while we took some photos, choosing to rather carry on grazing rather than running away. Locals passed by within a stones throw on their bicycles and the antelope didn’t even bat an eyelid. On the other side of the road a troop of Rhesus Macaques ( Macaca mulatta) went about their business, which mainly involved reclining on the railway tracks, resting in the midday sun. Peacocks and Peahens were also present along with a huge variety of other bird species. The richness of the biodiversity of the area amazing considering we weren’t even standing in a national park. A truly unique experience for me so far on my travels to India ! Over the next few days the number of species of birds we saw was phenomenal.
Abbey and Ali sitting by the mango orchard making plans
We reached Ali’s village and made a stop at the mango orchard where we sat on a charpoy under the mango trees, drank chai and rested for some time. Cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) foraged under the Ber trees (Ziziphus mauritiana)while up above in the branches jungle babblers (Turdoides striatus) searched for tasty morsels and a lone Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis) hopped about in the hope of finding a lizard or frog.
Morning disscusion about where to fish for the day
After a little rest we drove over to Ali’s house where we would be staying for the next week. Entering through the heavy main gate leads to the courtyard with a veranda and two large bedrooms situated towards the back of the building. The courtyard is surrounded by high walls made of brick that were constructed over 400 years ago, complete with ventilation as well as shooting slots for when times were a little more hostile than today. Rock pigeons (Columbia livia) and some of their close cousins, collared doves (Streptopelia decaocto) sat as sentries atop the walls calling their soft ‘kuk-koo-kook’ that is so familiar throughout so much of the world. Inquisitive crows would occasional disturb the peace while on their inspection rounds of the village!
Peacock in the rice paddy
After a much needed shower and rest FakhiroBhai took me for a short walk around the village and introduced me to his family. I felt very lucky to be able to see a village like this, as it is the genuine “ India ” that few tourists will get to experience. I have been to many similar villages on my travels in places like Turkey , Uzbekistan and China , but have never had the chance to interact with the local people due to lack of a common language. Here in karauli I had the chance to ask questions through the help of Ali and get a better understanding of village life.
Children playing under a Neem tree
Few people in Kurouli had seen a foreigner before so I was the subject of much interest as we walked about! The houses are mainly constructed of mud, with roofs thatched with rice straw. The walls are beautifully smoothed with lovely contours giving a very natural appearance. Big Neem (Azadirachta indica) trees are found throughout the village interspersed with other species such as Mango (Mangifera Spp.) and Babul (Acacia nilotica) that provide welcome shade from the midday sun. Brilliant green rice paddies are dotted around the village, mainly on the outskirts, while inside chillies and cucumbers are grown. The small irrigation ponds are a source of activity when the local dhobi wallahs are about. We passed one acacia tree where a colony of weaver (Ploceus Spp.) birds had decided to take up residence. At least 30 delicate looking grass nests dangled precariously from the branches supposedly out of reach of hungry snakes. The birds oblivious to village life around them, but thankful for the protection it gave provided endless entertainment for an old man sitting in the shade by his house.
Abbey getting ideas with the muzzel loader
Later in the day we headed a few kilometeres across the village and entered the Ganges flood plain known locally as the setuwa. We had the plan to look for a Murrel (Channa marulia). We took two motorbikes, Ali driving one with me on the back and Ali’s friend driving the other with Abbey sitting pillion. We crossed numerous sandy tracks and soon were in a maze of pathways, surrounded by pampas grass, locally known as Sarpat. After 30 minutes we reached the limit for the bikes. A short walk and a jackal running into the grass took us down to the river channel and to two large shallow lakes that looked perfect for Snake head. The lakes are left when the main channel of the Ganges recedes after the rains and in theory many fish will remain behind. The midday heat was slowly dissipating now as the evening approached and so we wasted no time in casting our spinners and rubber frogs. Pied kingfishers (Ceryle rudis) dived and caught small fish while we fished the first lake. We had no bites so crossed the sand and tried the bigger second lake.
Local fishermen laying a net
A spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) stood out in the water and further down a small boat crept slowly across as the fishermen laid a net. As we started to fish the sun began to slip towards the horizon and the day reached that magical time for all fishermen. The slight breeze drops off to nothing, things become still and the fish begin to feed The inside edge looked particularly good for a Murrel due to a thick weedy edge but today it wasn’t to be. Some passing locals told us of a big fish that was netted just that week and we all wished that it had rather given the net a miss and eaten one of our lures instead!
Women walking across the Ganges floodplain
The next day after a good sleep we planned to fish one of the Setuwas (water way flooded by main river during the rains) that lay closer to the village. Stories of big Murrel abounded. Fakhirobhai alone had landed over 50 in the last year! Would we have the same luck? The plan was to fish live toads along the edge of the Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia Spp.). The Hyacinth choked most of the waterway, leaving only small stretches of water open where a fisherman may present his bait. The place where we started had an open stretch of around 200 metres and either side of this was fully choked by this invasive South American plant. The hope was that a Murrel might ambush our bait at the junction between the weed and open water.
waiting for the line to pull tight
My toad swam about and looked incredibly inviting to any passing Murrel but after an hour nothing had decided to take the bait so I set up another rod and so ledgered a bunch of earth worms close to the bank before dozing under my grass sun shade. Ten minutes later I noticed the rod tip twitch and then start to pull round. The excitment was soon lost as I pulled a turtle from the water. Nice to see but after a quick release I settled down again and waited all the time slowly melting in the midday heat.
The first catch
We fished throughout the day but the fish weren’t playing ball. I think they chose to rest during the fierce midday sunshine under the shade and protection of the Water Hyacinth. I can imagine they may have even been having a laugh at the crazy fisherman sitting and burning on the bankside. Later in the day when the sun began to drop activity could be seen on the surface of the water as small fish started to move and feed. Late afternoon Abbey hit the jackpot and saved the day by catching the first fish of the trip, a small feather back, followed by another and then a small murrel which he nearly ate alive due to the excitement of the moment.
Abbey's early lunch
Lunch by the setuwa
We were happy to get back to our base camp as the heat of the day had really taken its toll. I was feeling completely wasted and was happy to take a shower, drink tea and lie down by the fan while pondering what the best plan of attack would be for Mr Murrel in the coming days. Luckily for us Aslam Ali’s friend and also local barber was on hand to massage our tired arms and legs!
Unfortunately it was looking more and more likely that Abbey would have to leave us and head back to Mumbai. After a lovely meal of chicken kurma, chapatti, rice and pickle we slept soundly ready for a new day to track down a fish or two. Abbey decided to take rest so Ali and I headed out with Ali Husain. By the main road we saw a snake charmer so Ali called him over to the mango orchard where we sat, drank chai and watched him charm his cobra and get attacked by his two freshly caught rat snakes.
Snake charmer with his two freshly caught rat snakes
After our chai we took a walk around the area, crossing the rice paddies and ultimately heading for Ali’s patch. The paddies are divided by thin mud walls with small irrigation streams crisscrossing the fields. At this time of the year the abundant water means frogs and toads abound and in turn attract the local snakes. A little way along one dividing wall what looked like a small cobra vanished as soon as we caught it in our vision. The two most common butterflies of the area, the Indian monarch or Plain tiger (Danaus chrysippus) and the Citrus Swallow tail (Papilio demodocus)constantly crossed our paths flitting from one patch of trees to the next.
Ali admiring the Cobra
We sat down under a grass roof and waited for some chai and samosas. In the distance a lone Sarus crane (Grus antigone) foraged in the field. These birds thrive in this area and are fiercely protected by the local people as the death of one is believed to bring much bad luck. We were informed that the mate had died from a collision with an over head electricity wire, a sad death as these birds’ pair for life. In the next days we would see many more of these fantastically elegant birds, happily strutting around the fields feeding on the rich soil biota. A quiet approach will see a bird watcher happily walk to within 10 metres where he may take photos at his leisure without the Cranes even looking up from their important business. After a rest and a swift lesson on rice planting we headed back towards home to see how Abbey was faring.
Unfortunately Abbey decided to return to Bombay so down a member of our team Ali and I headed to the Ganges proper. We hadn’t seen the main channel up until now so we intended to check out the fishing potential. Back on the bikes we headed down to the edge of the river, picking up a local guide along the way. The water was low for the time of the year. The rains had been sparse so far and people were hoping that soon they would arrive properly. As we crossed the river in a small boat Ali pointed out a line of people slowly walking through the shallows on the far side of the river. It was a local technique to catch fish. Simply walk in a line and catch fish by hand!
Landing on the far bank, we walking downstream a little and came to some rocks where the river narrowed slightly. The locals said the fish were off the bite but one old guy told Ali many fish tails which he translated to me. Past catches of giant Rohu (Labeo rohita) Goonch (Bagarius yarelli) and Mully (Wallago attu) kept us interested while we cast a spinner. At dusk we all piled into a small boat. Once out in the river everyone sat dead still as the boat appeared to be liable to sink at any second. Only a couple of inches separated wet from dry and Every time the pole man pushed us forward the boat rolled and we came even closer to getting flooded! Safely back on the bank we walked back to the bikes across a vast expanse of sand bathed in the soft white moonlight.
Spinning in the ganges
Evenings and mornings were spent shooting with the air rifle. Targets were set up and of course a competition would be the usual result with Ali usually taking the prize. Eventually Ali even declared that he could hit a one rupee coin. Much to everyone’s amusement bets were collected as we were sure he could not hit such a small target. After some preparation Ali placed the coin on the floor, held the barrel slightly above it and fired. A big smile grew on Ali’s face while everyone quickly slipped their money back into their pockets!
Crossing the Ganges
The next day we surveyed some more likely looking places for Murrel and Ali’s friend joined us to make a short film. In the afternoon back down at the Setuwa but in a different area we checked for potential. The main path was the crossing point for the herds of cattle and water buffalo to reach the days grazing. A couple of hundred metres up stream the Water Hyacinth started and gave rise to a good looking fishing spot. We sat for a while and just before we left I saw a murrel rise on the edge of the weeds. Now this was a place to return to!
Murrel fishing heaven
We checked out some more places including the ponds where Ali had caught his murrel on the previous trip. Now if a fisherman was to imagine his perfect murrel pond, then this was it. Beautiful lotus lilies covered half the pond; some areas were chocked with subsurface weed and in between this and the lotus lay open water…murrel heaven! Unfortunately we couldn’t fish it! Damn! After seeing another beautiful lake that was private and unfished we returned back early as a festival was happening in the village. Shab e’ Barat is to commemorate the memory of the departed souls. Fire works are set off and candles are lit in rememberance and respects are paid to the deceased.
Shab e’ Barat fireworks
The day after we planned on a return to the Setuwa we had found before. Having learnt our lesson form the first few days fishing we arrived after the worst of the sun and heat. Settling down I fed worms and fished a float over the top. After a while I had my first Murrel. Only small but a murrel nonetheless! Again towards the evening activity picked up and we bagged two featherbacks that took the worm just under the surface by the edge of the weeds. A big fish teased us by rolling two or three times in the exact same spot where the featherbacks had bitten. Our time was finished as dusk crept in and the last of the herd boys returned their animals to the village. We did however have one more day and we knew where we would fish.
The next day we expectantly returned to the same spot. I fed chopped worms over by where the featherbacks had been feeding. After a while a feather back took a worm on the drop and then all was quiet until some bubbles broke the surface just on the edge of the hyacinth. A good cast landed the bait right next to the bubbles and after just a second the float danced and began to slide away. I struck into a very good fish which immediately came towards me leaving the shelter of the hyacinth. A split second later realising its error the fish turned to seek shelter, the drag screamed as I applied side strain to try and steer the fish away from its shelter. A second later the 10lb line snapped and it was all over. Looking back maybe I should have let the fish run under the water hyacinth but I think if it had gone any distance I would have been in serious trouble anyway. I sat and smoked and wondered what fish it might have been. I just know it was BIG!
Livestock crossing the setuwa
While we waited a Paradise Flycatchcher (Terpsiphone paradisi) chirped in the babul trees behind us, a sound I know so well from South Africa and a little latter a bird flew past that Ali had never seen before in all his years in Korouli. Later identification led us to think it was a Cinnamon Bittern (Ixobrychus cinnamomeus) which is a very secretive species which would explain the lack of sightings.
Local women add a colourful splash to the landscape
The Plain Tiger butterfly
A little while later Ali missed a good fish and then on dusk a lovely Murrel rolled just on the edge of our patch. We both saw him clearly and so quickly jumped to get a live toad to throw out. The toad swam about disturbing the water, looking incredibly tasty for a passing Murrel and we both sat almost holding our breath as we figured it was inevitable that it would get eaten. We had seen this decent murrel rise here more than twice and now his favourite food was perfectly presented in his favourite spot! Any second it must happen. But no, in our last ditch attempt before we had to leave for Bombay we were robbed of our murrel and he didn’t bite! But on the bright side it’s a good reason to return!
Featherback on the float
We planned to leave in the early afternoon of the final day. In the morning I was shown to a pond where in one corner at least 15 Rohu were feeding. Inch wide mouths were gulping at the waters surface from below. I had to try for one of these so I rushed back, collect a rod and returned with some atta dough and popped rice. The Rohu spooked easily from a surface bait so I presented a piece of atta a few inches under the surface. Small fish were immediately whittling the bait away making the float jerk around on the surface but eventually after a couple of attempts the float stood and slid under. A lovely little Rohu was my prize much to my relief as by this time I had quite a large expectant audience to please.
We reluctantly said our goodbyes and headed to the railway station. Fun and games were had on the way as we found that the tempo carrying our luggage had broken down. Ali arranged for a passing tractor to carry our luggage in the direction of the station while we went on ahead to send our car back to meet the tractor half way. At the station time was short and it was going to be a close call whether we made the train. I waited inside while Ali waited outside for the auto to return. Just in the nick of time Ali came in carrying the lost luggage and so climbed aboard for the long trip back to Bombay. An excellent end to a lovely trip made so special by the great people and excellent hospitality we received throughout, not to mention the beautiful surroundings and huge variety of wildlife we had seen.
Me learning to plant rice
Sitting with Ali
Water Hyacinth in flower