I sit here as the sun starts to rise, with the birds gathering to sing their dawn cacophony, the moon still high in the sky, and look out over the majestic landscape toward the craggy rocks, hills, and acacia trees, feeling that if there is a moment of perfection … this is it.
This is leopard country, set amidst the wilds of western Rajasthan, in a remote area surrounded by a vast panorama of seemingly prehistoric rocks, ever-changing scrub, small agricultural fields, lush, winding rivers, and endless sky.
"What makes Suján Jawai special, are all the minute touches that one never thought one would need, until they were close at hand."
And placed perfectly amongst all this beauty is the luxurious tented camp of Suján Jawai. Owned by the family-run Suján group, it is a collection of 10 stunning tents, each with its vast, king-size bed, massive bathrooms, and beautiful details (all designed by the owners, Anjali and Jaisal Singh).
There are, of course, the plush flowers, the soft lamps, the right throw at the end of the bed … but what makes Suján Jawai special – in fact, what makes all the Suján properties special – are all the minute touches that one never thought one would need, until they were close at hand.
The fully stocked, glass-paneled bar that opens to reveal heavy crystal decanters, the Suján field book with drawings of various pugmarks (Carnivore, Omnivore, … and Artiodactyla, anyone?), leather-bound editions of books one actually wants to read, binoculars for that quick glimpse of a passing creature – one always hopes for a leopard, but, in reality, this close to the camp, it is more likely to be a goat.
Leopards do abound, though, and are the prime reason for my visit. A chance to see them in their natural habitat, led by experienced trackers, ensconced in this stunning camp, is the perfect way to do it.
It is deceptively easy to think that there is not much else than the dawn and dusk drives that take one for miles outside the camp into the spectacular surroundings, searching for leopards who grace us with their presence from time to time. That is, however, the tip of the iceberg.
I begin my journey with an evening arrival (after a long drive through the Aravali mountain range) into the camp, greeted by a panoply of smiling hosts. The Rabari tribesmen, resplendent in their crisp whites with their bright-red turbans.
The Rabari tribe are originally nomads—camel and cattle herders and shepherds and, at Suján Jawai, they look after the goats, chickens, and assorted cattle on the farm, as well as being the all-night roaming patrol.
The trackers smile in their olive uniforms, the manager and his staff have their quasi-safari look … a great introduction to the feel of Jawai. Warm, friendly, beautiful, and oh-so-properly done.
"Bordered by ten-foot-high grass that is just turning a peachy gold as summer approaches and lined with over 600 oil lamps, the entire camp feels like a fantasy."
Dusk was moving in, birds and crickets in full swing, the sun casting a golden glow onto the whole magical scene. The camp is laid out expansively, with paths connecting all the tents to the main dining area, the pool, and the bar.
Bordered by ten-foot-high grass that is just turning a peachy gold as summer approaches and lined with over 600 oil lamps, the entire camp feels like a fantasy. I enter my home for the next few days (the gorgeous Royal Tent that boasts its own pool and butler) and settle in by the pool to watch the sun set.
This is the kind of place that makes one want to dress up for dinner. And I do! Every single evening. One rule of every camp is that the guests are always accompanied by staff along the paths from the tents to the dining and bar areas after dark.
For me, this means a lovely walk down lamp-lit pathways, chatting to my wonderful butler, Samunder (aka Sam). Full of stories and local lore, these conversations are one of the pleasures of this trip.
There is an assumption that traveling solo can be lonely—on the occasions that I happen to travel alone, however, I find myself more engaged, chattier, and more open. I feel I am among friends and well taken care of.
That level of care extends to every area of the Suján experience. The meals are worth a visit alone – organic herbs and vegetables that are sourced from their own gardens, local produce sourced from surrounding farmers, prepared in the most deliciously inventive ways.
Presented on silver trays, upon tables set in a different area of the camp every night, surrounded by the hundreds of oil lamps in front of a bonfire – it is the ultimate way to eat in the wild.
So much of my time there was spent thinking about my next meal, and every time I had a special request (more chilies, a different accompaniment), the chef was more than happy to comply.
There is one dish in particular that is so mouth wateringly delicious that I could eat it every single day of the year (the Bana pizza—with pulled lamb and pickled onions atop a homemade pizza crust), but the entire menu is fantastic.
Emerging from my tent in the dark, walking down the path toward the jeeps, ready to take us all on our early morning drive, is an experience unto itself. There are two drives to see the leopards—dawn and dusk, as those are their preferred times to emerge from their caves and hunt and roam. Both are very different and both are essential.
We set off from the camp before dawn in our jeeps, accompanied by a driver and a tracker, and wind our way through the brush and bumpy roads past small villages, cows lazily lifting their sleepy heads, goats bleating and getting ready for the day, temples slowly coming awake.
This area is dotted with almost three hundred temples and the most dramatic of those is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva up a massive rock formation (called Perwa Hill), tended by one priest (tales of his notoriety abound, making a sighting of him also a point of interest).
The cool of dawn gives way to a watery sun and my trusty guide points out where he sees hoof prints (a smaller antelope), paw prints (recent leopard movement), and drag marks indicating that a goat or two had been abducted (a nice way of saying ‘killed’ by a leopard). Sure enough, as we followed the marks, we came upon tufts of goat hair and, up on the rocks, patches of blood, indicating that the kill had been recent and, now sated, the leopard was fairly close at hand.
There are a few of us distributed amongst three jeeps—all the drivers in constant communication with each other at various points in the area and, as one sights a hint of a leopard, it is relayed and we take off in that direction to see if we can spot one.
"It surprises me how sensual they are, and how graceful."
That first morning, as the jeep climbs the sheer rock face, the horizon spreading out before us like a lunar landscape, lake glittering in the distance and the sun rising behind us, it did not matter at all if we saw one or none. This was enough, the majesty of the land that they inhabit and the knowledge that they were close enough, perhaps even watching us while we searched for them.
As luck would have it, we spotted two beauties that first morning, sitting high atop a rocky promontory, lazily moving from one rock to another, languorously stretching, as if knowing that 10 pairs of binoculars and various cameras were trained on their every move.
It surprises me how sensual they are in actuality, and how graceful. They sit proudly, barely registering our presence, warming themselves in the rising sun …
After a couple of hours of meditative viewing and hundreds of photographs later, we make our way down to the lake to look at the birds of all feathers (over 170 varieties—the painted storks are my personal favorite), crocodiles, and to enjoy the petite pre-breakfast picnic prepared for us by our wonderful chef. Again the details … a beautiful traditional cloth spread out over the hood of the jeep, tiffin full of delicious snacks, and thermoses of hot piping tea.
"There are many ways to experience luxury, but very few destinations feel like the experience belongs completely to the place and its people."
We stand there sipping our tea, chatting with our guide and driver and admiring the dappled sun across the lake. It’s barely 9 a.m., the day stretches ahead of us and, as we head back to our tents and a full breakfast, I am already anticipating the evening drive, which brings the leopards out in a completely different light and atmosphere.
Driving back, one sees the effects of what team Suján Jawai has brought to the area: the abundant farms of organic vegetables, the villages where a majority of the community is employed by the camp and its farm providing economic sustenance to locals, which, in turn, keeps them vested in their local ecosystem, and schools, where they have invested in teacher training programs to promote a strong primary school education.
Ultimately, there are many ways to experience luxury, but very few destinations feel like this: like the experience belongs completely to the place and its people and the wildlife that inhabits it; that we are merely fortunate observers, lucky to have this moment in time. Suján Jawai is one such place.