Whenever we get the offer to go abroad to do some work we always reckon to not be going until the plane, with us onboard, actually takes off. This was no exception but what an amazing offer. One cold bleak morning Bill MacKinnon, owner and operator of Ireland’s ‘balloonflights.ie’ left a message on the answerphone, ‘Would we like to go to India to do a couple of PPL check flights and maybe take-in a few tourist attractions in November?”. That didn’t require much thought!
After a few eely exchanges it transpired that it was for a company called Skywaltz based in Jaipur. Bill and Phil Dunnington had helped establish the business a few years ago and after a hard-fought battle the company was now finally getting well-established as India’s first Commercial Ride Operator. The company’s main get-things-done man, Paul MacPherson, was hoping to get two of the companies crew chiefs trained up by Bill and hopefully, all being well, they would soon be ready for their check flights. If the trip could coincide with the Pushkar Balloon and Camel Festival that would be great.
Bill duly few out to India and cracked on with the training. Both guys already had a fair few hours under their belts and had soloed under Indian rules so things went well. We valiantly got our heads round Indian Visas and Jane went to the vets to get all the tonics and remedies she could carry, just in case, and I trotted off to London to sort the Visas. A week later and we were ready to rock. I went back to town with John to collect the now completed Visas, taking advantage to meet up with the talented photographer David Usil, who gave us a London version of Indian driving and down a few snifters at the jolly Flounders Arms whilst helicopters patrolled the campers at St Pauls.
Suddenly departure day was upon us and with the dog’s holiday homes sorted we were chauffeured by our computer expert Barry to Heathrow. Unbeknown to us, before we had even boarded the plane, Jane’s Botdog escaped from custody and turned up in The Swan! It was deemed unwise to call Jane.
We flew with Kingfisher Airways, really very good with a fair bit legroom in steerage than most but sadly, as the name suggests, only specialising in Eurofizz. Delhi Airport was swish, efficient and buried in smog but we were soon trying to work out how to get to the internal flights terminal which turned out to be a completely random, noisy free for all adventure. More like the start of the January sales than an airport. The bus (loose terminology) on the way there stopped to check directions and drop some n’er do wells off at a shanty town lurking behind a high tin wall. We had arrived in India.
Within the hour we were in Jaipur. The SpiceJet 737 was neat and tidy and bang on time. Outside the terminal a smiling Bill was there to greet us in a ‘getaway’ (the quaint name given to the crewcab 4x4s). What a fantastic place and they drove only slightly better than I do. Gin and Tonic on the roof as the sun set and a trip out to meet up with the Pushkar Festival Entourage at a reception party somewhere in the city. There were quite a few faces we recognised, Geoff Grimes, John Viner, Ian Sharpe and Josep Llado from Ultramagic. They had just got back from a trip to the Taj Mahal and would meeting us in Pushkar later.
Next morning we were up and about early and heading for Pushkar. Now I can’t be sure how far or how long it took to get there but it was a journey like no other. A cross between Mad Max and the Cannonball Run but better. The getaway wove amongst the traffic at amazing speed, all things considered. A sign on the ‘motorway’ flashed past ‘Drive safely, Overtake on the Right’. It should have said ‘Drive Safely drive on the left’. Rule is simple, sound horn and head for the gaps. Lorries on their sides down banks, tractors and camels hauling carts. A Honda 50 with family of five and a goat flashed past on our side, in the outside lane heading for Jaipur whilst a train of women with stuff on their heads sauntered across the carriageways. Now they haven’t actually finished the motorway but they had finished the tollbooths which had to be treated like an exit from a rugby stadium. Gobsmackin stuff.
Pushkar is in Rajasthan and best described as a semi-agricultural, semi-desert, hilly, turning mountainous, area which is truly India. If the trip there was Mad Max this seemed like the Thunderdome. It was awesome. There was this festival like, in full 200,000 people-type swing (without alcohol or burger bars). The noise was amazing the pace frantic and all around sounds and colourful sights that were pretty much indescribable. There are some things that come along in life that you can’t actually describe, you just have to see them.
Bill dropped us off at a tented camp and went to sort out the ride balloon he would be flying. Later that afternoon we were collected by his driver who, horn blaring, sped us through the throngs to a waiting balloon. We were greeted by a smiling Mike Jennings, fresh in from Africa, and ushered into the basket. As we climbed away, in the company of another balloon flown by David Head, and Pushkar slowly spread below us, the true scale of the Camel, Cattle and Horse Fair that was the Pushkar Festival became apparent. Tents and animals spread for miles in a dusty haze. A huge arena and fairground circled the bottom half of the town and the town itself formed a half circle around the Holy Lake, the only site of pilgrimage for the old Hindu Brahma religion and who also made the lock for my writing box. It was incredible. Take away the mechanisation and you could have been looking at a scene 2000 years old. We approached a scrubby field in the town, over a hotel where monkeys threw things at us, and, as we touched down were surrounded by excited kids and the sound of the Festival all around. First lesson here is to stay in the basket until the crew arrive. As 80% of the country has no sanitation ‘scrubby bits of land’ are not the best place to wander around in. The temperature means that most things get baked quite quickly but better safe than sorry. There are also some pretty ferocious shrubs about so the crew lay down large sheets before deflating the envelope. Second lesson. If you help pack up the balloon you quickly start blending into the dusty surroundings. With the balloons loaded onto the trucks (another loose term) and us in the back of the getaways we cut down through the, now heaving, town streets, the noise, sounds and smells incredible. Now it was getting dark the festival had come alive and the town was heaving. This wasn’t real, some sort of dreamworld had been entered. Photos wouldn’t do it justice, you just had to be there. The streets were a sea of lights and people. The dimly lit interiors of some of the shops had stationary engines driving pulverisers turning sugar cane into a drink, others, boiling cauldrons full of cooking oil in which lurked the stuff of the local menus scribbled on the wall. Clothes, fabrics and things hung everywhere all set off by beaming smiles and happy waving children all dressed in their colourful best. The smell of incense and spices a deluge. We edged through the waving hands and smiling faces. Not a lot of Europeans here! Blinding.
Next morning the Fair was still going and we moved to a super new tent about a mile from Pushkar. The Festival hadn’t stopped for breath. Now this is where things get confused time-wise. We got picked up from our camp at around six in the morning and headed for Pushkar our driver gallantly picking their way through the throngs and drove into the main arena over which we had flown the night before. Opening hours seemed to be sunset to early afternoon (providing the moon was fullish). Now what has to be understood about arenas in India is that they are public domain. The equivalent would be like having a Five Nations rugby match where the spectators could wander about the pitch or watch from the goalposts. We watched as the three Skywaltz Ride Balloons prepared to launch. Very thorough briefings, very competent crews and plenty of Chia to wake us up. Bill elegantly moved a parked motorbike out of the way so the balloon could be inflated. We elected to ride in the back of one of the retrieve trucks. We followed TATA Tut-tuts, three wheeled powered wheel barrows with a tin shed for a cab, carrying about a dozen people inside and about a ton of veggies on the roof, camel-drawn carts, some to give rides around the Festival and some working, usually driven by a small boy. Lorries that could not possibly be carrying that weight. They plonked down just outside a small village. Within moments they were being waved to and watched by a small inquisitive smiling crowd. Loaded up we headed back to the camp for a hearty breakfast.
That evening the rest of the balloons and balloonists attending the Pushkar festival arrived. The convey left the refuelling compound, crews and balloonists riding mainly on the trucks, and headed for the arena then once in they valiantly jostled for space amongst the camels, vans and throngs of spectators. We found John Viner and Ian Sharpe. John was taking a journalist so Jane and I went on the retrieve. Once again we were overwhelmed by the sights we beheld.
So it was, a day later and we decided to watch the evening launch from the arena and then hang on for the Night Glow which involved a rather confused night inflation and the whisper burners being turned on and off to ethereal music. Thing was though that one end of the arena had a live Indian band, the bit where the balloons were had a sort of disco talent contest going on and as the night Glow music was coming from an ancient Ghetto-blaster it didn’t really come off that well. Never mind no-one seemed the least bit concerned and after half an hour most had lost interest so time to go. I digress though as the best bit occurred between the Flight and Glow.
In between the evening flight, or rather while the evening flight was launching, there was a full on horse race and display going on with Marwari horses including a bloke with no head standing on a horse (what happened there?). This involved a sort of track formed from spectators with the horses galloping full tilt boogy amongst everybody and everything. Visibility was poor to say the least such was the dust and thunder. One horse stood out amongst them all. A black mare (with her foal in tow) sporting a Shires numnah (the thing that goes under a saddle), a pretty unusual thing to see in India! Wasn’t long before Jane was chatting away to the owner. He was a former Indian National Team hockey player called Ajit Nandal and his mare was called Rubi, same name as my horse but spelt differently, and he was there showing his horses. Next moment, completely unexpectantly, clearly realising she knew what she was talking about, he asked if she wanted to take her for a ride. Not a leading rein-type tourist ride but just ‘take-it-for-a-ride’ sort of ride! Is the Pope a Catholic? Well the Marwari is ridden without stirrups and has a very unusual gait. Unperturbed Jane was soon aboard and off around the arena, disappearing into the dust and puzzled locals, beaming from ear to ear (her and the locals). Ajit explained that the main horse show was next morning starting at ten and Rubi was entered in ‘best mare’ and ‘mare and foal’. There was never going to be a choice. We walked the mile back to the tents through the animal paddocks and busy streets rather excited. Along with the medicinal gin, clearly we’d get no sense out of Jane now.
We were at the arena by ten and it was already pretty warm in the shade of which there wasn’t. What transpired takes a bit of understanding. This, it turned out, was the National Marwari Horse Show. The first showing class was Marwari stallions. The judges were in an open tent protected by the police in the arena. The horses were paraded in a circle around them and then stood to face them. Forming an outer circle were the spectators and a sprinkling of police with big sticks. There weren’t any tourists. Every so often a stallion would rear up and move at some speed backwards into the throng who fled until things settled down and everyone moved back in. Madness but great. Along with a bloke who had a shop in town we decided one particular stallion was the dog’s. The judges pontificated, a dust devil (quite an impressive one) removed the tent and the horses had a bit of a fit. The tent was recovered and hastily re-erected and half an hour later the judges made their decision. First place went to a stallion belonging to a local prince, not the favourite and not well received by the throng. That didn’t go down well and the police rushed to quell a potential uprising. The winning horse was feted to the crowd who ignored it and followed the second placed one to the shade of a tree (in the arena naturally) and everyone commiserated with the owner.
Next up were the mares. Rubi looked streaks ahead of the others in condition and temperment and floated when she moved. Had to win. Our shop-keeper friend agreed that was the winner. The judging went on and on for three quarters of an hour until, after they had arranged the horses first one way then the other, a decision was made. Second prize was given jointly to a couple of horses owned by a renowned breeder and another Princely person. That left first prize and three unplaced horses. Suddenly they put the red rosette on Rubi. She was now pronounced the champion Marwari mare of India. Jane had had ‘a go’ on her the night before! It was like a formula one driver saying, the night before a Grand Prix, ‘take it for a spin if you want’ and let you tear-arse around in his McClaren for half an hour. The crowd went nuts as this was just a private individual who just enjoyed breeding and riding his horses. Our shopkeeper explained one of the other horses ‘should’ have won but clearly some sense of fair play had prevailed (more likely they didn’t want a lynching) and, very unusually, the best horse had actually won. I’d go to Horse of the Year Show at Olympia it they were like that. We bade our farewells and headed back to the camp, molten and exhausted. What a great day.
Following Rubi’s victory we were invited back to the owners’ tent in the evening so after helping with another Night Flashing Extravaganza we duly left the back of the arena to find our hosts tent in the dark that was ‘backstage’. Now if we thought the scenes thus far had been biblical the stabling and horse city was truly surreal. No electric lighting here, in fact no lighting here. The rustic tent was huge and at one end were the beds and cooking area. Sharing the same large tent were Ajit’s horses quietly munching. The family all gathered round and we spent an hour or two chatting in the dark, the kids exchanging pictures of horses with Jane on their mobiles (nothing biblical there then). It was truly quite mystical. Ajit was leaving early the following morning so we bade our farewells and slipping between tethered horse and tents in the dark set course for home and a late supper. What a day.
Morning dawned and nothing really changed if anything the Fair had moved up a tempo. After the morning flight we were due to head back to Jaipur. We bade a fond farewell to the Meet’s participants and organisers and meandered off in the direction of the dusty motorway. A race to Jaipur between our getaway and another driven by Bill was declared. Bill took an early lead but we had top Skywaltz driver VJ who excelled. Nothing much had changed on the run back but we came upon a Political Roadshow comprising umpteen security cars, vans coaches and an ambulance! It was mayhem. The entourage was ignored and angry drivers in cars trucks, mopeds, lorries and camels alike tried to cut up the security cars and get past. Goaded on by Mike Jennings, our driver then pulled a blinder. The traffic was being diverted off a nearly finished bit of road between the piers of a new flyover. We were on the inside of this pile of vehicles, Bill on the outside marginally ahead. It was gridlock but our man went straight on down the empty new bit of road scattering the police and, after a bit of a drop, plonked us down in front of everything on an empty road. Brahma indeed! Home in Jaipur in time for G&T on the roof. An hour later Bill turned up.
Time became fuzzier, the moon remained full and we had a lot to do. A day or two later exams had been sat and passed with impressive marks by our candidates Rishi and Dhawal. If this was anything to go by the check flights may turn out to be painless! The morning dawned with a bad direction forecast so we had to drive some way out of town to get a clear run. Whizzing round a relatively quiet Jaipur we met a dusty elephant with no lights on pulling a mighty cart, different things to watch for when town driving here! The flight was good by any standard. Briefing was spot on and Dhawal handled the 120 like a professional. Don’t be fooled, the flying isn’t easy here. There is plenty of livestock about and the fields are small, landing needs to be by a road. It does get gusty and a respectful breeze does blow. Land in crop here and you do destroy the farmer’s livelihood. Cables and power wires are everywhere and follow no logic. Fifty minutes later, with the sun sinking, we were down and Dhawal proclaimed a pilot. Weaving through a village in darkness on the way back we stopped while a group up a ladder slung a couple of hoops of cable over a powerline. With a bit of a flash and a few sparks here and there amongst the surrounding bushes, the houses came to light. What a country.
Early doors were called and at five we were sipping hot chai. The ride balloons were joining us. Bill was coming on the check flight with Rishi and we were going to fly from somewhere near the Amber Fort and Geoff Grimes was going to assist with the retrieve, which really means hold on for dear life. Well that was the plan and naturally that isn’t what happened. We flew from a field just off the main highway by the side of a very expensive hotel where the rooms were decorated with jewels and a nights stay would cost you dear. It had a walled heliport for goodness sake! This area is where they quarry for marble and entire hills have been turned into sets of broken teeth. Once over them, the area becomes a brick works for miles. Bricks are individually made by hand, each family or gang working a cut. When the stacks are big enough they go off to huge figure-of-eight kilns with a chimney at the centre and are fired. The resulting bricks look just like rough Tudors.
After dodging a herd of nilgai, a really huge antelope and the mandatory web of powerwires we settled gently alongside a brick-cut and were immediately surrounded by happy smiling faces. Rishi was declared fit for service and Bill and I, accompanied by a horde of onlookers, wandered down into the cut where a husband and wife team were hard at it the lady shovelling and mixing the clay and the husband packing and tamping the moulds. Incredible. To celebrate we stopped off at a dirt floored tiny café in the middle of nowhere, the chai bubbling furiously in a large saucepan and toasted our new pilot. As we cut through the back streets of Jaipur dodging the traffic Geoff spotted a fine eatery full of vats of stuff cooking in the, now familiar, cauldrons of bubbling oil. The crew declared it good so we indulged. No idea what it was. That evening the boys took us out for an Indian barbeque. No idea what that was either.
Our last day arrived and we went shopping in the city. Bill was collecting a dinner suit and some shirts he was having made, Jane wanted t-shirts with Harwari horses on them and Geoff and I set up on a pavement selling pouffes! Come late afternoon we headed for the Jaigarth Fort to watch the sun go down. We had been promised by Bill this was ‘The Road’ and it didn’t disappoint turning out to be a rather more dangerous version of the St Bernard Pass with the addition of camels, mopeds, tut-tuts and families wandering about and very little in the way of tarmac with sheer drops both sides in places. Geoff, Jane and I stood in the back of the getaway singing ‘On Days Like These’ much to the amusement of the locals who fled before us as our driver enthusiastically hurtled up the windy precarious road. At the top around, 1500 foot up, we meandered through ancient courtyards eventually arriving at the edge of the fort and a view that was breathtaking in the extreme. We ordered Kingfisher Blue and sat at the highest point watching the red hazy sun drop below the distant horizon heading for Europe. The lights far below came on one by one and the sounds of the city drifted up to entrance us. What a thing, what an experience. What lovely people.
The flight back was mainly in daylight and the terrain below astonishing. The trip had been beyond all expectations and if the chance ever came again we’d be back in a shot. As the plane came to a halt and the doors opened we were told to stay in our seats. Two blokes the size of houses, and one resembling Ben Kinsley’s character in Sexy Beast, armed to the teeth swaggered down the aisle and carted of a young Indian gentleman who had been a bit of a nuisance on the flight until passing out an hour or two before touchdown. After India it would have been strangely strange but now was oddly normal. Fortunately Harwari horses cannot be exported from India (yet!) so Jane has had to console herself by joining the Harwari Horse Society which, amongst other things, sends out proper bits, bridles and harnesses to the owners.