I have to agree with both Boulbon and KeepSmilingUK. Chambal Safari Lodge isn’t worth a long stay or a special detour.
Located some 70 km southeast of Agra (it took us 2 hours to reach by car) in flat agricultural surroundings on the outskirts of the village of Jarar, the 12-room lodge is comprised of a large Mela Kothi with two guest rooms, a separate wing containing two suites and a number of smaller cottages dotted around the grounds. The lawns, shady, mature trees, hammocks, deck chairs, fire pit, general decor and buildings are tasteful and provide a nice setting in which to relax. A selection of teas, biscuits and water are provided at the Mela Kothi for guests to help themselves to during the day and complement the three meals served daily.
The lodge’s vision is attractive too. Set up as an eco-lodge, it strives to ensure that all its activities are sustainable and involve the local community as much as possible and its large tree nursery is helping reforest the surroundings. What sold it to us however was the wide range of proposed safaris and its relative proximity (40 minutes drive away - I had somehow pictured it beside the river in much wilder surroundings) to the National Chambal Sanctuary, a protected stretch of the Chambal River known for its reptiles, river dolphin and Indian skimmers.
Regardless of whether or not guests opt for one of the safaris, there’s a surprising amount of wildlife on site. The mature trees surrounding the lodge (the only substantial copse for miles) contain fruit bats, numerous birds and civet cats (we also spotted a large blue bull and an Indian hare next to our room as well as a scorpion in it) which can be ticked off on the excellent complementary checklist of local plants and animals provided on arrival. Note to owners: the nature trail around the property could be improved with plant nameplates.
Our dolphin suite was large, airy, relatively cool (air conditioning backed up the ceiling fans), tastefully appointed with old, locally sourced furniture and came with a huge bathroom, with double sinks and a vast shower (though in keeping with the lodge’s eco-credentials, guests were urged to have bucket showers). There wasn’t a TV (or wifi) in sight and a private walled, if a little bleak, garden and the suite’s location away from the main house ensured maximum privacy. Thoughtful solar powered torches and mosquito coils were also provided.
Unfortunately, things degenerated from then on. The owners were away and the lodge was fast emptying. After the other three couples (all from the UK) had departed, we shared the lodge with day visitors (down from Agra presumably) who fell on the lunch buffet like locusts and a large group of Indians who did nothing but complain, which didn’t do much for the ambience. With the owners absent, the lodge felt rudderless and the management left in charge didn’t seem to be. The manager - at least I presume that’s what he was - spent most of the day lounging in one of the hammocks after meals had been cleaned away and standing silently with arms folded while meals were served. We never learnt his name and were never really made to feel welcome by him or anyone else and only a couple of the younger guides were friendly and actually smiled.
Electricity was sporadic and during the end of our three night stay in mid March (when the mid-afternoon temperature was nudging 34°C) it virtually stopped altogether, so that cooling down and recharging batteries proved challenging.
The library was locked.
The food was disappointing and the least varied or generous on our trip. It was also the spiciest and only thing that was constantly good was the pickled jackfruit. Breakfast was uninteresting and unvarying and the packed breakfast we were given for our river safari consisted of a couple of stale sandwiches of cloyingly sweet jam and processed cheese.
Nights were marred by canine concerts from the neighbouring village - even earplugs, closed windows and air conditioning/fans (when they worked) couldn’t drown out the howling which lasted all night, every night.
Our driver’s accommodation was positively primitive and it left me feeling uncomfortable (and a tad colonial) leaving him to his mosquito infested dormitory while we headed for our lush quarters. Apparently the food provided wasn’t better than the accommodation.
Worst of all we were stuck with a guide whose knowledge was patchy and with whom we didn’t get on. Our “naturalist” was anything but. Mistakes were constantly made, explanations were sparse and enthusiasm was lacking. Worse was our guide’s smarminess and the way he treated the other (more menial) members of staff.
Our pre-arranged package included a river safari, a jeep safari, a camel safari to Ater Fort and a visit to the Bateshwar temples. All, with the exception of the river safari which was superb in terms of wildlife sightings (with a true naturalist it would have been unforgettable), were disappointing and badly planned. Our camel safari was shambolic as our guide disregarded our request to walk rather than ride, left the trip till late morning by which time it was too hot to enjoy or take good photos and provided very little information on the Fort. Our visit to Bateshwar consisted of tea (albeit excellent) on a terrace overlooking the river. We learnt nothing about the complex or the temples or indeed the annual pilgrimage that our visit coincided with and didn’t explore any of the buildings, never mind one of the caves.
Tired of ingratiating behaviour, mistakes with identifications, bad planning, lack of explanations and a dearth of knowledge, we decided to cancel our last day’s jeep safari (the low probability of spotting a hyena or blackbuck in the high crops helped swing the decision) and went for an early morning walk around the countryside on our own instead. We were soon dissuaded to venture any further by our encounters with locals, who on the whole didn’t seem very friendly (though it was true they were sometimes caught in compromising positions) and bands of children all clamouring for photos or Rupees which weren’t conducive to birding. In the end we spent most of our time in the lodge’s tree nursery and saw a good number of birds up close, including some stunning green bee-eaters. The “manager” spotted us returning but didn’t ask whether we’d enjoyed our walk or why we’d cancelled our planned safari.
While I feel bad writing a less than glowing review for a lodge whose credentials I admire and whose owners had shown us considerable kindness, I am disappointed both in the service provided and the overall experience. Perhaps things would have been better had they been around but, while I am perfectly willing to put up with a sporadic power supply, finding a scorpion under my case and humdrum food, they, combined with poor daily planning, lack of sleep and an increasing irritation with a guide with whom we were stuck, soon became unbearable. In the end we couldn’t wait to leave and did so early.
Opt, if the budget will stretch, for one of the two suites.
If you only do one safari, make sure it is the river safari and insist on going early in the morning not just to maximise sightings, but also for the lovely sunrise over the river.
If you visit Bateshwar take plenty of mosquito repellent and insist on seeing a temple.
In February-March, the mustard crops are high so spotting hyenas and blackbuck is hard. Wait if you can until after the crops have been harvested to maximise sightings.
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- A family run eco-lodge nestling in 35 acres of reclaimed land. An oasis of peace, tranquility, and gracious hospitality. An opportunity to explore the Chambal Valley. River Safari for Gharials, Marsh crocodiles, Gangetic river dolphins, and Indian skimmers. Jeep safaris for Black-buck & Sarus cranes. Camel safari to Fort Ater, and excursions to the medieval temple complex at Bateshwar - site of the second largest animal fair in India (Sonepur in Bihar being the largest). Nature walks and village walks. ... more less