One of the main things on our agenda for our time in India was to try and see tigers in the wild. Having had our fill of amazing architecture for the time being, we left Jaipur and made the short train journey to Sawai Modhopur, the nearest town to Ranthambore National Park.
Ranthambore is one of the largest National Parks in Rajasthan and one of the best places in India to spot tigers. With it being so close to Jaipur we simply could not miss the opportunity. The park is home to large amounts of wildlife and during our safari drives we saw lots of samba deer, spotted deer, crocs, macaque, langur, and an array of bird life including hundreds and hundreds of peacocks. The park is also home to leopard, sloth bear and hyena but we did not see anything other than the footprints of these elusive creatures.
The park was historically the hunting ground of Maharajas of Jaipur, Prince Philip famously shot a tiger here in 1961, but today it is focussed on wildlife conservation. We are enormous fans of safari and the more animals that we can see the better, but the animals’ well-being and quality of life are vastly more important to us, we would rather not see a happy tiger than see an unhappy one. So Ranthambore impressed us with how geared it is towards animal welfare; large sections of the park are not open to the public at all and the 10% or so that is open is split in to ten zones with a limited number of safari vehicles allowed in each section during a morning or afternoon drive. This doesn’t mean to say that if an animal is spotted you won’t be in the company of many other jeeps, this comes with the territory. The animals are not tagged or tracked and the only human intervention is one that we wholly agree with, manually filling the waterholes during the dry season.
There is loads of accommodation surrounding the park although the large majority of it is focussed at the upper end of market. We did find some cheaper options but it was still expensive for what we got, you are paying for proximity to the park and not a huge amount else. We stayed at Hotel Aditiya which is on the main road from Sawai Modhopur to the park entrance and is very basic but functional. It came with the usual entertaining eccentricites that such places do, in this case the toilet refilled so incredibly slowly that we had to open the cistern and fill it from the sink to escape the constant dripping noise. It served a purpose and we don’t mind recommending it although we would suggest that you find somewhere else to eat. We did have an excellent meal at a small local place along the road which was nothing more than a few tables out the front of the owner’s house. It’s called Manisha Restaurant and is run by the sweetest man in the world. If you need any more incentive to give him your custom, he feeds the stray puppies outside his restaurant every evening.
We arrived too late in the afternoon to join a game drive so we spent the afternoon lying on the bed underneath the fan trying in vain to escape the extreme heat of the day. We were there in April, fairly late in the season, and would advise that if you are doing the same splash out for air-conditioning. Our room was on the top floor and we had noticed with some trepidation that preparations for what looked like a full-scale concert were taking place immediately opposite our hotel. Our host confirmed that not one but two weddings were being celebrated that evening, the smaller of which consisted of 500 guests, the larger, 2000. Having recently planned our own wedding, we goggled silently at the scale and probable cost of such an undertaking. Our primary concern however, was that this was likely to be a very noisy night, and so it was but fortunately only until about 11 0’clock. In actuality we quite enjoyed watching the parties from the rooftop, the groom arriving to much fanfare and music and dancing down the street. We were glad to be safely on the first floor when someone started setting off fireworks from the road whilst rickshaws, scooters and cows skirted around him.Being on a budget, we initially booked just a morning safari drive to see how our luck would pan out. The absolute cheapest way to do it is to queue up at the gate at 5am and grab your spot in a car with a free seat but you do need to get yourself to the gate about 2km out of town and you need to be up at the wee hours of the morning. We decided against this and had our hotel organise our drive for us, which we think involved someone else queuing on our behalf but we don’t know for sure! The benefit in doing this is that the owner of the hotel was able to request specific zones which are known for being the best, which we would not have known to do on our own. For future reference these are 1 to 5. Our first drive was in to Zone 1 and, whilst the tigers’ territories obviously aren’t restricted to specific zones, Zone 1 makes up a large part of the territory for a female and her three 18-month-old cubs. We were beyond excited.
There are two types of vehicles that can enter the park, 6 seater jeeps called gypsyies after the model, and 20+ seater Canters. Both are open top and high off the road. A seat in a Canter is cheaper but we were glad that by luck we ended up in a 6 seater for both drives and would recommend this to others if you are booking in advance and therefore have the choice. The jeeps are fairly snug so prepare to get to know your jeepmates quite well. We set off at 6:15 and after a quick tour to pick up the four other passengers we made our way to the park. The main things you need to prepare for on a morning drive are the cold and the dust. It is really chilly and you will want to be wearing trousers, long sleeves and socks. A scarf is also very useful because it serves the dual purposes of keeping you warm and you can wrap it around your face against the dust.
The park is gorgeous in the morning.
To keep a long story short, we didn’t see any tigers on our morning drive. There were tantalising footprints of tiger, leopard and sloth bear but, unfortunately, they had moved off in to other zones by the time that we arrived.
We saw plenty of deer, monkeys and peacocks and one or two owls hiding in crevices in trees.
We spent 10 minutes sat by the main waterhole of the zone admiring the birdlife and enjoying a patch of sunshine, much needed by James who was shivering in his shorts. Ranthambore is an interesting park to spend time in, particularly at this time of year when the foliage is sparse and you feel that there is a chance of actually spotting something. There are also the remains of the settlements from when villages existed within the park; we came across one building, which was just four walls and some ledges but filled with peacocks and peahens, we reckoned it must have been some kind of mating ground. So, our drive was nice although of course we hadn’t seen the main attraction.We know now that, at this time of year anyway, afternoons are often the best time to go on safari, which has been true of nowhere else we have visited because the animals will be sleeping in the shade. The heat of the afternoons sets the tigers off in search of water and because the waterholes are manmade or at least man-filled you can get close to them on the access tracks. We knew none of this at the time however and simply made the decision on the journey back to the hotel to try again that afternoon to see if our luck would be in. We aren’t sure how many safaris we would have been willing to go on in order to see a tiger, but probably quite a lot. We knew that there hadn’t been any tigers in 1 in the morning so we asked our host to try and secure us a spot in another zone.
So, we set off at 15:30 for the afternoon drive in to Zone 2 with a new guide, driver and jeepmates and the same levels of excitement. It was also about 3 billion degrees warmer than the morning and we were now equipped with suncream, hats and many litres of water. Zone 2 is truly beautiful with a hair-raising track that twists and turns through the valley, at the top of which Ranthambore Fort looms over you. For what it’s worth, we didn’t see a single Canter in Zone 2 and suspect that they aren’t able to go in because the cars can’t handle the tracks. There were few animals around because of the heat and no sign of the tigers either. We’d done a couple of hours searching before we met a jeep coming in the other direction and the driver told us they had heard warning calls announcing the presence of a cat. We quickly reversed and parked up in a dry river bed and were joined very quickly by a fair number of other jeeps, every single passenger straining their eyes up the river hoping for a glimpse of the tell-tale stripes.We all looked in vain, no tiger appeared. We continued on our original path occasionally stopping to see if there was any sign of the tiger up on the hills. Eventually we pulled up in front of a waterhole where a croc was basking on the edge and a couple of samba deer were keeping a wary eye on it whilst having a drink. Out to our right in the distance we could still see a couple of jeeps parked up on a cliff keeping an eye out for the tiger but we had pretty much abandoned the idea for the afternoon. We were reversing away from our spot in front of the water hole when dust started flying up on the track we had come down and another 6 jeeps came roaring down towards us. The same driver as had given us the warning calls tip said that the tiger was coming and parked up next to us as we reclaimed our prime position on the edge of the waterhole.
The waterhole was backed by a steep slope, the top of which was obscured from our view by the branches of a tree which our driver had practically run in to in his urgency to get a good spot. The people in the jeep to our right started to talk in excited hushed voices with much intake of breath. Caro was sat nearest to them in the back-right hand corner of our jeep and leant practically in to their car to try and see what they were seeing. Still no go. All we wanted was one glimpse, just to see her amongst the grass at the top of the slope would have made us happy. And then there she was, emerging from the grass and making her way steadily down the hill.Excited whispering exploded all around us and Caro quietly squealed “look it’s a tiger!” Perhaps our collective whispering had given her pause or maybe she was just playing with us but the tiger stopped her progress down the hill and even looked like she might make her way back up.After some collective holding of breath, she continued down towards the waterhole. The crocodile had completely disappeared and the samba deer had removed themselves to a safe distance, bleating loudly to warn any other animals of the tiger’s presence.She was on the far side of the water hole from us but decided to walk around the edge towards us as cameras clicked furiously all around. She found her spot and turning to face us with something of a coy expression she eased herself incredibly slowly, gracefully, majestically down in to the water.Even the guides were furiosuly taking photgraps at this point, she was putting on quite the show. We stayed with our tiger for 30 minutes and she didn’t disappoint, even when she came out of the water and lay down with her back to us she repeatedly looked over her shoulder at us, as though to make sure she still had our attention.
Every so often she would lean back to try and catch flies with her paws.
All the while Caro was quietly pleading “roll over, go on roll over” but eventually, we had to leave, as they are very strict with the park closing times. We reversed up, Caro taking “just one last photo” over and over. Just as we were about to pull away properly the tiger, being the crowd pleaser that she was, rolled lazily on to her back and looked up at us as if to say “is this what you were after?”More gasping, more frantic taking of photographs and another couple of minutes gained in her company. Finally, we had to move on and having put some distance between us and the tiger we joined the other jeeps manically pelting towards the gates. Dust was kicking up everywhere and no mercy was given, an eagle sat on a branch right over our heads and when we tried to stop and take photos the horns from the jeeps behind us blared. No one wanted to be late. We reached the edge of Zone 2, waved to the guards and made for the main gates at a more leisurely pace. Monkeys filled the trees and we stopped to get some pictures of the tiny babies that couldn’t have been more than a couple of days old.
For some reason, another monkey came along and abducted the baby, presumably it wanted to be in some pictures too.
It was an absolutely fabulous afternoon and worth every penny of two safari costs and much, much more. The fact that our tiger had been so relaxed and in such a gorgeous healthy condition is a testament to the park and we would unreservedly recommend visiting to anyone. It was, quite simply, magical.