Friday, May 06, 2011

Big Cat Trail, Leg 3 - Ranthambore Tiger Reserve

Ranthambore is my favourite park.", Gaurav reminded me as I spoke to him on the phone. Gaurav Athelye's a friend and runs Jungle Lore - a wildlife tourism outfit. He'd suggested to me that I should definitely visit Ranthambore and promised to help us organise the visit. Our big cat trail landed at the town of Jaipur on 4 May. A harrowingly long drive got us to the town of Sawai Madhopur, where we'd camp for the next two days for four drives into the forest.

Our hotel, the Hammir wasn't exactly in the lap of luxury. The fact that the AC wasn't working in the extreme heat when we arrived wasn't very comforting. That said, the hotel manager is quite willing to help guests out and help he did. I'd definitely recommend the hotel if you're backpacking and are looking for budget accommodation. I'm inclined to try the RTDC hotels or the Ranthambore Bagh the next time I go there, but I wouldn't recommend against the Hammir.

Our first drive was in the absolutely picture postcard - Zone 3. Mind you, Ranthambore is a huge forest (1400+ sq km), but the tiger reserve itself is only 392 sq km. To ensure minimal disruption to wildlife, the reserve is divided into 6 zones and the officials are quite strict to ensure that vehicles don't cross over. Zone 3 is truly a wildlifer's dream - we didn't see a tiger (clearly), but the quality of wildlife and bird sightings were to write home about. The zone's centerpiece, the Rajbaug lake attracts birds and animals alike. You could sit by it's edge for hours and never tire of the sight. Our drive ended with a sighting of T-28 (a.k.a the 'Star Male') in deep sleep at the hunting palace in the distance. Disappointing drive for tiger sightings, but full marks for everything else.

Our next drive was in Zone 2. Yet again pretty good bird sightings, but nothing out of the ordinary with mammals. Well, let me be fair. For a long time we kept listening to chitals, peacocks and sambars screaming their lungs off with warning calls. After an hour of investigation, we decided to probe further at a bush which we suspected was hosting a tiger. Our driver reversed the jeep into position. Saad, our naturalist cried out "Tiger!". Excited as we were, we squinted but couldn't see a thing. After much pointing and gesturing, we saw the stripes of a tiger as testimony. No, we weren't hallucinating. I have a photograph to prove it. Our second drive had gone by without seeing a tiger. Damn!

Our third and penultimate drive on 6th May morning was unusually dry. We had to go to Zone 1, a picturesque, hilly part of the park. Unfortunately for us, the forest chose to show us nothing that morning. For the most part, it was a long drive through the forest, with neither mammal nor bird sightings. I have so little to say about the morning, that Zone 1 remains my least favourite part of not just Ranthambore, but perhaps the entire trail. For some reason, Saad was very stressed that we hadn't seen a tiger. We didn't mind all that much, but it was going to be disappointing to leave without seeing the big cat in action.

Come afternoon, we decided that if we were really desperate to see a tiger, then that called for desperate measures. In India, when on important 'failure is not an option' kind of missions, we often wear a bandana on our heads. I got myself just that from a nearby handicrafts store. We couldn't let India's most famous tiger reserve let us go without some tiger photos. Our drive had an auspicious beginning- we were heading into zone 4, home to Machili, the world's most famous tigress.

Our drive however, was quite eventful until we reached the top of a hillocks that seemed to have way too much human activity. "There's got to be a tiger about.", said Saad. As we made our way to where everyone was looking, we saw a celebrity retinue of vehicles make their way to a better viewing spot. It was Priyanka Vadhra, daughter of one of our ex-prime ministers. That if course was secondary to the fact that we had spotted not one, but two tigers - together possibly to mate. On a second thought, it wasn't. You see, India has no dearth of very important people (VIPs) and people will go to all lengths to please them. So as it turns out, Priyanka and her family got the best viewing positions. Not that we has bad positions, but I wouldn't have complained about being in her jeep that day. As far as the tigers go, they were pretty relaxed even with so many human beings around them. They lazed around for a while, snuggled with one another for a few moments, took a few quick drinks of water and then were promptly on their way to enjoy each other's company in seclusion.

As we returned back to our hotel in readiness to hit the road, we talked about how awesome this sighting was. We'd heard no end of the quality of Ranthambore sightings and this one surely lived up to the mark. I personally thought that I'd just gotten a sampler of this wonderful, enigmatic forest - I've got to come back here next year to truly enjoy the forest for an extended duration of time.


If you wish to visit Ranthambore, remember that it's one of the most tourist friendly parks of the country. Finding accommodation is quite easy as is booking safaris. The only catch is that you're likely to get a different driver and a guide each drive unless you do something about it. Especially when you're new to a forest, you're better off having the same naturalist guiding you through all your drives. The way to do this is to ask your hotel or to contact a wildlife tourism outfit such as Jungle Lore. That apart, just enjoy the Ranthambore forest (photos here) and the several surprises it keeps throwing at you. As far as we are concerned, we're now heading to Delhi so we can get our connection to Bandavgarh, our next stop on the big cat trail.

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