By Neil Burton
Big cat diary
The morning safari sees us up at 5.30 and picked up from our hotel at 6.15. After another pick up at an out of town hotel we enter the park where we pull trail number 3 out of the hat (see ‘How the park works’ below). Our guide declares that this is the best trail of all, mainly as it encompasses the three Rathambore lakes.
We are all excited and expectant as we enter the park proper, before us lies the ruins of old Maharajah Hunting lodges, calm mist covers the water and we hear the shrill cries of peacocks. I recognise immediately the scenes I remember from my childhood of nature documentaries, but am surprised at the arid dry-season vegetation. Above us Ranthambore Fort glows in the early light but I am reluctant to change lenses as the jeep is stirring up clouds of dust.
Along the lakes we spot crocodiles, storks, spoonbills, stilts, spotted deer, sambar deer, nilgai and small antelope. We stop briefly at the end of the third lake and watch a heron fishing, a kingfisher flitting around and waders sifting through the mud for food. I would love to get closer but no one can leave the jeep, nor can the jeep stray too far from the trail.
On our way back towards the exit a shape is spotted through the trees, a caracal, but we get barely a glimpse before it merges back into the bush. All too soon we are back at the main gates watching langur monkeys beg food from uneducated tourists. Then it is back to the lodge for a long awaited breakfast.
Our evening safari would be far different, the Canter bus picks us up at 3.30 and then continues to pick up people for the next thirty minutes or so. The seats are so close together I cannot sit straight and my knees rub on rivets down the seat back.
We have drawn trail number 5 which our guide tells us is great, I think they have a standard script here, as yesterday a tiger was spotted. After an hour we have seen very little, there are no waterholes as yet and we are all covered in a thick layer of dust. We stop briefly for the guide to explain the medicinal properties of a tree and while he is talking a nearby deer gives a shrill warning cry. The guide stops suddenly and listens intently, he silences the bus and tells us we must wait, something is near.
After a few minutes of waiting and listening to ever increasing calls, in which time another canter and two jeeps have arrived, a tiger finally appears through the bush. She heads towards us then veers off to the left. But the undergrowth is making a clear shot impossible not to mention the bouncing movement of the canter. Eventually we get a good clear view after the drivers decided to move around and play musical safari vehicles.
For ten minutes we watch transfixed as a real live wild tiger walks in front of us and then disappears back into the bush. The rest of the drive is uneventful and we are soon back at the lodge, but it doesn’t matter, I have seen what I came here for.
Next morning we are picked up promptly by our Canter and then off once more for the other pick-ups. We choose trail 2 and are, of course, told we have a good chance of a tiger.
But we spend the morning looking at spotted deer, sambar and a few birds gathered around a small water hole.
Our evening safari is, to the relief of my knees, a jeep. We share the jeep with four other people who had not yet been into the park. One of them pulls trail number 2 from the hat and after some short discussion we try to change trails. But after twenty five minutes of trying our guide tells us it is not possible. So off we go without high hopes and running late to boot.
At the turn off for trail 2 we are stopped by another jeep who informs us there is a tiger right at the start of trail 3, sleeping a long way off in a ruined building near the lake. After some discussion, in which it is made clear the driver faces a ban of one month if he is caught, it is decided by the others we should see this tiger. So into trail 3 we ride as, it would seem, do half of the jeeps and canters in the park.
It is Armageddon, everyone trying to spot the tiger, jeeps pushing in front of canters and vice versa. Once we have stopped we see the tiger walking through long reeds towards the waters edge. The guide shouts something and suddenly every jeep and canter is reversing back. We watch the tiger sit by the water for a while but even with the tele-converter and 100-400 I can not get a decent shot. When a white rangers jeep turns up we head promptly for trail 2.
Trail 2 is just as dry and unremarkable as we remember it from the morning drive. Eventually we stop to shoot some spotted deer standing in the sun by a dry river bed. The driver is just about to leave when the shrill warning call of a sambar rings out. All the deer stand stock still and our guide hushes us, like he needs to! The warning cries become more agitated and suddenly the deer bolt, in all directions, into the trees and across the dirt track. I can speak for everyone now, all our hearts are in our mouths as we wait. Unfortunately the silence is broken by the arrival of other jeeps and of course a canter full of squawking Indian school children.
Suddenly a tiger runs into view, the final deer bolts and the tiger stops, unwilling to give chase. All is silent as the tiger approaches, right up until one of the school kids jumps out of the canter and makes towards the tiger, camera in hand. Swift verbal intervention from the driver soon stops the kid in his tracks but anyway the tiger shows no interest. Shame, could have been a newsworthy shot!
The tiger strolls in front of us, through bush and grass, then sets off up the dry river bed and is soon invisible. Just as suddenly as one disappears another tiger trots into view from the left, has a quick spray and moves unhurriedly towards us. The tiger approaches through long grass and has a lay down right in front of the jeep. Despite the noise of children, fake shutter sounds and beeping mobiles I am lost in a world of my own.
Eventually the tiger gets bored and follows the direction of the first, who is now studying us from a distance. Engines are started and jeeps begin to move when I spot movement through the trees. It is probably a deer which was hiding says the guide, but I was sure I saw stripes. As the jeep began to move I put my hand on the drivers shoulder to slow him, that’s when the third tiger appears.
Everything stops again, then jeeps vie for a better position but we are always in the right place as we had not moved to begin with. This tiger has a quick spray and then heads off towards its siblings. No vehicle can follow them but we all drive up the road in their direction, from the hill we can look down upon the forest. Eventually we spot a tiger through a gap in the trees, lazing in a waterhole but its a long way off and we all presume it was one of the three.
Our guide says they are about 6 to 8 months old and siblings. Me, ever the Discovery Channel fan, cannot believe this they are just too big, had to be over 12 months. But I wonder where was the mother of these guys, since they were still too young to be weaned.
The guide never clicked, or if he did he didn’t say it. But once I got back and checked my shots I could clearly see that the final tiger was bigger, had distinct markings and a scar. That was the mother. Tiger number six. Just our luck to be twenty five minutes late. Ranthambore is a lottery, but well worth a visit if you feel lucky!
What to photograph?
It is said that between 75% and 95% off all the photographs ever taken of a tiger in the wild have been taken in Ranthambore. So the chance of a sighting is relatively high in comparison with other National Parks, but it is not guaranteed. It is worth preparing yourself for the worst, quite a few people we met had failed to see a tiger after two or three drives, one particular couple had failed to see a tiger after thirteen outings!
Fear not however, the park is full of a diverse range of fauna which includes caracal (puma), chittal (spotted deer), nilgai (very large antelope), black buck and sambar deer (a favourite of the tigers). Other possible, although very rare, wildlife includes leopards, sloth bears and wild boars. The park is also rich in birdlife and home to some 400 resident and migrant species.
Ranthambore Fort, which sits overlooking the park, is also worth a few hours visit and entrance is free.
Where to stay
There are enough places in Sawai Madhopor to keep any level of traveller happy. From backpack guest houses to the highly luxurious Vanyavilas, everyone here is catered for and since jeeps are regulated by the park there is no distinction when it comes to the safari itself. We stayed in the Sawai Madhopur Lodge which lies somewhere in the middle price category. Rooms were excellent, service was good and the buffet meals were nice.
How the park works
Ranthambore limits the number of visitors to the park and therefore it is important to book your place on a jeep well in advance. Bookings can often be made through your hotel, for a small fee or online at: http://www.rajasthantourism.gov.in/make_your_trip/Ranthmbor/seat-availability.jsp
Some of the top hotels do I believe, although it is not written, have their own vehicles (we often came across a jeep with only two passengers).
Should you not manage a jeep booking, 20 seat Canter buses are almost always available and bookable a day in advance, either at the park gates or through the hotel or on the above website.
I would recommend the jeeps over the the Canters for the simple reason of comfort, but they are also quieter and more maneuverable.
Would I go again? Absolutely.
Low points? The guides are lacking in comparison with those I have encountered in Africa but India is still developing.