India days fourteen and fifteen
30.10.2015 - 31.10.2015
Like just about everyone else who visits, we came to Ranthambore with the aim of seeing tigers. And Ranthambore is all about the tigers. Every conversation you have here is guaranteed to start with “Did you see any tigers?” The answer is quite likely to be yes, although there are, as ever with wildlife, no guarantees ...
We drove (or rather, Mehar drove!) to Ranthambore from Bundi, a drive of about three hours. We weren't able to stop too often for photos, as we had an afternoon safari drive booked and had left Bundi fairly late after a visit to the palace there. But we did stop briefly twice. The first was at a pretty lake where lots of Painted Storks and other birds were feeding. Painted Storks get their name from the bright pink feathers near their tails, which do look just as if someone had dabbed them with paint! They are found in the Indian subcontinent south of the Himalayas as well as in south east Asia. Wikipedia’s description of their feeding behaviour matches exactly what we observed:
“They forage in flocks in shallow waters along rivers or lakes. They immerse their half open beaks in water and sweep them from side to side and snap up their prey of small fish that are sensed by touch. As they wade along they also stir the water with their feet to flush hiding fish.”
Our second stop was to take photos of some young girls in colourful saris working in the fields. This was a shot I had been after for the whole trip, but it proved slightly difficult to get because as soon as the girls saw us and our cameras watching them over the hedge they stopped work to pose rather stiffly – very nice of them, but not what we had in mind! Luckily after a while they relaxed and went back to work, and I got my shots.
They've spotted us!
Back to work
Tiger Den Resort
Our base for our two nights near the national park was this fairly basic resort not far from the entrance. This was the least good of all the accommodation we used in Rajasthan, by some way. Of course a visit to Ranthambore is all about the animals and the quality of the accommodation comes second. But you get the same safari experience wherever you stay, and between drives you want somewhere to relax – and from what we saw there are better quality places than this in which to do that. Having said that though, Tiger Den is certainly more than adequate and not without its quirky charms.
Our bungalow is the one on the far left
Our bungalow room was a good size and had all the basics, including a comfortable (but creaky) bed and air conditioning. The bathroom had a bath with shower over and basic toiletries were provided, although not as nice as those in other hotels we stayed in on this trip, and although there were sufficient towels, several were fraying and one unpleasantly stained. Some of the light fittings didn't work either, making the room a little gloomy at night.
Wifi is available, at a cost - 500IR for two days' use on a single device. It only works in the reception and restaurant areas, although as our room was right behind the reception desk we found we could pick it up there too, which was a bonus. The “resort” has a swimming pool, which we didn’t use, and a small shop selling souvenirs rather than practical items.
Overall we found this a reasonable base for a couple of days but I wouldn’t choose it for a longer stay because of the dull and repetitive meals and unwelcoming bedroom. By the way, do check out the website, Tiger Den Resort, if you’re a fan of ludicrous hyperbole! Here’s a small sample:
“An ideal RE-SORT (yes, you will re-sort your self) to distress and detoxify away from the maddening crowd away from the constant ringing of your cell phones, emails, Internet and newspapers. You definitely deserve it, and we know you desire it as well. Come and live your dreams, of a peaceful life, close to nature, close to God, and above all close to yourself….
Experience immortal bliss and behold peace in your body, mind and soul. You will really hum the famous line by Robert Frost:
‘Woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promise to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.’”
Arriving here meant saying farewell to Mehar. As we would be travelling back from here to Delhi by train there was no need for him to hang around while we did our game viewing, so he was headed back that afternoon, with more work waiting for him there the next day. We took some photos, exchanged contact details and promised to send pictures and to recommend him in our reviews and via the tour company. We were sad to say goodbye to him, but very happy to see him again briefly when we bumped into him at the station in Delhi a few days later where he was picking up another couple of tourists who had been on the same train as ourselves.
Farewell to Mehar
Ranthambore National Park
Ranthambore can be regarded as something of a wildlife preservation success story; a former hunting ground for the maharajas of Jaipur, it is today a hunting ground of a rather different type for camera-wielding tourists. Its almost 400 square kilometres were declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1957 and it became a national park in 1981. Although you come here to see the wildlife, and the tigers in particular, it is worth saying that the park itself is beautiful in places and was especially so on our one early morning safari, when the light was at its best.
Looking up at the fort
The park lies at the junction of the Aravalli and Vindhya ranges, and the landscape varies from grassy plains to rocky hills. The park is named for the fort that lies at its heart. Historically this changed hands several times, passing from Mewar rulers to the Rajputs of Bundi, from them to the sultans of Gujarat and from them to the Mughals under Akbar, before passing to the maharajas of Jaipur in the 17th century – hence the development of the area around it as their favoured hunting ground. Inside the fort are three Hindu temples and one Jain temple. It’s possible to visit the fort, although we didn’t do this, and Hindu pilgrims are allowed to walk up to the temples without paying the park entrance fee – you will probably see many on your way into the park.
Our first drive in the park
The basis for everyone’s activity when staying in Ranthambore are the safari drives. Regardless of where you stay you will have the same options and the same experiences – it is not your hotel which organises these but the park. The drives operate twice a day, leaving around 6.15/6.30 and around 14.30/15.00. They last about three hours, but that can include picking up other tourists from their hotels, unless you have paid the extra for a private safari.
There are two types of vehicle used – open-topped jeeps seating six people, plus driver and guide, and so-called cantors, large vehicles accommodating 20 people. The jeeps offer the better experience as you are seated only three to a row rather than four, and can manoeuvre more quickly to reach the best viewing positions for the wildlife. To get a seat in a jeep seems to be something of a lottery however, as although you can book in advance, numbers are limited and there are no guarantees. We got our tour operator to reserve ours at the times of booking the holiday, about three months before our visit, but even then they could make no promises, and it was only on arrival in Ranthambore that we knew we were sure of the jeep places.
The other lottery is where in the park you will go. Some areas are closed for visits, and the remainder is divided into nine zones. Each driver is allocated a zone by the forestry authority that administers the park, and only learns what zone they will be visiting about 30 minutes beforehand. For the tourist this means that it is pot-luck whether you get a "good" zone or otherwise (although this hasn’t prevented loads of online discussion about which is “best”). In practice however there is no saying what constitutes a good zone, as of course the tigers move freely between them, and a sighting in a particular zone on one day is no guarantee of a sighting on the following day.
You can book to do as many or as few drives as you want during your stay, but with little else to do here apart from relax by a hotel pool, you might as well do as many as you can fit in and afford. Received wisdom is that if you do three or more you have a close to guaranteed chance of seeing tigers, but of course there is no such guarantee. We met people who had done four drives and only seen tigers on the last of them, so three would not have been enough for them. Other people see them on their first drive and may ask themselves why they paid for more! It’s all a matter of luck, and the only thing that can be said for certain is that by increasing the number of drives you are increasing your chances.
One of several lakes in the park
We had our first drive on the afternoon of our arrival and were allocated zone four (zone three is generally held to be the best!) The other four people in our jeep had already done a drive that morning but not seen a tiger, and as someone (our tour company? our hotel?) had told our guide that it was my birthday he was determined to find me one.
For a while though it seemed we would be unlucky, although we enjoyed getting our first views of the park which is, as I have said, very pretty. And there were plenty of other wildlife sightings:
Spotted deer, also known as chitral, with faun
We also saw a number of colourful birds:
White-throated kingfisher and Bulbul
Then our guide got a message that a tiger had been seen in one of the neighbouring zones and was walking towards ours. Cue great excitement! The jeep was turned around and we headed back to a likely spot, where several other vehicles had also gathered, lining the road and looking towards an area of long grass. And we waited … and waited … Then our guide exclaimed – he had spotted movement at the edge of the grass. Most of us could see nothing at first but then we spotted him – a solitary male, some distance away, just emerging from the grass. We need binoculars to see him clearly, and I was grateful for the good zoom on my camera that ensured I got a couple of reasonable photos. He lingered for a while, turned and followed the edge of the grass for a distance, then disappeared into it again. Our first drive and we had seen a tiger!
Our first tiger sighting
As we drove back to the park entrance we saw for ourselves that there is no “best” zone for tiger sightings. We passed the low chain barrier that separates zones three (generally talked of as the best) and four. Lined up on the far side were all the vehicles who had been allocated zone three that day, their passengers desperately hoping that the tiger we had seen was coming their way – but he wasn’t, and they would leave without a sighting on that occasion. We on the other hand were very happy – and I think our guide may have been the happiest of all at having found me a tiger on my birthday!
Evening at Tiger Den
Stays at Tiger Den are on a full-board basis, but the included meals are nothing special – rice plus the same, or very similar, curries served buffet style for both lunch and dinner. On this first evening the latter was served outside, with tables and chairs set round small bonfires. Unfortunately, the staff insisted on regularly dowsing the flames with kerosene (even when asked not to by some guests), making the eating area unpleasantly smelly. The food was unexciting but OK (I did like the stuffed potatoes), while the inevitable music and dance performance was quite fun to watch as a young boy did a sort of hobby-horse dance and one of the men was a flame thrower (more kerosene!)
The local agent had clearly told the hotel that it was my birthday as I found a cake awaiting me in the room after dinner that night – a sweet touch (very sweet, as it turned out – Indians love their sugar!). In fact, the staff here were the best thing about the place, as they were generally very friendly and attentive, anxious to hear if you had seen a tiger (we had), wanted more coffee (no thank you) or beer (yes please), and were enjoying your stay (we were).
Safari drive two
The next morning we were up early for our second drive in the park. The hotel provides much needed tea, coffee and biscuits for early risers, but breakfast would have to wait.
Early morning in Ranthambore
There was much to enjoy about this morning’s drive. Our companions in the jeep were friendly and interesting to chat to. Our guide was the best of the three we had. We were allocated zone two which is one of the prettiest areas and looked lovely in the soft early morning light. And we were told that there had been a good tiger sighting in that zone the previous afternoon and it was likely that he was still here. Wrong! Despite the best efforts of our guide and driver (even lingering slightly longer in the park than is strictly allowed), and seeing some tracks at one point, the tigers eluded us on this drive.
Funnily enough, that didn’t seem to matter over much, and I realised on reflection afterwards that in many ways this was my favourite of the three drives we took. The light was beautiful for photography, we saw lots of other wildlife and I got my best bird photos, and the lack of tiger sightings made it a more relaxed experience. Of course, had we not seen a tiger on our first drive we might have felt differently (luckily our companions had also seen some the previous morning).
Our best sightings on this drive included lots more chitral, some langur monkeys and a wide variety of birds.
White-throated kingfisher, back and front
Bulbuls and Rufous tree pie
Back at the hotel we had a leisurely breakfast and spent the middle part of the day relaxing, catching up on photo sorting, and eating the unexciting but included lunch.
Safari drive three
We had already seen one tiger but were keen to see more, so we were pleased to have this third drive in our schedule to increase our chances. It didn’t start well as the jeep was rather late in picking us up (so much so that the concerned hotel staff, spotting us still sitting on the terrace when others had already left) called the local agent to check that we weren’t forgotten. When the vehicle did arrive, we found that our companions for this drive were already in there and I suspect they may have caused the delay by not being ready for pick-up. No matter, we were off – and pleased to hear that we were to visit the much-coveted zone three!
By Rajbagh Lake
This took us past one of the several lakes in the park, Rajbagh Lake, where we saw cormorants and other birds, and a crocodile. We also got some nice shots of the ruined temples dotted around the lake and saw some Sambar deer among the trees.
But like all the guides, this one was keen to find tigers for us. He heard that there might be one in a certain spot so we headed in the direction of a path he thought the tiger might take, and parked up to wait. While we did so he showed us some photos of previous sightings on his phone – he was clearly proud of the photos and they were good but of course not the same as seeing for ourselves. After a while I found myself thinking it would be better to drive around seeing other wildlife even if it meant missing a possible tiger, but I didn’t say so as I had a feeling our companions (who were from another part of India and didn’t speak much English it seemed) hadn’t yet seen one.
Then a message came through that the tiger seen earlier had gone in the opposite direction and was now to be found in another part of our zone, with her eight month old cub! The driver started the engine and we were off, racing along the track to get there while they were still in view. And he made it, but our time spent waiting at the wrong spot had cost us a bit, as other vehicles were in better positions to see them. Our guide was confident though that mother and son would come our way, and he was right. They followed a path past the other vehicles and came right alongside our jeep.
This should have been a wonderful opportunity to get some great photos, but the experience was somewhat marred by the bedlam caused by the drivers and guides of all the other vehicles jostling for position to give their passengers the best view. While our guide and driver jostled with the rest, the vehicle was rarely still enough for photos, and when it was our guide stood up and blocked our view while taking his own video "to show his tourists", he said. In fairness, he did sit down when we asked, but by then the tigers were walking away and the best photo opps were past. I did point out that we too were “his tourists” and that we had very limited time here to see and appreciate the tigers, while he could come every day to take photos. I have also since complained about his behaviour to the tour company.
Still, we had seen the tigers at close quarters and that counted for a lot. And maybe one or two of the photos were OK! So we headed back to the hotel pleased to have had this second sighting and to have got so close to these magnificent animals.
Dinner on this second evening was in the restaurant and the food a little better, and we enjoyed sitting out on the terrace afterwards over a Kingfisher beer.
The next morning we left Ranthambore for Delhi, the last leg of our tour around Rajasthan. Meal timings here are planned around safaris, so breakfast doesn't start till 9.00 when the early morning ones return. This is fine if you're going for a drive, but if not you just have to wait, which was a little frustrating. However we had plenty of time before our pick up for the drive to the station at Sawai Madhopur, and the helpful driver who took us stopped on the way so we could buy cold drinks and snacks for the journey in a local shop, so we were all set for the six hour journey back to where we had started.
I have described this journey already in my Delhi entry but as it completes the circle I repeat it here – feel free to skip!
Our journey from Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore, took something over six hours. The train had started in Mumbai the previous evening so the second class a/c carriage where we sat was a sleeper one. We had been allocated both lower and upper berth in a four person curtained section, but only used the lower for sitting as the journey was an afternoon one.
At Sawai Madhopur station
For part of the time we shared the section with a friendly young local couple. She spoke some English and chatted to us a bit about our holiday as well as pointing out one of the stations in which we stopped as being Mathura, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and offering us bananas.
I enjoyed taking my last long looks at the passing landscape, watching the largely rural communities we passed through going about their daily lives. This was to be our last day in the country (for this trip) as we flew home the next morning. The windows were just a little less grubby than had been the case on our first train journey and I was able to take some reasonable photos of the various sights.
The train pulled into Hazrat Nizamuddin station only slightly late. We were met there (and as I have already mentioned, bumped into Mehar) and driven to our Delhi hotel for one last night in India before our flight home. A last night, that is, for this trip, as we would quite soon be back …
If I have whetted your appetite and you would like to read about our next visit to this fascinating country, you can do so on my other blog: Return to India