‘Shhhh’, screamed the guide. Everyone looked stupefied and slowly gossiped among themselves. The canter that we had booked at the last minute for the afternoon safari was filled with young college goers. Ganpat, our driver was smart and fast while the guide was a mellow guy, Vivek. It was the beginning of January and afternoons were supposed to be the time when most of the wildlife was visible when they came out to drink water and wander in the forest. We had tried booking in advance with the resort we were staying at, that didn’t work out too well. Zone 3 & 4 were the zones where a tiger was most likely to be seen. A local agent was successful in booking us seats on a canter meant for Zone 4.
We were deep in the forest of Ranthambore National Park and the 1000 year old Ranthambore fort stood proudly on the hill overlooking us. The landscape was barren and the mountains rose high into the sky. The air became pretty chilly when the warmth of the sun left us. I had never been to a wildlife sanctuary before. Wildlife enthusiasts had quipped ‘You don’t find a tiger. The tiger finds you.’ I had no expectations.
I met some foreigners in our resort who said they had been there for a week and still no tiger sighting. They had specifically come to see a tiger. Bad luck, I said; not knowing I would earn bragging rights very soon.
‘The spotted deer have given a call’, Vivek hushed. All I could hear was the rustling of leaves. Sambar deer were grazing on the aquatic vegetation that grew on the lake. There were herds of wild boar that lazed in the sunshine. The gypsies and canters followed one another in a mad chase resembling the movies. It turned out to be a futile attempt.
Our smart driver had the foresight to be faster than anyone else and saw some movement of the spotted deer on the other side. We scampered stealthily and stopped in our tracks to see him approach. The tiger appeared from the bushes camouflaged by the jungle. A wave of jeeps and canters spoiled our personal tryst. We held our breath. The tiger walked in front of us on the road and crossed over to the other side.
The tiger lounged on the ground in front of us, giving everyone an ample opportunity to see and click. It was a magnificent moment, my first wildlife safari had been a lucky experience. The crowd had grown larger and larger; one guide opened his door and maybe wanted to go near the tiger. Our guide told us some visitors coming through travel agents are ‘guaranteed’ a sighting. They then chew the brains of the guide, yielding many funny snippets in hindi.
We first heard their sounds and then spotted various birds like eagle, heron, owl, egret, drongo, woodpecker, crane, parakeet, flycatcher, treepie, kingfisher and perhaps many more the names of whom I don’t know! The guide also helped us in identifying nilgai, langurs and many kinds of other wild animals.
When we had got bored and were leaving; the tiger got up languidly and slowly made its way into its territory too. It was his own way of saying goodbye.
How to spot a tiger in Ranthambore?
‘Look into the mirror, growl like a tiger, think that you are a tiger.’
Voila. You have seen a tiger.
My answer when people ask me that funny question.
It purely depends on luck, although your chances of a tiger sighting dramatically increase in zones 1-5. Zone no. 3 & 4 remain the best bets for sighting ‘The big cat’ due to the occurrence of lakes and water bodies lying that side.
Ranthambore National Park is open from 1 October to 30 June and is spread over 392 sq km although only a fraction of it is open for tourists. The Chambal river flows close to the park which is divided into ten zones. Zones numbered 1-5 are part of the core tiger reserve while zone nos. 6-10 comprise the buffer zone.
The safaris are conducted in gypsies (8 seater) or canters (21 seater). All safaris are conducted by the Rajasthan Forest Department. Each ride lasts for around 3 hours. Morning safaris usually leave between 6-7 a.m. and afternoon safaris leave between 2-3 p.m. They will pick you up from your hotel. (Be sure to confirm though)
The seats are on a first-come-first-serve basis (You can always try talking to local agents who usually know how to pull strings with some extra money).
We paid Rs. 800/ per person for the canter and were told that the gypsy safari costs 1200/- per person.
Advance safari bookings can be made through the government website and it is pretty user friendly and reliable.
How to reach Ranthambore:
There are two road routes for reaching Ranthambore from Jaipur. The distances are largely the same, 185 kms to 200 kms.
- Via Dausa Road. Bassi-Tunga-Lalsot-Sawai Madhopur – Ranthambore. This route is better, we used this while coming back. 3 hrs and 30 minutes.
2. Via Tonk Road. Kothun-Lalsot-Sawai Madhopur- Ranthambore. The stretch between Kothun to Lalsot isn’t very good. We used this road while going from Jaipur. 3 hrs and 45 minutes.
Train connectivity to Sawai Madhopur is excellent. There are trains from Bombay, Delhi, Jaipur among other metros that stop at Sawai Madhopur. The graffiti inside the station is beautiful; an ode to the art in Rajasthan. Ranthambore is hardly 10 kilometres from Sawai Madhopur.
The nearest airport is Jaipur.