The next stop on our train tour of northern India was a small town in Rajasthan called Sawai Madhopur. Sawai Madhopur is a very small, dusty and dirty town which attracts huge numbers of tourists each year – not for the pigs eating from the open sewers, not for the funny faces the camels pull when they pull their carts along, or for the terrible driving and road conditions. Tourists travel from around the world to Sawai Madhopur for one thing and one thing only… Ranthambhore National Park.
Ranthambhore National Park is world famous for its tigers. Royal Bengal Tigers to be precise. I saw a documentary about it a few years ago, and when we decided we were coming to Rajasthan, I just knew we had to go!
Ranthambhore is a huge park of 1,400km2, with only 392km2 open to the public. It has 59 tigers including cubs, which roam between the ten safari zones and outside into the rest of the park.
We arrived at the station in the late afternoon, and were met by several tuktuk drivers claiming to be the collection for our hotel. After deciding which one was most likely (and we were right), we followed him to the tuktuk. He didn’t seem very impressed about anything, or help with the bags or anything, which most tuktuk drivers usually do. There were loads of grubby street children outside the station – and they kept squeezing the cushion I have on the outside of my backpack. Eventually I managed to make them stop begging for ten rupees and go away.
Our evening at the hotel was nothing exciting and we had an early night as the next two mornings we would be up with the sun before six.
The following morning we were in the dining room having a cup of tea by quarter past six, ready for our collection between half six and seven. At about twenty to seven our gypsy arrived. A gypsy in this sense is a 4×4 Subaru roofless jeep – perfect for off road driving in the national park. It has two rows in the back, suitable for three people in each row. There were an Italian couple in the back row and an American couple in the front – went in the front and my Dad in the back, and off we went!
I have to admit I had very high hopes for seeing a tiger and didn’t quite realise how difficult they are to find, so in entrance to the park I thought I’d see one within a few minutes. Every time we saw another gypsy stopped and looking at something. Heart least with excitement. Can you imagine how I felt when we saw six or seven gypsies one after another and drivers calling between one and other “mother and cub, mother and cub”? I will tell you – bloody excited, that’s how!!
The tigers weren’t close by, they were maybe quarter of a mile away, on top of a hill on a rocky outcrop underneath an electricity pylon. Who cared… They were still tigers! I couldn’t believe it. My binoculars didn’t really do the job, but the fantastic zoom on my camera let me zoom in and see the mummy tiger and her almost fully grown female cub. Apparently this tiger (T8) did have two cubs originally but the male cub was killed by a male adult who felt threatened by the new male in his territory. We heard T8 roar, and even from the distance we were at it was something pretty scary… If I was a deer or antelope I would be terrified of that! She had been lying down, but she clearly got fed up of us all watching from a distance and so they sloped off.
Elsewhere in our sector (6) of the park I was highly hopeful to see another tiger or two. I had an image in my head of driving round a corner and seeing one walking toward us along the track, just like in the documentaries, but, we didn’t. Apart from the tigers, while in the park, we saw: spotted deer, sambar deer (both described as ‘tiger chocolate’), Blue Bull antelope and many different species of birds. We saw tiger footprints on a sand part of the track which the driver estimated to be from early in the morning when tigers are most active.
On heading out of the park as the day got hotter we came to another line of gypsies looking back up to where the tigers had been earlier. When we saw the tigers move earlier they had just gone to the other side of the rocky outcrop, which can be seen from the downward slope of the hill. Through the trees we could see the mother’s head outline in a space between two rocks, and as we crept down the hill we could see the body of the cub. It wasn’t easy to get some photos from the distance we were at but a I did my best, and got a few though many of them my camera had focussed on the twigs and leaves in between us and the top of the hill.
In the afternoon we were collected again by another driver and had a gypsy all to ourselves. We were going to to Ranthambhore Fort and our driver had 16 years experience in the park. On the way he told us all sorts of information about animals within the park, the territories of the tigers, leopards and sloth bears. We looked for all of the big animals but again didn’t see any. We did see lots of crocodiles, Black Faced Langur Monkeys, water snakes, and many birds including the collared scopes owl.
The walk up to the top of the fort took about 20 minutes up over two hundred old stone steps. The fort itself dates back to over 900 years ago so everything is pretty old! In the fort there is a Muslim mosque, a Hindu temple and a palace. By the time we had walked up to the palace at the top I was beginning to overheat, so we didn’t go up to the temple, but instead, we went and sat on the roof of the palace and were treated by some incredible views across the national park. We could see for miles and miles, two lakes full of crocodiles, surrounded by trees, full of birds and monkeys. So peaceful and relaxing, but still really warm. We spent at least half an hour up there, probably more, watching the shadows grow longer, crocs swimming across the lake and birds in the trees.
The next morning we went on our second early morning tiger safari. We hadn’t seen any tigers during out trip to the fort, and the Italian couple we were with the previous morning hadn’t seen any in their afternoon safari so I was feeling pretty hopeful. This time we had a guide rather than just a driver, so there was someone telling us about the park etc. Our safari friends were an Indian family who have lived all over the country. They hadn’t been in the park before and were pretty excited to hear the we’d seen the tigers the day before.
On arriving at the park we realised we were going to be in the same sector/zone as the previous day. I felt a bit disappointed because for some reason I assumed there’d be more chance of seeing a tiger elsewhere, and didn’t really want to see the same track through the flat scrub again. We were in luck though, because although we were in the same sector of the park we went along a different track, taking us really high on the hill top which looked right across the valley. We drove along the hill top, waiting for signals from other animals that a tiger was close, an alarm call or something. The only thing we saw which excited us a little were two deer on a hillside moving very quickly, away from what we hoped was a tiger chasing them, but it turned out to be nothing. We saw lots of deer again, of various types, and antelopes too. The guides in the park seem to call the deer and antelopes ‘tiger chocolate’, I heard it a few times during our time there. We didn’t even see as many birds as the day before. Not all was lost though as it was a nice drive and plenty of nice views. So, no tigers on day two.
Early afternoon we went out for a short walk to the ATM. The outside air was surely no cooler than the surface of the sun. I was almost on the ground from the heat within minutes. Not the best move for someone who is STILL as white as a sheet (with a few million freckles).
We have a bit of a running joke about camels faces. They really do pull some hilarious faces and I’d planned to take some photos of them doing so to make a small compilation. Unfortunately we didn’t see any on that walk – so no camel compilation!
We took a tuktuk back to Sawai Madhopur station where I got pestered by some seriously dirty children begging for money. It breaks my heart seeing little kids like that, they looked as though they’d never had a bath in their little life and, as stuck up and snobby as it sounds, I didn’t want them touching my travel cushion as I use it to sleep on.
Once in the station we sat down on some steps and my Dad went off to find some chai. There were two ladies sitting along the steps from me who kept shuffling ever closer. People here are really friendly but it can sometimes be a wee bit daunting. The braver of the two ladies started talking to me in (possibly?) Hindi, asking questions. When Dad came back they seemed to find it hilarious and you could tell they were trying to work out the relationship… Is he my Dad or my husband? I’m sure that would have been one of the questions she asked me. I’d had this funny idea of a cartoon in my head that I wanted to sketch out in my sketch book, so I got it out and started drawing. Soon enough there were eleven or twelve people gathered round me looking over my shoulder to see what exactly I was drawing. I think some of them got the joke!! We weren’t sure how to get rid of the crowd, so Dad suggested I went to get the next cup of chai as a crowd of Indian ladies probably wouldn’t carry on handing round if it was just him, so I did, and that worked.
We boarded the late arriving train, excited for our next stop and finally seeing the Taj Mahal.