In search of tigers but only found some mating hyenas – much rarer!
When we got back to the car our guide said that the train had made up some of its lost time, so it was now a bit of a rush to get to the station. We need not have worried, because like most things in this country time is a loosely bounded variable. One sad thing was experienced whilst waiting on the platform was a man begging with no legs.
Rather than sitting still he was dragging himself around and going up to anyone who looked like a tourist. We had got hardened to the begging and followed the advice we had been given by several of our guides not to make eye contact. But with this man it was really hard!
Eventually our train did arrive. We had reserved seats which was great because this was a holiday (it was New Year’s Eve) and the train was packed. There was no space in the overhead rack for our large suitcases. After a bit of shuffling and tugging I got one bag up, the second had to sit in the aisle. This was India so no one, including the frequently passing train inspectors, seemed to care that we were blocking the exit in case of emergency.
Our carriage was near the front of train, so we were in one of the better classes. I had envisioned that we’d be sharing our carriage with goats and chickens, but none of that here; the carriage was full of middle class Indians on their way home or to visit friends and family. A little disappointing! The journey was long, but we filled the time with people watching. For me the most interesting sight was the constant flow of people wandering through the carriage selling food and drinks; from bags of biscuits and crisps to hot chai tea and soup. Literally every five minutes someone would pass selling something.
Three hours later than planned we reached our destination. It was now past 10pm and we were worried that there would be nothing for us to eat at the resort, Khem Villas, where we were staying at. We had not eaten anything on the train apart from a packet of biscuits we had bought from a vendor. Luckily, the tour company representative had kept the resort up to date with the progress of our travel, so when we arrived some twenty minutes later the restaurant was still open.
Our bags were taken from us and we went straight in for the kill on some thali and naan bread. It had been a long day but everything felt much better the other side of a thali!
We were shown to our accommodation for the next three nights – a luxurious tent. The setting was delightful, and the ambiance was further enhanced by a spectacular full moon. This was not so much camping as it was extreme ‘glamping’. The tent was huge, with a fantastic king-sized bed and it was tastefully decorated and lit, creating a spa-like feel. The same went for the bathroom, which had an enormous shower. We both felt we could live somewhere like this permanently. After doing our ablutions we climbed into bed and were very happy to find that the night staff had furnished our bed with his and hers hot water bottles – there are still some nice leftovers from British colonialism!
Things learnt today:
- Don’t show any interest whatsoever – including eye contact – with the street vendors because once they have seen a chink in your armour you are doomed.
- Being late doesn’t necessarily mean a disaster – it can sometimes lead to a good result.
- Trains in India are entertaining (but we’d still like to try a travel a lower class of service to see what that’s like!)
- Camping can be fun and comfortable, and you can’t beat hot water bottles.
Day 1 – Ranthambore
We woke to a rather chilly morning, but we felt very snug in our tent. We were setting out early on our first tiger safari of the day, so there was no time for breakfast, but there was coffee waiting at the reception area. Before we departed the hotel kindly provided us with some important provisions: A sandwich, some water, a blanket and a hot water bottle. Morning temperatures in Rajasthan can be cold in January, especially when you are traveling around in the back of an open top truck!
Our naturalist guide was a lady, rarer in the park than the tigers themselves … indeed she was the only one of her kind! The drive to the entrance of Ranthambore National Park was quite short, but once we reached the gates we were confronted by a large crowd of people who were walking along the same road that we were traveling. They were heading up a steep road towards Ranthambore Fort. It was January 1st and a National holiday, and these were Hindu devotees on their way to pay respect to the gods whose shrines were within the walls of the fort. Luckily, our route veered off and we were soon in the relative calm of a scrub like jungle, bumping up and down on rough tracks in search of tigers. It should be said at this point that finding tigers in a huge tract of land such as Ranthambore is not easy. For one thing they are mostly solitary animals, so there is usually just one to find (unless there is a female with cubs) and their territories are large (a tigress may have a territory of 20km2 and a male’s territory can be up to 60km2 to 100km2) and they are well camouflaged in the long grass!
After a short-time the cold was setting in, despite having a blanket and hot water bottle. It was a pleasant surprise when pulling over to eat our sandwiches our guide pulled out a flask of hot chocolate and some cake to share with us. She had made these home comforts for us!
We got to see a lot of deer and antelope, which was not necessarily good as they seemed to be happy munching on grass and bushes; if there were tigers around they would have been long gone. There were also some alligators sitting near a dried-up waterhole. A couple of hours later we still had not seen a tiger and it was time to head back to the hotel. It was disappointing not to have had a sighting of a tiger, but we were still having a good time just being on safari. As we were on the way to the entrance one of our fellow passengers spotted a stripy creature moving in the bush not too far from us. Sadly, not a tiger, but it was a pair of mating hyenas. Yes, animal porn! To some this might be a lesser experience than seeing a tiger, but our guide was tremendously excited. Hyenas are nocturnal animals, so to see them during the day is extremely rare. There are only a small number of hyenas in the park, and when we showed the naturalist back at the resort the pictures she was also very excited and asked Karen to send her some of the pictures to put on their website.
We were tired and hungry when we got back to the resort, so it was a treat to use the fabulous shower in our tent and take some breakfast. As we were in such an exotic location and due our bodies being bashed and bumped on the safaris we decided to book ourselves in for a couples’ massage in the evening.
In the afternoon we had a second safari lined up. We were traveling with the same English family we had met in the morning, minus the mum who was not feeling so well, and a young local man who just enjoyed coming to the park to take photos of tigers. He shared some of his photos with us during the journey (he also has a website where he posts the pictures to). The sector of park we covered on this safari took us over mountainous ridges into a lush valley with more water, including a large wetland area. If we thought the morning’s trek had been bumpy, this was even more so. The evening’s massage loomed large in our minds! There was again plenty to see in terms of antelopes, deer and more alligators. For a second time we were to be disappointed with the tiger viewing opportunities, so there was nothing more to be done than head back to the resort for a shower, dinner and a massage. There was still a final safari trip tomorrow to finally break our tiger duck!
Day 2 – Ranthambore
Today our old friend the fog was back in town. It didn’t look very hopeful for spotting tigers, but nonetheless we followed the previous day’s routine, except we put on as many layers of clothes as we could comfortably manage without resembling the Michelin man. Even with these clothes on and the blankets and hot water bottles, it was still cold.
Our journey today took us to another sector of the park. Ranthambore National Park is vast, covering approximately 110 square miles, and is home to 60 or so tigers. There are no fences or walls around the park to contain the tigers, they are truly wild. Indeed, during our stay at the resort fresh tiger paw prints were found not too far from the tents and cabins! The drive was about 30 minutes, taking us through a local town, which again presented us with further evidence of the harsh life led by those living in rural India. By the time we entered the park the fog had lifted, and we were feeling a little warmer, but still grateful for the extra layers of clothing we had decided to wear. This section of the park felt like it had previously been a used as a residence as there were many signs of man’s occupation. The tall grasses and scrub gave way to a more rugged landscape and soon we had climbed high above the valley floor and were treated to spectacular views across mountainous terrain. The trail was bumpy, but it made it all the more fun to be jiggled and tossed as we worked our way up and over the hill. On the other side we ran to the boundary of the park and the perimeter wall. Here there was a quarry with a watering hole, apparently a popular haunt for the tigers … but not today. A short distance from the quarry we entered a lightly wooded area where we came to relatively close quarters with a sloth bear, which are quite large. For most people this was exciting but having got up to within a few feet of grizzly bears in the US it was not quite as thrilling for me! It was now getting towards time to return back to the resort and we had yet to see even a glimpse of a tiger – disappointing yes, but we had still enjoyed our time in Ranthambore.
Once we got back to the resort we just about had enough time for a shower, pack away our things and get a quick bite to eat.