Monday, August 6, 2012

Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve – Tiger Royalty


The next king of Ranthambhore?
Ranthambhore is, in my opinion, the best place on this planet to watch wild tigers. Some of my most memorable sightings have been set in these incredible surroundings. Where else can you see a tiger with a 1000-year old fort in the background? Or lazing languidly after an afternoon nap in a medieval summer palace? Or a tigress regally surveying her kingdom from a royal ‘chhatri’?

I must confess to a special affinity to Ranthambhore. It’s where I saw my first tiger and many, many more over the years, and the bond has only grown stronger. Thanks to my friend and naturalist extraordinaire, Hemraj Meena, I have closely followed the fortunes of several of Ranthambhore’s tigers over the last decade, so much so that they actually feel like family – any good news or new cubs are cause for celebration and any bad news feels like a punch in the gut.

We went to Ranthambhore twice on this trip. The first time was more like a pitstop en route to Dudhwa. And the other was the finale of this leg of my Wildlife Wander. Both times, Ranthambhore outdid itself, almost as if it taken it upon itself to provide me with the best tiger sightings across my three month trip. And, in addition to the tigers, we spent an incredible few days at Hemraj’s Tiger Home with Karen and Simon Spavin, hugely travelled wildlife enthusiasts and incredibly knowledgeable birders and photographers. We also had the privilege of spending time with Nalla Muthu, film-maker par excellence and probably India’s finest wildlife storyteller. It was fascinating to see his skill, passion and patience at work. It’s no easy task especially given that most of the time you have no idea where to find your stars! Sometimes for days or weeks on end. And even when you do find them, they are usually in no mood to shoot, or probably give you a few fleeting glimpses. Much like our Bollywood superstars!

T19, one of Ranthambhore's dominant tigresses
T19 polishing off her kill
On our first trip we saw T19 with her cubs, together with their father T28. She was with her male cubs amid thick lantana, finishing off a chital kill. As she gnawed at the remains, she was constantly snarling at one cub, who was angling for a quick bite or seven. Finally he got too close and she reared up, gave him a tight smack and then dragged the kill away while he lay down like a sulking little child. Then, they all came into the open and disappeared into a nala. One male cub emerged further ahead where his dad lay in the water. Father and son shared a few companionable minutes before the cub was nudged away by the big male. He’d had a bad day at work – injuries from a territorial fight, so really wasn’t in a mood to babysit a frisky youngster.


Big Daddy T28 (or Star Male) licking his wounds after a fight
We now had tigers in 3 different directions, so we had to choose which one to focus on. We decided to stay with the big male and he rewarded us by moving out from the water hole to lie in the open. Then the family slowly came together to join him, but a quick little growl told them that he was still not quite in the mood for conversation. So T19 and two cubs moved away and we followed them.

A cub mock charges at us 
Mum keeps a close eye on us
Then, one of the cubs decided that he wanted to play catch… he stalked us through the bushes and then suddenly made a dash towards us. Of course he didn’t really intend to come close and quietly sat in the bush, smiling to himself, I’m sure.

While we were with the cubs, I was thinking to myself, here we are, completely neglecting a huge male tiger, barely 20 metres away. How often are you so spoiled for choice? And then, something told me to turn my head away from the cubs. And to my amazement I saw T28 barely 15 feet from us, walking head on towards our gypsy. No one had seen him come. I was so awestruck, I forgot to line up my camera. He walked up, veered away at the last minute into a bush a few feet to our left, marked his scent and walked alongside our jeep and down the road. I found that I had stopped breathing for a few seconds. It was an absolutely incredible moment.

Brown Fish Owl 
Red vented bulbul having a drink

Checkered Keelback

Love the colors of the algae on the water
And that ended one of my most memorable trips into Ranthambhore’s forests. The next few safaris produced some really close shaves, where we missed tigers by a few minutes here and there. But it was more than made up by all the other things we saw. In one of the waterbodies we saw a number of beautiful checkered keelbacks. We also saw vultures (long necked and king vultures) brown fish owls and finally, a beautiful lake covered with impossibly coloured purple algae.

And that was our first Ranthambhore visit. One improbably fantastic tiger sighting, that we reckoned would be impossible to outdo. But little did we know how much more Ranthambhore had in store on our return leg!

Ranthambhore Trip Guide

Getting there

Ranthambhore is arguably the 'most easy to access' Tiger Reserve. Sawai Madhopur (SWM), the adjoining town is a major junction on the Mumbai to Delhi/Jaipur trunk line hence train connectivity is excellent. From Mumbai, the Delhi August Kranti Rajdhani is the best option (leaves Mumbai at 17:40 and reaches SWM the next morning at 06:30) and on the way back it leaves SWM at 20:45 and gets into Mumbai at 10:15 the next morning. There are a number of options to Delhi, including the August Kranti.

Jaipur (140 kms) is the nearest big city and airport, a comfortable 3 1/2 hour journey on excellent roads.

Stay
Ranthambhore has it all. From budget hotels to home stays to mid range to complete opulence, you can get the whole nine yards. 


For those who prefer a home-like ambience, there is none better than Tiger Home (www.ranthambhoretigerhome.com) built by Hemraj Meena, a local who is one of the park's finest naturalists. A personal friend, Hemraj's dream had always been to have a place of his own where he can host wildlife lovers. And Tiger Home does exactly that. It's a really comfortable 8 room house with air-conditioned rooms and all the mod cons. Excellent home cooked food and very helpful staff make you feel genuinely like you're at home. And the best part is the company, Hemraj's experiences are incredible and you could well meet Nalla sir as well and hear all about his stories with Ranthambhore's amazing tigers.

  

At the mid-level, two of Ranthambhore's best options are the Ranthambhore Regency (www.ranthambhor.com) and Aditya Singh's Ranthambhore Bagh (www.ranthambhore.com)


The luxury options include Taj Hotels' Sawai Madhopur Lodge, Oberoi Vanyavilas and Amanbagh. 

There are many many other hotels and resorts, but for me, home is Tiger Home!

Safaris
Ranthambhore offers two types of safaris - gypsy (6 seats) and canter (approx 25-30 seats) Unlike most other parks, here the bookings are on a seat basis, so you can book 2 gypsy or canter seats without having to pay for the whole vehicle. All bookings need to be made on the website (www.rajasthanwildlife.com

Please do book well in advance, especially if you need gypsy bookings. And always carry your ID proof with you, since there is invariably some checking at the entry gates.

Other attractions 
Ranthambhore Fort and the Ganesh Temple - one of Ranthambhore's most distinctive features is the huge fort that looms over the park. This medieval fort also has Rajasthan's oldest Ganesh temple, which attracts thousands of visitors, especially on Wednesdays.



In addition to the core area of the National Park, the adjoining Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary is also very pretty. Open even in the monsoon, this forest has beautiful high mountains and lots of flowing streams. There are tigers here as well as leopards and hyenas. Certainly worth a visit.

Other Tips
Ranthambhore can get really hot in summer, so sunscreen and comfortable clothes and headgear is important. It can get equally cold in winter, so a thick jacket is a definite requirement.

Another factor is the dust, so if you're troubled or allergic, a face mask will come in handy.