Monday, June 26, 2017

Ranthambhore again - Once is never enough! (June 2017)

Beware before you see your first wild tiger! Once you see it, you're hooked. Completely and hopelessly entrapped. Without any hope of redemption or escape. This wonderful animal casts its magnetic lure on you to draw you back again and again. And it is never enough; you always want more. Just look at us. Having had a super trip in May didn't quite cut it, we wanted more. So when Hemraj suggested that seats on a full-day safari might be available, we jumped at the opportunity. And found ourselves back in Ranthambhore in less than a month.

Once again, the train took us to Sawai Madhopur early in the morning and Hemraj was there with the jeep to pick us up. He'd told me earlier that were headed to Zone 6, but once we were in the jeep he casually said we were going to Zone 2, where all the action was. Surprise! We were almost giddy with excitement at the prospect of reacquainting with T-39 (Noor) and seeing her current litter of cubs for the first time. We entered the park at around 7 am, and drove straight to Phoota Kot, where this family has taken up residence this summer. We were waved to a side path by the guide on another jeep and there, in the middle of the road sat the beautiful queen Noor and one of her three female cubs. She posed, groomed herself and then walked up to her cub to nuzzle and lick it. One of the most tender moments in the forest, as mother and cub showed their affection for each other. She walked purposefully to another waterhole, followed by this cub and soon the other two also joined in for a little dip and drink. It wasn't the best light for photos, but to have the good fortune to see this family rendered photography to a mere footnote. Silent thank you to Noor and verbal thank you to Hemraj!

Then she got up and climbed up the nearby slope while her cubs walked into the shade of a nearby nallah and out of sight. Before that though, one of the cubs attempted to stalk a wild boar, quickly realised she was out of depth and trotted off to join her sisters. And we drove on, hoping to find the second family in this zone - T60 and her 3 cubs. Further down, we saw some stationary jeeps who waved us to stop. And in a bush on our left, sat a tiger. We thought it was T60, but it turned out to be Noor. She'd climbed over the hill and come down in search of prey. And there were some spotted deer on the other side that she was stalking. As she stealthily crossed the road, she was almost within touching distance of our jeep! The deer were too alert so she gave up and sat down to rest. And we drove further to check for T60 who managed to elude us by being exactly where we weren't!

That afternoon, we headed to Zone 6 to try and get good sightings of T-8 and her cubs, my 4th attempt! We first drove to the hill where she'd made a Nilgai kill. From the base of hill we could see the kill at a distance, but no tigers. So we drove all over, checked other spots, tried to locate the resident male, Kumbha, all without any luck. And then, with half an hour to go we return to the kill to see one cub feeding on it. At one time, he disappeared fully into the carcass! Too far for any photos, we watched through binoculars and hoped they would come down to the water for a drink. And then mom and sibling also appeared at the kill, and all three started to walk down to the water. The jeeps all made a beeline for the waterhole, but surprisingly, Hemraj turned us back towards the gate. He said there's no way she will come to the water now, and time is running short, so let's drive back. As always, he was right. The tigers stopped somewhere along the way and left all the jeeps high and dry, with a scramble to get back to the exit on time. Once more, I was left marveling at this man's impeccable knowledge of the forest and its denizens.





Day 2 was the big day - a full day safari. It was the first time I would be in an Indian forest from dawn to dusk. And as you can imagine, the adrenaline was pumping as we entered the forest. The plan was simple - find Noor and her cubs first up and then look for other tigers, based on the morning's activity. A sambhar called from the hillside as we approached Noor's territory but we drove on to check the entire stretch. Hemraj's logic was simple; this call could be for a distant leopard or male tiger - our first task was to locate the family. Not finding them, we turned back, just in time to see them come down the hillside. They went to the same pool, drank a bit and then walked along the same hillside. Pretty much their daily routine I guess. And we drove forward and waited alongside a wide nallah (near Kisni Deh), where Hemraj estimated that she would emerge. As if on cue, she came out of the undergrowth and immediately pressed herself to the ground. She'd seen a chital and was trying to stalk it. It was too far though and she carried on walking towards us and her cubs appeared as well.

The next half an hour was a feast. There were tigers all around us. Sometimes a cub would appear to our left and disappear into the grass on our right. Another time, a cub would emerge ahead of us and another right behind. We seriously ran the risk of neck sprains trying to track all this activity. And then Noor used the cover of the jeeps to stalk another chital.  She stationed her cubs in one place as a decoy as she stalked from the back. In hushed silence, we all watched as she sneaked up and then in one sudden burst of speed, she was almost on the deer. Inexplicably, she stopped at the very last moment, giving the deer an unexpected lease of life. The grateful herbivore bounded off with a prayer, no doubt to his family deity. And Noor walked back across the road and settled under a tree with her cubs. A kind gent in the next jeep gave us a good angle for photos and we had an absolute ball for the next hour or so. The regular safari jeeps said their goodbyes, leaving only 3 jeeps with the family. And as we sat there and watched Noor groom her cubs in turn, the feeling was one of privilege, to be able to breathe the same air as these beautiful, noble creations of Mother Nature.

And then the family headed further into the bush, to a water hole that was out of bounds for jeeps, so we carried on to renew the search for T60 and her almost fully grown cubs. We'd had a fantastic sighting of the family last year so I was keen to see them again and renew acquaintances. And we searched everywhere for them; looked up every single water hole, managed to find her pugmarks which we diligently followed. All dead ends. The family seemed to have vanished into thin air. Resigned, we went back to Noor's area where one of the waiting jeeps told us that the family crossed back into the nallah they came from. They were gone and not even the recently arrived scion of one of India's biggest business families (with impolite police escorts in tow) could do anything about that. Mother Nature can be a great leveler in many different ways!

Another jeep brought us news of a mating pair of tigers near Singh Dwar, the entry gate for Zone 4 and 5. So, polishing off a breakfast of eggs and sandwiches, we headed towards this next appointment on our full day calendar. We drove through the beautiful lake areas and descended via Tamba Khan (site of an old copper mine) towards Gular Kui, a small pond by the roadside. And on our way there, I saw a man sitting a little off the road and he didn't look like a forest staffer. Hemraj saw him too and immediately got the jeep stopped and started after them. They were woodcutters who obviously thought they were alone in the forest after the morning jeeps had exited the forest. No one told them about full-day safaris, I presume. Anyways, they ran off, leaving their spoils behind. If it wasn't for a tourist jeep, no one would have even known that two men were able to enter a prime area in the tiger reserve and cut wood with impunity. Some benefits of much-maligned wildlife tourism.

Arrowhead
Shaking with anger, Hemraj had the driver move us forward and barely a couple of hundred metres from the woodcutters lay a large male tiger under a tree. Driving forward, we saw the female sit on a ledge right above the waterhole. It was Arrowhead with her third beau T-86. She yawned and preened, all ready to get up and go to her mate. Until something made her freeze and get into alert mode. Maybe another tiger, we all thought. Incredibly, it was the woodcutters again, walking towards the water! This time they probably wanted to get some water. Hemraj shouted to them that there were tigers around and they stopped in their tracks. By now, both tigers had spotted the men and were in attention. We all tensed, hoping nothing untoward would happen. What happened next left us completely baffled as Both tigers scrambled to their feet and ran away from the humans! And as they themselves ran, we shook our fists and roundly abused them, first for messing up the forest and then our sighting.

Hemraj calmed us down saying that the tigers would come back in a while and in the interim we aumsed ourselves with the other visitors to the waterhole. The ubiquitous Crested Buntings and Indian Pittas came forth while the less prolific Eurasian and Jacobin Cuckoos also arrived to quench their thirst. A Monitor Lizard scurried about in the undergrowth and a pair of Rufous Treepies koochie-coo'd overhead in their typically metallic tones. And then, just as Hemraj said earlier, the male came back. He sat some distance away, reclining majestically. This handsome bloke was indeed a superb representative of his species. Which is why Queen Arrowhead was wooing him so frantically. As we watched, she too came out and went straight to him, nuzzled and brushed against him, time and again. But while he superficially seemed to reciprocate the affection, it stopped there for him. Perhaps he just wanted to be friends! But she wouldn't give up and continued her wooing with great endeavour.


Then, one more example of Hemraj's understanding of this animal. He sensed that the male wanted to come into the water, but was probably hesitating because of the couple of jeeps around. T86 was relatively new in the tourist area so not as comfortable with jeeps as Arrowhead. So he asked Kantar (our driver) to reverse the vehicle about 50 metres and requested the guide in the other vehicle to do the same. And we both waited and watched. In about 10 minutes, the male slowly started walking towards the water. Hemraj held back the jeep. The tiger came closer and slowly descended into the little depression that formed the waterhole. Only then did we move our jeep. And even as we arrived slowly and carefully, he still snarled at us a couple of time to let us know who's boss. I remember the old King T28 doing this to us nearly a decade ago, when he had just arrived at the lakes. This handsome, benign tiger would go on to be one of the favourites showstoppers in the years to come.

While we gave T86 his space, Arrowhead would not. She kept coming up and nuzzling him, trying desperately to awaken his romantic side. But he seemed disinterested, unwilling or unable to take things forward. Her persistence was praiseworthy but every lady has her pride, so she got out of the water, crossed the road and lay down under a tree on the other side. Our friend lingered in his private jacuzzi for a bit and then followed her reasonably purposefully. This only served to get her hopes up and she tried yet again, only to be rebuffed yet again. Hemraj and Kantar opined that she's probably keen because she needs to mate with the dominant male of the area to keep her cubs safe in the future. At this point the lake area is contested by 3 males and she's mated with 2 other males (T57 and T91) So, she needs to cover all her bases, just in case T86 becomes the unquestioned ruler of the lakes. They still couldn't figure out why he wouldn't mate. Stage-fright perhaps? After a point, she shook a metaphorical head at him, called him a few choice names in 'tigerese' and walked away. And drawn like a nail to a magnet, he followed her down a shady nallah till they both vanished out of sight. Leaving us to realize that the growling sounds that continued came from our stomachs!

And so we headed to Jogi Mahal gate where our lunch had been delivered. Over a sumptuous meal of parathas, aloo, pickle and dahi we finalized the game plan for the afternoon. The prospect of spending it with Noor and her cubs was a very agreeable one, but we decided to explore the rest of the park and look for (amongst others) T19 (who had probably just given birth to a new litter), T41 and her cub or any of the 3 large males that split the rest of the tourist zone between them. And we drove on past Rajbagh and Malik Talao, through Lakkarda and the rocky valleys of Adidanth and Semli, before we arrived at the beautiful Bhakola valley. This thick, densely wooded enclave is enriched by a perennial stream and is not called 'A/C for tigers' for nothing. Finding no joy, we drove through almost all the way to Kachida, searching for one of the males or for T73 and her cubs. Not finding anything, we drove back and then decided to explore the ridges and valleys for T19. Then we came across a forest patrol, who told us that T41 and cub had been seen in the Berda valley that morning. And so we headed back to that part of the park.

Driving through the Berda valley, we came across a couple of other jeeps near the spot where T41 was spotted earlier. There was no sign of her, but all the guides guessed that the tigers would be in the bush, lying in the shade till it got cooler. They estimated that she would head to one of two water points, one of which was Bhakola (where we came from) Hemraj decided to take the Bhakola option, so we waited near a path that she would take if she chose Bhakola. Half an hour without action and we were resigned to a tiger-less afternoon. And then, out of nowhere, she appeared in front of us and started walking towards Bhakola. We saw her reuniting with her cub in the bush and the two of them started to walk through the forest. And we turned around and took the long way around. Hemraj estimated that she would cover the distance in about 25 minutes, so we slowly made our way to a bend on the road where he said she would appear. 

And lo! Roughly 22 minutes later, mother and son appeared at exactly at that place. They were in golden light, so we prayed for them to walk towards us on the road. But she was thirsty, so she took a short cut through the hill and descended into Bhakola. We could see them through the foliage, but there was no scope for any photography, so we decided to make our way out of the forest. On the way, we saw a Sloth Bear with two grown up cubs and I picked up a lifer - Yellow Legged Buttonquail... definitely did not expect this one! And that ended one of the finest days of my life. We'd seen 8 tigers, covered 4 of the park's 5 core tourist zones and most importantly, we'd spent roughly 8 out of the 13 hours in close proximity to one of the finest animals on this planet. All through the day, I remembered the man whose dream it was to do an unfettered full-day in his beloved Ranthambhore. He's with his tigers 24/7 now but how I wished he was in the jeep with me that day.

The last 2 safaris were spent in my nemesis area (Zone 6) to track the family that kept eluding us. The morning started with sightings of an Indian fox, which served to whet the appetite. And as we drove through the area, Hemraj and Kantar saw fresh pugmarks of a male tiger. We drove on for a bit and then turned back, only to find more fresh pugs, this time over our gypsy tracks. Hemraj was furious with himself; 'poor tracking', he kept muttering to himself. Any attempt to soothe him down only went the other way. He calculated where the tiger could have gone and led us to a pool right in the middle of a rocky valley. And in the water sat T34 (Kumbha) the dominant male of the area. He was sitting against the light so we decided to leave him and look for the female. Barely 20 metres down a bumpy, rocky path and we all realised the folly of our decision. How could you leave a tiger like that? And so we went back, only to find that Kumbha no longer occupied said waterhole. Hemraj was beside himself now. He sets very high standards for himself and this was just not acceptable. So we hurtled on towards the place he expected the tiger to head to, and sure enough, we found the majestic form of the ruler of that realm, the tiger named after a legendary Rajput king, Rana Kumbha.

Since he was walking off the path, it allowed us to get ahead of him and station ourselves a fair distance away, to be able to get pictures as he approached. He headed to a waterhole, lowered himself there and lapped in content. But he was on a mission, so had no time to dawdle. He heaved himself out of the water and walked forth, stopping only to spray his markings and once to relieve himself. He roared a couple of times to let his tigress and cubs (who were nearby) that he was around and all was well. Job done, he continued his walk, no doubt to check out the far reaches of his territory and weed out any upstarts to dared to threaten his reign. Now while we were with Kumbha, a couple of vehicles got fleeting views of the tigress and cubs on the far side of the same hill. We only got a couple of glimpses as they disappeared into their little cave for some rest.We were all sure that they would come to the water to drink that afternoon and so we came back for our last safari with a great deal of hope. But save for a 10 second sighting of the female without the cubs, we got nothing.

T-8 was the only aberration in a fantastic trip. A superb 3 days full of tigers, a dream full-day safari Noor and her cubs, a mating pair plus Kumbha in all his glory. But then, why was I still surprised? It's Ranthambhore after all!


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 9:45 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 hour journey on largely good roads.

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


For those who prefer a home-like ambience, the best is Tiger Home, an 8 room place (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 hear all about his stories with Ranthambhore's amazing tigers.

Two of Ranthambhore's best options at the next level are the Ranthambhore Regency (www.ranthambhor.com) and Ranthambhore Bagh (www.ranthambhore.com)

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

Safaris
Ranthambhore offers two types of safaris - gypsy (6 seats) and canter (approx 20 seats) Unlike most other parks, here the bookings are on a seat basis, so you can book individual 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 might be 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.

There are village visits and homestays - Hemraj's village Bhuri Pahari is an example where there are some comfortable stay options. You can explore and experience village life and also spot some interesting birds, especially in winter.

Other Tips
Ranthambhore can get really hot in summer, so sunscreen, comfortable clothes and headgear are a must. It can get equally cold in winter, so carry a thick jacket for sure.

The full day safari is a delight but it also takes some getting used to. Please carry a bag or haversack with sun-block, adequate water and also some dry snacks or fruit if you get peckish during the day. 

While a gypsy can take 6 people, it's advisable for a full-day (or half day) safari to have no more than four people. 6 is a tight squeeze and manageable for a 3 hour safari, but to spend 6 or 13 hours like that is not recommended, definitely for your sanity!

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