Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ranthambhore - Back to tiger-land (May 2017)


Summer is tiger time. The heat, coupled with the drying up of the deciduous forests of Central/North India make it the best time to spot the striped wonder. Conveniently, the birding season is more or less over, save for a few select summer migrants, which gives one the luxury of focusing exclusively on what I consider the finest animal on the planet. No biases there! And tigers invariably lead me back to my spiritual home, the spectacular forests of Ranthambhore. The tigers there are like family now, and so are many of the people who make these trips an absolute pleasure.

As always, we arrived from Mumbai on the August Kranti Rajdhani Express, which gets there just in time for us to make a decent fist of the morning safari. In summer, the park opens at 6 a.m. and the train gets in at 6:20, so it's just after 7 by the time we get into the park. Still more than 2 hours of safari time left and as it almost always turns out, enough time to spot our first tiger. This time too, we were picked up at the station by Rajesh Gujar, one of Ranthambhore's finest and most experienced naturalists. We headed straight from the station to the park, stopping en route to pick up some more of our party from the hotel.

Zone 3 or the Lake Area is one of Ranthambhore's most spectacular parts. Three beautiful lakes with the imposing Ranthambhore fort in the background make for some stunning panorama shots. It is also the most accessible and fastest to reach, making it the perfect choice for the truncated first morning safari. And that's where our canter headed, with all of 16 people on board. We entered through the Jogi Mahal gate, breezed past Padam Talao and into the Rajbagh lake, with the ruins of a medieval hunting palace, ironically home to tigers now. Late entrants search for other vehicles, since stationary jeeps almost always indicate a tiger sighting. With no sign of any jeeps here, Rajesh decided to head to the Mandook plateau, one of the highest points in the park. And as we rounded a bend towards a water hole, a phalanx of vehicles in the distance made us all pick up our cameras. Tiger!

T-91, the new Lord of the Lakes
As we neared the waterhole, we saw a large, tawny form lying in the grass a few metres away. It was T-91, a young male tiger, who had recently deposed T-28, the aging monarch of the lakes. Soon, he stood up and regally walked up to the water for a drink and a wallow. He was young, handsome and looked every bit the reigning king of the area, nonchalant to the presence of his human throng going ballistic with their cameras. It was all getting too idyllic and predictable. The jungle however is full of drama and one never knows what's around the corner. In this case, quite literally.

A movement on the far side of the bushes attracted our attention. To our astonishment, we saw another male tiger walking towards us. It was T-85 (PacMan), a young nomadic male who hadn't still found his territory. He walked purposefully towards the jeeps near the waterhole, completely unaware of the big male in the water. And then he suddenly stopped, he'd seen the other tiger. Even as we were all licking our chops at the prospect of a territorial fight, young PacMan clearly was not in the mood to risk life and limb for our entertainment. He turned and ran, just as purposefully as he'd arrived. Clearly, he'd had some unpleasant conversations with T-91 in the recent past and (which Rajesh confirmed) and had no desire for a repeat. Still, to see a large-ish male tiger run for his life was unusual to say the least. In all of this, the monarch sat in his little pool, unmoved apart from a casual flick of his head towards the intruder. And that was the end of our first safari.

The afternoon saw us head back to Zone 3 and we went looking for our morning friend. As we headed down the road, we saw jeeps heading towards us, waving us back - the tiger was on the move. So we turned around and saw him cross the road in front of us and head into the undergrowth. We anticipated that he might make for another waterhole some distance away so we headed there and waited. And as if on cue, he made his way there. And the way it turned out, he wasn't just going to get water, but also a free lunch. A dead sambhar lay by the water and our friend found himself a feast. Such luck comes rarely in the jungle and he was not going to pass on the chance to avail of a free meal. He may be top of the food chain, but he's not going to let ego get in the way of a full stomach.


And for the next hour or so, we watched him tuck into the deer with gusto, once again oblivious to the bystanders at his private luncheon. He had the grace to drag the kill from the open to a spot behind a tree, but it was more a token gesture of privacy-seeking than any real intent. Having demolished a significant portion of his serving, he came up to the water for a drink and a wallow. Once he was done, he seemed to be in two minds on whether to continue eating or walk away to find another challenge, maybe seek out his mate Arrowhead, who was being aggressively courted by 2 other males. He seemed to vacillate for nearly 20 minutes before choosing to continue his repast. His mate and the males could wait. And we left him in peace with his decision and headed to search for other tigers.

T-57 eyeing a passing peacock
No other tigers were forthcoming and it was almost time, so we headed towards the gate. Rajesh kept saying that he had a hunch that we would see T-57, a huge male with a massive territory. And as we neared Padam Talao, a congregation of jeeps around a small stream piqued our curiosity. Rajesh led us there and we saw a male tiger having a wallow in the stream. It was T-57!! He sat in the shallow water and started roaring, wooing his potential mate, the aforementioned Arrowhead. His roars got got louder and more urgent as time went by but the lovely lady was nowhere close. She was apparently cavorting with T-86, a third male some distance away. And apparently this T-86 had bested T-57 in a fight so our friend didn't dare intrude any further. His heartfelt appeals fell on deaf ears and he walked back to more faithful felines in his territory, no doubt shaking his head at the infidelity of his lady love Arrowhead. Life isn't always easy, even for a large male tiger! And we exited the park, only to spot a bear on the main road outside the park. It was too dark for any pictures, but bear sightings are always special.

The second day was spent in Zone 6, in search of T-8 (Ladli) and her cubs. These were the only cubs we were likely to see on the trip, since the rocking Zone 2 (home to 2 other families) was arbitrarily closed for the larger canters, ostensibly to not disturb the tigers though over 10 additional VIP jeeps are allowed there every safari. Go figure! Zone 6 being one of the 'lesser zones', we were able to get jeeps, so we headed there hoping to see these cubs or their father, the majestic T-34 (Kumbha). There was no sign of them initially, so a couple of us jeeps drove deep into the zone. At one point, I saw a feline rounding a bend on the road and I said 'Tiger'.
Spotty Dada
Turned out to be a leopard, a large male called Spotty Dada. Hearing us, he got off the road and walked alongside on the slopes. We tarried with him till he climbed far ahead and out of sight. Only to encounter a Sloth Bear walking on the road. It was a large male and he ambled along confidently towards our stationery jeep. He got really close and then climbed down a ridge and out of sight. A jeep coming the other way said that there was a female further down the road and the couple had been mating. So we drove on ahead, saw the female and waited in case the leopard came down again. No juice on that so we drove back towards the tiger point.

Bruin on the road!
En route we passed a forest check post where some tourist jeeps were taking a break. And, much to our chagrin, we found out that T-8, cubs and Kumbha had been seen at the waterhole. We sped to the location to find our third jeep there, having seen their fill of the family. The tigers had just left the water to head towards their resting spot amidst the rocks. We managed to see Kumbha's back as he walked on to explore his territory. Then we spotted a couple of the cubs on a rocky ledge, with the mother close by. All we could make were a couple of record shots as the cubs disappeared into their den in the rocks. And a few of decided that we would return that afternoon to see the family come to have a drink. The rest of the group headed to Zone 4 where T-86 and Arrowhead were having a romantic encounter. And the afternoon turned out to be as frustrating as the morning, mother and cubs gave us a glimpse and nothing more as they never ventured into the water. The others saw the mating pair (though no mating happened) along with glimpses of 4 other tigers.

T-8's male cub
The final day dawned with another visit to see T-8. We arrived at the same spot and saw the tigress amble up a wooded slope, above the waterhole. She was dry so obviously hadn't stepped into the water. Then we saw the cubs emerge from the bush and gambol about around her. But they were far and amidst thick foliage so no real photography was possible. We waited for them to come to the water but they just wouldn't come. And there was no sign of Kumbha either, so that was the end of that safari. The last safari of the trip that afternoon (on Zone 4) proved fruitless as the mating pair had moved elsewhere and none of the other tigers deigned to make an appearance. And as we headed back on the train, I ruminated on a trip that began magnificently, but ended rather tamely. But seeing 3 large male tigers on a single day more than made up for missing the cubs.

The highlight was seeing Tiger, Leopard and Bear on a single safari, something that's never happened to me before. Ranthambhore always delights. Always.


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.


This time we stayed at the Vatika resort. It's a nice homely place with comfortable rooms and good, vegetarian food. The fare is tasty but limited so not for those expecting lavish buffets. 


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. 

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 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.

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