Saturday, January 26, 2019

Pulicat Lake (July 2018) - Noddy in Wonderland

It's one of India's best kept wildlife secrets. And at 750 sq. kms. it is a fairly large thing to hide away as well. Pulicat Lake, straddling Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh is India's second largest brackish waterbody after the much-celebrated and obviously better known Chilika Lake in Orissa. And just like its larger sibling, Pulicat's waters, mudflats and beaches house a bewildering array of birdlife, resident and migratory. Over the last few years, Pulicat's secrets have been gradually unfolding to the rest of the world, mainly thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated birders from Chennai. Almost every season, they have uncovered a rare visitor or two, some just fleeting visitors and others who have stayed for longer. I have been fortunate to be friends with two of these people: Aravind Venkataraman and Ganesh Jayaraman; super-keen birders, fantastic photographers and gracious hosts to any birder who wishes to visit this part of avian paradise. And it is with them and their trusted, trained boatman Yuvaraj that I have made my hat-trick of trips to try and unearth some of the magical treasures of Pulicat Lake.

Rainy debut
White-bellied Sea Eagle
My first visit was with Aravind a couple of Septembers ago, with Ganesh traveling on work. Unusually for Chennai, it rained the previous night and the morning too dawned cloudy and drizzly. But that did not deter Aravind as we drove the 70 odd kilometers to Pulicat. We got on to Yuvaraj's boat as the sun threatened to break clear of its cloudy shackles. But it just never did. We got some superb sightings of White Bellied Sea Eagles, including one adult bird that was feasting on an eel, sitting on one of the wooden posts that dot the lake. It allowed us to get quite close without getting disturbed, but the light just wasn't good enough to do the pictures any justice. The trip was rounded off by sightings of Grey Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones in breeding plumages, and a Spot-billed Pelican. Magnificent sightings, they were and I left Chennai salivating for more Pulicat.

The Missing Tattler

Bar-tailed Godwit
The Indian birding fraternity went into a tizzy in September/October 2017 with the sighting of a Grey-Tailed Tattler in Pulicat, probably the first record for India. Aravind and Ganesh reached out as soon as it was sighted, but I was reluctant to go all the way for a single bird. So I hemmed and hawed for a few weeks until a family visit popped up in Chennai. And Pulicat beckoned once again. We spent a superb afternoon there, with some stunning sightings of Bar-tailed Godwits and Pacific Golden Plovers. But the tides had turned against me (literally) as far as the Tattler was concerned. The bird had vanished a few days earlier. But the other birds more than made up.

Pacific Golden Plover
Noddy-time
Lesser Noddy
The Lesser Noddy. Another of those Tattler-type rarities that arrived in Pulicat in May this year. We all expected it to stay a week or so, and so I never really planned to go. Then it stayed for a month. Aravind and Ganesh again kept offering to take me there, and I said I would come if the bird stayed till July - I had a cousin's 'big birthday' celebration then. And I really did not expect to still find the bird there. However, on the 9th of July, a day before I headed to Chennai, Aravind confirmed that the bird was still there. Not just bird, there were now 3 birds, two months after they first arrived! Did anyone say they were vagrants?

Aravind was ready as always at 4:30 a.m. for the drive to Pulicat. Once there, we got on board with Yuvaraj, a fisherman turned bird guide, handpicked and trained by Ganesh and Aravind. He confirmed that the birds were still there and that was good enough for me. The one bummer (there always has to be one!) was the weather. It was overcast and the threat of rain hung in the air. Thankfully the latter never arrived but the clouds definitely threw a spanner in the photography works.


Sandwich Tern
We scanned the lake for the Noddy(s) but they didn't seem to want to make an immediate appearance. There were scores of other birds as well. Terns, Gulls, a couple of Peregrine Falcons and the odd Osprey made for an interesting start to the morning. And then we saw it. Within a big group of terns sat one brown bird. A Lesser Noddy. Yuvaraj used all his skill to manoeuvre us as close as possible and we got a few photos. It didn't quite live up to its reputation as a willing model and was a bit skittish. But I was not complaining! Just to be able to see this beauty was well worth it. And while lining up a shot for this bird, a tern popped up in the frame. At first glance it looked larger and slightly different from the rest. And a closer look at the bill confirmed that it was different indeed! It was a Sandwich Tern, a bird I had only seen earlier through a spotting scope a fair distance away. Now it was less than 20 feet away and sitting very comfortably. Deeply grateful, I clicked a few pictures, thanked Yuvaraj and we both bid adieu to this incredible birding treasure called Pulicat.

It has thrown up a magical sighting or surprise every time I have visited. Yuvaraj's skill in spotting a rarity within the thousands of birds spread over a mind-boggling expanse is nothing short of spectacular. And a special thanks to his mentors and my friends, Aravind and Ganesh. In an increasingly competitive birding world, they are always open, always welcoming and always sharing information with other birders. Not to say always willing to drive a fair distance at an unearthly hour, just to help you see a bird that they have seen a dozen times. May their tribe increase!

We all believe that Pulicat has many more hidden treasures hidden within its watery expanse. And slowly but surely, it is opening up that treasure chest for us. As Ganesh And Aravind say, there's a Spoon-billed Sandpiper in here somewhere! 

Here's to many more trips to this incredible birding wonderland.

Pulicat Lake Trip Guide

Pulicat Lake is a 750 sq. km. brackish water body, the second largest in India. It straddles 2 Indian states - Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, with most of the lake falling within the latter state. It is also home to Sriharikota, one of the homes of India's space programme. From a birding point of view, it has been sparingly explored (not surprising given the expanse, terrain and the high-security zone it falls under) and that too on the Tamil Nadu side. Even so, the variety of bird life and the rarities it has thrown up is nothing short of astonishing.

Getting there

Pulicat is about 60 odd kms to the North of Chennai, in the direction of Gummidipoondi and Nellore. Chennai, of course, is the nearest metro and airport and a 2 hour drive on mostly good roads. Like with any big city, the drive can get much longer during peak hours.

The best way to get there is to drive from Chennai. 

Stay
Chennai should be your base for Pulicat. And it has all kinds of options, for stay and food. If you have to pick, then try and stay as close to central or northern Chennai; it will help you cut down on the drive time.

Boatman
Yuvaraj is your man for Pulicat. An ex-fisherman, he is now almost a full time bird guide and has been expertly trained by Ganesh and Aravind. He's quite in demand these days, especially when the rarities arrive, so please call and check his availability. You can reach him on 

Other Tips
Spending a few hours on an open boat is a delight but it also comes with its own watchouts.
Please carry a cap and adequate water. And sun block if you need.
And carry a snack with you, like some biscuits or fruit. You're always going to feel peckish after a couple of hours.


Ruddy Turnstone


Spot-billed Pelican



Caspian Terns

Ranthambhore (June 2018) - Hat-trick in one year!

There are special years and then there are special years. 2018 gave me the opportunity to visit Ranthambhore three times and when such chances come calling, there were no close dental inspections of the proverbial gift horse. I was joined by two junior wildlife enthusiasts, my daughter and one of her closest friends. The old routine was followed to a T- and it worked like clockwork. The train from Mumbai arrived on time, Hemraj picked us up at the station and we entered Zone 1, albeit an hour after the park's scheduled opening time of 6.00 a.m.

Now when you're that late, you're usually looking for another jeep, moving ones indicate no sightings yet while stationary ones almost always point to a sighting. This time we drove through almost the entire zone without spotting another vehicle. Typically, that would trigger disappointment, but in our case it brought optimism; maybe someone was seeing a tiger right at the end of the zone! And sure enough, we rounded a bend and a couple of jeeps were stationed on the road and pointing to something in the undergrowth. And there, lazing under a tree was one of Ranthambhore's princesses. She was one of the sub-adult daughters of Noor, one of the park's dominant tigresses from a litter of three female cubs. It was a relatively cool summer morning and her majesty seemed in no mood to stir as she rested. Once every few minutes she would stir, getting our hopes up, only to roll over and snooze again. She repeated this sequence right till the end, no doubt with silent little chuckles at her adoring human audience.

A tiger sighting on the first safari is always special and it whets the appetite for the second. That afternoon, the plan was to look for Krishna, my daughter's favourite tigress, with a litter of three cubs. We'd just got a glimpse of the family on our last visit and badly wanted a 'quality' sighting this time. And we scanned through all her usual places in Zone 4, but with absolutely no sign of her or the cubs. She was probably back in 'Toota' Nala, which was off bounds for tourist vehicles. And Hemraj was even more disappointed than Navya; one of the things that makes him special is how keen he is for children to get their sightings and he will push to his limits to make that happen. Truly a privilege to have access to him and his expertise.

This time, we gave up on her early and decided to head back in case we got lucky with another sightings. And the jungle often rewards initiative with some serious luck, even if not always of the feline variety. We'd just crossed the Baba ki Gufa area near Lakkarda check post, when we saw a spotted deer kill next to the road, with a pair of jackals in attendance. And as they settled down to tuck in, they had a rather unwelcome and uncommon visitor to the buffet - a wild boar. Often prey themselves, these opportunistic omnivores aren't averse to a free meal or two especially at the expense of a small animal they can bully. And as we watched, the poor jackals tried their best to budge him from their (presumably) hard won meal, but size did matter as the boar simply bulldozed them away while he had his fill. We never got to see the end of this drama as our safari time drew to a close, and we drove away marvelling at the jungle and the surprises it throws up, seemingly at will.



Day 2 was a half day safari, and this time we were joined by Rajesh Gujar, another ace naturalist and wonderful person. Between Hemraj and him, we have the pick of Ranthambhore's naturalists and their insight and personalities always livens up a safari, even those where there is nothing to see. I was looking forward to the half day, since I'd never done one before. And Rajesh had planned it perfectly - head to Zone 2 to try for Noor and her sub-adults, then drive through Zone 3 for Arrowhead and maybe her mate and then finally close it out with Krishna and her cubs. His instinct was to wait for some news of Krishna from the morning's jeeps and then head straight there. And it went perfectly to plan, well almost.

Driving through the bumpy roads of Zone 2, we came across another of Noor's cubs at the anicut in Phootakot. She walked across the wall of the little dam and settled down on the far side under a tree. And we left her with the rest of the jeeps and drove onwards to check for T60 or her grown up male cubs. And we immediately came upon one of the brothers sitting near the Pandu Deh waterhole.He was grooming himself, an indicator that he was ready to move. A date maybe? We let him walk away and then drove further into a little bunch of jeeps. The other brother was on the move too. He walked really close to the jeeps and through a gap (deliberately accorded to him by the respective guides/drivers) he walked into the Magardeh Nala. 


He marked his territory, a sign of him expressing his presence to all and sundry and then walked off to find a shady corner to spend the afternoon contemplating his future. Sub adult male tigers have to go through a period of nomadic existence, usually away from their home territories. Their father no longer wants them around and their mother usually has a new litter to nurture and protect. And these young fellas get turfed out, left to fend for themselves like teenagers in college. For now they have each other, but that will change soon as they set out to carve their own territories.

We headed back to check for Arrowhead and then onwards to Krishna. As we approached the Khemchakund, a beautiful medieval stepwell, we came across a stationary jeep who told us that Arrowhead had made a kill in front of their jeep just minutes ago. She'd dragged the kill into the undergrowth and through a gap in the foliage we saw her gorging on her meal. She was at it for a bit and then, evidently full, she lay down for a well deserved snooze. And we moved further towards Krishna's territory. On the way we met Hemraj in another jeep and he'd checked for Krishna and found no traces of her or the cubs. Certainly a knock to our hopes, but we soldiered on nevertheless. And as we crossed Lakarda, we suddenly saw a movement from the bushes and, without warning, a tiger stepped on to the road in front of us! It was a male, and he crossed and sat for a couple of minutes before disappearing down the slope into the valley. We got a couple of record shots of him and later learnt that he was T25 or Zaalim, a legend in Ranthambhore, now a respectable senior citizen. He's been seen infrequently over the season so it was great to see that he was still around. No longer the force he was, but still a brilliant tiger - for Navya it was special to see him in the flesh after watching him in documentaries.

Krishna once again played truant and we finished our half day safari with 5 different sightings, including an unexpected one in Zaalim.

A hat-trick of trips to Ranthambhore then and each one special in its own right. Here's to many more special years like this one!

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.

At the mid-level, the Ranthambhore Regency is a superb option. It is comfortable, offers facilities like a pool and a bar and has some awesome food. And the hospitality of the Jains is incomparable.(www.ranthambhor.com). Another great option is 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 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.

In addition to morning and afternoon safaris, you can also do half and full days in the forest, though it is restricted to very few vehicles. If you're up for it, they're well worth

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.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Ranthambhore June 2018 - Scorching it with stripes

This is one of those lucky years. Two trips to Ranthambhore within three weeks. Both in the heat of summer with the mercury rising to unforgivable levels between 42 and 48 degrees (Celsius, mind) But this is also the best time to spot the striped wonder and 5 intrepid (and one very trepid) souls set forth for these amazing forests. The trepid one was my better half, always a reluctant traveler in the heat and the most intrepid was my 10-year old daughter, who is turning out to be a madder tiger devotee than yours truly. Joining the three of us were the now seasoned Ranthambhore veterans Nissim and Sriram and a notable debutant, the effervescent Ramesh Ganeshan.

Day 1 - Blanks and Blue-eyes
Straight off the Mumbai train and the reassuring figure of Rajesh Gujar was at the station to receive us. We drove straight to Zone 6 (sending our bags to Tiger Home in another vehicle). That particular zone, home to beautiful tigress T-8, her two male cubs and the majestic male Kumbha (T-34) While the boys had given us an audience earlier, her highness always proved elusive. And she not only repeated her vanishing act that morning, but also convinced the men to join her in hiding. We searched everywhere for the family but finally gave up; the first safari in nearly a month to not get a sighting in Zone 6. Ah well.

Blue Eyes
That afternoon was reserved for another family, a particular favourite for my daughter. It was Krishna (T-19) and her latest litter who occupied the rocky valleys from Lakkarda to Semli/Bhakola in Zone 4. Again, this family had provided sightings galore over the past few months and we were salivating at the prospect of spending an afternoon with them. Much to our dismay she went missing too. We headed onwards to the Berda valley in the hope of sighting T-41 (Laila) and her male cub, Blue-eyes or Rocky. Madam was missing in action, but we spotted the male snoozing in a cave. We waited for him to emerge, which he duly did when the evening cooled down a bit. He crossed the road right behind our jeep and his dashing good looks, blue eyes and rippling muscles gave us a good sense on why he's all set to be the next heartthrob of the park. He walked about towards a dried up waterhole, trying in vain to hunt chital on the way. He sat some distance away and watched langurs dig up the mud in their attempt to access the water that's just under the soil. We left him to ponder over life and headed out to celebrate our first sighting of the trip.

Day 2 - Beauty and the Beasts
T-86
Every trip, we always try and get to Zone 3, the heart of Ranthambhore and home to the three beautiful lakes with the imposing fort as backdrop. These are the chosen hunting grounds, not only for erstwhile human royalty but for current feline monarchs as well, an area elevated to near-sacred status by the legendary Machali who ruled the lake area for a decade. Now, her grand-daughter, Arrowhead is the showstopper here and it was her that we were hoping to encounter. We headed past the almost-dry Padam Talao to the rapidly drying Raj Bagh and circled around the lake in search of her. And then, to my surprise and immense joy, we turned into a path that led straight to the ruins of the old summer palace, a route that had been re-opened after a decade.

Then, out of nowhere, a tiger rose up from the edge of the lake and walked towards the ruins. Not Arrowhead, but her seldom-sighted consort - T86. A year after he arrived in the tourist area, he's still shy of vehicles and tries his best to reclaim his privacy. As he walked into the ruins, we also saw his lady-love sitting on a little grassy patch. She watched him walk and heard him call out to her but seemed in no mood to humour him as she proceeded to walk the other way, towards Padam Talao. Rajesh anticipated her movement and positioned our jeep a long distance away. She walked head-on towards us, followed by a gaggle of motley vehicles and then veered off in the bushes to lie down in the ruins of a large 'chhatri'. We left her in peace and returned to the male, who was now at the edge of the lake, looking for her. Reticent fellow that he is, his majesty sat behind some large rocks and called incessantly for her, his roars getting louder and more persistent. He finally gave up and lay down in the shade for a nap, no doubt shaking his head at the inexplicable ways of the opposite gender.

Fateh or T42
If the morning was in the heart of the park, the afternoon involved a trip to the fringes. We were to go into Zone 10, home to the royal Fateh (T-42), the largest tiger in Ranthambhore. We'd had word about a kill he'd made in the area and that's where we hoped to find him. I'd heard many stories and seen many pictures, but had never properly set eyes on this massive tiger. And what a sight he was! Lying next to a waterhole, he looked absolutely immense, even though he was clearly not at his best in the oppressive heat. He looked benignly at us and the assembling throng of jeeps as he plotted his relief from the sun-god's fire-tipped arrows. And then, suddenly, he looked back (beyond the jeeps) rose to his feet in a hurry and disappeared into the bush. We looked back and saw why. Some distance from the waterhole, a man and his little boy had arrived on a motorcycle and the boy had descended to get a closer look at the tiger. And that had been enough for this massive hunk to scramble and disappear!

He came back, crossed behind us and lay down again, once people had driven away the intruders. Since there were a few more jeeps now, we decided to give him some space and explore the area. We drove through the zone, seeking Fateh's mate T-13 and cub. We saw no signs of them but saw some lovely waterholes that supported so much avian and herbivore life. Back to the waterhole and we learnt that he'd come and had a drink in the meantime. We joined the bunch and he obliged us again by walking up and showing off his massive frame. Thirst slaked, he walked into the bush and we drove to the other side of the thickets hoping he would come to his kill. We waited for a bit and then headed out, grateful for this encounter with the biggest of them all!

Day 3 - Flat-out. Fun-filled. Fulfilled. Full day.
Arrowhead
Finally! Another full-day safari. Excitement tinged with a little bit of anxiety on how my little one would take a whole day in the heat (Turned out that she did better than me) Hemraj was at the helm this time as we entered through Jogi Mahal gate, to get a quick dekko at Arrowhead and/or T86. We found neither of them so we drove on past Malik Talao into Zone 4. The first target was Krishna and her family. But once again, there was so sign of them; Hemraj drove us all around their territory, searching and listening for any telltale signs of their presence. But there was not even a single alarm call. So we dipped into the beautiful Bhakola valley where Blue-eyes sat cooling off in the water. We left him there and drove back to try for Krishna once again. With the family eluding us once again, we set off to the other side of the park for some of the others.

Noor's cub
We passed Zone 3 where T86 was lying in the shade of a tree, calling for Arrowhead. We heard from another jeep that she was heading towards the Nalghati valley. And we took the shortest route there to see her emerge at the top of a little hillock. This graceful beauty then climbed down and sat in a waterhole right in front of us. She then proceeded down into the valley, presumably for a snooze in the post-morning heat. We headed forward on Zone 2 towards Phootabanda where we saw 2 of Noor's sub-adult cubs near a waterhole. One was in the water and the other a few metres away. Hemraj surmised that they might be gearing for a fight. But the heat was probably too much for both and they evidently called it a truce for bad weather. The one in the water climbed out, scent marked against a tree and then walked up the neighbouring hillock. Interestingly, the other one came up and scent marked against the same tree, just like Hemraj predicted. She too walked behind her sister and we waited to see if they would interact. But they just wanted relief from the heat and nothing else.

T60's Male Cub
We'd heard from another jeep that T60's male cubs were in a waterhole further ahead and also that T57 and his daughter from Noor had made a kill on Zone 1. So we hurried to the male cubs first and saw them both snoozing near a natural waterhole called Pandu-deh. Both proceeded to dip themselves in the pool and we got some decent frames of that. But there was more to be done, so we headed to Zone 1 to check for father and daughter. And immediately came upon the daughter (named Bangles) lying in the shade, her stomach heaving because of the heat and also the amount she'd eaten. She got up and came to the water but was only able to drink very little of the scalding liquid in the cement saucer. Then she tried her best to find some shade and drifted off to sleep. We looked for the male, but he was sleeping on the other side of a check-dam and hence not visible. And so we headed out to collect our lunch, and to toast a spectacular morning!

T60's Second Male Cub
Lunch collected, we headed back to the Semli/Bhakola area. The afternoon focus would primarily be on Krishna. We had lunch in the relatively cooler environment of the Bhakola valley. Laila and Blue-eyes were seen there in the morning, apparently with a kill. Driving to and fro, we could get whiffs of 'high-meat' but we never managed to locate the kill. Until our driver Jeet Ram said, 'Tiger toh road pe hai (Tiger's on the road)' It was Blue-eyes, lying on the path a hundred metres ahead of us. He gave us a few frames as he groomed himself and then disappeared into the thick bush. Peering in, we realised that Laila was also there, sleeping. Junior was in no mood to sleep so he kept worrying mother, but only until she rose up and growled at him. Talk about crabby moms! He quietly stayed away from her and alternated between sitting in the open and in the water. And we headed out to look for the missing queen. An hour or so of waiting it out and we decided to give up. And target other more 'co-operative' tigers. So we headed to Zone 1 to try and find T57. And we saw him from far, demolishing the Sambhar deer that they had killed in the morning. It was time to go and as we drove away from him, we saw Bangles next to the road. She walked to a nearby waterhole and we left her to drive to the exit and conclude a monumental full-day safari.
Bangles
We'd seen 10 different tigers through that day even though we'd missed both Noor and Krishna, two of the most sighted tigers in the park. Another notable fact - between the 7 of us in the jeep, we'd dispatched more than 32 litres of fluid in these 13 hours! My sympathies lay firmly with the animals, especially the herbivores. In this intense heat, most of the few remaining waterholes are occupied by the tigers, leaving the rest to take a serious risk to even get a drink! And we complain that our lives are difficult...

Day 4 - Finally family time!
Laadli (T8) and Cub
The full day safari gave a lot but also took in return. As we dragged our tired bodies out of bed on the final morning, we all marvelled at the stamina and commitment of the guides and drivers who often do this for days on end. But there was still work to be done. We had to make up for missing the park's two first families. And so, Hemraj took us to Zone 6 to find Laadli (T-8) and her cubs. We drove towards one of the waterholes when his eagle eyes spotted something unusual on the road; it was a recent drag mark of a kill. Which meant... the tigers were right across the road from us, partly hidden by some bushes. Mother and one cub were having their fill while the third was in the waterhole. And then, we left them.

T8 (Laadli)
Hemraj's hunch was to check for the big male Kumbha (T-34) while everyone else was focused on mom and cubs. And we drove to a water point that was the big fella's favourite. We didn't find him there but a sambhar's alarm calls did indicate a predator's presence. We waited for a bit and decide to return to Laadli. Now we found one of them in the water and slowly the other two made their way there too. We took a decent position and had our fill of this family. Then they decided to move on (obviously the kill was polished off) and we anticipated their movement and drove far away from them. Even as they walked head-on towards us, one particularly adventurous jeep ventured too close to them and that put them off. They changed course a bit and we decided not to trouble them any more.

Kumbha (T34)
So we went back to Kumbha. And this time, he was in the waterhole! With just his head sticking out. We were the only ones there as he came out for a post-drink stroll and walked right past us, his majestic yet calm demeanour once again reminding me why he's probably my favourite male tiger in Ranthambhore. And as he glided up a forested slope, we took an early departure back to Tiger Home, stopping en route to munch some local delicacies for breakfast! It was a great safari because I got my first good sighting of Laadli and it is always great to catch up with the lovely bloke that is Kumbha.

Krishna (T19)
The final safari was going to be for Krishna. She had been sighted that morning, so there was hope for us. Once again, we drove to all her favourite areas and once again, there was no sign of her or her cubs. But we were determined to find her. So we waited. And waited. And then waited some more. Almost everyone else gave up and left. But not Hemraj. A sambhar's call gave her away and we finally managed a quick glimpse of this wonderful tigress and her beautiful litter before it was time for us to head back to base. A special trip ended with a special sighting, even if it was for only a short while.

6 safaris. 1 full day. 19 different tigers. 23 different sightings. Hundreds of litres of liquid. Ranthambhore in summer!

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.

At the mid-level, the Ranthambhore Regency is a superb option. It is comfortable, offers facilities like a pool and a bar and has some awesome food. And the hospitality of the Jains is incomparable.(www.ranthambhor.com). Another great option is 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 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.

In addition to morning and afternoon safaris, you can also do half and full days in the forest, though it is restricted to very few vehicles. If you're up for it, they're well worth

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.


Arrowhead

Fateh

Ruins in Rajbagh Lake

T8's second cub

T8 (Laadli)

T8's first cub