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

Friday, May 18, 2018

Ranthambhore May 2018 - Eight Tigers and a Wedding

Every summer, millions of urban Indians make a trip 'back home' to visit their roots, meet extended family and spend time away from their hectic lives in the big bad city. For me, that home is Ranthambhore, the family includes the wonderful people back there and the magnificent tigers that make this superb forest their home. This year, there was special incentive to pay a visit, a wedding in the family; Hemraj Meena's elder daughter got married on 11th May. Hemraj is like an elder brother and teacher, in addition to being a true inspiration. He's taught me all I know about forests and tigers and it was a privilege to be with him on one of the most special days of his life.

The wedding was a grand affair and went off smoothly. Also for me, it felt great to reconnect with some people who have been part of my Ranthambhore adventure over the years. The next morning was tiger-time. Joining me on this edition were close friends Sai Giridhar and Rajeev Raju and their sons Aran and Krish. Sai and Aran had never seen the striped one before, so they were extra keen.We picked them up from the train station and headed straight to the forest. Leading us was Rajesh Gujar, another extraordinary naturalist and one of the nicest human beings you can ever hope to encounter. We were to go on Zone 3, home to one of India's most photographed tigresses these days, the beautiful Arrowhead.

Safari 1 - Six off the first ball
Arrowhead
We entered through the Jogi Mahal gate, at the base of the imposing Ranthambhore fort, and drove onwards past Padam Talao, the first of three lakes on this zone. A jeep coming the other way confused us a bit, but apparently they'd already seen Arrowhead and were now heading out! And we drove on towards Raj Bagh lake and a cluster of jeeps got our hopes up. But they were dashed very quickly by an effusive gent in one of the jeeps - Arrowhead was spotted only a few minutes ago and she'd disappeared into the thick grass surrounding the lake. Bummer! But Rajesh had other ideas; he anticipated that she might be sitting at the edge of the water and so we backed up a hundred or so metres. And there she was! The 'Lady of the Lakes', probably waiting just for us. She stretched, yawned and then started walking back towards us. 


And that's when Rajesh's genius really shone through. As the other jeeps waited for her to emerge, he asked the driver to take our jeep a few hundred metres away. So, when she walked out onto the path, we were the only jeep ahead of her. We kept a respectful distance and allowed her to walk at her pace. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said of some of the other jeeps, whether it was intent or inexperience, we will not know. We stayed put, away from the circus of jeeps that had now arrived. And to our delight, she rewarded us by walking straight towards our stationary jeep and crossing not more than 6 feet away from us! She walked away and sat for a bit, probably mulling over a spotted deer breakfast. When none were forthcoming, she disappeared out of view into the thick bush. And that was our first safari, a debut of sorts for Sai and Aran and the closest ever sighting for Krish and Rajeev. For the rest of us, it was just Ranthambhore doing its thing. It would prove to be just an appetiser.

Safari 2 - A King and his heirs apparent
T8's young male cub
That afternoon was Zone 6, one of the most happening areas of the park for the last year or so. Previously, it was a zone where very few ventured, but now Tigress T8 (Ladli) with her 2 male cubs, were raking up a storm. Her mate, the majestic T34 (Kumbha) also threw in a regal appearance now and then. We drove in and checked the first couple of spots but saw no sign of Mom or cubs. So we decided to take a punt at Kumbha at one of his favourite waterholes. En route, we passed a few jeeps around a dried up stream (nallah) It was the cubs! Two little princes lay on either side of the road, not enjoying the heat at all. Since Mom was not around, they did not dare to even visit a nearby waterhole even though they clearly wanted a drink. Talk about implicit obedience! We got a few clicks and then decided not to disturb them any further and drove off to find Kumbha.

Kumbha
Driving on, we checked his majesty's preferred watering-hole but no luck. A couple of kilometres down the road, a jeep coming in reverse gave us good news - the king was on the move. Once again, Rajesh's impeccable sense of positioning won the day for us. We backed off a fair distance and watched Kumbha walk through the undergrowth. Once again, a tiger rewarded us for our patience and respect; this time Kumbha walked up and crossed less than a few feet away. We held our breaths as this magnificent male tiger casually strolled past without even a second glance. Anyways, Kumbha is known to be a good tempered old soul and he rarely takes offence at tourist jeeps. He sauntered towards his watering hole, for a drink no doubt but also for a nice, cool soak. En route, he acknowledged the presence of another female in his territory as he sniffed her markings and grimaced in the 'flehmen' response. 


And then, under the adoring eyes of his admirers, he carefully lowered himself into the water and languidly drank to his heart's content. A few photos of Lord Kumbha and a few birds that joined in the party and we had had our fill. We drove off to leave him alone, but no sooner had we rejoined the road, than he got out of the water, posed regally (only for us) and walked away. We had a quick dekko at the cubs to see if Mom was back. She wasn't so we drove off and stopped at the forest check-post waterhole for some bird photography. That wish too fulfilled, we drove back to celebrate a fantastic day in tiger paradise.


Kumbha, the king
Safari 3 - A surprise in store  
Arrowhead
This time we headed to Zone 2, home of T39 (Noor) and her sub-adult cubs as well as T60 and her 2 grown up boys. You enter Zone 2 through a route that takes you behind Ranthambhore fort and past a beautiful medieval step-well called Khemchakund. Driving downhill from there, Rajesh suddenly stopped the car, He'd heard a monkey's alarm call. We waited, not knowing where the predator was, or whether it was spot or stripe. Monkeys would also call for far-off leopards and that's what we thought it was. As we prepared to drive on, he noticed a couple of Chital (spotted deer) standing at alert and looking intently at a nallah. And then I spotted the tiger, walking towards us. It was Arrowhead! At the very end of her territory. Where we least expected her to be. She walked past rather purposefully and Rajesh surmised that she was looking for the big male T57 whose pug-marks we'd seen on the track earlier.

T60's Male Cub
We drove on to check for Noor and cubs and pointed other jeeps to Arrowhead. A couple of them went after her, only to come back and tell us that after we drove on, she retraced her steps and went back to where she came from. Almost like she'd come there only for us! No signs of Noor or cubs so we drove on to find T60 or her boys. There too we drew a blank and waited in some shade as we figured out what to do. An alarm call ended that lull and we drove on to see one of T60's sub-adults sitting under a tree. Rajesh knew he would come to drink, so we decided to head to one of the two waterholes nearby. We waited at one but he chose the other and we also joined the assembled throng as the young male walked up and sat next to the waterhole first. He yawned and that's when we saw that he'd lost one of his canines. Unusual for a young tiger to lose a canine, but we hoped it wouldn't affect his ability to hunt. He came into the water and started lapping and we headed out, to check if we could see Noor and cubs or even Arrowhead. None of them made an appearance, so we headed out after yet another productive safari. And there was more excitement to come. On the main road, next to a small lake, lay a dead sambhar. It had apparently been killed by crocs in the water but just then a big tiger (T86) appeared and dragged the kill out of the water. This shy male then hid in the bushes as the constant stream of traffic probably threw him off his game. Forest rangers appeared to clear the jam and move vehicles along. So no one even caught a glimpse of him. Later that morning, we had a demonstration in Soot Painting from the exceptionally talented Vijay Kumawat. Check out some of his work here (https://www.facebook.com/vkumawat)

Safari 4 - The Queen's new family
The last safari took us to Zone 4, home to Krishna (T19), one of my favourite tigresses ever.  This even tempered queen had a litter about a year old and I'd never seen them. We drove through the wooded ravines of Tamba Khan, above the (alarmingly) almost dry Malik Talao and past the golden grass meadows of Lakkarda towards Semli where she had taken up residence. As we approached Semli, we saw a couple of full-day safari jeeps already stationed there. And in a cave, on the other side of a nallah, lay one of the cubs, snoozing. The other two were below, in the water, but obscured by thick undergrowth. We returned to the snoozer and got a few decent pics before he too descended for a drink. From then on, we saw glimpses as they drank and walked about a bit, but not much dramatic or really photo-worthy. It was still great to see the third litter of this wonderful tigress. We headed out to check if T86 had been at the sambhar, but it was where it was and apart from a couple of forays to drive away crocs, our man was happy to be in the bush. Maybe he was saving it for dinner!

And that ended another short but extremely productive trip to Tiger Paradise. 4 Safaris, 8 different tigers, 9 sightings. Not bad!

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.

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.


Common Woodshrike

Grey-necked Bunting

Jackal

Jungle Bush Quail

Shikra

T19's third cub

T19's Female cub


White-bellied Drongo (blinded)


Sunday, April 8, 2018

Mandala, Sela Pass and Manas - Birding frenzy in Paradise Part 2 (March 2018)

Even as Eaglnest bade us farewell with some incredible sightings, we were licking our lips at the prospect of hitting Sela Pass and Mandala, two very  'fertile' birding spots in the area. Situated at higher altitudes provides opportunities to sight different birds and I for one was dreaming of being introduced to the magnificent Grandala at Sela Pass. After a long drive from Eaglenest we checked into the cozy Samdup Khang Hotel in Dirang, our base for the next 4 nights. From here we would visit Mandala, Sela Pass and Sangti Valley, home to the rare Long-billed Plover.

Day 7 - Mandala
Plain-backed thrush
We decided to take on Mandala on the first day, with a visit to Sela Pass on the following day. As we drove up the winding roads towards Mandala, a buzz of early morning activity made us take a stop. A tree by the roadside was buzzing with Tits - Coal Tits, Rufous-fronted and Rufous Vented, plus a few warblers that we couldn't ID because of the light. Driving further and we spotted something on the road - it was a Plain Backed Thrush. It was quite bold and remained on the road for a while as we got some decent images. We would see many of these birds over the next few days. Moving along and we got one of my target birds - a Spotted Nutcracker. Firoz sighted this bird at eye-level on a tree top. It was having breakfast and we had our fill of images. A wonderful bird to get at eye-level and we had one more thing to thank Firoz for.
Spotted Nutcracker
Grey-crested Tit
Another tree threw up a few more surprises. A beautiful Grey-crested Tit posed for Ramesh's camera, making it a super lifer for him. Brown-throated (Ludlow's) Fulvetta also flitted around and a White Collared Blackbird made a cameo appearance before he dived into the valley. Things were indeed warming up nicely. Fire-tailed Sunbirds hovered around the flowering Rhododendrons with their Green-tailed cousins even as a Common Buzzard hovered in the skies above. A Bar-winged Wren Babbler called in the undergrowth and beautiful Russet Sparrows buzzed hither and tither. A perfect, idyllic setting, one crying to be messed up by one of my old adversaries.  Enter the Black-faced Laughingthrush. A bird who has plagued me and played with me across Neora, Sikkim, Mishmi Hills and now Mandala. He teases, tantilizes and disappears. Without even a record shot. Here too, he showed his true colours as he sang happily from within a bush, never even showing his face apart from a brief look-see.


Bhutan Laughingthrush

Brown-throated Fulvetta
A flock of Bhutan Laughingthrushes more than made up for their cousin and a kind Ludlow's Fulvetta perched in the open for a portfolio. Maybe he's putting in a matrimonial ad on their local website. His images are still with me though. The intrigue that afternoon came from an unexpected sighting. Some movement in a roadside bamboo patch got Firoz to investigate and he concluded it was a Brown Parrotbill flock. The birds cautiously made their way up the bamboo and then suddenly vanished. Ramesh got a record shot and while all the pointers did indicate a Brown Parrotbill, a black path on its throat confused all of us for a bit. That set the agenda for the evening's discussion even as I was itching for the next morning's trip to Sela Pass. Hoping to encounter one of my dream birds.

Day 8 - Sela Pass and Sangti Valley
Blood Pheasant
A 3:30 a.m. start. But I was not bleary-eyed at all. I was buzzing at the prospect of heading to Sela. The gateway to the town of Tawang, Sela stands at an imposing 4,160 metres (13,700 feet) Birding there starts about 9 kms before the pass itself and we aimed to get to this point by daybreak. The first bird we picked out was a male White-browed Rosefinch who posed for us but in less than ideal light. As the light improved, Firoz started to scan the snow-covered hillsides for activity. And his ears picked up a very interesting sound. Blood Pheasant. Not a bird I expected to see at all. We saw a male and a female scurry across the forested slopes under us and Ramesh got a record shot. And we thought that was that. To our surprise a couple of turns ahead, we got another set of birds and a pair appeared right in the open to give us decent pictures. It was incredible to see this bird, another of those I had always dreamt about. Firoz followed that up with a flock of beautiful Snow Partridges who came bounding down the hillside and sat right next to the road to pose for us.
Snow Partridge
A flock of Plain Mountain Finches and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk whetted the appetite for main course, but the moment of the day happened even before we got to Sela Pass. Firoz got a lifer! One of the most traveled bird guides in the North East got himself a bird he'd never seen before. For, perched right next to the road was one of the most beautiful birds in India - The Himalayan Monal. Common in the upper reaches of the Western Himalaya and some parts of Sikkim, Monals are seldom seen in Arunachal. And Firoz was doubly thrilled, to not only see this bird for the first time, but to see it in his 'home patch'. The Monal didn't want to be photographed as he dived into the valley, but it was a truly special moment.

And then we entered Sela Pass itself. Grandala come to a slope right next to the pass but as we passed it, the entire area was shrouded in fog. We decided to drive further and try for Solitary Snipe and White-throated Dippers and come back for the Grandala. Neither bird made an appearance though a Rosy Pipit did give us ID headaches for a bit. And as we drove back to Sela, we passed another group who had just seen Grandala on the same slope. We hurried there but no birds. And as we waited, a flock of birds flew up and banked and hovered. A flock of Grandala! They flew behind our slope but immediately returned and flew right above our heads. We saw that incredible shade of blue that they wear but a closer inspection was not possible as they flew on directly, maybe to their day-roost. We were thrilled to be able to see it finally, but craved a picture, even if only a record shot. With Grandala gone, we decided to drive back down and see if we got anything. A flock of flying Red-billed Chough gave us record shots and me yet another lifer.

Long-billed Plover
But we were not done for the day. After a quick lunch, we hunkered down for the ride to Sangti Valley, home of the rare Long-billed Plover. Approaching the spot near the river, we saw a large gathering of people and a number of vehicles there. Puzzled, we drew closer and realised that they were preparing for a cremation there. We skirted that area and first went upstream to look for the bird. A couple of Common Sandpipers in flight provided the perfect red-herrings as we scouted them, confident that they were plovers. A couple of record shots and that tell-tale tail wag showed us for the asses we'd made of ourselves. Suitably chastised, we moved far downstream. Firoz kept scanning the far bank as we walked on the pebble covered bank. And then, his eagle eyes detected movement. On our side of the river. He caught it, proclaimed 'Plover' in triumph and then left us with the not-so-easy task of picking it up. We looked far and not near when the bird was actually 30 feet from us. Finally, we got it. The Long-billed Plover itself, cautiously picking its way through the pebbles that camouflaged it so well. It graciously gave us a few pictures before flying onto an island in the middle of the river. And we left it in peace, and turned around to head home. And celebrate with another bottle of Old Johnnie Black.

Day 9 - Sela Pass and Mandala
Grandala - truly electrifying
Another early morning departure to Sela and this time the agenda was clear. Grandala, first and foremost. As we made the ascent we saw signs of fresh snowfall through the night. And fog shrouded the slopes for most of the time. But as we got into Sela, the pass itself was clear and bright. We climbed up the slope and waited. Our toes were frozen, our fingers chafing in the -11 degree cold but our spirits were buoyant. They will come! And sure enough, a flock banked and dipped towards us and one of them sat on an electric pole a long way away. I snapped a couple of record shots and hoped they would come closer. But the birds flew off and almost instantly the fog set in, completely covering the pass and its immediate vicinity. Realising the futility of waiting, Firoz waived us off for a cup of hot tea and Maggi. The fog only got thicker and made us really appreciate that small window of clear sky and the beautiful birds that made a special appearance almost exclusively for us.

Brown Parrotbill
The thirst for Grandala was quenched for now, but another fire lay raging. For a little bird who has provided hundreds with some special sightings, but has always eluded Ramesh and me. The Fire-tailed Myzornis. This little stunner had been filling camera memory cards with full frame images for at least 3 groups in Mandala over the last couple of days. But always managed to elude us. We hunted in all the spots that the others got them in, but no juice. Firoz checked virtually every rhododendron bush but in vain. We'd abandoned hope and instead tried for Bar-winged Wren Babbler and Brown Parrotbills. Both of which we got. But a void remained - Myzornis sized, shaped and coloured. Which chafed and ached and gnawed at both of us. Even the mandatory good-luck tyre puncture refused to lift our spirits.

Day 10 - Mandala, then adieu
Fire-tailed Myzornis
We packed up and left late on the last day, with Suraj (unsuccessfully) attempting to fix the tyre. Drove into Mandala in a subdued frame of mind. Firoz was obsessively seeking Myzornis though even an optimistic soul like him was not very positive. To make things worse, the Wren Babbler did not emerge for the scheduled photo shoot. Ramesh and I both shook our heads as Firoz led us up and down hillside paths, searching flowering rhodos like a man on a mission. All the activity was led by the ubiquitous Yuhinas, beautiful at all other times, but seemingly mundane today. We stopped to look at a flowering bush which had some Sunbirds, when a green coloured bird hopped out from the inner leaves and into the next bush. It was a Myzornis! Ramesh didn't believe it, but I saw it clearly as did Firoz. And then two of these beautiful little birds posed for us for a minute or so before winging it to their love nest. They were obviously a pair and breeding season was upon them. With a million thanks to these lovely (and lively) little lovers, we sat in the car to head back. Finally sated. We had been blessed.

Day 11 - Manas
Bengal Florican
 Ramesh and Mathews uncle headed back to Bangalore that morning and Firoz took me to Manas, where my main quest was the critically endangered Bengal Florican. We arrived at our camp in Manas at lunchtime and then headed to the Seed Farm nearby for a dekko. Our gypsy was old enough to have fought World War II and it inconveniently seized up just as we spotted the Florican. Left with no option, Firoz and I tried to stalk the bird on foot. Easier said than done. It was like playing hide-and-seek with a master. The bird did give me a couple of record shots as it flew from field to field, leaving me huffing and puffing with nothing to show. But the bird was a kind soul even if he was a bit photo-averse; he showed that by giving us a glimpse of his trademark display, a scene difficult to describe in words. Stalking on foot also yielded other results as we got a Golden-headed Cisticola and glimpses of Bengal Bushlarks. The replacement vehicle arrived, but a bit too late, as storm clouds gathered overhead. In the end, we fled back to camp in pouring rain, with not even a proper good bye to our friend the Florican.

Day 12 - Manas, then adieu for real this time
Capped Langur
A morning safari into the park seemed like a great idea. Manas is a beautiful park with excellent recent sightings of birds and amazingly, Clouded Leopard! It was a bit cloudy as we set out and bird activity was very poor. Even the resident Black-tailed Crakes were missing. A Spot-winged Starling provided a lone lifer as Abbott's Babblers called and teased but did not emerge. A troupe of beautiful Capped Langurs provided a bit of entertainment but it wasn't to last long. As we reached the forest camp for a break, distant sounds of thunder set alarm bells ringing. We wolfed down breakfast and hastened back, but the rain caught up with us for the second day in a row. 

Great Myna
And then it was time to leave, for me this time. Bringing the curtain down on what was one of the most spectacular trips I have ever taken. India's North East is pure paradise. Let's just pray that it successfully avoids the side-effects of 'progress'.

Trip finished but not agendas. Eaglenest is worth many visits. As is Manas. Au revoir!


Nameri/Eaglenest/Mandala/Sela Pass/Manas Trip Guide
These 5 spots present some of the finest birding opportunities in West/Central Assam and Western Arunachal Pradesh. From dense low-land forests to alpine forests to snow covered highlands, this stretch has it all. You can get a bewildering number and variety of bird species on this itinerary, not to mention the mouthwatering possibility of mammals, including the most majestic of them all.

Our itinerary was 12 days covering Guwahati- Nameri- Eaglenest- Dirang (for Mandala and Sela Pass) - Guwahati- Manas- Guwahati.

How to get there
Guwahati is the perfect gateway for this area, connected with most Indian cities via flights and trains. The drive from Guwahati to Eaglenest or Dirang can take upto 7-9 hours but you will be birding on the way. Roads are decent but roadworks at several places do tend to cause detours and disturbances.

Where to stay
Nameri has Nameri Eco Camp, a pretty tented camp with attached baths and a nice little restaurant.

Eaglenest only has the two camps Lama and Bomphu. Both are basic tented camps with common washrooms (with Western style loos) If the two, Bomphu is the larger and more elaborate camp. But both are staffed by lovely, smiling people who give you some surprisingly good food, especially given how remote they both are.

Neither place has electricity, though Bomphu provides a solar light in each tent. They have generators running for a few hours after dusk and that allows for charging mobile phones and camera batteries. 

Dirang is a proper hill-town with a number of places to stay, since it is also a pit-stop on route to Tawang. We stayed at the Hotel Samdup Khang, a lovely little place with comfortable rooms and decent food plus really nice staff. Hotel Pemaling is the other chosen place in town.

At Manas we stayed at the Manas Jungle camp, a simple and comfortable place with clean rooms and good food. They will also arrange safaris into the park. 

Guides
We traveled with Firoz Hussain, good friend and super character. He is superb on the field and has a great gut and instinct in addition to his spotting prowess. With Firoz around you are almost expecting to see something special. For someone who's been a birder for less than a decade, his skills and accomplishments are astonishing. You can reach him on +91 8811083750 or +91 9101549770 or on his email  firozhussain@hotmail.com

Lakpa Tenzing (+91 9733018122 or lakpatenzing84@gmail.com) is also a master of this area, so between these two gentlemen, you have the best in the business.

Car and Driver
Your guide will usually arrange transportation. For us, Suraj was like a second spotter in addition to being an excellent driver and companion.

Food
You will find decent food at most places in Assam and Arunachal. They do very good vegetarian options as well.

Nameri Eco Camp had excellent food, both dinner and breakfast were really good.

Lama and Bomphu camps do a great job with their limited resources and the food there is surprisingly good. They pack breakfasts and lunches for extended birding trips. And as the only two places in the middle of nowhere, they are your only two food options inside the forest. 

Samdup Khang in Dirang also did a good job of our food. Their Thukpa and Fried Rice was especially tasty.

Manas Jungle Camp also did excellent Assamese food and a reasonable packed breakfast while inside the forest.

En route, there are several roadside inns which provide excellent food. Your driver and guide will be able to take you to the best ones.

Other tips
It can rain any time in this part of the world (as we discovered) so check for rain forecasts, and pack some rain wear and protection for your cameras.
Leech Socks are always good, especially in the rains.
Do carry a headlamp or torch since neither Lama nor Bomphu camps have electricity.
Sela Pass and Mandala can get cold any time of the year, especially when it rains. So do make sure you have adequate protection from the cold.
Carry some dry snacks or energy bars if you feel peckish between meals.


Alpine Accentor

Brown Parrotbill

Red-headed Bullfinch

Rufous-vented Yuhina


Scarlet Minivet

Golden-headed Cisticola