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
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.

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  
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 (

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.

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 ( 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.( Another great option is Aditya Singh's Ranthambhore Bagh (

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

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 (

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


Jungle Bush Quail


T19's third cub

T19's Female cub

White-bellied Drongo (blinded)