Saturday, January 26, 2019

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.

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.

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.

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