My flight was Hyderabad to Jaipur was uneventful...which is a good thing given that I have a train to catch to Sawai Madhopur right after I land into Jaipur. Sawai Madhopur is the nearest "city" to Ranthambore national park and getting there by train (2 hours) is a heck of a lot easier and more comfortable than by car (3+ hours). From the airport I caught a rickshaw to the train station and had time to enjoy a nice egg curry at the station restaurant (un-airconditioned). Did I mention it's bloody hot in Rajasthan in the summer...like 44C or 108F. The train pulled up on time and I climbed aboard my 2nd class AC seat and enjoyed the quick 2 hour train journey through Rajasthan. Most of the people with me were actually heading to Mumbai on the same train (an overnight journey). Two hours later we stopped for a quick 10 minute stop at Sawai Madhopur and my driver from the Jas Vilas hotel was waiting for me to help me with my bag. After a 20 minute journey through the city, we arrived at Jas Vilas. To say the hotel was beautiful and relaxing would not do this place justice. Nor would the words kind and pleasant be strong enough words to describe the staff. This place was great.
After checking in to my bungalow (with an outdoor shower and views of the park), I inquired about a quick trip into Rathambore park to visit Ranthambore Fort and a Ganesh temple I had heard about
. Within minutes I was off with Dinesh the driver and we entered the park. Entering the park you feel like you are really entering an open air zoo...but with no cages or protective measures between you the animals. Other than the ever elusive tiger, there are thousands of deer, wild boar, leopards, monkeys, peacocks, alligators, mongoose, lizards and more birds than I can count. All of those animals are what makes Ranthambore a good place for tigers...because basically anything that's not a tiger is tiger-chow. Dinesh and I drove deep into the park where Ratnhambore Fort
is perched 700 feet high above the surrounding plains. The climb up to the top wasn't too bad...with the exception of the super aggressive monkeys. The views of the park were amazing...my pictures don't do it justice. Dinesh did his best to try and spot me a tiger with his binoculars but it was not to be. He did say that the previous day there was a tiger very close to where we parked our car (yikes) enjoying a tasty deer kebab. Within the fort is a very famous Ganesh temple that attracts thousands of local pilgrims for prayer and to make an offering. I managed to perform a small puja and make a small offering. What did I pray for you may ask? Why to see a tiger of course! One the way back down to the parking area we looked a few more times for Tigers, but all we saw were alligators and deer. Dinner at the hotel was amazing considering the entire place is pure vegetarian. Sleep came quickly...
Day 1 Game Drives:
Friday morning at 5:30 AM there's a knock at my door. Usually a wake up call this early would cause be to jump up and punch someone...but in this case it's just a member of the hotel staff to bring me hot coffee and biscuits to wake me up for my morning park drive in the park. The way these game drives work are you have two options...you can opt for a 6 person open air jeep...or a 20 person open air truck. Obviously the jeep is the better option as you're able to cover more terrain. My jeep arrived with three other people in it...two Indians and an annoying girl from Canada (who I'm convinced was bad luck). The Indian couple told us they had an amazing tiger encounter the previous day and showed me a video of a tiger practically coming up to their jeep. More than ever I wanted to see a tiger. Entering the park you are assigned one of 5 "zones" which are given to the various jeeps and trucks. They say these zones are "randomly" assigned, but this is India and I'm sure it's more complicated than that. We were assigned a good zone...zone 3 which includes the biggest lake in the reserve. I'm not going to get into the number of deer, antelope, bird, alligators and monkeys we saw because you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting at least one of those animals in this reserve. What we didn't see that first drive was a tiger...bummer. We saw fresh tiger-poop and a tiger pug mark (foot print), but no tiger
. Back at the hotel breakfast was served and I spent the rest of the hot, hot day by the pool. After a quick nap, I was off on my 4PM evening drive. It was actually raining when we left (open air jeep), but stopped quickly. This time I was with the same annoying Canadian girl (bad luck) and a bunch of India dudes. This time we hit zone 2...again supposedly a good zone. We did a ton of driving, saw a lot of animals and so many places that a Tiger should want to be in...but still no tiger. Damn...I'm starting to get upset. Back at the hotel for a much needed shower. As I got cleaned up for dinner, Becky and Lauren showed up so the three of us had dinner and drinks before passing out to the beautiful sounds of the the park at night. Around 2AM, Brian, Hillary and TJ showed up...but I was passed out and didn't even here my roomie (Brian) come in.
Day 2 Game Drives:
Saturday morning...another knock at 5:30 AM...another person almost gets punched for waking me up too damn early! Because we have 6 people in our group, and because the game drive jeeps seat 6, and because we're all at the same hotel...we made the rational assumption that that government of India would put us all in the same jeep to make things easier....versus having multiple jeeps make the long drive to our hotel to pick us up in small groups.
Of course anything logical just doesn't make sense in India so we got separated in to three different jeeps this morning...sucks. It was Brian and I together so off we went for my second drive in zone 2. Our guide told me we had a 80% chance of seeing a tiger today. Riiiight. I told him (jokingly) that if he showed me a tiger today I would give him 500 India Rupees (about $10). More bad news...the annoying Canadian girl is in the jeep with Brian and I. After driving around our zone for 3 hours chasing tigers, we finally gave up. I was 0 for 3 with only one more drive left that evening. After we left the core area of the park and entered the park boundary area, we saw a bunch of jeeps pulled over on the side of the road. After a long exchange of Hindi our guide informed us that just 5 minutes earlier a tigress had crossed the road and was now heading towards a water source. Sadly, the water source wasn't visible from the road and we're not allowed to exit our vehicles. It really sucked too because you just knew something was down there based on the commotion the other animals were making (mainly the monkeys screaming their warning calls). At one point the driver told us all to get out of the jeep and walk towards a ledge that offered a view of the water area...but as soon as he said to do that his boss drove up and we had to all get back in the jeep. Damnit! So close. We hung out on the side of the road for another hour and several of the other jeeps had called it quits and drove off to drop their passengers back at their hotels
. Just as we were getting ready to do the same, our driver yells "Tiger Tiger Tiger!!!!". And there she was...strolling about 100 yards away from us going back to the core area of the park. You would think an animal that is orange would stand out against the park background...but it was amazing how well she blended into the scenery. Because her path back to the park ran parallel to the road we were able to follow her all the way back to the park entrance. At one point we got within 10 yards of her...very cool. You may ask...."Brandon, weren't you worried being in an open air jeep? What if she charged?". Honestly...she could have given a crap less about us. There is so much "free food" in the park in the form of deer, antelope and other more tastier animals, that she barely gave us a second look. We stayed with her as long as we can and I got off a couple good shots and one very bad video. Brian and I were on a bit of a high on the way back to the hotel. Our guide sits down next to me and says "Sir...I stayed out one extra hour so you can see a Tiger. I made a promise to show you a tiger and we did it. Do you remember the promise you made to me sir?". Meaning the 500 rupees I told him I'd give him. I gladly handed it over without even thinking about. Back at the hotel, Brian and I were the only ones in our group to see a tiger and did a little bragging. The entire afternoon was spent in the pool trying to escape the Rajesthan heat. While most of splashed around in the pool, Hillary went into town with our hotel manager to try and arrange it so we could all be together for the afternoon drive. Surprisingly she pulled it off and at 4PM we were all loaded into our jeep for a tour of zone 2 this time. The people in our gang who didn't see a tiger offered the driver a 500 rupee incentive ala me. Zone 2 was a very interesting zone, lot's of natural beauty...but not a damn tiger to be seen. As we neared the park exit, we saw our driver go over to a supervisor vehicle and he comes back saying that there is a tiger in zone 3
. Sadly we're in zone 2 and if you cross over into a different zone the guide and driver can get fired. But with a 500 rupee incentive promised they chose to take the risk. The driver changes out a number plate identifier on the vehicle to zone 2...and then he pulls into a small path off the main path and removes some batteries from a device in the dash. It turns out that was a GPS receiver that beams his location back to the main office. If the big boss saw his car going over into a new zone based on his GPS receiver, the driver and guide are both fired. Heading over into zone 2 we see a lot of commotion and vehicles by one of the lakes. After squinting a bit and maxing out my zoom lens we were all able to make out the tiger hidden in the tall grass. So everyone in our group got to see at least one tiger during the trip (and our driver/guide got their 500 rupees). Back at the hotel we had a great meal and celebrated with a few drinks after wards back at our rooms.
The next morning we slept in and packed up for the long drive back to Jaipur to catch our flights home. I road back with Brian, Hillary and TJ in a minvan on some of the worst roads I've ever been on in India. Lot of on-coming large trucks, steep drop offs and crowded villages. Somehow we made it to the airport unharmed and safely flew back to Hyderabad that evening.
Great trip, two tiger sightings and another box checked on my India to-do list.
One of my "to-do's" before I depart India is to see a tiger in the wild. It's not an easy feat given that there are only a few places to go where the tigers are protected and that by the last count, there were only 1,400 wild tigers left in India. So before the monsoon season hits and most of the national parks and tiger reserves shut down for several months, I managed to throw together a long weekend trip up to Rajasthan to visit Ranthambore National Park...one of the best places remaining in the world to see a tiger in the wild. Coming with me were a few friends from Hyderabad...Brian, Lauren, Becky, Hillary and her husband TJ. I had a bit more flexibility on my departure date so I left a day earlier than the rest so I could also do a couple additional game drives through the park. The park opens at 6AM every day and closes at sunset. There is a morning game drive from 6AM-9AM and an evening game drive from 4-7PM. Our hotel was recommended to me by a Hyderabad friend who stayed there earlier in the year...Jas Vilas, which is right on the boundary of the park