***Photos courtesy of and copyright to the fantastic work of my travelling partner in crime, Beth Dixon***
After sleeping like logs Beth and I prepared excitedly for our 6am safari. I was a little worried about the fact we didn’t get breakfast until after the safari as I am a bit of a foody and don’t function well until I’ve eaten in the morning. Luckily I managed to survive the whole safari on a single emergency maoam because there was so much to see and the excitement well and truly took my mind away from my stomach!
Within the national park there are around 60 Bengal tigers, leopards and sloth bears, as well as crocodiles, monkeys, multiple ‘hoof stock’, reptiles and an array of bird-life. Ranthambore national park was originally a hunting lodge owned by a Hindu maharajah and the park is bordered by the 10th century Ranthambore fort we had visited the previous day. The forest was fantastic and the monsoon had given the trees the opportunity to bloom again so everywhere you looked there were so many colours, it really was like a scene you’d imagine from the jungle book; there were huge trees covered in vines, massive sandstone cliffs in the distance, old temples and ruins partially swallowed by the forest and the sounds were, as cheesy as it sounds, kind of enchanting. We bounced through the forest in an open top jeep listening for the warning call from the animals, a tell-tale sign a tiger was nearby. Unfortunately, despite hearing a few calls, no tigers were seen on the morning safari but we were happy with the abundance of other animal life we saw including; spotted and samba deer, a Gos hawk, an eagle (of unknown species), antelope, a wild boar, langur monkeys, monitor lizards and masses of beautifully coloured bird species. Peacocks – the national bird of India were everywhere and their call echoed through the forest.
We returned for breakfast (a lovely omelette and a cup of English tea – embarrassingly British!) and then headed back to the room to relax before the next safari in the afternoon. Beth and I had a bit of a wander around the hotel grounds, took some snaps to send home and then went to chill out on the balcony. In true Beth form, Beth fell asleep with her mouth wide open (catching flies as my nan would say) and in true Jess form… I took a picture of her!
After a quick toasty for lunch (again, shameful I know but we felt there was only so many times a day you could have curry!) we were off out on our next safari. There was definitely a temperature difference between the morning and afternoon (to make my mother happy I lathered myself in factor fifty and ‘mummed’ Beth into drinking plenty of water and sun-creaming herself too!) This time we took a different route as the park was split into various zones which gave more or less likelihood of seeing certain animals. It’s safe to say we hit the jackpot with zone number 3! We drove to a clearing and instantly knew something was going on by the sheer number of people hanging precariously out of vehicles with huge camera lenses Olly (Beth’s photography keeno boyfriend) would be incredibly jealous of.
Sure enough in the distance almost completely camouflaged by the foliage was a tiger. We later found out this lovely lady was Arrowhead, a 2-year-old female, daughter to one of the park’s oldest tigers, Krishna. She was lying on her side panting heavily from the heat taking a cat nap, occasionally batting a fly making a nuisance of itself with one of her hefty paws. We were pretty excited at this point as officially the mission had been accomplished, tiger spotting in the bag! However, this little lady turned out to be quite the poser, after about 10 minutes she preceded to get up, walk right up to the clamour of jeeps all trying to get a decent look at her, turn around, look coyly over her shoulder and squatted for a wee. Well, all the cameras went wild clicking away at her. But this wasn’t all arrowhead had to give, she then stretched out right in front of us all and did a number of ‘draw me like one of your french girls’ poses for us all, what a woman is all I can say! All joking aside, seeing her officially made my day, with so few Bengal tigers left in India, they are a rare sight to see even in the national parks and I feel pretty honoured to have seen one that close, in a wild and protected environment. I really hope people continue to support the national parks, in particular in places such as India with such a rapidly expanding and modernising population, eco-tourism is really something we should all be getting behind and supporting! … and that is my lecture over before I get carried away!
Anyway so after being entertained by arrowhead’s ‘vogue-ing’ for about an hour we continued our safari. The guide was really informative and was a keen photographer himself so got us all in the perfect place to take good photos of things whilst hollering ‘very good lighting here’ and ‘TAKE PHOTO NOW!!’ . I did feel slightly left out with my little iPhone 5, amongst the go-pros and DXLR’s, my camera was like something from the dark ages in comparison but regardless it was fun to look, learn and take in everything around us none the less. I also learnt that anything that resembles food I have no problem remembering! I have to shamefully admit that most bird names, especially when said in an Indian accent go straight over my head but the beautiful 9 coloured pita bird I remembered no problem once I’d associated it with pita bread (like I said, I’m food orientated).
Once we returned from the safari we were ambushed by an incredibly over-enthusiastic group of Australians and Americans, who kindly invited us to have dinner with them which was lovely for us to have some company as we’d eaten alone ever day previously. We noticed most of the hotels were like ghost towns as they had all reached the final slog before they shut for low season. On the one hand this brought welcomed peace and quiet and it was excellent on the tiger safaris as we really had the opportunity to experience the national park in all its glory without the tell-tale signs of tourists, however at times we missed the lively, excited buzz of holiday-goers. I had paneer (cheese) curry which was amazing and became a fast favourite of mine during our trip, it was a combination I would have never thought of trying but boy does it work! Our new friends gave us one hell of a grilling; first about us, then about the tiger safari which they were booked on the next day, but most importantly about the EU referendum (naturally they got the most excited about British current affairs?!?). Our hotel…. man? (Like many of the Indians, he didn’t seem to have a defined job role, he worked as chief, concierge, gardener, receptionist and bartender all rolled into one) seemed to take quite a liking to us and tried to give us a few basic Hindi lessons (which he took very seriously and has us bring a notepad and everything). It’s such a different world out there which I think is sometimes easily forgotten, this man was away from his wife and little 3-year-old son (who he took great pleasure in showing us pictures of) for half the year while he worked in the hotel during the busy season. It seems an awful sacrifice to have to make in order to get the best wages but in India it’s quite the norm.
Another early 5.30 AM start for tiger safari number 3. I discovered the Indian people have no real concept of time, our experience was that they will tell you a time and then turn up whenever they felt like it. However, in contrast to most people I’ve experienced with this attitude, they turn up ridiculously early?! In fact, I was caught so off guard at one point that I was happily swanning round in my knickers trying to get cool in the safety of the hotel room, thinking I’d got plenty of time before we had to go anywhere when to my surprise, the tour man appeared and hammered on our door. Anyway, true to their nature, just as we were about to get a cup of tea and a bit of a snack the tour company turned up and practically dragged us out the door, unfinished tea and all. I managed to grab a very ripe looking banana which I was rather suspicious about eating (I absolutely hate over-ripe bananas) but wow do they have good bananas in India! I made sure to stock pile some at breakfast after that in case of future food emergencies.
The national park was split into 10 zones, I was pleased to find out that only 20% of the park was open to the public, keeping 80% undisturbed for the animals. Our guide was keen to tell us everything he knew about the UK and that he loved cricket and looked thoroughly disappointed when both Beth and I admitted to not being major fans ourselves. He also told us that Queen Elizabeth II visited in the 1970s and went around the park herself. He said she gave it her Royal blessing (though I’m sure there’s a more official title), it appears the Royals have always been keen ambassadors for animal protection. One thought for concern though is the fact that the national park has an expanding tiger population and although large, tiger roaming territories can be incredibly vast which can be a problem for these solitary, territorial animals. A cow was killed outside Ranthambore reserve while we were there and tigers favouring investigation outside the park can quickly come into conflict with locals. Additionally, the more contact and exposure tigers have to the stray street dogs, the more likely they are to contract Canine Distemper Virus which has devastated tiger populations in Bangladesh and Russia.
We could not have asked for more luck with the safari, we met a girl from Essex who had been on three safaris and hadn’t seen anything so far so we were all keeping our fingers crossed for her that she would see a tiger on her fourth and final safari. As it turns out we hit a hat trick and saw three! Krishna, the mother of Arrowhead we saw the day before was seen first, our jeep was in prime position as the road was incredibly quiet and she came right out of the forest and began to follow us along the road. She was magnificent, but also rather hungry so we were careful to keep at a safe distance. What was really exciting to see was a Samba deer wandered unwittingly close to her (they apparently have incredibly poor eyesight which makes them a favoured target for tiger ambush) and she went into stalk mode. Unfortunately, (or fortunately in the deer’s case) the deer caught her scent and fled sounding a warning call which reverberated through the forest and was continued like a Mexican wave by numerous other animals in the forest. This alarm call triggered the clamouring of several other vehicles to the area at lightning speed, all the tour guides were pushing in front of each other and arguing trying to get their tourists in the best position to see the tiger. Knowing her hunting plan had been foiled she slipped off back into the undergrowth.
No more than ten minutes later we saw our second tiger of the day, Krishna’s daughter Lightening, she was basking from a cool position in the undergrowth and was clearly not too impressed with us disturbing her as she gave us an indifferent look before stalking off into the undergrowth. However, then we saw her sister, Arrowhead who like the day before was more than happy to be papped. She was found cooling off in one of the water holes but decided to do a catwalk across the open plane towards all the vehicles for her devoted fans. This particular cat was definitely not camera shy! I am convinced the guide thought Beth was planning on going rogue and throwing herself out of the vehicle as he kept going “Miss Beth, please sit down” “Miss Beth be careful” I think he thought she was of the same mind as Steve Irwin and planned to throw herself onto the next wild animal she saw.
We decided that was enough excitement for one outing and headed back to the hotel to freshen up. The water situation in India was an interesting one… You are told to drink only bottled water and this includes brushing your teeth as the water isn’t filtered like it is at home and there are some lovely microbes which cause sickness and diarrhoea to us sensitive westerners, collectively known as ‘Delhi belly.’ However, it was so easy to forget for a moment and open your mouth in the shower which then induced a round of furious panicked spitting so none of it was swallowed. I have to say, I was all for experiencing many new things during my visit to India, but Delhi belly wasn’t on the list!
On our last safari we decided to get a commemorative t-shirt to match our hats (typical tourists!). We were in zone number 5 which was much dustier and dryer than the other areas we’d visited and animal life initially seemed quite sparse so we weren’t too hopeful at seeing any big cats. However, the tiger god (I’m sure the Hindus must have one) was once again smiling down at us and about an hour in we caught a glimpse of a large striped cat swimming in a waterhole, who was identified as T74, a four-year-old male. This particular tiger was the son of one of the most famous and well photographed tigers in Ranthambore nicknamed, ‘the lady of the lake’ due to her interesting taste for crocodile meat!
We followed him a fair way once he’d finished his swim and got a few nice photos of him stalking proudly across the hillside before he nipped over the brow of the hill away from our prying eyes and snapping cameras. The drive back to the park gates also held a few other interesting encounters, we saw a honey buzzard, a large Samba deer stag, a selection of beautifully coloured birds including the pied king fisher, golden orial and the tiger toothpick itself – the Rupus Treepai. The most exciting encounter however was when two mating snakes popped out of a hollow in a tree. A very distressed bird was angrily shouting and dive bombing them trying to protect his nest. The undeterred male snake was still eagerly trying to make advances on the hastily retreating female (I feel dinner was the last thing on his mind!), the whole scenario was incredibly entertaining to watch and an interesting way to finish off the safari. A little Peruvian man we were sharing the safari jeep with seemed to take a liking to us, his daughter worked in one of the reserves over in South America and he gave us his card in case we ever wanted to visit Peru to contact him if we needed any advice…. Next year’s trip Beth??
We got waved at furiously by the Austro-American children who we quite literally bumped into in our jeep. Again we ate dinner with this loud group but did learn some interesting things about Jaipur from their tour guide, who as it turns out was fabulous at placing British accents and pinned me as a Yorkshire lass instantly (which I think just proves how strong my accent must be!). The nice Indian man who had looked after us during our stay (whose name I can neither spell or pronounce as awful as it is to admit) gave us another Hindi lesson and our list of phrases began to expand, though our accent was still being laughed at so clearly needed some work!