Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Tiger Trail

After having visited Jim Corbett National Park in Uttaranchal last year , we had zeroed in on Ranthambhore as the next national park on our list and in early February, we finalized our travel plans to Ranthambhore National Park (RNP), Rajasthan which is a mere 12 km from the nearest railway station, Sawai Madhopur..
Like most tourists in Ranthambhore, we had booked our safaris online at the Rajasthan Tourism website and this made it very easy for tourists by eliminating touts and agents. But with several high end and budget hotels in Sawai Madhopur, finding easy accommodation was no problem for us when we reached there on a rather chilly April morning.
With the magnificent Ranthambhore fort and Jogi Mahal, an erstwhile royal palace in the backdrop, the central area of Ranthambhore has a chain of perennial lakes as compared to the drier peripheral area which is dotted by a few seasonal ponds and watering holes. And a trip to both these starkly different areas gives us two completely different stories. The area around the lakes is bustling with life – aquatic birds, ungulates, reptiles, and a host of other mammals including the tiger enjoy lush green surroundings which has deserted forts, ruins, dilapidated citadels all around. In contrast, the peripheral zones have the classical ‘dry deciduous’ forest with stunted ground cover in a different terrain consisting of steep slopes, narrow valleys and flat plateaus, with a lesser density of animals; the difference is so stark that you almost wonder if it’s a different national park altogether.
RNP is divided into five routes on which the vehicles are allowed to run. A fixed number of vehicles are allowed on every route and the allocation of the route to vehicles is by lottery.
Our 4 day long stay in Ranthambhore saw us make 7 trips into the park with at least one safari on each of the five routes and a guide accompanying us on every trip. The guides pay attention to every sound that comes from the wilderness since amidst the dense vegetation it is only the warning calls made by langurs, deer and peacocks that give an indication to the location and movements of tigers. Armed with our cameras and zoom lenses, we set out to find the big cat who rules the jungles of Ranthambhore. But sadly, apart from a ten second long glimpse of a tigress running into the bushes at the end of day 1 and a radio collared tiger sitting in the shade of a tree about 100 meters away seen on day 2, we were yet to see a tiger up close in its full glory. On our way out of the park, we spotted a leopard which appeared to be startled at being noticed and quickly sped into the bushes.
Although we hadn’t had a ‘good’ sighting of the tiger on days 1& 2, the cool hazy morning of day 3 made up for it in a way and gave us a beautiful sight – of a peacock with its entire plumage spread out, rhythmically swaying its feathers in a graceful dance to woo a peahen. Ranthambhore boasts houses nearly 300 species of birds and we managed to spot quite a few of them such as the the painted grouse, the crested serpent eagle, the beautiful Asian Paradise flycatcher and the near threatened Oriental Darter.
We also spotted a few crocodiles lazing around near ponds, basking in the sunlight and then stealthily slipping into the water only to stay afloat while being so still, one could easily mistake it for a log. Although we had enjoyed our visits into the park, I would be lying if I said our visit had been complete since we were yet to see a tiger from close proximity. After our last planned safari into the park on the morning of day 4, we decided we had to do something about having not seen a tiger the way he had wished to. Acting on Shashank’s idea, Siddharth, Shashank and I went to the Forest Office with the intention of meeting the Divisional Forest Officer of Ranthambhore National Park (DFO - an officer of the IFS cadre). We met the DFO - Mr. B S Shekhawat, who heard us very patiently and then asked us to arrange for another safari and he would ensure that the vehicle would be made ‘zone free’, i.e it would not be restricted to any particular zone. But not before making it clear that what he was doing was not the usual practice and was an exception. We were ecstatic and immediately cancelled out train tickets for 4 p.m. and luckily managed to book seats in a train that left Sawai Madhopur at 10 p.m. But the biggest challenge was getting a vehicle for the safari. After enduring two hours of the mid noon heat, standing in a long queue and seeing the ugly face of government administration - how every level of the bureaucracy can be manipulated, we were lucky enough to have been able to arrange a 6 seater vehicle. The frenetic activity had already left us tired but it was all worth the trouble as we found out.
Later in the afternoon, within seconds of entering the park, under a tree beside a lake, laid a splendid looking two year old tigress barely twenty feet from us. And if that wasn’t enough, she stood up and walked right past us. Seeing a tigress barely 4 feet away from our vehicle gave all of us goose bumps – what an awe inspiring sight it was! We stayed close to her for nearly an hour tracking each and every movement of hers and capturing her beauty in our cameras. Everything about that one hour was surreal: the grace, the arrogant yet regal walk, the beauty of the black stripes draping her orange body giving her the perfect camouflage and the imperial Ranthambhore fort in the background as she walked into the dense vegetation and into the fading sunlight.
What a perfect end to four wonderful days in Ranthambhore. The tiger might certainly be the most exquisite and royal of all creatures, but in our quest to see a tiger in the wild, we had discovered that there is so much more to the National parks in India than just the tiger.


Anonymous said...

Hey Akshay....awesome pics....I am totally envious...wat kind of a camera did u have, coz the pics are really something!!!

Keely said...

excellent writeup, Akshay. I always enjoy reading what you have to say, and you give such nice descriptions. it was great hearing about your experiences in Ranthambore and seeing all the pics, though it made me jealous about not seeing a tiger when i was there. "the grace, the arrogant yet regal walk" sigh... yes.. I missed out.

your pictures certainly are worth "a thousand words" but the writeup you've given is just as illustrative of the wonderful experience you had. :o) thanks for sharing!

sonal said...

awesome pics doctor.....and an amazing travelogue write-up... i really enjoyed reading every word of it....

humiditi said...

good write-up! makes me wanna visit this place :) and the photography is excellent