This was one work trip that I was looking forward to.
We were headed to the dry forests of Ranthambore in Rajasthan. Rajasthan – the land of brave warriors (of the past), grand palaces and rich cultural heritage. Rajasthan is the stuff of postcards – it’s the place that you see most often when your mind conjures up images of India (other than the Taj Mahal, which lies in another state, Uttar Pradesh).
But here I was, headed to Rajasthan for none of its grand palaces and monuments or its music, dance or festivals – I was headed to the quiet, nondescript village of Sawai Madhopur, bordering the wildlife reserve of Ranthambore. I was here to try my luck, yet another time, to spot the elusive Bengal tiger, that most majestic of Indian wild animals. And one that had eluded me on 3 different past trips to three different national parks (Corbett, Nagarhole, Bandipur). My hopes were high; someone I know had sighted tigers twice on their safaris in the month of December in Ranthambore (and that isn’t even prime spotting season).
Ranthambore is quite popular and hence permits for the park are almost always in high demand due its proximity to New Delhi and Jaipur. Since we were travelling as a large group and our bookings were made only 2 – 3 weeks in advance, we were given the so-called peripheral zones for our safaris – Zones 6 and 8. Zone 6 wasn’t all that bad actually – we did spot other animals like spotted deer, Sambar deer, a young sloth bear and plenty of birds there. Zone 8, on the other hand, was a bummer. It was right next to a village and really small – I suspect it’s one of the recently added zones to relieve the demand pressure on the ‘core zones’ (zones 1- 5).
Safari 1 – Zone 6 – Afternoon safari:
Maybe it was the excitement of being in the jungle and the anticipation of our first safari in this park, but I quite enjoyed myself in the 3 hours that we were there. We had hired a 6-seater open-top jeep (‘Gypsy’) that I would strongly recommend v/s the other option i.e. the 20-seater minibus-like ‘canter’. The Gypsy is able to go off road into the heart of the forest and navigate rough terrain much better than the canter. And hanging onto one of its beams for dear life as you bounce off and on the rocky trail will also give you thrills for free.
Zone 6 was a mix of dense forest in parts and rolling grassland, reminiscent of pictures of African safaris, in others; hemmed in by the Aravalli mountains. The Aravalli range is one of the oldest in the world and it looks old with its low hills, flattened by centuries of weathering. There’s none of the jagged edges and sharp peaks of the Himalayas. In the reserve area, herds of spotted deer were scattered through the grassier parts, while colorful bee-eaters and treepies flitted between trees.
The highlight of our Zone 6 safari was spotting a black sloth bear – a young one, going by its size. Sightings of bears are apparently rarer than even tigers, in this reserve (the guide was trying to make us feel better by claiming this I think). This one decided to climb up a tree and gorge on a bee-hive once it spotted the herds of vehicles congregating towards it.
We also saw pugmarks on the dirt trails, which gave us some reassurance that we weren’t there on a wild-goose chase – the tigers were there, but they had decided to not make themselves seen. There was even a false alarm for a while when a Sambar deer let of out a high-pitched alert for its friends and family. The alert was echoed for the next 5 minutes by a herd of long-tailed gray langurs (chimps) and we were holding our breaths in high anticipation that the striped king of the jungle was in the vicinity. No tiger did turn up eventually and the animals settled back into their routine of grazing and scratching their backs (the deer and the chimps, respectively).
Verdict – Zone 6 is not too bad in terms of wildlife spotting, considering that it’s a so-called ‘peripheral’ zone. It apparently is connected through the forest to Zone 1, one of the prime zones, so probably the tigers do swing by, once in a while.
Safari 2 – Zone 8 – Morning safari:
Zone 8 was a fair distance away, down a long, dirt track, from the main town of Sawai Madhopur and this was looking promising – fewer humans, more animals. Right?
Except that it wasn’t. Like I mentioned, the zone is a newly added ‘peripheral zone’ to relieve the stress of too many visitors on the ‘core’ zones. The highlight of this safari was actually something that we chanced upon before the safari – a lone hyena ambling about in the surrounding woods. The rest of the safari was dotted with sparse sightings – mostly of Nilgai couples and herds (Nilgai = Blue bull in Hindi is actually an Indian antelope).
Verdict – Zone 6 is highly avoidable. If you can manage to make your plans well in advance, please pitch for zones 2 and 3 (or try to stay within 1 – 6).
We were constrained by our tight schedule to only do two safaris this time. And while the Tiger continues to elude, I enjoyed spending time in the wilderness and would highly recommend it – the silence of the jungle and being disconnected from our world for those few hours. This time I didn’t come back entirely disappointed, the quiet, solitary ruler of the jungle will make itself visible only when it wants to. So 4 national parks and 8 safaris later, I’m still sitting at a blank. With irrational optimism and plans of a visit to a new park on the anvil. 🙂