Into the Deep End of India – Part Ten, Tiger Safari at Ranthambore National Park

With apologies to William Blake’s The Tiger e.g.  “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright, In the Forests of the Night..”,  my version is:

“Tiger, Shmiger hiding right,
in Ranthambore only to be seen at night,
I paid a fortune for this sight,
so far only a 10 second view, and no photo is my plight..”

One of the top things on my list to do/see in India – was a tiger safari, and I had done some research in advance in order to pick a location/national park that would optimize my chances (See this useful summary of where and when to see wild tigers in India).

I had also consulted with a number of my newly made Indian friends as to where and when to see wild tigers.  They noted that for photography, April/May was considered the best time because it would be so darn hot (think 35 to 47 degrees C), the tigers would be lounging in any available pools of water to cool off.  I laughed and replied that in that case the tigers would have to fight me for room in the pond in order to avoid the heat.  They laughed even harder and gently reminded me that these are not flaccid temple tigers like you see in Thailand that you can pet and have your photo taken with, these are wild animals – and they pointed me at this “must see” youtube video of the most famous tiger attack in India to date.  Noting that the guy in this video lost a couple of fingers in this particular “interaction”. Yikes – now I know where the expression “flying tigers” came from – not just a WWII nickname!

In any event, my friends generally agreed, Ranthambore National Park was looking to be my best bet, given my location and the time of year I was visiting, and in truth I wasn’t that dumb to think the tigers were pets.  While there are some risks involved in any safari, the tigers are somewhat habituated to seeing people in jeeps, and Ranthambore more than enough snacks-on-the-hoof (Sambar deer for example) for the tigers to satiate themselves. A female tiger protecting cubs would be another matter though.

Ranthambore seemingly does a pretty good job of managing both tiger conservation (there were approx. 26 tigers in 2005, and with the 2014 tiger survey that number has grown to 62 – although poaching has been an ongoing issue) and access for tourism, since only about 20% of the total park/tiger habitat is open to tours. The jeeps are well regulated and split among 6 zones equally.  In contrast, I did a number of safaris in Sri Lanka on this same trip, and it virtually out of control there. At one point there were 200 jeeps in Yala National Park when I visited, with almost all of them fighting for a good view of two leopards that had been snoozing on a rock for the past few days.

I tracked down the Ranthambore website for booking the safaris directly through the National Park itself, but truthfully I couldn’t figure out how to make the booking on their website because it was set up for Indian Nationals and their identification numbers (i.e. it wouldn’t accept my passport number), so I resorted to using a booking agency that bundled hotel and safaris together.   I had signed up for 3 days/2 nights, with two safari’s a day (which is the norm, an early morning safari and a late afternoon safari), in a shared 6 seater jeep called a “gypsy”.  The other option available is a large “canter” which holds 20 people or so, which didn’t really sound particularly effective in terms of sighting, but was certainly cheaper.

Getting to Ranthambore involved a train trip from Udaipur, which was uneventful unto itself, but put me into Sawai Madhopur Junction (the nearest town) nearly at midnight. I grabbed a auto-rickshaw to my initial hotel (not part of the tour package), but the place was locked up despite my note on the booking that I would be arriving late.  Luckily there were a couple of staff who were sleeping adjacent to the front desk, but I was having trouble getting the staff (who spoke no English and I spoke no Hindi) to understand that I had a reservation and that I was tired and wanted to go to bed.  Lucky for me my auto-rickshaw driver was an on-the-ball young guy who: rousted the staff, grabbed a room key off the rack, helped me carry my bags up to the room, and checked out the room to make sure it was satisfactory.  I gave my driver a big tip for sure!  As I will detail at the end of this post, getting out of Sawai Madhopur after my safari was another matter altogether!

The next morning I transferred to my package hotel (just a few 100 ft down the road), and took off on my first tiger safari.  It was a shared jeep, with four other people, an Indian couple, and two girls from Mexico who had been doing some volunteer work in India, and this was one of the perks of their work.  The jeeps and guides were all assigned randomly by the National Park, and each jeep would draw a zone in which it was permitted to explore for that particular safari.  The Indian couple had been very lucky, they had seen tigers the last two days and for extended periods, and up very close.  This day however, on both safaris, I drew one of the zones that was less favorable in terms of sightings.  Most of the guides would employ a two fold strategy: 1) drive round the park roads looking for tiger prints in the dust (tigers paws are a bit delicate, so they do prefer walking in the dust on the roadways, consequently they leave telltale paw prints), and 2) stop and listen for warning cries from Sambar deer, monkeys, and birds that indicate they have spotted a tiger.

Male Sambar Deer fighting for Dominance – (because there is NO tiger around at that point)

Over the three days I had booked four safaris, and the pattern was that we would drive around like mad-men, looking for prints and listening for warning calls.  Some of the other jeeps in the various areas had in fact spotted tigers, but we were continually being skunked.  On the fourth and “last” safari, we had actually just left the gate of the park when one of the park rangers pointed down the main road saying that a tiger had just been spotted!  Down the road we dashed along with about 10 other jeeps and a couple of huge canters, and indeed there was a tiger walking in the jungle parallel to the road, but due to the congestion of vehicles, we only had about very brief view of this single tiger, and no opportunity for an unobstructed photo on my part.

I had spent 18 hours sitting in jeeps over the last 3 days, and by the end of the last safari, all I had seen was 10 seconds of tiger.  It was definitely anti-climatic, but sometimes one needs to assess the opportunity cost.  I had come all this way, and wasn’t likely to be back soon.  Luckily I had planned a gap day in my schedule, so I cut deal with the safari coordinator to add one more day, with two more safaris at an extra cost.

The morning safari was a bust yet  again, we followed the same pattern of driving, and didn’t see any tigers.  However on my very very last safari, I got a brilliant guide assigned to the jeep I was in.  Rather than driving around continuously looking for tiger prints in the dusty roadways or listening for warning calls, his strategy was to wait by the lake in the zone we had been assigned.

“If You go Play in the tall Grass Today, You’re sure of a BIG Surprise” (with apologies to the Teddy Bears Picnic rhyme and song)

He reckoned correctly that a tiger was hiding in the tall grass and might come out for a peek to scope out the four footed food supply.   He was absolutely correct, and he spotted the tiger long before any other guide.  He was also genius in positioning our jeep for a good view.  So the previous ten second glimpse of tiger got replaced with 10 minutes of tiger play on my very last safari for that trip, and I did manage to get a few shots – nothing outstanding photographically, but at least I wasn’t skunked..  and yes seeing a WILD tiger at fairly close hand is extremely cool, and is something I will never forget.   For me, besides being my own personal “spirit” animal,  “Tiger” was my nickname when I was a kid.

In actual fact, Ranthambore has a number of very famous individual tigers, one of which is named Machali (which means “fish” in Hindi, due to the fish like markings apparently on the face of this tiger’s mother).  Machali – is one of the most photographed tigers in all the world, last seen in 2015 apparently, she was unusually long lived for a wild tiger in the wild, and is considered the Matriarch of Ranthambore, as 60% of the tigers in the park come from her lineage.  See a short 1 minute video about this tiger, who has been honored with such titles as: Queen Mother of tigers, Tigress Queen of Ranthambore, Lady of the Lakes, and Crocodile Killer.

Getting out of Sawai Madhopur was a bit of a nightmare for me at least.  While my inward train ticket was fine, the outbound one was not confirmed.  This is a function of the way the Indian train system works, a number of spaces are held in reserve and only released within the last 24 hours before departure. For some reason I have yet to divine, in the winter time in Northern India, the trains are well booked up in advance, particularly the choice and reasonable seats.  You need to be booking two weeks or more in advance, with one week in advance – like I had booked – it is a bit on the risky side in terms of getting a solid confirmation.

So I had booked a 2nd class sleeper to my next destination, Lucknow, using the Clear Trip website, which was reasonable convenient to book online – If you have an Indian cell phone number.  However, the message that came back was not a “confirmation”, but notification that I was wait-listed in the #4 spot. In talking to my Indian friends, I was advised that it “should” mean that I was almost certain to get a seat, or it could also mean that I was out-of-luck.  For me it was the latter.   I should have got a text message the morning of my departure, indicating confirmation and what my seat allocation was.  However I got to the train station by 7:30 am, but still had no notification that my reservation was confirmed, so I in fact had no right to board the train.   I wound up having to buy a cheap “Second Sitting” ticket, and ride in the “cattle car”… with no seat.

For the first two hours I sat on my suitcase in the aisle beside the toilet, until I couldn’t stand the smell anymore.   At the next stop, I jumped off the cattle car, and just barged my way into a sleeper car, where I found an temporarily vacant seat and sat down.   The plan was to wait for the conductor to come by and try to buy an upgrade to a seat that wasn’t occupied – but the conductor never showed up.  Alas the guy whose seat I was occupying came back to the berth, and he and his buddies seemed to be amused by the novelty of a foreigner sharing their compartment (no one spoke English, and I don’t speak Hindi), but through sign language they let me know it was okay to perch on the edge of the seat with the rest of them for the next 10 hours  (7 of us in total in the compartment – good thing Indian people are generally of slim build).  It was a bit rough on my back, but much better than 10 hours of standing, so I was extremely grateful for their kindness as they certainly didn’t have to let me sit there.

After that I swore I was  giving up on trains in India as it was not worth the hassle, discomfort, and most importantly the ambiguity, but eventually I recanted, simply because in a number of cases there was simply no other choice than to travel from point to another except by train, and my subsequent train experiences were not nearly so challenging.