Prelude to a Journey
Seeing tigers in the wild has been on my bucket list for quite a while. Those of you who know me would also know that my bucket list is a long one – it’s practically a well. Where better for tigers than the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan…just the way ‘Royal Bengal tigers of Ranthambore in Rajasthan’ rolled off the tongue sold it for me.
Fast forward to 2017 at Lake Turkana. It was an evening photography session on the beach, complete with a well-stocked bar. The ‘girls’ (Debs, Astrid and I) were chatting over a nicely chilled white wine. Marius joined us and said we should go to Ranthambore to see the tigers – and because we all got on so well, he said he’d organise a “private trip” for the three of us plus Shobs. He promised us at least 20 tigers and “white wine on tap” – and to add culture to wildlife, a couple of days in Varanasi. The speed at which we all said ‘YES’ could have been partly due to the fact that we were on our second bottle of wine.
In the months that ensued, the itinerary was firmed up, a WhatsApp group (INDIA!!) – complete with 4 tiger emojis – was set up and we all confirmed that the dates worked for us – we were on! Or as one would say in Singapore, “Onzz!”
Work-wise, 2019 has been pretty full on – right from January, it’s been one thing after another – or more often than not, many things at the same time. So, very little prep was done in terms of reading up about Ranthambore or even looking it up on a map. Remembered the need for a visa with a few days to spare – fortunately the e-visa came through within hours.
Delhi via Agra
Delhi arrival observations – there were things that were ‘same-same’ (from our last trip here in 2014)…like the clean toilets, the sleeping immigration officers, and breakfast at Vaango – and there was the ‘more of the same’ stuff – like the smog and traffic, both of which seemed decidedly more intense.
Shobs and I had a Downton Abbey-like weekend in Agra before meeting the rest of the crew in Delhi – but that’s another story. We got to test the Ola cab system from Agra to Delhi – our first time in a CNG-fuelled car – we took a while to understand the driver’s hand-waving and rather dismissive gesticulations when we stopped to refuel…we eventually realised we were supposed to get out of the car. Couldn’t figure out why – initially thought it had something to do with weight (go figure), but later read it was to do with safety in case of explosions!
It was a welcome relief to get to the Raddison in Delhi, after a very long drive with many fuelling (and therefore having to get out of the car) stops. We thought we deserved a lamb biryani room service lunch so that’s what we had – we mindfully and virtuously shared one biryani.
That evening, our journey as a group began – there was an easy familiarity, despite having met each other at most only twice before. There was much laughter and no awkward silences – useful measures of how fun a trip was likely to be…very high Positive Predictive Value.
Travelling First Class
It was a 5.30AM start the next morning for the drive to the H.Nizamuddin train station. The early hour meant a smooth, almost traffic-less drive. The station wasn’t terribly crowded and definitely less fraught than a long-ago train ride where I had to almost run to keep up with the porter.
The five of us, Penny, Astrid, Debs, Shobs and I, were all in one cabin with Ikrar Bablu, our Oryx co-lead, a few cabins down from us. It was a 5-hour train ride, and the conversation was wide-ranging if slightly eclectic. It swung :
- from the scientific (“Oh look, so many pigs – it must be a Hindu area.” Note: I just re-read that line; hand on heart it’s not meant to be derogatory – it was really just an observation of the many pigs rummaging in piles of rubbish, and the possible correlation with the community’s predominant religion) to the literary (a quick summary of Lion by those of us who’d seen the movie/read the book – no doubt triggered by our current status as passengers on the Indian railway system);
- from the photographic (largely various discourses on the merits of the different bags we were using) to the profound (“If what goes through the loo, goes directly onto the tracks, shouldn’t we be seeing more er…stuff…on the tracks?” or S: “What does that spectacles sign on the side of the carriage mean?” Me: “It means no peeping into the toilet from outside.”…while this was said facetiously to highlight my amazing ability to read Hindi, the more I think about it the more I think that really might be what the sign meant);
- and from the horrific (Shobs’ recounting of her train ride through the Chambal Valley, complete with dacoits attacking the train) to the historical (related to the horrific – the story of Phoolan Devi, Bandit Queen).
The cleanliness of our cabin is worth a special mention – especially the remarkable cleaning techniques employed. All that’s needed is two squirts on the floor, we raise our legs off the floor, the mop is run twice over the available floor space, then two squirts on the curtains (NOT the windows), and it’s done.
Ranthambore – First Drive – Will We or Won’t We
We arrived at Sawai Madhopur at about 1PM. The town we drove through reminded me of Narlai but on a larger scale – pretty homes, clean lanes, kids playing – idyllic almost. Then I remembered we were back in Rajasthan, which even on our last trip struck me as being the cleanest Indian state I’d visited so far. As we drove through the town, I saw signs advertising safaris by ‘jypsy’ and ‘canter’ – I made a mental note to find out what these were.
The Ranthambore Kothi, our home for the next week or so, was about a half hour drive from the station. The room and bathroom (an outdoor shower as well) were large and very comfortable. We had just about enough time to check in, wash up and have lunch before it was time for our first drive. This is how it works at the Ranthambore National Park – there are 10 zones spread across close to 1400 square kilometres. We had permits for two drives each day – one in the morning from 6-9.30AM and one in the afternoon from 3-6.30PM – for a total of 12 drives. Before each drive our tracker has to go to the park office to find out which zone we’d been allotted – we were told the allocations are totally random (or at least relatively random, give or take some baksheesh), and that we may be allocated the same zone more than once. Marius’ sage advice over dinner in Delhi was to go with the flow and enjoy the experience; he’d also said it can get quite chaotic when there’s a tiger sighting despite each zone having a limited number of vehicles.
We also knew that there’s no guarantee that tigers would be seen and I could not forget a colleague telling me she had spent a few days at Ranthambore and all she saw was…a pugmark in the sand and…ZERO tigers. I had just 3 KPIs for this trip :
- See a tiger (I didn’t even dare wish for tigers in plural)
- Get at least a couple of decent images of aforementioned tiger.
- Have fun
KPI #3 was entirely in my control, while KPI #1 had to be left to good fortune and the skill of our tracker and driver, and KPI #2 was a function of KPI #1 + being a good student under Penny’s tutelage. For KPI #2, I had in mind a black and white tiger portrait but I wasn’t going to be (too) disappointed if this didn’t happen.
For this first drive, both our vehicles were in Zone 1 – Astrid, Debbie, Penny with Neeraj and Mukesh in one vehicle, Shobs, Bablu, Kamal (aka KK), Maan Singh and I in the other. Our vehicles were battle-ready Maruti Gypsys with 2 rows of seats. So, I now knew what ‘jypsy’ referred to.
It was HOT (definitely above 40C – in the shade), it was dusty (forgot Marius’ other piece of advice – to take something to cover our cameras while in the vehicle) and it was bumpy – I found myself bouncing around holding on for dear life to some fixed part of the Gypsy and to my camera as Maan Singh expertly manoeuvred the (non) roads – I think we all were – with some spectacular bruises to show for it too.
As we bumped and bounced along, I remember thinking how beautiful the forest was; we saw deer and peacocks and stopped to photograph them before moving on in search of tigers. Before we left the Kothi, Penny had reminded us about using a fast shutter speed when photographing wildlife – even if the ISO has to be pushed up. I recall it was a lesson that was taught when we were at the Mara – but it wasn’t until this trip that I actually ‘got it’. I think I’m a one-lesson-a-trip person – the Mara lesson was not to have ‘too much foreground’ and to ensure ‘separation’…ok, that’s 2 lessons.
At some point, after much back-and-forthing in search of the elusive tiger, I thought, “We might not see a single tiger – today or in the next 5 days. BUT I shall still have fun.” Literally the second I completed that thought, KK our guide said, “Tiger!” Where??? There was a rush of vehicles, all racing towards the area where we’d seen the peacocks. Some peacocks were still there, surprisingly calm; the tiger was walking out of the foliage and honestly, it was so well camouflaged, it took some pointing and exasperated “There!”s before I saw it peeking out from behind a tree. And if I took my eye off it, it took some effort to ‘see’ it again. In this case ‘it’ was Noor – T-39 – the Queen of Ranthambore. [Tigers at Ranthambore are given code numbers, and once they survive past 2 years, they are given a name – usually by the park officials – and sometimes by ‘VIP visitors’. The names are a bit more descriptive and associated with the tiger’s appearance or markings – Noor means ‘glow’, and glow she did; or, in the case of Jai and Veeru – they were probably named by a Hindi movie buff.]
As we watched, Noor started walking out of the foliage in our direction. The excitement I felt was indescribable – photographically it was sheer chaos, trying to hold that lens steady, many tens of clicks later realising the shutter speed was TOO SLOW…aargh, and just as I think the settings are good to go, there’d be an urgent ‘Hold on!’ from KK or Bablu (often both at the same time) – there was probably half a second at best to react to this order to ‘hold on’ before Maan Singh stepped on the gas – didn’t matter whether we were going forwards or backwards – he stepped on the gas with equal enthusiasm – and the Gypsy would zoom off to get us into a better position – and leave us almost literally flying about in the back seat clutching lenses and cameras. Pure adrenaline! I’m sure mine wasn’t the only pounding heart.
Noor approached us quite languidly with an almost dismissive air about her; as she got closer and started filling even my zoomed-out frame, I had to put the camera down and just watch – but not for long. Noor came up to a nearby tree, sniffed at it and walked away, tongue hanging out. KK explained that she was displeased, thus the tongue out – the tree she sniffed was already marked – the reason for her displeasure.
At one point she walked right next to our jeep and there was eye contact. It seemed like she actually saw me in the vehicle – this was totally different from the lion experiences in the Mara. There, it didn’t seem like those magnificent cats could actually make individuals out and that they saw the safari vehicle and its occupants all as a single entity (well, except for that crazed lion that I felt ‘saw’ me). But with Noor, it felt like she was looking directly at me and I did wonder, “Too close?”
She eventually disappeared into the brush and it was time for the heart rate to return to (almost) normal. We hoped we all had gotten some good images – the back-of-camera shots didn’t look too shabby. For a few minutes before we drove off, our two vehicles compared notes. The most pressing question was – did anyone get a good peacock picture – maybe with an out-of-focus tiger in the background?
We spent the rest of our time in Zone 1 photographing the oh-so human langurs, and generally chatting. Just as we exited Zone 1 there was news from another vehicle that a tiger was sitting by the wall near Zone 3 so off we sped towards that wall – no tiger but plenty of humans. So back we went – outside Zone 1, KK heard some alarm calls; a few quick conversations later it transpired that a leopard had been spotted just inside the perimeter of Zone 1. The park officer very kindly allowed our vehicle back in. In the distance, barely seen, walked the shy leopard – we could just about make out its rear half and tail.
As we made our way out for the second time, the eagle-eyed KK spotted another leopard (or maybe the same one) sitting in a clearing some distance away. What excitement! Before we knew it there were at least half a dozen vehicles behind us all jostling for prime position.
The special-ness of this sighting was underlined when KK and Bablu said it’s really rare to see a leopard at Ranthambore or any habitat with a high tiger density…and we’d seen two…or maybe one twice. These Indian leopards are apparently far more elusive compared to the African ones.
What an amazing first drive! Status update at the end of Drive 1 :
- KPI #1 – check
- KPI #2 – TBC
- KPI #3 – overachieved in a big way. Does target for the rest of the trip need to be reviewed?
A Tiger A Day – Dare We Dream It?
The next morning was our first morning drive – and the birth of the The Bandit Queens (aka the Sisterhood of the Travelling Buffs). We were all presented with buffs by Bablu – an absolute essential for Ranthambore – and something I didn’t pack. Both our vehicles were in Zone 3 that first morning – it was really beautiful, with a huge lake, remnants of red stone buildings (part of the Ranthambore fort) and quite a bit of green cover – this and the slightly lower temperature made for a comfortable drive. There were no tigers to be seen this morning – but this gave us plenty of time to practise on our ISOs and shutter speeds – and hope that all this good stuff doesn’t fly out of our mind if we did see a tiger and Maan Singh steps on the gas. It was a morning for owls – apparently not all owls sleep during the day.
This was also our first packed breakfast – rotis, vegetable cutlets (yum!), hardboiled eggs, delish pickles, a packet of crisps (saved for later) and a banana. It was lovely, parked under the trees, chatting, listening to tiger tales – and hoping that the bird that joined us didn’t land on our food.
We were together for our afternoon drive as well – in the very dry, extremely hot Zone 6. There was almost zero tree cover – it was just dust and scorching unrelenting heat. Unlike in the Mara, we weren’t allowed to get out of the vehicle to ‘mark territory’ – this could only be done at the ‘checkpoints’ which usually were near the entrance to each zone. This meant we tried not to drink too much water at the start of the drive, and even so, drank quite sparingly…not good, I know, but…it was what it was.
Some of the rocks in Zone 6 were painted orange and we could see bits of cloth attached to them – part of a temple we were told. On subsequent drives, we saw many small temples throughout the park – and by the road there would be rocks with white marks or sometimes an arrow pointing the way to the temple. These temples are still frequented by the villagers, especially on puja days! Apparently there were many villages within the park area – these were all relocated when the area was designated a national park. But the villagers still return to some of these temples – often on foot! Juxtaposed with our being told not to get out of our vehicles even for quick bio breaks, this was a mind-boggling display of faith.
Near the orange-painted rocks that afternoon, we had our wish – Tiger #2 – this was Jai, brother of Veeru – yes, obviously named by a Sholay fan. As he lolled, head resting quite comfortably on a rock pillow, one foreleg thrown casually over another bolster-like rock, we waited. At his every twitch, our cameras would go up. Today I found out what a ‘canter’ was – a large lorry-like vehicle that could take many rows of visitors. Each time the driver started the engine or another ‘canter’ approached, the sound would startle Jai and he would stir – almost simultaneously our cameras would go up – after a while we were reacting to the ‘canter’ even before Jai did – truly Pavlovian.
While we waited, and Jai slept, we saw some people walking on a ridge not far away towards the temple on the rocks – I’m sure they would’ve guessed there was a tiger in the vicinity, seeing our vehicles congregated around one spot – not that it deterred them!
There was a moment when a couple of deer approached, seemingly unaware of Jai’s presence. We wondered if we were about to witness a kill – or at least a chase – but learnt that tigers rarely chase – they operate by stealth rather than speed. In this case, though Jai made an attempt at stealth, his prey was too far away and they made off well before he had made any real progress.
Day 2 – tiger #2…what would the rest of this trip bring!
While none of the drives could ever be termed routine, we did develop a routine of sorts quite quickly :
- Wake up at 4.30AM – to be safe, alarms were set on both Shobs’ and my phones. I confess I had an additional alarm at 4.45AM, just in case – I’m kiasu like that.
- Stumble to the lobby of the Kothi around 5.15AM – sleepy good mornings, coffee – and wifi (as wifi was only available in the common areas)…so there wasn’t much conversation, other than to comment on who’s been busy on Insta and to compliment each other’s posts – we were a very supportive bunch.
- Find out which zone we’d been assigned – yay if we were in the same zone. There was a bit of a Groundhog few days with Astrid and Debs repeatedly returning to Zone 1. We did offer to swap on what was I think their third time to Zone 1, but everyone good-humouredly stuck to the allotted zones. By the end of the trip, we’d been to Zones 1, 3, 4, 5 & 6.
- Morning drives for Shobs and me were with Bablu, afternoon ones with Penny. It was wheels up at 5.45AM for the morning drives – with some mornings cool enough to need blankets – though not for long.
- Remember to hold our breaths as we turned a particular corner on the way to the park – cow carcass – a gag-worthy smell even for me who’s not usually too bothered by smells.
- Assume equestrian stance once we enter the park – think I’d perfected this by the second day – so no more hanging on, white-knuckled, as we drove through the park.
- We usually were back at the Kothi from the morning drives before 10AM – first order of business was to clean the cameras – white towels turned quite brown; then it was downloading and charging.
- Around 11AM we’d wander to the lounge area for editing tuition – Penny continued to raise the bar and was oh-so generous with sharing some of her mad photography and editing skills. It was so interesting how each of us had quite different perspectives of similar scenes. These sessions were often accompanied by belly-aching laughter, and conversations about life, the universe and everything in between.
- Above conversations continued into lunch at noon, before wheels up for the afternoon drive at 2.45PM.
- We returned from the afternoon drives by about 7PM…the cameras felt so much heavier compared to the morning. Another round of cleaning cameras, downloading and charging – and a most welcome shower to wash off the layers of dust before dinner at 8PM. Most nights I was in bed by 10PM – I was out like a light, and with the lights.
With two tigers in two days, I threw caution to the wind and hoped for a tiger a day – and that is indeed what happened. Each sighting was so special – made even more so by seeing how very elusive these big cats are. They just disappear into the foliage in the blink of an eye.
On our last day here, someone asked which was our favourite sighting. I think that first sighting of Noor remains top of the list – if only because she came first. By the end of our stay we’d had 14 sightings of 11 different tigers – each amazing in it’s own way.
There was Arrowhead (T-84) and her two cubs – we could barely see them before they decided to cross the track to the other side with even thicker foliage. Why did the tiger cross the road? Because on the other side, there was food (a kill – a huge sambhar deer), water (a stream) and shade (all the better to relax in with the kids). This was truly a special sighting – we had to be positioned ‘just so’ to make out anything – there was much excitement each time Arrowhead or one of her cubs moved across a small clearing. This sighting was less about photography (it was near impossible) and more about just observing – mum relaxing by the water, then getting up to drag the huge dead deer deeper into the jungle, cubs jumping all over the deer – one even slid off the deer in his enthusiasm. What a privilege to be able to witness this!
As we observed this mother tiger and her cubs, KK told us about another parent – Dollar (named so because he had what looked like a dollar sign on his flank). He defied the natural order of tiger parenting – usually tiger dads have nothing to do with child-rearing (maybe that’s why there’re ‘Tiger Mums’ but not ‘Tiger Dads’??). Cubs are brought up, and kept safe, solely by their mums. In fact some male tigers have been known to eat their offspring if they deem them a threat. But Dollar was most unusual – he stepped in (and up) to rear his cubs when their mother died. He did this not once, but twice – when another set of his cubs was left mother-less. There are sensitive, new-age guys among tigers too!
Then there was that morning when we were speeding along the barely discernible tracks – and Bablu suddenly said, “Tigertigertigertiger”. How he saw anything, I don’t know. Even when we had stopped I couldn’t see them at first – the brothers, Jai and Veeru, sitting in the middle of an unused track. Maan Singh got us in position, and we managed to get some images of the pair before Veeru walked off slightly huffily. That was an exciting morning as we followed Veeru. There was a moment when I just had to put the camera down and look at this magnificent being (partly also because the lens had stopped being wide enough as he approached) – that image of the huge Veeru emerging through cacti, down to the dry riverbed, the sure-footed stride, is one that’ll remain in my mind’s eye.
Tracking tigers is a fine art. If I was in awe of Bablu spotting Jai and Veeru, I was even more awestruck by how pugmarks by the side of the road were seen as we bounced along at quite a good speed.
Then there was the whole tracking by alarm call – ever so often, KK would instruct Maan Singh to stop the vehicle and cut the engine. As we listened in silence, there’d be a squawk or chatter – we’d ask hopefully, “Alarm call?” and more often than not, the reply would come, “No, mating call” or “No, that’s a happy call.” By the end of the trip, I still couldn’t distinguish the alarm call from the less alarmed ones.
But all that was turned on its head on one afternoon drive. We were in Zone 5, where on another day we’d seen Akaash (he would be called ‘Sky’ in English) sitting in the middle of the road – it was a sky meets road sighting – ha ha. Zone 5 was another pretty zone with thick green foliage on the side of the track near the stream, and barren dusty rock just across the track away from the stream. We’d stopped in the shade and were having a chill afternoon, photographing langurs and peacocks. After everyone had their fill of langurs, Penny said maybe it was time to move on. We had moved barely a few feet when almost right next to us, a tiger emerged from the scrub – Krishna – T-19 and mother of Arrowhead. There was absolutely no alarm call from the nearby langurs and birds – even when Krishna was walking out in the open.
Next level chaos ensued. Langurs-in-the-shade settings had to be quickly changed to tiger-out-in-the-open settings, all the while obeying ‘hold on’ instructions that were coming fast and furious (equestrian stance went for a toss…as did I, almost). I think I heard someone in our vehicle say “don’t fall out” – that was a first! I also heard several swear words in our vehicle – including the ones in my head. Shutter speed shutter speed, #$%*…we later found out that the concerns of the other vehicle were a bit more ‘upstream’…looking through the viewfinder, one of our friends found everything dark…till our other friend calmly said, “Try taking off the buff” (that was covering the lens).
It’s safe to say, that this was one very special sighting – the excitement of our seasoned guides and drivers was testimony to just how special it was.
There was also tracking by conversation – this is when we came across other vehicles going in the opposite direction. Tradition demands that both vehicles stop for the drivers and trackers to exchange information (no radios/walkie-talkies here). A prolonged conversation then ensues in Hindi. The occupants of the vehicles in the meantime listen attentively to the conversation, turning their heads in whichever directions hands are being waved, and searching the guides’ faces for any clue that might indicate the location of the tiger…even though, with my limited understanding of Hindi, I thought that the conversations didn’t always revolve around tiger sightings, but that they were instead talking about this friend or another. This play repeated itself several times each day. It was Debs who called it out – how we laughed realising that’s exactly what we all did. Not that it stopped us from doing the same thing the next time it happened – and then collapsing in laughter.
Some other conversations got us in hysterics too. Like the one that went : A: So should we stay here or move on? B: Yes
Twelve Drives Later
On our last drive at Ranthambore, both vehicles were allocated Zone 4 (yay!). It was a lovely morning, like all the others. As we set off, I realised I hadn’t held my breath – and the carcass of the cow no longer smelled terrible. In the park, the forest was waking up, birds energetically chirping, bed-headed langurs starting on their morning inter-tree leaps. Maan Singh seemed to be driving slower than usual and it promised to be a relaxing last drive. It didn’t even matter whether or not a tiger made an appearance.
I was trying to recall all the stand-out moments of this trip – the various tiger sightings, the family of langurs with the most bratty kids, drinking delish cold buttermilk (courtesy KK) with a view to die for, one actually cool afternoon in Zone 6…the two pigeons that got into our bathroom at the Kothi and which were gently but unsuccessfully shoo-ed out chicken-style by my dear travel companion. Most of all, it’s been stand-out company – a pretty much perfect combination of people who are able to laugh with, and occasionally at, each other; a group that started out almost strangers and whom I’d travel with again anytime.
Bablu Khan has been a rockstar – besides tiger-spotting, he also supplied buffs and beanbags on request, made sure we – and all our gear – were safe, and regaled us with so many tales, tiger-related or otherwise – like the time, when we asked over dinner if there were hyenas in the park, and he said he’d just seen one “last night”. Turns out he went for a walk everyday after dinner, and the previous night came across a hyena just outside the gates of our hotel!
Our drivers and guides have been fab too. Maan Singh and Neeraj are truly the best drivers – they’re also F1-level competitive, with races along parallel park tracks a common occurrence (while I engaged my core and adopted my best equestrian stance). Maan Singh is King of Reverse, and we quietly referred to him as Reverse Singh. He reversed as fast as he drove forwards, and was able to place us within inches of sheer drops quite safely. He obviously has a reputation of being one of the better drivers too – one day he was asked to help with another vehicle that was stuck – the driver couldn’t engage the reverse gear and was stuck rather precariously next to a steep drop-off…Maan Singh got the gear engaged in one go and reversed the vehicle quite smoothly. We applauded like proud parents.
The Ranthambore Kothi people were lovely too. They were an all-male team; their attention to detail was impressive, remembering our various allergies, our breakfast choices and remembering to turn down the air-conditioning each time we sat down at our usual table in the dining hall.
We had the pleasure of meeting a lovely family from Calcutta at the Kothi. The trip was a treat for their young daughter, Shireen, who’d done brilliantly in her exams. When we first met them, they hadn’t seen a tiger yet. We all really hoped and prayed they would – I couldn’t imagine how disappointed the child would’ve been if they had to leave without a single sighting. So it was with much relief that we heard the next day that they’d seen a tiger – not sure who was happier, us or Shireen and her family.
And then, just like that, my reverie was shattered – TIGER! – walking almost right next to us! It was chaos all over again initially, but strangely not as off-the-rails as it was when Krishna appeared out of the bushes. It was just our two vehicles and this magnificent beast, T-110 – Arrowhead’s brother, and as yet unnamed. This time, there was no danger of falling out of the vehicle, shutter speed was remembered, and there was no swearing. It seemed a fitting end to a perfect trip.
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