Sunday, July 11, 2010

Tigers of Ranthambore

It has been ages since I blogged and it is not for lack of interesting travel stories. I have been traveling almost every month since the start of this year - Bangkok, Pench National Park, Mughal Gardens, Nameri and Kaziranga National Parks and a nice long trip to Italy and Austria. I have many unfinished travelogues and am tempted to publish small posts because it is much easier, but then I remember that my goal is not to preserve the blog, but to preserve my memories. I was home alone and didn't have anything better to do, so I forced myself to write and this is the result of that!

Tigers of Ranthambore

I have a problem. I don't know what to do about it. It is not very confusing. It is a simple straightforward statement that should be taken at face value. But, everywhere I go, people react in 2 ways - they either ignore what I say and carry on with their business or accuse me of lying.

"I don't believe you. You are lying" said S staring at me. He thought I was being fashionable....trying to be 'different' that the other travelers.

"Everybody wants to see a Tiger and so do you!"

S was responding to my statement "I am OK with not seeing a Tiger!".

Before you all jump to conclusions and start accusing me of lying, let me explain my statement. Seeing a tiger is THE most exciting and thrilling part of going to a National park in India. I had the good fortune of seeing one in Corbett and 6 in Bandipur (adding 4 little cubs). In Corbett the tiger was too far in the river, but in Bandipur, it was less than 10 ft away and I was shivering with excitement long after it ran away into the woods. We talked about it for days and months and every single time we recalled the sighting, it was just as thrilling.

What I meant by the above statement was that I would love to see a tiger, but if I did not, it didn't spoil my trip. I am not obsessed with seeing a tiger like some people are. I go to forests to unwind from city life, to see deep blue skies, stars in the night, to smell the woods and the wild flowers and to see wild life in their natural habitat. There is nothing more fun than waking up before the sun, having a steaming cup of chai and getting into a safari jeep brimming with anticipation. Optimism is at its peak. Maybe it is the darkness that makes you think it is OK to dream or the sheer unpredictability of nature that makes you say silly things like " I want to see a Tiger-chasing-a-Leopard-chasing-a-deer" (only one person can be THAT silly and I am married to him!). There is always the rest of the day to be practical, but when you are entering a forest, you are full of hope and optimism. The possibilities are endless and we know that from experience (We saw a pack of 26 wolfs chase a Leopard and its cub in Bandipur).

Saru and I usually get into our military mode once we enter the forest - " You take the left side and I will look on the right". Soon we are looking intently for any movement in between the trees or irregularities in colours that might be birds or animals. Ours ears perk up to listen for calls. We are excited!! The hunt is on!! The guide stops the jeep and exclaims " There is a fresh pugmark" It must have gone this way to the water hole". Soon, they become detectives following clues and coming up with theories on where it might be headed .

"Tigers don't like getting their feet wet, so in the mornings when the dew is still on the grass, they take the road. So, we always look for pugmarks in the morning " explains the guide. We focus all our attention on the road and drive slowly. Soon, we hear Sambhar deer's alarm calls which means that it is almost certain a tiger is on the prowl. The excitement builds up!!

We drive in the direction of the alarm call, stop at a few points and try to figure out the direction of the call. A couple of other jeeps stop by and the guides exchange notes. We stand up on our seats and scan the area using our binoculars.

Sometimes we get lucky and see the tiger and sometimes we don't! The fun part is in the the chase and putting together clues. There is nothing more exciting than looking through a binoculars and seeing a glimpse of a spotted animal and screaming "Guys.....I see a TIGER!". It might turn out to be a spotted deer, but the rush you feel when you spot something exciting is just amazing!. The fun part is trying to find the needle in the haystack, not to drive to the needle and say 'VOILA'.

In Ranthambore National Park, guides have been spoilt by foreign tourists who pay hefty tips for spotting tigers. We went on 4 safaris and 3 guides were obsessed with finding the tiger. Their plan was to scan the entire region quickly to see if the tigers were out. They drove so fast that we were covered in a thick layer of dust by the end of the rise. We could not stand in the jeep because of the speed. They were not interested in stopping for birds or other animals.

"If you stop so much to see birds, you will miss the Tiger!" They warned. We could care less, but we were sharing the jeep with a couple and their 2 teenage sons. They were Indians visiting from Australia. The mom told us quite frankly that she was not interested in forests, but she came here because "her son wanted to see a tiger". Between her time shopping and touring Jaipur and Udaipur, she booked them 1 safari ride (Who books 1 safari??) so that her son can "see the tiger". On the way we zipped past herds of deer, peacocks, nilgai, wild boars and birds. They were seeing some of these animals for the first time, but were not interested - all they wanted, was to see the tiger! After a dusty ride, we came out of the park not seeing ANYTHING because they didn't want to miss the tiger.

The obsession with seeing tigers was all pervasive in Ranthambore. It was the first question that was asked as soon as we got back to the resort. "Any luck, Sir?", "Did you see anything Sir?" An over anxious waiter even asked "Did you get lucky today?" which flustered Saru a little bit.

For the afternoon safari, we had 3 other people, a cute Chinese couple from Australia and an American lady from California. We told them about our morning experience and they all agreed that we would go slow, but the guide and driver had other plans. I had to tell them very sternly to slow down and they did, cribbing all the way ( Don't you want to see the Tiger? How will we cover the zone if we drive so slow?).

At one point, we came to a screeching halt because they spotted fresh pugmarks on the road.

"The tiger crossed this road!! We would have seen it if we were driving faster!!" The guide was mad at me!! He didn't speak a word for the next 15 minutes and stopped the jeep there! The American and the Chinese were amused that he was 'punishing' us for slowing him. A little later he drove around fast and just when we he was giving up, we saw 20-30 jeeps parked in an area. Drove up to see a tiger in the buses. Whew!! The tiger took some time and slowly came down to drink water from the stream. After having its fill, she wanted to cross the road and tried to, but was too spooked by the dozens of vehicles around and the squeals of joy from the spectators. This was one of our closest and longest sightings - almost 10 minutes (as against the 10 seconds in Bandipur). We had enough time to get tons of pictures and videos.

Scary Tiger Face

Tiger giving the finger:)

It was time to get out of the park, so we raced back and what do you see - the tiger we missed seeing earlier. It was right there scratching its head against a tree. So double the joy for the day!! This is my all time favorite picture. It looks so surreal. Don't you think?

But all in all, Safari's at Ranthambore were the worst and I would hesitate to go back. Corbett was the least tiger-centric followed by Kaziranga, Bandipur and Pench National Parks.

Here is a video of the tiger