When I’ve not travelled for more than two months I start feeling the itch; the urge to pack my bags and leave on a fresh trip. Of course, my preferred destinations are exotic and far away, the preferred transportation a caravan a la SRK. My favored companion would be someone like Nigella and the duration a month or so. Alas! If wishes were horses… I have learned to settle for more modest goals.
So when I found a free weekend and two like-minded friends also in a mood to travel, we planned our trip to Ranthambhore National Park. Many were shocked by the choice of destination at the time of the year by the three senior citizens, Anand, Wingco Sethi and yours truly, to spend their hard earned money and well deserved weekend break. But birders and wildlife enthusiasts derive masochistic pleasure by putting themselves through unimaginable physical hardships to satisfy their urge to observe / photograph their preferred subjects.
Moreover, Peak summer, by conventional wisdom, is the right time to spot tigers in the arid Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Most of the smaller, seasonal sources of water dry up, forcing prey and predator to visit the few remaining watering holes. Another consideration was that only the valiant diehards would brave the heat of Rajasthan desert in a year arguably the hottest in a long, long time, resulting in lesser crowding.
We boarded the August Kranti Rajadhani from Nizamuddin at 4:55 and had a comfortable journey till Sawai Madhopur. By eleven at night, we had had our spirits lifted by some matured malt and tummies filled with home cooked parathas and subzi Sharada (Mrs. Anand Arya) had so thoughtfully packed for the journey. These and the need to get up at 4:30 to be ready by 5:15 AM next morning helped us hit the sack early and get some restful sleep.
As promised, 5:15 sharp, Salim Ali our guide for the two days and the open gypsy landed up at our place and we went off for the first safari. Salim is certainly the most famous and arguably the most knowledgeable guide in Ranthambhore (On Facebook too!). He has been closely associated with several BBC productions and other projects. Our four safaris in his company showed that his reputation was well earned.
Anand, a very seasoned and experienced birder and bird photographer of repute had photographed almost everything, except a tiger! He was, justifiably obsessed with his first sighting. Tigers and lady luck, have their own logic and time schedule. They decide when to oblige you. There is nothing you can do about it. That simple.
So despite the desperate requests and prodding by Anand supported by Wingco and some desperate running around the Park at break back speed over treacherous terrains, the first Safari yielded no tigers. However, as we were all interested in birds and other mammals also, good sightings of Hanuman Langurs, Spotted Deer, Sambhar, Black-tailed Mongoose, Monitor lizards, Wild Boars and Nilgais delighted us and we clicked away like crazy. Luckily, Anand had carried two self designed beanbags and I too had a smaller one. These came handy for shooting from the open Gypsy. Of course, Anand and Wingco had the advantage of Image Stabilized lenses, which poor man like me could not afford.
At no time is breakfast more welcome than after a tiring safari. But before you partook of the much needed meal, the code of conduct of photographers demands that you clean up your equipment, changed cards, download the images and have a bath. I certainly lost count of the number of parathas I ate. There is nothing else to do but to catch up some lost sleep.
I have a vague impression that we had lunch in half sleep. The only thing I clearly remember is the lovely Rajasthani Karhi! So thin and flavoured with fried fenugreek.
3:15 and Salim is waiting with the Jeep for Safari #2. By this time, the pressure to show us our first tiger was mounting on Salim and the driver. In a desperate bid, they took us almost on a non-stop breakneck drive over what passes for jungle tracks all over the Park.
We were all keen to achieve what Wingco termed as our “Lakshya # 1”, sighting of tiger. Bets of beer and cash were wagered. Prayers and bribes to Gods were offered. Heaven helps those who help themselves. We finally had a view of the male tiger of the Rajbagh Lake sleeping besides the lake across from us behind the Jharokha Chhatri, a mile or so way, in fading light of 6:45 PM. But sighting is sighting! Beers were won and lost!
Safari #3. We decided to give up the wild goose chase and to head for the Rajbagh lake where the male tiger we saw yesterday and the famous Lady of the Lake, T17, the young and beautiful daughter of Machhali were reported to be last seen.
Seeing fresh pug marks of T17 leading away from Jodi Mahal we decided to check the cement bowl waterhole at Mandook, where as per Salim’s prediction she would have gone. Short of the water source, we were distracted by very good sighting of painted sandgrouse and we started photographing it. That was when Salim noticed fresh pugmarks coming from the watering hole. The marks also were accompanied by dripping water indicating that T17 had just before we reached, sat in the water and was on her territorial round, leading to Malik Talab.
We quickly started following the pugmakrs. Took one turn about a Kilometer from where we started and lo and behold! The Lady of the lake, walking ahead of us along the track. Once or twice she stopped watching something to the left and suddenly a sambar from the left gave alarm call and the graceful princess decided to turn right and go down into the Nallah, away from sight! We were crestfallen and disappointed. Not Salim. He seemed to be sure about the route she is going to take judging by the alarm calls of animals and we went along his hunch and proceeded to Malik Talab.
Many other gypseys were also waiting expecting T17 or her uncollared brother T19 who was reportedly sighted fleetingly nearby to turn up. We used the time to photograph bird near the talab. A surprise was a yellow Bittern who gave us clear views from a dried tree stump. After a while one by one the vehicles started leaving but we decided to sit and wait till the end of the safari time. Patience pays! Just as we were nearing the end of the time, we spotted T17 lying under the shadow of a clump of cactus just behind the bund. We had some good, but distant pictures before we left for breakfast.
The last safari again we decided to do Zone 3 as we expected T 17 or the male to show up near Rajbagh. And how right we were. Just as we entered the park, we found her sleeping under a chhatri near the gate. While other crowded the scene, we decide to do a round of the lake and wait on the route she is certain to take after her siesta. She did not disappoint us. What a sight to watch the majestic beast stride down the road from the Chhatri towards the lake. At least 8 vehicles full of tourists and photographers clicking away and she passing between the jeeps with not a care in the world. It is like a
Bollywood heroine or celebrity, knowing fully well that thousands are looking at her and photographing her, walking as if she has not noticed the crowds! For a good 15 minutes she kept walking , observing a group of sambhar deers and stopping occasionally allowing us to photograph her.
Finally she decided to charge at the sambhars but a cheetal gave her presence away by an alarm call and the queen vanished into the grass. And the tamasha ended. One by one all Gypsies left. We decided to check up the Jharikha from the other side. We were rewarded by the sight of the Princess walking back along the rocky outcrop towards the grass in which she will lie for a while. We bid her good bye and drove to the lodge.