Wayback in February, sitting in a jeep from Bhandardara on our way back to the nearest train station I promised Lokesh and Sudeep to accompany them on their next wildlife tour. Soon emails and messages were exchanged and before I realized the bookings were smoothly through. Travers India knows how to care for their travelers and make the entire experience hassle free. On board the train to Sawai Madhopur we heard stories of the forest, how people had spotted tigers in and around the main town or the main gate. Someone spoke about ‘Ustaad’ (T-24) the aggressive male tiger who occupied Zone 1, 2 and 6 now had been relocated to the Udaipur Zoo due to an alleged attack that killed a local forest guard. All the stories brought goosebumps all over.
As we stepped out of the train around noon at Sawai Madhopur we felt a sudden jolt of heat – the temperature was a blistering 45 Deg C. The seats of the open top utility vehicle that was specially designed to seat us – a group of 22 wildlife lovers – was simmering. We checked into the hotel and quickly jumped into 4 gypsies (jeep) on our way to our first trip into the jungles. This was my first ever chance to spot the magnificent beast in its natural habitat.
Day 1: Safari 1
A short ride in the hot sun and we reached a gate that opened up to a dusty beaten track. At the entry was a small hut that doubled up as a forest check point. With warm hellos exchanged we soon entered our designated zone – Zone 2 for our first safari. Two jeeps tagged behind each other over extremely rocky terrain as their occupants struggled to grip onto the roller bars to stay inside. We passed beautiful ruins that were part of the Ranthambore fort as we went deeper into the jungle. Peafowl, spotted deer, a huge male sambar, monkeys but no sign of the majestic occupant of the forest. Our eyes were searching, you could sense the tension in the jeep. Our driver and guide kept chatting away casually like they were on a picnic. At one point I thought I should ask him to shut up coz maybe there could be a tiger around.
Just as we crossed a certain open patch in the zone 2 about 30 to 45 mins into the drive our driver spotted a group of jeeps lined up on the left hand. He put us on alert, we pulled out our cameras and raised them to our eye level, leaving a small gap to peep around. We approached a small water hole and looked over a bush to see the most beautiful sight. There she was – a 24 month cub of Noor (T-39 ) lying in the water cooling herself in the heat about fifty feet away from where we were. She popped her head up occasionally to look around. The silence in the jungle was only broken by a random deer letting out warning calls and the unstoppable flutter of camera shutters that kept sounding even if she moved a muscle. She lay there in complete oblivion of the crowd of humans adoring the glaze on her skin, the patterns and her large canines as she flashed them once a while. We decided to take a quick look around to see if we could spot Noor who was the main adult female of zone 2.
A few kilometers into the forest we reached a spot called he phoota bandh (broken dam). The trees were low and silence was unmistakable. Dusty paths randomly opened up into a broad chasms that harbored timid spotted deer who would freeze at the sound of an approaching vehicle. One such chasm gave us a breathtaking view of a large python who was equally perturbed by the heat
It was peak summer water was scarce. Animals had gathered around any small pond that had water in it. We turned back from the end of Zone 2 returning back to the place where we had left the female cub who had walked away minutes ago. This described the jungle story aptly. You have it in a moment and its gone in the other. Our driver wasn’t one who was going to give up. He drove out of the ravines and off roaded straight across a rocky river bed that had dried up due to the scorching summer heat. Our jeep headed out ahead of the other jeeps and stopped right in the middle of what looked like a semi cleared area running across the jeep trails. “Yahi se ayegi” he said in Hindi, meaning “She will come right from here”.
In the next 3 to 5 minutes he proved how right he was. She emerged, as a blurry orange spot at first and then as majestic as a queen draped in golden fur that was shining bright in the evening light. She marked her territory as she closed the distance between herself and our jeep. I kept looking at her through the lens. Relentlessly holding down the shutter release button to create frames of her as her muscles moved through her graceful walk.
I realized I wasn’t breathing and felt the strain on my lungs. I lowered my camera took a few long breaths and started shooting back again. She had picked up her pace and was now aware of the paparazzi looking at her in awe. It was just about that time that I realized something unsettling. ‘She was headed straight at me’ I stopped shooting and looked. Our eyes met briefly – to tell the truth – I had to look away.
My stare was no match to what she had presented. I tried to scream in a hushed voice – “she is coming straight for us” to our guide. I had never seen a tiger in my life and here was one which was at a thirty feet distance from our jeep. Our guide silently looked back and said “don’t talk just shoot, it alright”. I have no clue why I trusted those words because she was within jumping distance now less than fifteen feet. Tigers are known to jump over fifteen feet from a standing spot. I tried focussing my camera but she had moved so close to us that I could not focus my 300 mm lens anymore. I gave up and put my camera on my lap to just admire her beauty and the way she walked. Approximately 120kgs of sheer fury walking past our jeep calmly like we never existed. She stopped real close to our jeep, looked up – looked down and turned away to trace her path into the woods across the jeep trail leaving us spellbound for hours later.
We had no words to describe the feeling we had as we drove past the setting sun behind the majestic fort ruins of Ranthambore.
But this was just the beginning !! – to be continued !
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Ranthambore is a wildlife scantuary that sprawls across 1378 square kilometers out of which 380 sq kilometers is the buffer zone thats divided into 10 zones. Currently the Tiger population stands at 86 on records and more than a 100 as per reported stats. The best time to visit the park is November to May with chances of sighting going up as the summers grow stronger.
Nearest Airport : Jaipur – 130 kms
Nearest Train Station: Sawai Madhopur – having direct connectivity from Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai and most major cities.