Like just about everyone else who visits, we came to Ranthambore with the aim of seeing tigers. And Ranthambore is all about the tigers. Every conversation you have here is guaranteed to start with ‘Did you see any tigers?’ The answer is quite likely to be yes, although there are, as ever with wildlife, no guarantees …
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,William Blake
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Ranthambore National Park
We visited the national park on the tail end of our driving tour of Rajasthan. Ranthambore can be regarded as something of a wildlife preservation success story; a former hunting ground for the maharajas of Jaipur, it is today a hunting ground of a rather different type for camera-wielding tourists. Its almost 400 square kilometres were declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1957 and it became a national park in 1981. Although you come here to see the wildlife, and the tigers in particular, the park itself is beautiful in places. It was especially so on our one early morning safari, when the light was at its best.
Ranthambore lies at the junction of the Aravalli and Vindhya ranges, and the landscape varies from grassy plains to rocky hills. It is named for the fort that lies at its heart. Historically this changed hands several times, passing from Mewar rulers to the Rajputs of Bundi; from them to the sultans of Gujarat and from them to the Mughals under Akbar; before passing to the maharajas of Jaipur in the 17th century. Hence the development of the area around it as their favoured hunting ground. Inside the fort are three Hindu temples and one Jain temple. It’s possible to visit the fort, although we didn’t do this. And Hindu pilgrims are allowed to walk up to the temples without paying the park entrance fee; we saw many on our way into the park.
Visiting the park
The basis for everyone’s activity when staying in Ranthambore are the safari drives. Regardless of where you stay you will have the same options and the same experiences; it is not your hotel which organises these but the park. The drives operate twice a day, early morning and late afternoon. They last about three hours, but that can include picking up other tourists from their hotels, unless you have paid extra for a private safari.
There are two types of vehicle used: open-topped jeeps seating six people, plus driver and guide; and so-called cantors, large vehicles accommodating 20 people. The jeeps offer the better experience as you are seated only three to a row rather than four and can manoeuvre more quickly to reach the best viewing positions for the wildlife. To get a seat in a jeep seems to be something of a lottery however, as although you can book in advance, numbers are limited and there are no guarantees. We got our tour operator to reserve ours about three months before our visit. But even then they could make no promises, and it was only on arrival in Ranthambore that we knew we were sure of the jeep places.
The other lottery is where in the park you will go. Some areas are closed for visits, and the remainder is divided into nine zones. Each driver is allocated a zone by the forestry authority that administers the park, and only learns what zone they will be visiting about 30 minutes beforehand. For the tourist this means that it is potluck whether you get a ‘good’ zone or otherwise. This hasn’t however prevented loads of online discussion about which is ‘best’. But in practice there is no saying what constitutes a good zone, as of course the tigers move freely between them. And a sighting in a particular zone on one day is no guarantee of a sighting on the following day.
You can book to do as many or as few drives as you want during your stay; however with little else to do here apart from relax by a hotel pool, you might as well do as many as you can fit in and afford. Received wisdom is that if you do three or more you have a close-to-guaranteed chance of seeing tigers; but of course there is no such guarantee. We met people who had done four drives and only seen tigers on the last of them, so three would not have been enough. Other people see them on their first drive and may ask themselves why they paid for more! It’s all a matter of luck, and the only thing that can be said for certain is that by increasing the number of drives you are increasing your chances.
Our first drive
We had our first drive on the afternoon of our arrival and were allocated zone four (zone three is generally held to be the best!) The other four people in our jeep had already done a drive that morning but not seen a tiger. And as someone (our tour company? our hotel?) had told our guide that it was my birthday he was determined to find me one.
For a while it seemed we would be unlucky, although we enjoyed getting our first views of the park. It is, as I said, very pretty. And there were plenty of other wildlife sightings.
Then our guide got a message that a tiger had been seen in one of the neighbouring zones and was walking towards ours. Cue great excitement! The jeep was turned around and we headed back to a likely spot, where several other vehicles had also gathered, lining the road and looking towards an area of long grass. And we waited … and waited …
Then our guide exclaimed; he had spotted movement at the edge of the grass. Most of us could see nothing at first but then we spotted him, a solitary male, some distance away, just emerging from the grass. We need binoculars to see him clearly;, and I was grateful for the good zoom on my camera that ensured I got a couple of reasonable photos. He lingered for a while, turned and followed the edge of the grass for a distance, then disappeared into it again. Our first drive and we had seen a tiger!
As we drove back to the park entrance we saw for ourselves that there is no ‘best’ zone for sightings. We passed the low chain barrier that separates zones three (generally talked of as the best) and four. Lined up on the far side were all the vehicles who had been allocated zone three that day, their passengers desperately hoping that the tiger we had seen was coming their way. But he wasn’t, and they would leave without a sighting on that occasion. We on the other hand were very happy; and I think our guide may have been the happiest of all at having found me a tiger on my birthday!
Safari drive two
The next morning we were up early for our second drive in the park. There was much to enjoy about this morning’s drive. Our companions in the jeep were friendly and interesting to chat to. Our guide was the best of the three we had during our stay. We were allocated zone two which is one of the prettiest areas; it looked lovely in the soft early morning light.
And we were told that there had been a good tiger sighting in that zone the previous afternoon and it was likely that he was still here. Wrong! Despite the best efforts of our guide and driver (even lingering slightly longer in the park than is strictly allowed), and despite seeing some tracks at one point, the tigers eluded us on this drive.
Funnily enough, that didn’t seem to matter over much. And I realised on reflection afterwards that in many ways this was my favourite of the three drives we took. The light was beautiful for photography; we saw lots of other wildlife and I got my best bird photos; and the lack of tiger sightings made it a more relaxed experience. Of course, had we not seen a tiger on our first drive we might have felt differently.
Safari drive three
We had already seen one tiger but were keen to see more, so we were pleased to have a third drive in our schedule to increase our chances. What was more, we were to visit the much-coveted zone three!
The drive took us past one of the several lakes in the park, Rajbagh Lake, where we saw cormorants and other birds, and a crocodile. We also got some nice shots of the ruined temples dotted around the lake and saw some Sambar deer among the trees.
But like all the guides, this one was keen to find tigers for us. He heard that there might be one in a certain spot so we headed in the direction of a path he thought the tiger might take and parked up to wait. While we did so he showed us some photos of previous sightings on his phone; he was clearly proud of the photos, and they were good but of course not the same as seeing for ourselves. After a while I found myself thinking it would be better to drive around seeing other wildlife even if it meant missing a possible tiger; but I didn’t say so. I had a feeling our companions (who were from another part of India and didn’t speak much English it seemed) hadn’t yet seen one, and I didn’t want to damage their chances.
Then a message came through that the tiger seen earlier had gone in the opposite direction and was now to be found in another part of our zone, with her eight month old cub! The driver started the engine and we were off, racing along the track to get there while they were still in view. And he made it; but our time spent waiting at the wrong spot had cost us a bit, as other vehicles were in better positions to see them. Our guide was confident though that mother and son would come our way, and he was right. They followed a path past the other vehicles and came right alongside our jeep.
This should have been a wonderful opportunity to get some great photos. But the experience was somewhat marred by the bedlam caused by the drivers and guides of all the other vehicles jostling for position to give their passengers the best view. While our driver jostled with the rest, the vehicle was rarely still enough for photos. And when it was our guide stood up and blocked our view while taking his own video ‘to show his tourists’, he said. In fairness, he did sit down when we asked. But by then the tigers were walking away and the best photo opps were past.
I did point out that we too were ‘his tourists’ and that we had very limited time here to see and appreciate the tigers, while he could come every day to take photos. I have also since complained about his behaviour to the tour company.
Still, we had seen the tigers at close quarters and that counted for a lot. And maybe one or two of the photos were OK! So we headed back to the hotel, pleased to have had this second sighting and to have got so close to these magnificent animals.
Sharing for this week’s Sunday Stills theme of fur and feathers. There should be enough of both here to meet the brief!
I visited Ranthambore in 2015