“I was taking a V.I.P. to the lodge one night when I spotted him,” Santosh, our driver narrated, as we drove through the forest of Ranthambore. “It was T-24, the largest tiger in the park, and he was staring right at me, his huge body blocking the way. I froze. His paw came flying through the car window and nearly brushed my face. I was so scared I jumped into the passenger seat, right into the lap of the V.I.P.”
Amusing as Santosh’s story was, it only heightened our sense of urgency. We were three safaris down but my husband and I had still not spotted the famous Bengal tiger. The anticipation had been steadily building from the moment we entered the rolling grasslands of Ranthambore. A colony of langurs welcomed our canter near the entrance of zone 6. Soaking in the winter sun, they lounged like the humans of Goa, their long tails dangling from the branches of leafless dhok trees. We saw a grazing nilgai (Asia’s largest antelope), a herd of wild boars, and two chitals with their antlers locked in a power struggle.
Our cruising canter suddenly stopped. “A chital warning call,” our driver exclaimed, “there’s a tiger around.” I stood on my seat and scanned the hilly terrain. Another canter stopped behind us, and a new group of tourists in safari jackets stood up and adjusted their long lens cameras. I tried to hear the “call” but all my ears caught was the rustling of leaves. Back at our lodge, the manager Mr. Naqvi showed us a video shot the previous day, of a tigress and her three cubs ambling along the road in zone 5. That’s where we were heading the next day: there was hope after all.
Zone 5 is home to tigers named Romeo, Bhola, Bahadur, Laila, and her three cubs. Tigers are territorial and tend to stick to the area they mark by urinating or scratching on trees. I hoped this meant we could spot them with ease. The sky was ominously dark and I felt a tiger lurking. The sambar deer probably felt the same way and stared nervously at our noisy canter. Because of its poor vision, this beautiful antelope is easy prey for the striped predator.
We had a number of animal sightings that day. At Kachida Dam, a water body laced with pink seaweed, a peafowl stuck its electric blue neck out from behind a rock in the water. We saw the rufous treepie, a black-and-cinnamon bird that cleans the teeth of the tiger. We strolled on a concrete bridge across the dam watching ducks while the mist swirled around the hilly landscape. It was a lovely day, but still, no tiger.
We met Mr. Naqvi when we returned. “There was a sighting in zone 5,” he said, “did you see it?” Another staff member jumped in with an account of another sighting, a tigress and a sloth bear spotted together. I was beginning to doubt these reports. Ignoring him, we went to bed early that day.
The next morning was chilly and, as we set out hopefully yet again, we battled strong, cold winds that seemed to cut through our warm clothing. While we held on to our caps, the langurs clung to each other. A mother held her baby close to her chest while many couples snuggled and snoozed. The grand Ranthambore Fort loomed above us as we drove into zone 3. We didn’t spot too many wild things but there were tiger stories galore. This time the tales were about Machli who, at 17 years, is the oldest and most photographed tigress in the national park. The Gypsy’s driver Ram Singh told us about the time when Machli lost two of her canines fighting and finally killing a 14-foot crocodile.
A loud, horn-like cry echoed through the woods. “A chital’s mating call,” Ram Singh clarified, as we drew close to a herd of spotted deer on a plateau. Then we heard the loud bark of a langur. It had spotted a tiger. We watched in awe as a sambar bull appeared on the scene and bellowed nervously, as if to communicate something to his herd. All at once the animals stiffened. They stopped their lazy grazing, and turned their heads in unison towards the hills on the right. This was definitely a warning call. A tiger was on the prowl. Tension prevailed in and outside the Gypsy. We waited in excitement, while the herd waited in dread. Then there was calm.
We did not see the tiger. But that day, it did not matter.
Witnessing this synchronisation between species, I felt the jungle had opened itself up to us. I had been allowed into its inner circle, and for a few moments, I had heard and understood its secret language.
It got me thinking about how we communicate with people in our own environment. We crib about bad cellular networks and Internet connections, but nature manages to communicate beautifully without any of these amenities.
Our last two trips into the forest felt different. I discovered new birds and marvelled at the roots of banyan trees piercing through ancient ruins. My search for the elusive tiger had led me to discover a whole new world, for that I am thankful. But I knew I would be back in warmer weather, hoping to spot the striped star of Ranthambore. I took heart in the words of a fellow traveller: “You don’t find a tiger. The tiger finds you.” My time would come.
Ranthambore National Park (part of the larger Ranthambore Tiger Reserve) is spread over 392 sq km and lies in southeastern Rajasthan, between the Aravalli and Vindhya ranges. The Banas and Chambal rivers skirt the park, which is divided into ten zones. Zones 1-5 are part of the core tiger reserve, and zones 6-10 comprise the buffer zone. The park can be explored by jeep (6-seater) or canter safaris (20-seater). Each ride lasts 3.5 hours and departure times vary, with morning safaris usually setting off between 6-7 a.m., and afternoon slots between 2-3.30 p.m. Only a fixed number of vehicles are allowed in a zone at a time. Vehicles are allotted zones at random, so visitors may end up going to the same zone multiple times in a trip. To book safaris with a government operator, log on to rajasthanwildlife.in. Reservations can be made at ranthamborenationalpark.in (private operator) as well. Both charge ₹800/head for canter and ₹1,300/head for jeep safari. Most hotels and resorts around the park will make safari arrangements, though they generally charge a premium. Bookings can also be made upon arrival at the sanctuary, but vacant seats are rare, especially during high season months. Be prepared to bargain hard if you are making a booking with touts.
The national park is open from 1 October to 30 June. Winter, which sets in around Nov and lasts until Feb, has pleasant day weather though nights and early mornings can be chilly. The temperature can dip to as low as 2°C in Dec-Jan. The peak of summer (Apr-May) is unbearably hot, especially outside the national park, but this is the best time for tiger-spotting. Prepare for 40°C days and warm evenings.
The closest airport is in Jaipur (180 km/4 hr), which is well connected with major cities. Tourist taxis and air-conditioned buses ply between Jaipur and Ranthambore. Sawai Madhopur has a railway station that is 10 km/20 min from the national park.
Ranthambore is among India’s most popular wildlife draws, and has accommodation ranging from boutique and luxury tents to exclusive eco-resorts and hotels. Prices do not include safari rides.
Khem Villas is a luxurious, sustainably run hotel that preserves the legacy of conservationist Fateh Singh Rathore. The kitchen serves only organic, vegetarian fare from produce of their farm and greenhouse (94140 30262; www.khemvillas.com; doubles ₹11,500, includes all meals).
Tiger Moon is one of the oldest resorts in Ranthambore, located at the edge of the national park close to the main entrance. Stone cottages and tents in this rustic setting make for a basic but comfortable stay (07462-252042; doubles from ₹7,400 until April. From May-Sept doubles ₹4,500, includes all meals).
Ranthambore Bagh is a large, comfortable property that stands out because of owner and wildlife photographer Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh (82391 66777; www.ranthambhore.com; doubles from ₹4,772, until 30 June; includes all meals).
Appeared in the April 2015 issue as “Stripe Spotting”.
is the former Art Director at National Geographic Traveller India. Besides being an absolute foodie, she loves exploring secret nooks of places for local arts and crafts.
Aditya "Dicky" Singh
has lived in Ranthambhore since early 1998, working on various wildlife documentaries, photography and conservation projects. He previously worked in the Indian Civil Service. He is the recipient of the Carl Zeiss Award for Conservation (2012) and Sanctuary Wildlife Photographer of the Year (2011).
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