Off to Ranthambhore National Park for some tiger spotting? Get ready for the world’s strangest system to book a safari.
On the face of it, it is all very simple. You can book online, get an instant confirmation and be done. Or you can go to the booking office an hour before a safari starts, and buy a seat in the current booking. Only there is more to it. Read carefully so you can maximize your chances of getting on to a safari – and spot a tiger.
* The park is divided into 5 zones, numbered 1-5.
* There are two safaris a day and you can choose either.
* You can book to go on a safari in either a Gypsy SUV (seats 6) or a Canter (an open bus seating 20). The Gypsy is always a better option – fewer people, can navigate better and faster and you have greater control in telling the driver and guide what to do. There are a total of 20 each, and these are divided equally in all zones.
* Each vehicle comes with a driver and a guide.
* When you make a booking, the zone and the guide you get is allocated in a sequence. So it is your luck what you get.
* The peak season runs from autumn to spring – the weather is moderate at this time. It is best to book your safaris in advance to avoid disappointment. Funnily, it is also the time when tiger sightings are fewer. The hotter it gets, the more the sightings.
* Best time to go is actually April – June. The park closes after this for about 3 months because of rains. Tiger sightings are highest at this time and fewer tourists means lesser crowding – but day temperatures can cross 45 degrees Celsius. Surprisingly, I went in May but the thrills of the safaris did not allow the heat to bother me.
* Advantages of online booking: (1) You are assured a seat; this is normally not a problem in summers though but don’t take any chances (2) You don’t have to wait for a full house to get a booking. Yes, when you go to the booking window, and want a Gypsy, they will make a booking only when you are a group of 6 or there are 6 people willing to go together. Unless you are willing to pay for the vacant seats – not a bad option if you can afford it. Gives you more room.
* Disadvantages of online booking: (1) You have no control over the zone you will get; it is allotted by a computerized system. (2) It is non-refundable, and non-transferable (actually so is the current booking) (3) If you have bought, say 2 tickets, and two more friends want to come along by making a current booking, it is almost impossible to get on to the same safari.
* Current Booking: This starts at the booking office (located near the Sawai Madhopur Lodge, a Taj Hotels property) about an hour before each safari. When you go to make a booking, you have to either book a full capacity of the vehicle or there should be enough people around to pool together. Here you have limited control over the zone: at the time of booking, you can ask which zone is available. If you don’t want it, you can step back and wait for someone else to make a booking and then try for the next available zone. But this is possible only during summers – there is too much of a rush in the peak season for anyone to even bother talking to you.
* Bribes rarely work as everything is computerized to ensure there is no jostling and fighting to get the desired zones and guides.
* How do you know which zone to choose, if you have a choice: Ask around where sightings are more likely during the time you are there. Most guides will tell you they are everywhere and it is all luck. They are partly correct but there are instances when certain zones have definite sightings during a certain period. You will have to make a judgment call after talking to many people.
* Be nice to guides and drivers, and show them you are genuinely interested. And you will bring out the best in them as they show you the beautiful forest.
* 1st October to 31st October: 7.00 A.M. to 10.30 A.M.; 2.30 P.M. to 6.00 P.M.
* 1st November to 31st January: 7.00 A.M. to 10.30 A.M.; 2.00 P.M. to 5.30 P.M.
* 1st February to 31st March: 6.30 A.M. to 10.00 A.M.; 2.30 P.M. to 6.00 P.M.
* 1st April to 15th May: 6.00 A.M. to 9.30 A.M.; 3.00 P.M. to 6.30 P.M.
* 15th May to 30th June: 6.00 A.M. to 9.30 A.M; 3.30 P.M. to 7.00 P.M.
* Canter (Diesel): Rs. 334 (Indians); Rs. 313 (Indian student); Rs. 513 (non-Indians)
* Canter (Petrol): Rs. 364 (Indians); Rs. 344 (Indian student); Rs. 544 (non-Indians)
* Gypsy: Rs. 429 (Indians); Rs. 408 (Indian student); Rs. 608 (non-Indians)