Would you ride in an open Gypsy in temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius? With the sun threatening to burn everything in sight, and the desert sand piercing your skin like countless needles? In conditions half as harsh, my sanity would risk extinction. But not if I am on the trail of the tiger in the Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan.
One of the few forests in India where tigers still prowl, you can be almost assured of a sighting – but only if you venture out when summer is at its harshest. This is when water sources dry up, and animals come out in the open to water holes often filled by officials. And the dry vegetation makes camouflaging difficult. The roll of dice can still go against you, or you may be lucky like me –with seven sightings over a single weekend.
The opening act turned out to be the best – and a rare one at that. I spotted a male tiger, named T2 by the creativity deficient authorities, sitting by a water hole and a recently hunted langoor monkey lying in state three feet away. I was not more than ten feet away myself. T2 was waiting patiently, either for a guest or for the dinner bell to sound, when something in the water disturbed him. He slowly turned his head, looked for a few moments through the surface and then it was Pow-Wow in a flash. A poor turtle has floated in, and was probably the starter (or was it dessert) that T2 was waiting for. For the next many seconds, it was splashing all over as the turtle put up a brave fight. Before long, it was all tranquil again. The big cat had expectedly won, but it would be a while before he could carve the flesh out from under the hard shell. Witnessing a tiger in action live beats the most spectacular of hunts you would see on National Geographic.
It would be morally illegal to have a perfect trip, but I almost did. The following morning I encountered another male, T17 (these tigers will make someone pay for these disgraceful names), looking hungrily at a herd of deer around a small lake. He weighed his options, made some calculations, and was off like a shot – a yellowed silhouette of a torpedo racing through tall grasses at his target. But it turned out to be a dud. The chap could have done with some heat sensing technology, like the Scuds, to home into his prey. Before long, he wandered aimlessly and crossed in front of my Gypsy – a scrawny fellow looking malnourished. Needs to be a better hunter I guess. He also had what looked like a dog strap around his neck. T17 has a tendency to wander outside the reserve area – the installed tracker helps pull him by the ears right back where he belongs.
True to his reputation, he crossed the limits the same evening. I was driving around in my own car around the periphery of the forest when he ambled across on the road. Still looking for food. He finally settled for a stinking carcass in a baoli (stepwell) – certainly not a meal fit for a royal species. But times can be hard for anyone.
The most entertaining was a tiger cub – actually more like an overgrown baby. At three years, he looked much sturdier than the adult T17. And he has still to learn to hunt. I guess being fed by the mother does have its advantages. Still to be christened, let’s call him Baby T (where is my creativity now), he was lounging in the shade for hours at another water hole, probably waiting for his mother and sibling. A bunch of langoors must have known his teeth and claws carry no firepower yet – and took it upon themselves to tease him. Perched on a long branch above him, they danced and made noises at Baby T incessantly for hours. But our boy made sure he sent a message across – by looking back at them with snarling expressions as if to say, “It is just a matter of time before you guys will be on my plate. So stop monkeying around.” Despite waiting forever, the rest of the family failed to make an appearance for our entertainment.
And there was T40 (aargghh) sprawled behind a spiky bush – I was told he had an injured paw and could not move much. Doctors were on the way to get him back on his feet. Would have been nice had he made an clearer appearance for my camera. An unconfirmed anecdote was also doing the rounds while I was there: a villager was going through the forest recently in his donkey cart. T40 found an easy prey in the donkey and attacked him; instead of running for his life, the villager rushed to save the donkey. Both perished. Who says only donkeys can be dim?
But things were bright for me – I had managed to look tigers in their shining eyes. And lived (in the safety of my vehicle) to share the stories.
* Booking for safaris can be made online at http://www.rajasthanwildlife.in/ – always a good idea to do so in advance during peak seasons. There is an option of going in a canter bus (seating 20) or in a Gypsy (for 5); the latter is the better option.
* You can drive to Ranthambhore from Delhi – it is 400 km and takes 6-7 hours. Many trains also go to Sawai Madhopur, the town adjoining the park. For a driving guide, click here.
Note: This article was originally published in the Deccan Herald.
And do join us for a coffee at the Kunzum Travel Cafe in Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi, India.