Under the cover of darkness, the Vauxhall veered off paved roads and into dusty desert tracks. Feeling a bit ill at ease, I thought back to the more wonderful moments of my life: holidays, graduations, all the cats I’ve met – and now this trip. Well, if this poorly-lit rural track was to be my final resting place, at least my family would have a story to tell.
Mohammed, meanwhile, had a very different approach. He looked out of the window, wondering where civilisation had gone. Also feeling uneasy, he began to concoct escape routes in his head. He checked his phone’s battery life, thought about how far and fast he could run, and whether he’d have to stab our driver in the neck with his pen if they got into an altercation.
Thankfully, our driver Sattu was far more trustworthy than Mohammed or I had given him credit for. After being flung about the car while crossing a ridge, the glittering lights of Ranthambore National Park’s luxury resorts came into view. Normally, I’d drive straight past them and into some budget hostel, but Mohammed had a very rigid ‘treat yo self’ policy – especially as there isn’t much to do in Ranthambore/public transport easily available. Since India isn’t too expensive for Westerners, I obliged, and we were soon stepping inside the lavish foyer of the Tigress hotel.
Our jaws dropped as we gazed at the Mughal-inspired decor. Gleaming marble floors met white walls, painted with colourful florals in an attempt to mimic Agra’s finest halls. Symmetrical stairs led onto gorgeous balconies, and hinted at the luxury to be found in the rooms above. Craning our necks upward, the centrepiece of it all was a staggering chandelier, which hung so low to the ground it almost felt like we could touch it.
Ankit, the receptionist, sat us down with a biscuit and some fresh mango juice. Already, he was my new favourite person, offering food to this very hungry traveller. He was about our age, a little younger perhaps, but much taller than us. His professional composure never wavered, even though Mohammed and me (mostly me) repeatedly tested it by using too much slang, asking silly questions, or trying to befriend him.
Checkin complete, Ankit took us to our room. The door opened, not to a bed right beside it as we’d normally expect, but a spacious hallway complete with shoe brush and chest of drawers. Taking us into the massive bedroom with an equally massive rug, we ooohed and aaahed at the electric fireplace, which we hoped would keep us warm in the chilly Indian night (spoiler alert: it didn’t). There were even two garden spaces and a widescreen TV to keep us entertained. Mohammed informed Ankit that it was the nicest hotel room he’d ever stayed in, and our new friend seemed a little surprised. Yes, Westerners are wealthy. But our hotel prices are extortionate. And, in Barbs’ words, we two are “the plebs of the West”. Touché.
Oh, and it had a really great rug, perfect for yoga-ing. Did I mention the rug?
The real pièce de résistance was the bathroom, with its walk-in shower, jacuzzi-sized bath (a la Croft Manor) and his ‘n’ hers sinks. Perfect for launching an operation to clean all those dirty socks and chuddies (pants) we’d accumulated. The moment Ankit walked out the door, Barbs and I jumped for joy, while I played this on repeat.
After gorging ourselves at the buffet, we retired to our very comfortable suite, and prepped ourselves for safari the next morning. At 6:45 sharp, the Jeep came, and we clambered in. Our companions for the day were an Italian couple in India on business, and another couple who couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The hour wasn’t conducive to lively conversation, nor sightseeing, as it was too dark to see anything.
Safaris depart early in the morning because you’ve got a better chance of seeing the wildlife at play. At least that’s the theory. I’m sorry to say that if you’re in one of the higher zones of Ranthambore National Park, as we were, your chance of seeing a tiger is reduced – and it’s not high to start with. Our guides did, however, manage to spot some tiger footprints that were only a few hours old. So that was exciting.
The Jeep climbed up a grassy mountain as the sun rose.
It was already shaping up to be a beautiful day.
The morning chill, the mist, the fresh air, and most importantly, the silence. Everything felt so perfect – such a refreshing break from our otherwise hectic trip.
Over the next 4 hours, we’d drive around this small section of the National Park, the guides stopping periodically to point out an animal they’d spotted. We saw lots of antelopes, kingfishers, vultures, cows, and even eagles… but no tigers. If they’re anything like domestic cats, they’ll avoid all human contact, and only come out when they think there might be food around.
Unsurprisingly, spending any length of time in a bumpy Jeep is quite hard on your body. Midway through, we drove to a stunning clifftop to stretch our legs. While Mohammed scanned the valley for wildlife, I went into the bushes. An Australian woman did the same thing. As if our brains were silently asking what the other was doing there, she looked straight at me and said “I’m looking for a pee tree!”. Without admitting it to myself, so was I. I briefly joined her search, but ’twas fruitless, as the bare branches would have revealed too much bare arse.
I rejoined my friend, who by this point, was looking a bit pale.
Nearly as pale as me, in fact.
He wasn’t feeling brilliant that day, and the Jeep ride had taken its toll. Luckily for Mohammed’s constitution and my bladder, the morning safari was coming to an end, and we drove back through serene woodlands, ravines and savannahs towards home.
The guides pointed out more tiger footprints, muttering to one another while Mohammed translated. They were strategising how they were going to find this tiger, and discussing the previous day’s sightings. It seems like a fantastic job if you love animals – you get to spend your week looking for one of the world’s most elusive mammals, and the thrill you get from finding one definitely makes the early starts worth it.
The only big cat we’d see that morning were the paintings of tigers, skulking across the walls of the hotel restaurant. Not eating breakfast before we’d gone out was a mistake, so by the time we came back, I was about as ravenous as a tiger. Mohammed, on the other hand, had lost his appetite – the early start, lack of nutrition and bouncy Jeep had got the better of him. He opted to spend the afternoon resting, rather than face another 4 hours on safari. I, meanwhile, was determined to get value for money. Setting my friend up on the sofa with a peppermint tea, I headed out to explore the hotel while I waited for the day’s second wildlife excursion to park outside.
Never thought I’d have a poolside picture in a jumper, jeans, and my trademark sparkly DMs.
I rejoined the Italian couple and the handsy couple for Safari: Round 2. Our guides were different, this time – this guy seemed much more chatty than the first one, though it’s possible it was more to do with the more sociable hour than an inherent personality difference. Sawai Madhopur (the town near Ranthambore National Park) had all woken up – we were dodging nutters on motorbikes and hungry stray dogs, which were not a feature of the morning’s game drive, but can commonly be seen across India.
We pulled off the main road and headed for Zone 8 of the National Park. For about 10 kilometres, we drove along a rural road through small villages. Women were farming the fields; ploughing, watering, and pruning. Our guide smiled wryly, commenting “it’s the ladies that do the hard work here”. Not only do they get their hands dirty in the fields, but in politics too – we soon passed by a rally of ardent supporters for a female candidate on the village council.
Moments later, we stumbled upon a camel herder, and stopped to chat.
How do you get camels to behave? This guy told us how.
The guides asked him how he managed his camels, who are notoriously unruly. When he’s not walking alongside them to keep them in check, he pointed out the bells around their necks, which helps him locate them when they go astray. He also gestured towards a shy camel calf, which was rather cute.
We continued along the National Park’s boundary wall. A herd of cows wandered back in the direction of the village, but the bleeding body of one poor little calf lay by the side of the road. Saddened and turning my head away, I assumed it had fallen victim to passing vehicles, but the truth was much more brutal. Our Jeep stopped. Monkeys froze in the tree, fixated on the bushes. Antelopes emitted a strange yelling sound, which our guides whispered was “the warning call”. It could only mean one thing – a big cat was about.
The naturalists in the front seats deduced that it must have been a leopard, as they are more agile and able to get over the park wall. It also must have been in the immediate vicinity, otherwise the antelopes wouldn’t be making that noise. In fact, it was probably just behind a bush. We stood up, silently scanning the foliage, but saw nothing. I was quite literally looking for my leopard.
This song was my childhood.
We waited for a few minutes, in the hope the gruesome predator would show its face, come to reclaim its unfortunate kill. But it must have heard the Jeep coming, hidden, and refused to come out until we’d gone. Fair enough. Onwards to Zone 8.
Probably the prettiest entrance in the park.
This zone is much hillier and drier than Zone 7, where we were in the morning. It’s also much more open, which is a bad sign for big cat spotters, as they like the cover of trees and caves. Personally, I was quite happy enjoying the scenery, the clear air, and quiet. We’d also *almost* seen a leopard, which was good enough for me.
To be honest, this afternoon’s drive into Ranthambore was more exciting than the park itself. We explored the shade of the mountain for the while, before ascending it and perusing the long grass at the top. More tiger footprints, but still no tiger – we even cheekily ventured into the next zone over (which is a big no-no, so the guides told us to keep it hushed). Wildlife lovers needn’t be disappointed, though, as there were plenty of deer, birds, and monkeys to look at.
After a few hours driving about aimlessly, we pulled up to the edge of the mountain for a rest stop. The sun was beginning to slip down the sky, meaning the chill would soon set in. I looked down. The rock beneath our feet dropped steeply to a flat valley, which extended all the way to the horizon. In the distance, a train pulled itself along a very straight bit of track. The Italians, who had taken up position on my right, mused that Indian trains can be up to a kilometre long. It seemed to have some truth in it – it took at least 10 minutes to walk the length of a parked train at Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Station. If you’re curious to learn more about the Indian Rail experience, don’t worry, I’ve got an entire blog on it coming up soon.
The whistle of the locomotive pierced the silence, rippling all the way through the park. It must be odd for the animals, hearing this high-pitched, alien sound, without having the foggiest idea what it could be. Perhaps they just think humans make really weird noises.
With that thought, we climbed down the mountain and drove home.
I’d say my first safari experience was quite interesting, all things considered.
Immediately pilfering a cup of masala chai and some biscuits, I wandered into the hotel lobby to find Mohammed having a chat with Sattu. Having an afternoon to rest (without me chattering away in his ear) had evidently done him a power of good. Thank goodness – I was worried he wouldn’t have room for dinner, which as we know, is the most important meal in India. Well, one of three, anyway.
Join us tomorrow, when we’ll explore a famous World Heritage Site, be chased by a cow, and get ripped off in two different souvenir shops.