Planning a safari inevitably leads one to think of Africa, but… think twice! Asia has some wonderful opportunities. If big cats are your thing, think no more and head to India. Bengal tigers are definitely a big draw. In search of them, we headed towards Ranthambore National Park, covering 392 km2 in Rajasthan. The choice was easily supported by the park’s proximity to Jaipur, a city full of history and with good international connections. Low-cost airlines offer direct flights from Singapore at affordable prices (about 300 SGD return trip).
What to see in Ranthambore? Apart from being one of the best places in India to see Bengal tigers in their natural habitat, these forests of Central India host Indian leopards, nilgai, wild boars, sambar, striped hyena, sloth bear, southern plains gray langur, rhesus macaque, peacocks, mugger crocodile and chital, among (of course) others. I must say that we were able to see them all except the leopards and hyenas! Moreover, the superb landscapes and UNESCO World Heritage fort make Ranthambore a must go place.
Where to stay?
Before heading there, it is recommended to book a room in one of the Indian palace-type resorts at Sawai Madhopur, about 7 km from the National Park and its main gateway. Their picturesque palace styles, well decorated traditional rooms, cleanliness, great staff and wonderful services at a decent budget (about 75 SGD per room with full board) are a great choice! They can also arrange airport transfers to Jaipur (120 SGD per transfer).
We arrived at Jaipur airport at about midnight. After clearing immigration and getting some cash from the ATM outside the terminal, our driver was waiting for us to drive us to the resort. It takes about 2 to 3 hours to reach. Even arriving late at night, they allowed us to do a “very early” check-in which gave us some rest for the adventures to come.
We woke up straight for breakfast, a delicious buffet with lots of local variety. We certainly got some extra kilograms in our stay there having 3 buffet meals a day. We adventured into Sawai Madhopur while waiting for our evening safaris. The city does not have much to offer, but it is still an authentic local experience. Stepping on the road implies seeing an array of pigs, cows, monkeys, dogs and “tattoed” camels running by. Our rickshaw driver even talked of tigers spotted at the main road (not so easy to believe…). Some “wildlife” experience truly starts there by seeing dogs bothering frightened pigs, sometimes creating dangerous situations for drivers passing nearby. I will never forget the scene of a pig crashing head to head with a car on the road, the bumper being destroyed and the pig safe and sound… That morning we visited Rajiv Gandhi Regional Museum of History, mostly showcasing different posters with relatively little displays (and interest…). We actually felt as the attraction over there being openly scrutinized by local children on excursion trips. However, even if the museum is not that great, the masala tea stands right in front are a great choice to taste this favorite drink. Our rickshaw driver treated us. The ride from the resort to the museum, the waiting time, the masala tea, and the way back only cost us 200 Rp (about 4 SGD). We came back for our second buffet of the day before beginning with what we came here for, the safaris.
In search of the Bengal tiger
Safaris in Ranthambore are normally scheduled as morning (pick up from the hotel at about 6.30 am to return 10.30 am) and evening (pick up at 2.30 pm and drop off at 6 pm) ones. Resorts normally provide some coffee, tea, and snacks before the morning safari and breakfast is provided once you return. Then you will have a few hours before sitting again for lunch and head to the evening safari. Note that only about 20% of Ranthambore National Park is open to visitors and even this area is subdivided into 8 zones, each zone having a quota of maximum visitors allowed in it. Therefore, we highly encourage visitors to book in advance. If you have an Indian bank account, you can do it straight online at the Forest Department’s website of the Government of Rajasthan. Alternatively, you can ask your hotel to book it for you. Zones 1 to 6 are definitely the best, as zones 7 and 8 are too hilly and hard to spot tigers in. Each safari costs about 30 SGD for foreigners and 20 SGD for Indian citizens. On the practical side, if you are going for a safari in the “cold” months, we highly suggest to borrow a blanket from your resort (they do provide them for free), trust me that even 15 degrees in the early morning, with no sun and wind hitting you is not for sleeveless t-shirts. Best season is from November to March; however, you can spot wildlife all year round. You also have the choice of booking a seat in a jeep type of vehicle (gypsy) which fits 6 passengers or a cantor. In both cases, you can just get as many seats as you need without needing a full vehicle for yourself, unless you do want to do so. Do bear in mind that cantors are for big groups, which may turn things a little bit unmanageable; for instance, it may be difficult to keep the group in silence (something you would like to do if you want to increase your chances of spotting wildlife) or to find a comfortable position to take a good picture free of people roaming in your frame.
Day 1: Zone 4
We started our safaris with an evening one in Zone 4. All the areas are a 15 mins ride from Sawai Madhopur. It is tremendously easy to spot sambar, chital, and peacock; however, guides do know why people go there and they will try their best to spot tigers at every safari. Do not expect to look at the jungle and spot one; do follow the way guides use to find them. First, guides follow common sense, that says that if a tiger was spotted in an area in an earlier safari, it should be nearby. How near is hard to say as tigers are territorial and they like to move around their territories extending a few kilometers. Once in the area, the next thing to look for are paw-prints. Tigers do like to walk on the tracks at the park and guides can tell how “fresh” they are or, in other words, how long ago the tiger passed by there. Even if they are not fresh, seeing huge paw-prints is totally worth it. Third, and maybe the most helpful one, is to hear warning calls. By warning calls (not to be confused with mating calls, quite heard all over the park), animals in the forest feel the presence of a big cat and throw an alert signal that can be easily heard from far away. Do pay attention to sambar warning calls, our guides said that their smell sense is very powerful and they only recur to warning calls if a tiger is nearby. Following these guidelines, we headed to an area in Zone 4 where T4 (that’s how tigers are named there) together with a couple of cubs should be. After turning off the jeep and waiting for a while, we heard warning calls nearby and quickly headed there. A few sambar deer were tails and heads up staring at something at the other side of a small water pond. Slowly, other vehicles came to the area drawn by the same signals. We waited there for quite a while; however, as it got late (park closes at 6 pm and takes a while to return to the entry point), we had to leave with a missing chance of spotting the tigress…
Our shame was quickly forgotten as we returned to the resort. In the lovely courtyard, populated with classy white iron chairs and with the background music of a traditional Indian ensemble and a dancer, we had a few beers (you can also have free masala tea!) and quickly put our eyes on the third buffet of the day. By the way, if you want to give a chance to your Indian dancing skills, feel free to dance with the beautiful dancer. I guess we don’t need to say this, but you will certainly crave for a shower after being literally engulfed by dust during the safari.
Day 2: Zones 3 and 6
Next morning we were up at 5.30 am to visit Zone 3. If you have watched some National Geographic documentaries on Ranthambore, you will easily recognize the hunting posts of the Maharaja on a lake and tens of deer bathing in. Maybe you are lucky and can spot a tiger in one of the buildings. During that safari, we repeated most of the sightings of the previous day. Just got excited about a warning call and deer running out of a high grass area, but nothing beyond happened. During this safari, we got to know that 2 tiger sightings took place at the park’s main road accessing the reserve the previous evening, looks like we just missed them for a few minutes… We returned to the resort after the second safari with no tiger sightings and had some time to relax at the courtyard listening to the fountains and traditional music before going for lunch.
The evening safari that day was to Zone 6. It is a different way to reach there, crossing Sawai Madhopur. To me, that was part of the experience roaming the local life. Tiger-wise, this evening was our best safari. After a few minutes driving in, we saw a tiger comfortably lying down under the shade of a tree, at times yawning (showing teeth off), at times licking peacefully its paws, at times just looking around. We were about 4 jeeps and, after a few minutes, the tiger looked bothered enough to stand up and move beyond our eyesight. We went to three different areas in Zone 6, seeing paw-prints at every single one of them. We even got off the vehicle in an area with toilets and had the possibility to see the local fauna from the ground. From deers standing on their rear legs getting food from a tree, to a bear coming down to drink in a small pond just in front of us. No doubt our best safari experience so far.
As the night before, we had some drinks at the courtyard to the beat of the traditional music and dances. One more buffet and our fourth and last safari next day.
Day 3: Zone 5
The last safari took us to Zone 5. We saw paw-prints again and headed to the border with Zone 4 following the sounds of roaring tigers. According to our guide, they were mating. We drove to the top of a hill and tried to spot them with our cameras, but they were beyond our eyesight. Those lucky ones in Zone 4 did manage to see them. We moved around and got the warning call from a few deers. This time we did see a tiger far amongst the high grass, just resting paying little attention to the frightened deers. Many canters came by to spot the tiger as well which made the experience a little less pleasant than the one the day before. We tried to drive around to find a better spot, but after some time trying, we just got back to the resort.
In brief, we did 4 safaris and spotted tigers in 2 of them. Do bear in mind that your chances of tiger spotting increase as you go for more safaris. Leopards and hyenas look quite hard to find and guides confirmed so.
Before heading back to Jaipur, we spent some time visiting Ranthambore Fort on the top of a hill overlooking large areas of the National Park. Built in the mid-10th century and spanning an area of about 2000 by 500 meters, the fort was a favorite hunting ground for the Maharajas of Jaipur since the 17th century and many buildings around the fort testify that. The fort was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a must site to visit if you are in Ranthambore. Although not very well preserved, it is still a wonderful place to stroll by.
When: October to June, rest of the time the park will be closed.
Tips: Book in advance safaris and resorts. Try to book Zones 1 to 6.
Budget: About 850 SGD for a group of 4 people.
Where to stay: Palace-type resorts at Sawai Madhopur.
How to get there: Chartered van from resorts will get you in 2-3 hours from Jaipur airport to Sawai Madhopur, about 15 mins ride from Sawai Madhopur to Ranthambore National Park and Fort.