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Published: March 10th 2013
'Tigers in a Haystack' - India - 5
Mumbai-Udaipur-Ranakpur-Jodhpur-Nagaur-Roopangarh-Jaipur-Ranthambore-Keoladeo-Fatehpur Sikri-Chambal-Agra-Delhi-Shimla-Dharamsala-Pong-Amritsar Ranthambore-Keoladeo
28th February 2013 'Tigers in a Haystack'
We'll be hunting for tigers in the Ranthambore National Park in the early hours of tomorrow morning, so it's early to bed and a wake-up call at 5am. It's quieter at that time of the morning, though the air is still likely to be filled with honking horns from wary drivers within hearing range of any hotel or guest house. There are signs hand-painted on the back of all the lorries in India. Amongst other things, the most important appears to be, 'Blow Horn', or 'Please Honk OK'. It's positively encouraged. At least you might be aware there's something behind you, to your left or right, or about to cut you up. There are no obvious traffic regualtions. If there are, they have yet to let the driving population know about them.
The daily lottery selects a zone for your pre-booked visit to the Ranthambore National Park, whether you choose to travel by jeep (six-seater Gypsy) or 20 seater open truck. Our entry permits and jeep were booked from the
UK. and we were allocated Zone 4 for our first morning visit; not the best for tigers by all accounts, but you never know.
Ranthambore National Park covers an area of 275 sq km of boulder-strewn gorges, a large area of rocky mountains, rivers and reservoirs, the dramtic pink-stone walls of the gorge rising sheer above the dry grassland and sparse forest. With ample spotted deer (chittal) and the larger, sambar, for lunch each day, this is perfect tiger country.
Morning sunshine cast silver lines across the water and bright shafts of sunlight through the branches of ancient banyan trees. Langur monkeys and macaques scurried across the path and marsh crocodiles looked hungrily in our direction, licking their lips, as the wiley serpent-eagle watched on. We bumped and banged over pot-holed roads for three hours, watching for tiger tracks and patiently listening for alarm calls from the deer to pinpoint a tiger presence. Reports reached us of a brief sighting somewhere close, but our diligent guide failed to find it for us. Never mind, there will be another opportunity later in the day. We pre-booked three visits to the park over the two days so our chances of
tiger sightings are still good, given the best of zones.
There is much for the park authorities to do here at Ranthambore. The on-line booking system appears to work OK, though it's not possible to specify preferred zones. But the entrance and registration is nothing less than chaotic. Whilst there is guided public access into just 30% of the park, there appears to be an excessive amount of park traffic. This brings in the revenue, their number one priority perhaps, but there is no visitor centre, no information, no leaflet, no emphasis on tigers or indeed tiger conservation - and no gift shop - what a missed opportunity! (It's the same everywhere we've been in India so far).
Visit number two, the evening safari, brought little more success. They gave us Zone 5. Not good! And still no tigers. It must be something to do with us leaving our lucky mascot, Todd, at home. The cardboard cut-out doesn't seem to be working.
6am the next morning and we're full of hope; smiles all round. Spirits rose as our guide greeted us with, 'Zone 2,' one of the best on the reserve at last.
Butt numbing roads!
We're on a cert! The birding was great, but despite our best efforts, the tigers continued to elude us. A leopard was spotted by the vehicles in front as we left the reserve - but we missed that too! I guess we're meant to return to India another time.
It was quiet as we drove back to our hotel. Each of us looking sideways out of the jeep, avoiding eye contact, hardly a word spoken.
'We gave it our best shot,' Mike said.
'They gave us the wrong zones,' said Janice.
'It's all a lottery,' I responded.
Finding a tiger is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
It was about to get worse. Yadu, our driver, told us he saw a tiger at the temple outside the park. 'We don't want to know that, Yadu.'
Later that same day, we set off for a birding excursion at a shallow reservoir just out of town. Now we're all smiling again; another challenge more to our liking. A recommended guide, Vipul, took us to find the birds; hundreds of pelicans, flamingoes, spoonbills, great egret and many waders on the shallow
water and cavorting Indian rollers flashing their azure wings in flight over the fields where smiling, sari-clad women waved to us as we passed, cutting the grassy heads of mustard with small hand scythes, leaving the stalks to dry for later harvesting for fodder. Vipul Jain kindly took us into a rural village compound on our way back to town to meet excited kids and their welcoming families. The whole village eventually turned out to meet us, laughing and waving, crowding Janice to take their pictures. We'll be sending prints of the photos back to the village for them to see, care of Vipul. The village was surrounded by an adobe wall perhaps six feet high with open arched entrances, the adobe and brick homes set around tidy courtyards. .
With nine whole days of wildlife experiences built into our itinerary it was time to move on yet again, to Bharatpur, a bird sanctuary that has been on our wish list for many, many years. But before that, Mike wanted us to see one of the largest step wells in India, at Abhaneri. We had read about these amazing wells, built to retain rainwater during the monsoon.
This incredible well is nearly 30 metres deep with thousands of steps on three sides for access. I cotinue to be amazed at the gargantuan challenges undertaken by the people of those times, with but a few oxen, wooden-wheeled carts and manual labour. That water presently left at the bottom was green with algae and probably unfit for purpose!
Our fine hotel in Bharatpur, the appropriately named, Birder's Inn, was a brief cycle rickshaw ride, or five minute walk for the more energetic, from the park entrance to Keoladeo National Park, previously known to us as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. It's a long drag from the entrance to the park proper and the whole area is covered on foot, by cycle rickshaw, or cycle hire as we did on our second visit the following day. This is a birder's paradise of dry scrub, wetlands, tree-lined pools and lagoons and winding paths, a new flush of excitement around every corner, another new bird we have not seen before - and far off, the sarus cranes, the ones we came to see; a pair, browsing on the marsh! Our schedule is hectic to say the least and it's not possible for us
to list every bird we saw here, but there are a few pictures for those of you who share our passion - though it's with regret we have to apologise for the quality. We don't have the lenses for bird photography! Rest assured we're happier now..
We were happy bunnies at the Birder's Inn too. It's a superb hotel, administered in excellent management style by Tirath, who spoiled us with the honeymoon suite! (It's our 25th Anniversary in August; perhaps it shows.) We introduced ourselves to a group of bikers; mostly Brits, Dutch, French and Germans, staying at the hotel to pick up their rented Royal Enfield motorbikes. They'll be touring for a while and their leader was giving them instructions to ensure their safety (relatively speaking) whilst in India. Those non-Brits were learning how to negotiate roundabouts in particular, though Indian drivers could go either way, so who cares? I can see our Harley friends Roy and Sally loving this opportunity. (I could almost be tempted, but not on these roads!)
Tomorrow will see us moving west again, to ancient deserted cities and more wildlife reserves, before heading to Agra - and the long
awaited Taj Mahal. Come and join us!
For my little brother, Mike's, take on our five-weeks in India, go to: Keep Smiling
David and Janice
The grey-haired nomads
And a cardboard cut-out of Todd came too. (either he's too big or the case is too small!)
Tiger Home, Ranthambore: Adequate but not highly recommended. No outside space and no lounge.
Birder's Inn, Bharatpur: Superb and convenient for reserve. Courteous, friendly staff.
Scroll down for lots more pictures!
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