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Published: April 20th 2015
We were leaving Jaipur and travelling south east to Ranthambhore
. We woke with the call to prayer, organised our packs and jumped into a minibus at 8am for the three and a half hour journey. As we drove out of Jaipur, we again witnessed the indescribable poverty of tent village life on the city’s fringe. We travelled on busy main roads for a short time, but it wasn’t long before we were on the narrow, bumpy roads of rural India. Small villages appeared every now and again, but most of the time we drove through vast expanses of agricultural land covered with mustard and wheat crops.
We stopped at 10am for a very expensive chai in a tourist roadhouse (Tiger Treat Resorts) before continuing our journey towards Ranthambhore. We arrived at Raj Palace Resort in Sawai Madhopur at 11.30am and were greeted with a red tilak
(powder marking) on the forehead, a flower garland around the neck and a masala chai
(spiced sweet milky tea) in a clay cup. This was an amazing place.
We dropped our packs in our incredible room and headed straight to lunch at 12pm. It was a buffet of dahl tadka
lentils cooked with garlic, ginger and green chilli and flavoured with roasted cumin), mutter paneer
(green peas and Indian cottage cheese in thick curry gravy), chicken curry, fried potatoes, boiled vegetables, curd with chilli powder, lime pickle, steamed rice, masala naan
(naan stuffed with red onions and green chillies) and pappadams. We were sitting at a long dining table in an outside grass courtyard, and the midday sun was (finally) warming us up, so I decided to cool down with a cold beer. It was an amazing meal in an equally amazing setting. We finished with rava payasam
(semolina pudding with milk, spices, cashews and raisins), organised some warm clothing and headed off to the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve at 2pm.
We arrived at the reserve at 2.30pm, drove under the imposing Ranthambhore Castle and started our actual ‘safari’ at 3pm in an open top truck. The sun was warm and the reserve was tranquil. We saw sambar deer, spotted deer, crocodiles, peacocks, monkeys, numerous birds, a jungle cat and, most importantly, a young tiger. It was sleeping in the sun on a high piece of land, and it was completely uninterested in us. We watched it in awe for
about an hour, but it slept through our curiosity (occasionally lifting its head to check where we were). We finished the drive at 5.30pm and headed back to our hotel in the cold dusk air. We warmed up in our room and then huddled around an open fire on the hotel rooftop for pre-dinner drinks at 6.30pm.
Wedding preparations were starting in the property next door, so we had a good view. We retired to the ground floor dining room for dinner. I had an extra spicy aloo gobi
(potato and cauliflower curry) and naan
(leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven), and it was absolutely fantastic. The food in northern India is just so good! The music was pumping next door, so we checked email in the lobby and opted for an early night – we were in bed by 10.30pm. I shouldn’t be too hard on our decision to have an early night, because it was freezing cold and the warmest place was in bed. We also had an early (8am) start the next day, as we were travelling south west to Bundi. SHE SAID...
We woke early for our departure from Jaipur.
We weren't that hungry so we skipped the buffet breakfast and spent time packing and writing notes.
We loaded ourselves into a minibus at 8am and headed from Jaipur to Ranthambhore National Park
. For the first hour or so of the drive we only saw ugly unplanned urban sprawl, but thereafter the road was lined with farms of mustard/rapeseed, wheat, lentils and other small crops I couldn't identify. The villages ranged from a small collection of mud huts with a central water pump to larger settlements with lots of shops and activity. We shared the road with tractors, buses and herds of goats and sheep. It was a long but comfortable four hour journey. At the halfway mark we stopped at a very touristy rest-stop cafe for a toilet break and cup of overpriced chai
(tea). For the rest of the trip to Ranthambore, there were back-to-back orchards of guava trees and women on the roadside selling little mounds of large yellow-green guavas.
Our hotel – Raj Palace Resort – was (pleasantly) much prettier than I had expected. The circular driveway was set amongst trees, and white buildings with a 1960s design sentiment stood around a manicured garden
and pool. We were in the new wing, so our rooms were plush but cold (because it was completely decked out in marble). However, the rooms in the old building were apparently a bit on the crappy side.
We were met at the entrance gate, where a staff member placed a tilak
(red powder marking) on our foreheads and a garland of marigolds around our necks. We were also given a complimentary masala chai
(spiced sweet milky tea) in a clay cup while we checked in. The buffet lunch on the sun drenched lawn was another lovely welcome. Steamed rice, masala naan
(naan stuffed with red onions and green chillies), chicken curry, dahl tadka
(yellow lentils cooked with garlic, ginger and green chilli and flavoured with roasted cumin), mutter paneer
(green peas and Indian cottage cheese in thick curry gravy), fried potatoes, boiled vegetables, pappadams, lime pickle, and curd with cumin, chilli powder and salt sprinkled on top. We finished the meal with a delicious rava payasam
(semolina pudding with milk, spices, cashews and raisins). There seem to be many varieties of payasam
, and as much as I love the rice pudding version of this dish, I think the
semolina one is definitely my favourite. I’ve already looked up the recipe so I can make this at home!
Ranthambhore National Park was once a famous hunting ground for the Maharajas of Jaipur (Ranthambhore Fort was built way back in 944), and it was one of the first parks set up under the Project Tiger scheme in the 1970s (as was Mudumalai National Park that we visited in Tamil Nadu). It has an area of around 1300 square kilometres of wild jungle, and up to 60 wild Bengal tigers (depending on which count you believe). So in theory, there was only a very small possibility that we might catch a glimpse of one. Unfortunately, that possibility became increasingly slimmer and then vanished entirely when we were loaded into a large open-topped canter truck (that seats 20) and spent the next half hour stopping at other resorts to pick up happy chatty customers – including a small child. The chances of that many people staying quiet enough to entice a tiger out of hiding? Zero.
We were allocated Zone Three of the park (which has five zones), and we'd been in the park for less than an hour when
our naturalist guide got wind of a tiger sighting. By the time we got to the hot spot, there were already about five canters and about ten jeeps parked around a small hill where we could just make out an outline of an orangey striped leg. While we craned our necks trying to get a better view, the young tiger slept – seemingly unaware of the excitement he was generating. Every time he so much as twitched his tail, a wave of excitement resonated through the crowd. At one point he woke up, turned over and went back to sleep. The crowd groaned in frustration. Some of the jeeps got restless and moved on, so we jostled for a better position. Right at that point he sat up, stretched, looked directly at our truck, yawned disinterestedly and went back to sleep. Regardless of not getting as clear a photo of the tiger as I would have liked, I have no words to express my unreserved excitement at seeing a Bengal tiger in the wild! 😄
Ranthambhore is beautiful in a dusty kind of way. The drive into the heart of the park was very adventurous – it looked like
an Indiana Jones set, but for real. There were massive knotted old world trees, overhanging vines, open grasslands, sparse and dense forests, lakes, crags, crumbling stone paths and a fort overlooking it all. Also dotted along the valleys were ruins of carved sandstone chhatri
(pavilions), where Rajputs on hunting expeditions rested with their entourages and elephants. Ranthambhore Fort ran all along the ridgeline of the park and was an imposing feature of the landscape. Very few of the sandstone buildings inside the park had survived the effects of time and war, but the ruins still gave us an idea of the grandeur that once was.
We saw crocodiles lazing on an island in the middle of a lake, sleepy grey langur monkeys perched on branches, a snake-necked cormorant stretching itself into knots, parrots quietly chatting to themselves, more crocodiles, nervous herds of spotted deer, imposing sambar deer wading into a lake, shy Indian gazelles, a pair of mongooses (or is it mongeese?) scurrying low across the ground, and curious bright yellow rufous treepies who flew over to the truck to check us out. At the end of the safari we also scored a rare sighting of a jungle cat
(about the size of a small dog) that was walking down to a lake. Our driver hurriedly reversed the canter and not-so-subtly stalked the poor jungle cat, but thankfully it took cover in a wall of water reeds. A muster of peacocks sang out an alarm call (I’m not sure if it was because of us or the jungle cat), and all the deer around the lake ran for cover.
We parked near the small lake and watched the setting sun bathe the lake and surrounding trees in a beautiful golden light. The jungle cat never re-appeared, so we watched the birds in the trees for a while until the guide heard an alarm call from a spotted deer. We headed in that direction and stopped to wait in a light forest of small trees. Even though we didn’t see any more predators, we were lucky enough to have a herd of majestic sambar deer (with beautiful antlers) walk single file past our truck. They really are beautiful animals and I was amazed that they could walk so quietly, without as much as a crunch of a dried leaf under hoof. I was sad to see that their skin
wasn’t in the best condition, and I can only hope they were moulting in preparation for summer.
Unfortunately, the small child’s capacity to sit quietly had finally been reached (or more to the point, the capacity of the father, who really wasn’t helping the situation). After sitting listening to the sounds of the forest for a few minutes, while the staged whispering increased in volume behind us, the naturalist guide decided that it was the end of our safari. As we drove towards the exit of the park we passed many troupes of grey langurs, so I asked if we could stop to take some photos. The guide said he knew just the place for it. We stopped right on the boundary walls of the park where there were hundreds of grey langurs hanging out and basking in the last rays of sunlight – it was fascinating to watch their social interactions with each other.
The safari lasted just under three hours, by which time the sun had set and it was getting seriously cold. Our hotel had thoughtfully given us blankets to drape over our knees, and they were lifesavers. By the end of our long reverse
journey in the canter to drop everyone back to their hotels, we were quite cold, and it was fantastic that the hotel staff had lit a bin fire up on the hotel rooftop for us. We had drinks and watched a wedding in the next door wedding reception hall. Not only was the Raj Palace Resort comfortable and pretty, but the staff were fantastic and management clearly wanted their guests to feel well taken care of.
The gardens of the open wedding reception hall were decked out in shiny ribbons and balloons, the guests were swathed in multi-colours and blingged outfits beyond comprehension, and the members of the very loud brass wedding band were each playing a different tune. Everything in India is a bit more clamorous and colourful than elsewhere. I don’t think the minimalist movement would have much luck here. We intended to watch the whole wedding, but it seems that weddings are very late night affairs in India, and by 9pm the bride and groom still hadn’t arrived at the reception hall.
We huddled in the cold restaurant for dinner. I had egg fried noodles and a plate of vegetable pakoras
(deep fried vegetable fritters),
and Andrew ordered naans
(leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven) and an aloo gobi
(potato and cauliflower curry) 'Indian spicy'. It wasn’t too hot, but probably close to my upper threshold of comfort. Andrew loved it. I ordered a hot lemon and honey drink which helped with my cough. We checked emails in the lobby and then headed straight to bed for an early night. It had been a big day. And even though we asked for a heater and extra blankets, it was still a cold night in the room.
I fell asleep to the music from the wedding reception hall barging through the resort. There seemed to be something of a not-so-subtle tussle for air time between the DJ playing Rajasthani pop and the brass band; and the MC never waited for the music to end before the announcements were made. It really sounded like quite the raucous over there, but it certainly didn’t stop us from falling asleep. We must have been tired. 😊
Ranthambhore National Park is hailed as the best national park to visit in the north, and while it is quite beautiful and we DID see a tiger and many,
many other animals, I question the means by which they conduct their safari business. There were waaay too many vehicles crowding the tiger we spotted, and I’d hate to think what would have happened if the poor thing had tried to leave the sanctuary of the little hill he was sleeping on.
Next we head south west to Bundi, Rajasthan’s little blue town.
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