(Second and final part of my adventures in Ranthambhore. Here I try and detail the account of the trips I made in the park and some other anecdotes from the city. It was an arduous task to compile the events in just one post, but I have given it my best shot. Hope you enjoy the journey.)
The early morning chill seemed to hit me like cold knives as we ventured towards our destination sitting in the auto. The sun was yet to come out as it was still around 4.15 am and we drove towards the Ranthambhore National Park gates covered in heavy jackets and caps. The streets of Sawai Madhopur were expectedly deathly silent and not a soul could be seen at that hour. The driver drove at full speed causing the chilly wind to invade the auto and make our teeth chatter like crazy. That was the thing about Rajasthan; it could be extremely hot in the summers and deadly cold in the winters. My friend Haokip meanwhile was busy trying to take a short nap in the auto; quite oblivious to the tension that I was feeling then.
|The canter we were to board
We reached the park gates at around 4.45 am and thankfully got the tickets for the canter (an open bus) ride. It was a 20-seater vehicle; not ideal given that we would have another 18 people chattering like bees around us, but it had to do. The jeep ride was way too expensive and I was just happy at the chance to be getting inside the park.
The first trip was to begin at 6 am and end after three hours at 9. After a break, we were then to return for the second trip at 2 in the afternoon. For now though, I was only focused on this trip. Every arrangement had now been done. Now all we could do was wait. I checked my watch; it was still 5 am. There was an entire hour to go before we could board our vehicle. I looked around for Haokip; he was busy sipping tea from a local tea –shop, looking around aimlessly at the skies. I smiled to myself knowing well that this was going to be one long hour indeed.
captivating beauty. It was a glorious moment; standing outside the park I had seen only on television and having dreamt about visiting it many a times all these years. It all seemed so surreal. I hence wanted to drink in every moment of this. Everything seemed to be moving in slow-motion as I looked around; people were scuttling to take their seats in the respective vehicles, drivers and other officials were barking instructions to people around them and hawkers were still trying to sell hats and jackets to the visitors. I was jolted out of my reverie as Haokip pulled me by my sleeve and yelled, “Get in the canter ass****, we are getting late.”
The icy cold wind of the forest smothered my face and I breathed in the fresh morning air of the verdant greenery around me as the canter sped ahead on the rocky road of the jungle. There are few better feelings in life than the one I was feeling right then. It seemed I was in some other world enveloped by magnificent trees and mountains. The air was so invigorating and pure that I felt I had rinsed myself of all the sins in my life right then just by inhaling it. I closed my eyes for a minute and let the feeling sanitize me, wanting to make the most of the moment whilst I could. I knew I would get to relive this particular moment again the very next day when we would be back for another round at the park, but I somehow related this moment to the feeling of first love- you might experience love many times in your life and enjoy it too; but the first one will always be the most special one because you will never get another first love in your life!
We were an hour into our journey now and I had been closely observing every minute detail of the surroundings around me. Haokip like me was relishing the forest adventure. His handycam tightly gripped in his hand, he kept on capturing the picturesque locales that went by us. However the people in the canter were getting impatient as we hadn’t seen a tiger yet. The conversations centered only on getting a peek of the tiger and they ignored the fact that there was much more to savour from the forest than just the elusive big cat.
As another half an hour went by and all we saw were a couple of alligators resting by a small pond and few gorgeous looking birds atop the trees; the people started getting restless. “When will we see the tiger?” asked a curious kid to his mother. A group of young boys started cracking loud jokes, completely ignoring the laws of the jungle to remain silent. It is imperative that whilst we are in the jungle, we should abide by its rules and not disturb the natural surroundings. We are in their territory and not the other way round. Very few people however abide by this. Unfortunately, neither the guide nor the driver asked them to maintain silence either.
|One of the antelopes we had spotted
Meanwhile as the canter zoomed ahead, we noticed a couple of antelopes squatting at a small clearing. The vehicle stopped and we quietly gawked at the beautiful creatures merrily munching the fresh grass. There is something quite thrilling to watch animals in their natural habitat; it’s unlike any experience a zoo can ever provide.
Soon thereafter, we were coming to a close on the trip and there was disappointment everywhere as a tiger had still not been sighted. All the talk was still centered on the tiger. A couple of other vehicles passed by and informed us that they had luckily sighted a tiger on a certain route just minutes ago. There was a collective loud groan from all of the people in our canter, including me. It seemed we were very near to the cat and had yet missed it. But there was not much to do about it now as I saw the canter taking us back to the entry gates. The first trip was over. Though people kept chattering on how unsuccessful the trip had been for them, I was quietly satisfied.
I had enjoyed it for the special moments it gave me.
Food and Relaxing
“I am not going in there man,” Haokip said in anguish as he looked in horror at the vegetarian restaurant I was taking him to. I had to drag and convince him at the same time that it was an economical deal. We were at a restaurant which was at walking distance from the park. Going to look for a non-vegetarian restaurant to the main city would involve a lot of travelling and would hence mean spending extra money and with it extra time as well. We had to save both and hence I convinced my friend to eat here.
It was almost like watching someone forcibly eat jail-food. Haokip looked in disgust at the plate of yellow daal and rice in front of him and chewed each morsel as if someone had died in his family. I did not have the time to ponder over his grumblings as I had to refill my own tummy and thus I greedily dug in at my spread of the same item and relished eating it as Haokip kept eyeing me angrily.
|Haokip was evidently quite happy at the shop
I managed to cheer Haokip’s sour mood again by taking him shopping. It was the very same shop from where I had brought my tiger printed T-shirts a day earlier. Like me Haokip too was impressed by the man’s collection and soon he forgot his ordeal with the vegetarian food and got interested with the T-shirts. He brought himself a couple of them and looked quite happy with himself. I checked my watch; it was still around 12.30 pm and the trip to the park was to commence at 2. Going home and coming back again did not seem like a very smart thing to do in the heat that was now constantly rising. We were quite tired from getting up early and taking the rocky trip at the park. I thus requested the shopkeeper to let us stay outside the shop which had a nice shed. He happily agreed and we finally got the chance to relax our tired bodies there. The atmosphere was pin-drop silent and it helped to relax my tired nerves. Haokip immediately got busy in his handycam as he surveyed the videos he had shot. He kept punctuating the silence by laughing every now and then for some unknown reasons as he looked at the videos. I got bored and felt heavy from the food I had just eaten. Putting my head down, I took a short nap.
|The baarasingha I took a click of
The second trip to the forest was quite mundane and sedate as compared to the first one. It was 4 in the afternoon now and as the guide informed me, perhaps the animals too preferred to rest in the shed of the tress at this hour. We did not spot anything exciting as the canter moved along except for the occasional chital, baarasingha and neelgai and a menacing looking vulture atop a mountain rock. Then we also came across a group of langurs at a checking post and had fun feeding the chattering lot.
|The real tiger tracks
The thrill came when our driver directed our attention to a tiger pug-mark. We stopped there looking at the foot- imprint of the tiger on the dirt. It was breath-taking to feel that the tiger had been to exactly this spot just an hour ago. But it had left now and we had to move ahead.
Another hour went by and everyone in the canter seemed to be getting quite somber and quiet. Haokip seemed sleepy and had shut down his camera as there was nothing new to shoot except for the trees swishing by. I looked about at the trees and the grass, wondering what animal might be hiding there as we entered another bend of the road at the forest. I kept looking at the thick greenery when I thought I saw something move in the bushes. I kept piercing very hard at the spot for any sign of an animal. And then… A streak of yellow flashed by! I alerted the driver to stop the vehicle, telling him of what I had just seen. Everyone was alert and standing up now. My heart was thumping. I thought at the exciting possibility that might be in those bushes- could it be?
All of us were craning our neck at the same direction where I had pointed my finger at. Haokip was ready with his handycam. We waited with bated breath. And then all of a sudden an animal jumped from the bushes behind our vehicle, crossed the dirt path and got lost into the opposite thicket. It was a leopard! It happened so fast, in a matter of seconds, yet I spotted the animal very clearly. It was a young male leopard with beautiful black spots decorating its body. The cameras were out but we hardly got the chance to film the moment except for in our minds. A few seconds later however, we spotted the leopard again; at a small clearing in the bushes. It was snarling at something above a tree, perhaps a small animal or bird. We could look at it only partially, as it was mostly covered by trees and branches but it was enough for the people to go mad with their shutters. I savoured the moment and framed it in my mind’s eye and a couple of minutes later the leopard vanished into the dense bushes again. We waited for another ten minutes but this time it did not reappear. Nevertheless, it had done its job. Our hearts had been satisfied after a dull trip.
The sun was now setting behind the mountains and the canter sped towards the entry gates.
Exploring, food and a tired night
It was getting darker by the minute and me and Haokip were walking back towards the main city. Our legs were tired and we didn’t feel like walking but there wasn’t any public transport available in the park’s surrounding areas. I suddenly spotted an army jeep passing by; there were a lot of those given the fact that there was a local army headquarter nearby. Purely in jest, I signaled my arm asking for a lift. To my surprise the vehicle stopped and a guy dressed in the traditional army outfit peeked out from the driver’s window. He smiled at me and said, “Hop in”. It was the first time that I had stepped on to an army jeep and it felt quite cool to be sitting there chatting away with the officer and looking around the city as we moved ahead. He was a nice and friendly chap and I never felt like I was talking to an army official.
The city looked beautiful, decked with twinkling lights everywhere. The more I observed it, the more I fell in love with this small and simple town. The local people looked happy everywhere and the city exuded a happy-go-lucky atmosphere. Everything about the city was small- the shops, the houses, the hotels; but the heart was evidently quite big.
We strolled about the markets of Sawai Madhopur in search of a good restaurant. Haokip’s eyes lit up when he found a non-vegetarian hotel, but it was overcrowded with foreign tourists and hence did not have space for us. It was the same case with another four to five non-vegetarian restaurants that we looked at. Haokip’s mood was getting twitchy again; he hadn’t touched meat in two days and that was a big thing for him. However fate wasn’t on his side as even after about another half hour our search for a non-vegetarian eatery turned out to be futile.
As we moved about my eyes fell on the board of a restaurant named ‘Saraswati Bhojanalay’- an all-you-can-eat vegetarian restaurant. The prices were cheap and I directed Haokip’s attention towards it. He was blank for a moment and then shrugging his shoulders he went in. Smiling to myself, I followed him inside.
Haokip’s snores pierced the silence around me as I lay awake staring at the ceiling, lost in my own thoughts. I recollected my adventures from the day and concluded that it had been a satisfying outing up until now. However, the tiger still remained elusive and I wondered if I would be able to have a glimpse of the beast on the next morning’s trip. It would be our last chance to catch it as we had decided that we could not afford any more trips in the park; it was going out of budget. Tomorrow was our last day and we were to leave the morning next. My nerves had soothed down compared to my first night here but just the thought of getting to see the tiger got me excited again. I closed my eyes and pondered on what the tiger must be doing precisely at this hour. I imagined the great striped animal to be relaxing merrily in the bushes of the jungle as the crescent moon-light shone over its magnificent body. “Where are you Mr. Tiger?” I whispered to myself before dozing off.
I inhaled the fresh morning air of the forest as the canter zoomed ahead. The similar feeling of invigoration ran through my body and I closed my eyes with the intention of seeping in every second of the moment. I knew this was my last trip and I wanted to make every second count.
The trip however continued without any thrills and we did not notice any animals this time except for the occasional chirping birds. An hour had passed and the jungle was strangely silent today. I was getting severely disappointed and thought- Is this how my last trip is going to end?
And then I heard it! It brought me out of my gloomy thoughts. The alarm call of a deer! I was sure I had heard it and then my eyes met with that of the guide’s. Apparently he too had heard the call and asked the driver to stop instantly. We sat silently for a few minutes and then we heard it again. It was loud and clear this time; like a small bark. It was the obvious alarm call of a deer. The ones they make to alert their pride when they see danger approaching; especially when it is a tiger!
|That moment of wait
My breathing became heavy. It was a scene straight out of the Discovery Channel documentaries I had watched. Another alarm call; this time more distinct. I pierced very hard in the dense thicket from where the sound was coming from. And then came another sound- the alarm call of the langur. “It is here,” the guide whispered. My heart started pounding like crazy. Everything was dead silent in the forest now except for the alarm calls made by the deer and langur in short pauses. It seemed like the entire forest was holding its breath along with us. Nothing moved, not even the leaves nor the air around us which I refused to breathe. I was completely spell-bound.
I suddenly saw some movement in the bushes a little away from me. And then came the moment of my lifetime. The tiger casually strode into the clearing in front of us, thumping its huge paws on the soft earth. Its magnificent body pushed the bushes around it and after coming to a rocky platform, it stood still and observed its surroundings. The robust body of the majestic beast gleamed in the sunlight and then it moved its head towards us. All of us were enchanted by its presence. For a second I felt it looked straight at me. The hair on my body stood at its end and my legs felt weak. I had lost thought of everything around me and suddenly realized that everyone was going crazy capturing the tiger in their cameras. I however was capturing it in my mind’s eye; where it would remain for the rest of my life. The tiger then gently tilted its head to the left and lunged off into the deep bushes ahead.
All of this had happened in a matter of perhaps ten seconds but it seemed like an eternity had passed by. The people in the canter now finally let go of their breaths and immediately started discussing the moment amongst them. I looked at Haokip who was smiling at me. “I couldn’t completely catch it on the film man. It was too difficult,” he said to me guiltily. He was the one who really knew what seeing the tiger meant to me and was perhaps left feeling guilty that he couldn’t capture the moment we had come here for. I was too overwhelmed at that moment, and seeing him standing there I just went and hugged him. I still do not know why I did it, but at that moment of catharsis, I needed to do something and embracing my friend felt the right thing to do. We were on this together and it was like our own small moment of victory; nothing else mattered to me now!
The trip had been successful after all.
Food and exploring..again
|I managed to entertain myself after the lunch
In all the excitement we didn’t realize how hungry we were. Thus we ventured towards the market again in search of some good eatery. Yet again, I took Haokip to the same vegetarian restaurant I had taken him on the first day- 'Hotel Shyam'. I convinced him saying we have already spent a lot of money and thus shouldn’t waste it anymore. Haokip it seemed had lost the fight in him and merely said, “I hope I don’t die before we leave this place”.
|At a lake in the Ranthambhore Fort
It was afternoon time and we were now strolling around the steps of the Ranthambhore Fort which was a historical fort built by some Rajput king. We got to know about it from some local cops at the restaurant. It was a nice and picturesque place to while away our time as we did not have much to do for the rest of the day. We spent almost the entire afternoon striding around and observing the historical place. As the sun prepared to set behind the horizon, we found the perfect setting near a serene and peaceful lake to view the stunning spectacle. It also gave us a chance to rest peacefully and reflect on our thoughts for the day.
Darkness had befallen again in Sawai Madhopur and both of us were walking back to the main city. I observed the small houses and felt sad that I won’t be seeing them again. Haokip on the other hand was drinking a can of beer and smoking a cigarette at the same time and looked in a jolly mood. All of a sudden he took me by neck and pointed my head at something. It was a five star hotel named- Tiger Den. I looked at him inquisitively, but before I could say anything he dragged me inside.
It was a really swanky restaurant that served non-vegetarian food as well. The crowd around us was quite opulent and as we sat at our table I felt queasy. I picked up the menu card and looking at the prices I gulped and wiped a bead of sweat from my face. I looked at Haokip and said, “Err. Buddy, listen to me...”
But before I could finish he silenced me with a wave of his hand. Throughout the trip I had given the instructions and he had followed me quietly but this was ‘his’ moment. It was reminiscent of the movies where the side hero tags along with the protagonist throughout the story and gets to mouth the best dialogue in the end. True to that he first removed his bandana and put his camera aside, and then moving his hand through his silky hair he coolly said, “Order anything you want man. The treat is on me”
The last goodbye
The puri -sabzi I had eaten at the station in the morning still had its taste in my mouth. It was 9 am and we were sitting in our compartment of the Jaipur bound train leaving from the Sawai Madhopur station. From there we would catch our train to back home.
Haokip already had his eyes closed and was swaying his head to the tunes of the music which came from the earphone plugged on to his ears. I was feeling heavy. I had thanked my ‘uncle’ at whose place we had stayed and even touched his feet as we left his home. He had treated us like family and I would never forget that.
Coming to the station was not a very good feeling. Though it had just been three days, I felt so attached to the place that it felt like home. I wanted to stay on and enjoy some more, but unfortunately that was not possible. The time had come to bid farewell to the small town which had given me a lifetime of memories.
The train blew its horn and jerked a little before slowly chugging ahead. I looked out the window at the thick grass and the mountains beyond. The tiger we had seen would perhaps be having its morning snack right now, I thought. Before I had come here all I wanted was to get to see the tiger, but now I also realized that the enchanting Ranthambhore was much more than just the striped beauty. The town it lay in had its own charm and many tales to recount in its small lanes. This little town from Rajasthan and its people had won my heart.
It started drizzling outside and the train now slowly gathered momentum. I took my hand outside the window and waved goodbye to the land of the tiger one last time.
Before I brought my hand inside, I quietly whispered to myself, “Aaujo”.**
* (Special thanks to my friend Rahul Jaiswal whose digital camera I had used to take the pictures of the trip. Without that, the trip would not have come alive in this post.)
** Aaujo: Local Rajasthani word, literally meaning 'good-bye'.
(To read the first part of this story click here.)