Ranthambhore National Park, Rrajasthan
Captivated by the world of lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), away in style despatched travel writer Gunjan Prasad, resplendent in her oh-so-chic safari suit, to report back from India’s Ranthambhore National Park, Rajasthan.
Chasing the wild – Having been in the business of travel writing for some time now, I understand that the best way to enjoy a trip is to set yourself free of any expectations you may have and simply cherish and relish whichever blessings the journey bestows upon you. It particularly helps to keep this dictate in mind when planning a holiday to a national park, with an agenda to see a tiger! All trips have a mind of their own and those involving “wild cats” are no exception; something my family and I figured out on our recent trip to Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore National Park. Bookings were made at Aman-i-Khás; an exclusive wilderness camp set in the rugged hills of Rajasthan on the outskirts of Ranthambhore National Park. The luxury tents are set in a quiet rural area that borders one of the finest tiger reserves in the world. It is set up for only seven months of the year and is packed away in the hot summer as well as the rainy season when the National Park also closes for the tourists.
Gathering around a fire at dusk was a joy
Though driving is an option, it is not usually recommended so we took the concierge’s advice and opted for a four hour train journey to Sawai Madhopur, the township closest to the park. Journey by train in India is an event in itself. Every station comes with a local sight and smell, delicacy and dialect that it’s best to savour from the relaxed environs of a train compartment – it becomes even better when travelling first-class with an entire compartment to oneself. The holiday began for my kids as soon as we boarded August Kranti Express train; they made a fantasy world for themselves with hidden nooks that revealed reading lights, tucked away foot-rests and crisp white linen.
“Ranthambhore forest was for centuries controlled by its own chiefs. Until the British arrived, the people lived freely in the forests; revering the sun, the moon and the tiger.”
Travel time to Sawai Madhopur is three and a half hours and between nibbling on refreshments provided in the train and admiring the passing countryside, time simply flew. We were whisked away in the waiting Qualis (local SUVs) within minutes of arrival. As it was so very dark we couldn’t make out much of the town around us but our initiation into the world of tigers had certainly begun! Informed as well as any guide, our driver took us through a brief history of the town and the local sight-seeing options, besides giving us a complete run through of the flora and fauna of the forest, the count of the tigers, the last sighting and other dos and don’ts of the National Park. Ranthambhore forest was for centuries controlled by its own chiefs. Until the British arrived, the people lived freely in the forests; revering the sun, the moon and the tiger. They believed in a world of ghosts and spirits and wore a variety of charms and amulets to ward off an evil eye. Even today some vestiges of the past culture can be seen in villages around Ranthambhore: farmers can be seen offering prayers to the tiger before taking the cattle to graze and of course there’s the odd medicine man, working his magic to keep evil away.
Ranthambhore National Park, also once the hunting ground of the King of Jaipur and his guests, was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1955. Following the launch of Project Tiger and concerted conservation efforts to save the big cats, the tiger population is thankfully now more visible and stable. In an admirable bid to deflect attention away from themselves and give due respect to the National Park, most hotels, and there are plenty to suit all pockets, have refrained from unnecessary ostentation; there are no grand entrances or pavilions or gardens in this region, unlike the flashier accommodations to be found in other touristy parts of Rajasthan. Aman-i-Khás, the property at which we were to lay our heads, is designed to blend unobtrusively with the native vegetation of tall grasses, scrubs and trees. The entrance is nondescript via a pathway that leads through high walls, opening onto the views of the rocky Aravali hills that undulate through Ranthambore National Park.
The tents at Aman-i-Khás were nothing like the ones we were used to huddling in! Built on a concrete plinth over 108 sq m of space, the tents come with a sleeping room, bathing tub and a dressing room separated by cotton screens. Furniture is minimal and unobtrusive, mimicking the travelling camps of an earlier time. Each tent is airconditioned and there is also a ceiling fan and a cooler chest for drinks.
Private dining in the tent felt very indulgent
The experience at Aman-i-Khás is focused on viewing wildlife, in particular, the tiger. Jonathan Blitz, the general manager of Amani-Khás is a South African and thus, a born-into-the-wild, self-styled naturalist. On his advice, we decided to hit the forest in the evening and kept the morning free to sleep in late and visit the Ranthambhore Fort. Nearly one thousand years old and several kilometres in circumference, the Ranthambhore Fort offers sweeping views of the National Park,which provide one with a feel for its vast scale. It is a 20-minute walk up to it and the area around the Ganesha temple situated on top of the Fort is dotted with old water tanks, chattris (covered pavillions), palaces and mosques. The views were astounding and the breakfast spread organized by Aman difficult to resist. It was between mouthfuls of hot steaming khichdi (a local ice and lentils preparation), that we heard the first thunder. Passing it off as a seasonal anomaly, we continued looking out for leopards and tigers from the old walls of the fort, by now contentedly sipping on our second cup of masala tea. An anomaly it was not and within minutes it started to drizzle. By the time we scrambled back in to our vehicle we were soaking wet. At the back of everyone’s mind was also a nagging worry about the safari planned for the evening. We stopped at Dastkar, a non-profit co-operative centre with an array of products for sale, made out of block printed cotton: saris, fabric, tea-cosies, shoe covers et al. The rain didn’t stop…it just kept coming as if the skies had burst. There was no question of going into the park that afternoon in an open-topped four wheel drive. Though a fabulous foot treatment at Aman’s Spa did much for the feet, it could not stop the mind from thinking about the next morning; the only other time we could go for the safari.
“Journey by train
in India is an event
in itself. Every
station comes with
a local sight and
smell, delicacy and
From the way the downpour pounded on our tent through the night, a 6.30 a.m start for the park seemed impossible. But we were not going away without at least once getting a peek inside this world-renowned reserve. Armed with hot-water bottles, blankets, umbrellas and flasks of hot tea and egged on by Aman-i-Khás staff members, we drove into the park along with a guide and a naturalist. Gleaming from the incessant rain, the usually dry and dusty deciduo
us forest looked fresh and lush. The fauna was already mid-way into its morning routine and we spotted many animals; caracal, hyenas and sloth bears. Chital and sambar deer, antelopes and gazelles could be seen in hordes roaming the savannah whilst the marsh around the lakes and waterholes held the Indian marsh crocodile. Bird life, both resident and migratory, is prolific and over 350 species have been sighted within the park. We saw tree pies, bayblers and kingfishers. No, we didn’t see any tigers – not this time. It was ‘impossible’ in such weather conditions, they said. It would have been fulfilling to lay eyes on one; but for us it was not the last of the wonders to see in this remarkable territory – there was after all the train ride home!
Written by Gunjan Prasad