Ranthambore – a tête-à-tête with tiger (2017)
“Main udna chahta hoon, daudna chahta hoon, girna bhi chahta hoon, bas rukhna nahi chahta”, says a dialogue from the movie Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani. So true. This is Life. Unstoppable. Befikr. Bedhadak.
We all desired 2017 to be a year dedicated to travel, just like every year. However, the itineraries always existed on paper and nothing really boils down to actual travel. This time, we all were hell bent of making it happen. And we were serious. As the long weekend of 26th January was approaching, me and few friends from office decided to explore the wild, to experience the thrill of watching tigers – the ultimate predators without a cage, at Ranthambore. All we wanted was to break free from this monotony of office and home and the constant shuttling between the two. One month into the new year and we all gave up to the work pressure…finally, after a lot of deliberation, 28th and 29th of Jan 2017 were chosen as dates for a two day road trip to Ranthambore.
Since we all were going out together for the first time, we were naturally excited about the trip and wanted to plan it to perfection, needless to say, with minimal budget. Many hotels were looked into but few had bad reviews and few were beyond our budget. Finally we zeroed on Hotel Amar resort to be our abode for 28th night. Rs 1100 per room… couldn’t be cheaper than this.
There were five travelers to the trip –
1) Gaurav – the driver, wished he could get a chance to drive the jungle safari gypsy
2) Ravinder – the financer, backbone of the group who suffered from chronic back problem
3) Ansh – excited, not for the trip but for ipad games during the trip
4) Nisha – Cooking interests her, loves chicken and hates veg… the most excited one amongst us for tiger watching
5) Pramanshu – gabru of the gang, our bodyguard in case tiger attacked us
So, the dates were fixed, hotel was booked, bags were packed and confectionery items were bought for the trip. We rehearsed the itinerary, re-emphasized the on timing and a day before the travel, slept on time.
Route to be taken: Gurgaon – Bhiwadi – Alwar – Dausa – Lalsot – Sawai Madhopur – Ranthambore
We decided to leave home by 5am so as to reach Ranthambore on time. As usual, we got up late by 4.15 am. In order to leave on time, Ravinder and Ansh skipped having a bath. Its winters, skipping it is no big deal. Tigers don’t bath daily, do they? Amidst all pushing, packing and getting ready, we didn’t realize when it was 5 am. Why do we have to always rush against time? Perhaps we love the chase more than the calm, easy going way.
So, once we picked up Nisha and Pramanshu at 5.15 am, I pressed the gas pedal of XUV to account for the delay. In spite of being so early in the morning, NH-8 was packed. It looked as if everyone was going towards Jaipur. We were hungry too as none of us had breakfast so early. Once we crossed Manesar toll, traffic soon dispersed and our car paced into triple digits. In a jiffy, we reached Bhiwadi – Alwar toll road. As we crossed Bhiwadi, the streaks of sunlight peeping through the clouds vanished and we encountered dense fog. The visibility dropped and XUV calmed down to 60 kmph. I started getting worried as we had plans to buy tickets of sanctuary from current window, which opens at 13.00 hrs. Ranthambore was good 290 kms away. Time showed 6.30 am.
I always hated Hyundai Creta for no reason. To me its just like an apple iphone – expensive for no apparent reason. However, this time, a new white creta zoomed passed us at high speed, must be driving around 100 kmph. Since all tail lights were glowing clearly, I decided to follow it rather than driving blindly in fog. In order to chase it, I too increased the speed. I must admit, Creta was being driven at very high speed and at times it looked dangerous. Safety first…what went wrong…speed thrills, but kills…. all these jargons banged inside my head. Soon, I preferred to drive cautiously by myself than chase Creta blindly. During this brief stint of cat and mouse chase, we covered more than 30 km in less than 20 mins. Soon, we crossed Alwar around 8am.
I was damn hungry and wanted to have tea too. My gang was more interested in having cake and chips now, followed up by proper breakfast later. They won. Munching on snacks in the car, we reached Lalsot by 10.45 am. On the way we saw a dhaba with decent washroom and decided to have breakfast there. Though it took them approx 30 mins to bring on hot parathas and tea, but it was delicious. A hot meal makes so much of a difference. We were so overwhelmed by the timely meal that we didn’t realize we took the wrong route. We realized it when gps lady went gaga over taking a U-turn. Initially, I played deaf to her pleas but when the screeching was too much, I realized that we actually need a kejri U-turn. Time showed 11.30am.
With tummy full, I decided to test Cheetah’s speed. The AWD mode was switched on and soon speed touched triple digits. Just like the batsmen who aims for 150 runs after hitting a ton, I too, tried the dare but gave up after 130 kmph. The car was rock steady but one tiny glitch from anyone on the road… the urge to drive fast was strong, but not strong enough it seemed. We entered Sawai Madhopur by 12.15pm. It is a small town. We planned to rush straight to Ranthambore National park to buy tickets. After driving for 8 km, we asked a policemen about the ticket counter. It was then when we realized that tickets are being sold at Sawai Madhopur and not at National Park. Damn. With no option left, we went back to the town and parked our car near ticket counter.
In one word, the ticket counter was really chaotic. It resembled a proper ‘sarkari’ establishment. No queues, plenty of touts, no display of proper information, vehicles parked haphazardly and only cash transaction for current counter. Moreover, the weather was warm. No need for jackets it seemed. We got the ID cards photocopied and filled up the information form meanwhile. After a lot of pushing and pulling, we reached the ticket window. We were all eagerly waiting that our luck charms us by allocation of anything between zone 1 to 5. We plan, god laughs. We were allocated zone-8. Did we drive that fast, engaged in chaos for this? Zone-8, a buffer zone. There was no choice and we really wanted to go for jungle safari. So, grudgingly, we asked our gypsy driver to pick us up from hotel.
We checked in hotel, freshened up, filled our trekking bags with eatables and water and jumped onto open gypsy. It was the best thing that happened since morning. My kid loved to be in the back seat with two elder bachelors. I so much wished to drive this 4X4. Soon we entered the main gate of zone-8. Time read 14.15 hrs. Let the thrill begin, said my heart. The driver and guide almost directly asked us for a tip. Upon our assurance, they too got pumped up and promised to try their best to show us a tiger.
The road was non-existent but gypsy wasn’t unnerved. Our first encounter was with an antelope. We asked the driver to slow down and soon we all started testing our photography skills. One must keep the axe sharpened, you never know when we meet an opportunity. The jungle was unending and beautiful. Even zone-8 was mesmerizing. I wonder how it would be to be in core areas, our beloved zones 1-5. Nevertheless, I decided to enjoy the present and not think about what if. The guide told us many traits of tiger and interesting encounter stories. Not sure if all they said was true, but nonetheless, it was an engaging conversation.
It was going on well when we realized that we are again hungry. Perhaps, the jumps and bumps of rough terrain helped in digesting the food. We gulped the remaining cake, a packet of chips and biscuits, when the guide requested us not to throw the garbage in jungle and keep it in the gypsy. Wow. I wish had all of us would have been so careful, our India would have really been ‘saare jahan se achcha’.
Time was running out quickly, still there was no sign of tiger. Our patience was also running out and the probability of tiger sighting was an all time low. I repeatedly cursed zone-8. After all, it was a buffer zone. Why would a tiger come here. Sure, he won’t be happy to see us. With these conversations in mind, we all reached a “khoh” area (a gorge). There were many gypsy around. Most of the tourists were engaged in clicking pics with beautiful backdrops. Our guide told us that once a tiger was spotted right here. What if the tiger again comes now and blesses us with its presence right here. All I could feel was fear. Of the unknown. While walking back towards the gypsy from the edge of ‘khoh’, I kind of avoided eye contact with the nearby bushes. Why? It felt as if someone was watching me. If I didn’t look at the bushes, I won’t be scared. Wrong. I was still scared. My pace of walking got faster and faster. I reached a point of full on sprint and climbed the gypsy. I thought, ‘Nothing is out there, it’s just my imagination’. But it isn’t just my wild imagination. It was there! When I looked at it, it just turned away. It was already getting late by jungle standards. Almost 5 pm.
Suddenly our guide told us that there had been a tiger sighting nearby. He perhaps got a call from other safari driver. Tiger does not follow zones. Zones are for us. Perhaps the predator had killed a cow and was having a feast. He informed us that we’d soon go there and if we were lucky, we’d see the predator live, without a cage. I could feel adrenaline rushing through my veins. The driver asked us to buckle up and hold on to gypsy as he was going to drive faster. Everything about the jungle was wild. Even the gypsy ride. Nisha later told me that this short bumpy ride was full paisa vasool for her. It needs skill to drive like that without getting hurt. Roads were non-existent, there was a predator on the prowl nearby and we were actually going towards it, not away from it. So much thrill. I wished to drive the gypsy by myself.
At a distance, we saw a 10-15 gypsy parked close to each other and everyone clicking pics pointing somewhere. As we reached the location, our guide pointed to us what it seemed to be a fully grown tiger. It is completely a different experience to see big cats in zoo against the one in open. I can use plenty of adjectives to define tiger – majestic, magnetic, strong, confident, courageous, ferocious … but the following one is most apt – fearless. Nothing scares a tiger.
In spite of more that 50 people watching it eating its meal, tiger was unbothered. We clicked atleast 40 pics and satiated the wildlife photographer in us. No one dared to get off the gypsy to click a closer pic. All gypsy were parked very close to each other causing a grid lock. Had tiger taken 2-3 steps towards our flock, I swear, blood would have frozen in veins & few people certainly would have got heart attack and collapsed. Tiger could have fixed its dinner by mere walking 2-3 steps towards us. It didn’t. It was then I realized that cowards are cruel, brave ones are kind.
Later, we got to know that the big cat was actually a small one, mere 2 years old. The cub had grown into a full killing machine and owned this territory in jungle. My kid is 7 years old and doesn’t even own his personal bed. Damn! After spending about 20 mins watching the tiger, we felt like unwelcomed guests. Tiger didn’t even look at us properly, forget posing for a selfie. The sun started setting behind the hills as if telling us that show is over. Before us, the tiger stopped eating and calmly started walking backwards towards the hills. The show was over, officially. There was no point staying there as the big cat didn’t promise us that it would return soon. All I could mutter silently was “abhi na jaao chhod ke, ke dil abhi bhara nahin“… In some time, gypsy started the engine and we proceeded the way out of jungle.
It started to get cold and windy. I seriously missed my monkey cap too much then. After touring the jungle and watching the big cat closely, we were really satisfied with the trip. All mortal emotions of hunger, tiredness and sleep returned and now hugged us tightly. All we wanted was to hog food and rest. There was this joint named food court nearby. Upon checking on google, the driving time was 1 min. Yes, it was right outside our hotel. Tripadvisor showed excellent reviews. It was an average joint infrastructure wise, but the chicken they served was lip smacking. Delicious. Even veg was swallowable, I believe. Unfortunately, they didn’t have soup or dessert available. This meant, Pramanshu and I could hog on 1-2 more rotis.
Once we reached hotel, it was all about giving our tired limbs some rest. However, we decided to sit together and play cards. Time to play ’29’ and relive old college memories. I am sure if my college friends read this blog, they’d be nostalgic. Those long nights of Bangalore, examination days and we four roommates oblivious of the syllabus and engrossed in opening and closing of black-red sheets than course books. Woh bhi kya din thhe. Finally around 22.00 hrs, we decided to call it a day and sleep without keeping alarms for the next day. No more places to visit. We’d head back home once we wake up naturally without alarm.
Woke up at around 9 am and perhaps I was the first one to get up. All co-passengers were still drooling over their rendezvous with tiger. We need to check out of hotel by noon, if possible, early. Since Ravinder and Ansh had skipped their bath yesterday, today, it was a compulsion for them. However, I could take a dry bath. To me, dry bath is one in which one can just wash his face and comb his hair by applying minimal water. Ones blessed like me with little hair, could take a short cut here too. By 9.30 am, everyone got up and we all sat in the balcony overlooking busy street. It was then when I saw a wine shop which somehow got missed last night. Man, you lost a customer owing to bad lighting outside your store. Time to grab a Syska LED.
It looked as if hotel staff also got up late. When we ordered for breakfast, they asked for little time…took almost an hour to prepare omlette and parathas with tea. Since, we were also not in a hurry, the delay didn’t worry us. Lazy Sunday, hot breakfast while basking in sun on a winter morning. Felt like a sloth. Too slow to do anything. Slowly and gradually, we all got ready to leave for Gurgaon. We left hotel at noon, utilized the checkout time fully.
While return we drove slowly playing antakshari of cities/states/countries. I was surprised to know Ansh knowing names of so many places. Now, I know, how much travel can help. Well, later I got to know that he had opened an atlas in the back seat. At least he learnt how to use the index. I was content. The drive was uneventful till for next 3 hrs till when we realized that we all were hungrier than we believed we were. Soon after turning towards Rajgarh, at Bamanpura, we stopped for lunch. Time showed around 3.30pm. Unfortunately, they served only veg. So, nothing exciting about lunch. Remaining journey was uneventful and we were home around 8pm, ready to face office the next day like a tiger… head on.
The trip was good and sighting tiger was really an amazing experience. It gave us Goosebumps and memories to cherish for a long time.