Spots Before Our Eyes

We were awake before our early alarm call this morning at 05:45am, and we got washed and dressed and made our way to the hotel foyer where there was hot coffee, tea and biscuits on offer.  We would not get our breakfast until after our safari.

Everyone was in a suppressed state of excitement at the thought of venturing into the world-famous Ranthambhore National Park.  What would we see?  Would we see India’s national animal, the Royal Bengal Tiger?

We all had our cameras ready, as well as warmer clothing as India can be quite cold overnight, and early in the morning – we are, after all, heading for winter, even though it is obviously warmer than it is in Blighty at this time of year.

We had already been split into two groups;  Group 1 and Group 2.  One of us would have Peter in our canter, and one of us Vikram, as well as the local wildlife experts.  Trevor and I found ourselves in Group 2 and, when the call came, we went outside into the fresh early-morning air and clambered into the canter, which had metal side-bars as well as bars in the front to hold onto, as we would be covering some uneven ground.  🙂

At around 06:30am we set off along the bustling roads which were already thronging with people and vehicles despite the hour.  It was only about a 15 minute ride to the entrance of the national park, and once we got there were accosted by the usual hawkers selling Ranthambhore- and tiger-related merchandise, from t-shirts to baseball caps to fleeces and bags.  I was wearing the t-shirt I’d purchased in the hotel shop last night, and many people in our group admired it and decided they would buy one too.

Once we got the go ahead, the canter took off and rattled, lurched and jolted its way over the winding, bumpy terrain, as it ventured deeper into the forest.  We kept our eyes peeled and our cameras at the ready as we scanned the ground, trees and bushes for native wildlife. We saw plenty of monkeys in the trees, swinging through the branches like Olympic gymnasts and chattering excitedly at the approach of our vehicle.  We also saw lots of brightly-coloured birds including peacock, kingfishers and white egrets.

The first tentative rays of the sun pushed through the trees and bushes and, as well as giving us warmth, created a dappled glow within the vegetation.  We saw groups of spotted deer, the big males with their majestic antlers as they foraged in the bush.  Every now and then our driver would stop the vehicle and turn off the engine, allowing us to enjoy the sounds of the forest and take any photos.

As we slowly made our way through the trees on the dirt track, a lady sitting directly in front of us (I think her name was Chris) suddenly exclaimed “what’s that?”  She had seen some movement in the trees.  The driver reversed the canter a few yards and we could not believe our eyes when a leopard strolled nonchalantly out from behind a tree.  Wow!  Oh wow!

He was not in any hurry and the sunlight shone on his beautiful spotted coat as he padded across the road, looking back at us with his noble amber eyes as he did so.  I was completely mesmerised, seeing this gorgeous animal wild and free in his jungle home.  Whatever else we would see, it made it totally worth it just to see the leopard alone, and we watched him until he was completely out of sight.

Our wildlife expert told us we were indeed privileged. Whilst there are about 60 tigers in Ranthambhore and 70 leopards, leopards are fairly shy and elusive, and also spend a lot of their time up in trees, so unless you’re looking up you wouldn’t spot them, so to speak.  He told us that, generally, there are only a couple of leopard sightings a month, so we were definitely in the right place at the right time.

As we continued on our way, everyone was excitedly looking at the photos and video footage they’d taken.  How completely amazing.  🙂

A short while later, we came across a clearing containing restrooms and a small area where we could get out of the canter and stretch our legs.  Just then, the other vehicle containing Group 1 pulled up.  “Have you seen anything?” we asked excitedly.  “No”, they said.  “Not yet.”  “We’ve seen a leopard!” we announced gleefully.  Someone else in our group said that we’d seen three tigers as well, just for a bit of banter.  🙂

Once we were on our way again, we bumped and rattled up hills and down again; it was like being on the Big Dipper at the fair and we had to hang on tight to the metal bars and we were bounced around in our seats.  Our guide pointed out a herd of samber deer as well as more monkeys and some wild boar.  The placid nature of the deer and the fact that the monkeys were playing, quite unperturbed, on the ground indicated there were no tigers, leopards or other predators around, and the guide told us how to recognise the alarm calls of various birds and creatures if danger, e.g. a tiger, was near.

We ventured further into the park until we arrived at a lake.  Tigers love water and will often be spotted bathing or drinking at the water’s edge; however none were in evidence this time.  We did, however, see some crocodiles gliding along in the green water, as well as more egrets and other water birds.

After about four hours we decided to return to the hotel for a late breakfast/brunch.  We were due to come back our for another safari at 2.00pm this afternoon, as different animals can be seen at different times of the day.

On arrival back at the Ranthambhore Regency, we met up with Group 1 who were pleased to tell us that they had spotted a tiger; it crossed the road in front of them.  Everyone was on a high and there was plenty of banter and laughter as we made our way hungrily to the dining room for our breakfast.  We enjoyed hot porridge, croissants and toast washed down with strong hot coffee, then we decided to go back to our room and catch up with some shut-eye before this afternoon’s adventure back into the jungle.

At around 1.00pm we woke up and went along to the hotel bar for a cold Kingfisher each.  Then we pottered around a bit and I went to the shop and bought a lovely maxi-length skirt, it was black with gold embroidery and lots of sequins on and was only 600 rupees, or £6.00.  Everything is very cheap in India apart from alcohol; the prices the hotels charged for a glass for wine were extortionate, often over a tenner for one glass!

At 2.00pm we assembled into our respective groups and boarded our canters for the next safari.  The sun was high in a steel-blue sky and it was very hot; we made sure to spray ourselves with Jungle Formula mosquito repellent as we didn’t want to get bitten by the little blighters.  🙂

This afternoon we took a different route from this morning; the dirt tracks were a bit more even so it was less of a bumpy ride.  We drove slowly through the trees, enjoying the pleasant shade and the sights, sounds and smells of the forest before we came across another vehicle, a jeep, coming the other way.  The two drivers had a brief conversation in their own language, the gist of which was whether any tigers had been sighted in our area.  Eventually we continued, and drove to the places where tigers were usually spotted (or should that be striped?).   🙂

After seeing plenty of spotted deer, samber deer, wild boar, antelopes, monkeys and many birds our driver, having spoken to the driver of another vehicle, suddenly asked us to hold on tight and put his foot down.  Tigers!

It was like something out of the A-team and our vehicle bounced and flew over the road in our haste to get to where the tiger had been sighted near a lake.  There was only so far we could go into the forest but, after scanning the area thoroughly with his binoculars, he advised that he could indeed see a tiger at rest in the distance.  It was then a case of getting everyone looking in the right direction (“Find the white bird, he’s behind the white bird!” came the cry) and eventually I could see him – a real live tiger.  🙂

This wasn’t enough for me, however; unless I could see one up close with the naked eye, a speck in the distance with binoculars wasn’t going to count.

As the park closed at 5.30pm, we started to make our way back, slowly scanning the bushes and grasses all the time.  As we neared the entrance to the park, a couple of rangers coming the other way told us that a tiger was on the road.  Off we went at all speed, and everyone stood up on their seats to get a better view.  This was no good for me as I am only 5′ tall; all I could see was people’s heads and cameras being waved in the air.  Trevor did see the tiger, but by he time I managed to get a view I was just in time to see a striped tail disappearing behind a bush.  😦  Nonetheless it showed that tigers were around, and we might be lucky enough to spot some on our morning safari tomorrow.

Back in the hotel we all had a hearty appetite and enjoyed, as usual, a selection of traditional Indian dishes washed down with cold beer before deciding to turn in fairly early.  Once again we had to be up at 5.45am tomorrow, and who knows what delights awaited us?


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