It was noon when we reached Sawai Madhopur on the day of Makar Sankranti. Makar Sankranti is celebrated with fanfare in Jaipur; it’s a local holiday. Recognizing the opportunity for a brief trip, I decided to visit Ranthambore National Park at Sawai Madhopur town, approximately 160 km from Jaipur.
As soon as we checked into a hotel, we enquired about a tiger safari in Ranthambore National Park at the reception. Finding safari tickets at the eleventh hour is tricky in the middle of a peak tourist season. Tickets are reserved online for many months in advance. The national park is divided into many zones, and the most desired ones are zone 1 & 3 followed by 2, 4 & 6.
The receptionist told us getting a gypsy for the safari is not possible; it was all sold out for the day. Considering no options, we chose Canter tickets in zone 4. It’s an open-air bus which accommodates 20-21 people, unlike Gypsy which seats 4-5 people.
We were informed to reach the hotel lobby by 2 PM. All safari vehicles pick-up guest from their respective hotels.
The check-in process and lunch got us delayed. The restaurant manager assured us that we need not rush because Canter pick-up takes place between 2-2.30 PM. However, Our canter arrived precisely at 2 PM & we were late to board. Our guide, Syeed was furious. On our way to the park, the Canter picked some more travelers from the hotels. By the time we reached the park gate, the vehicle was completely packed.
The rules require the entry permits signed at the forest check posts. There were two of them, one near the park entrance & the last one was right opposite to the zone 4 gate. While waiting for the Syeed to return from the checkpoint a rufous treepie decided to board our Canter for the safari.
As the Canter set in motion on the zone 4 trail it became clear it would endure a harsh ride with a hilly dirt track. The initial section had a gradient of 25-30 degrees!
The Ranthambore National Park forest is dry & deciduous similar to the one found in and around Jaipur but denser with an immense variety of flora. It is dominated by three or four distinct types of trees-Dhok, Gurjan, Ficus family trees like Banyan and Peepul among others.
The forest landscape is dotted with Thor Danda on the rocky surface and Munj grass (Saccharum Munja) on flat land.
Syeed, who had shown a bit of attitude earlier had mellowed down a bit. He mentioned he is a freelancer naturalist.
On our way, we saw Sambhar, the preferred prey of the tiger. We also saw Neelgai, Cheetal deer, Kingfisher, and a Mongoose. Not very exciting for the Indians, it’s fascinating for the foreigners.
We kept moving through the dirt tracks searching for the tiger, Arrowhead or T84, a tigress ruling zone 4.
The mother of Arrowhead is T19 or Krishna as she is popularly referred. It is designated so because of a mark on her cheek which resembles an arrow. She moves in an overlap between zone 3 & 4. Krishna was one of the popular tigers in Ranthambore National Park, but she was not as admired as her mother-Macchli or T16. Macchli is famed as the most photographed tiger of Ranthambore. Once she ruled zone 4 Krishna replaced her. History seems to be repeating once more.
After a twenty minute ride through the dusty trail, we reached a vast lake with a picturesque setting. The only wildlife visible over here were crocodiles.
With the Gypsy approaching from the opposing direction, both drivers slowed down for a brief chat. They were exchanging notes on the sighting. This seemed a customary practice to follow the tiger’s movement. The Gypsy driver remarked they had been unsuccessful until now.
In a few minutes, our Canter was parked atop a towering cliff presenting a birdseye view of the vast expanse of forest. Ranthambore National Park is spread over an approximate area of 300 sq km.
Syeed, in an attempt to survey the landscape for a tiger sighting, selected this spot. The driver killed the engine for a few minutes; all we could experience was cold January breeze atop this hill. Syeed was a bit disappointed not getting any signals for the presence of a tiger, we headed towards Lakarda.
On our way, all of sudden the driver pushed the brakes bringing Canter to a halt. Syeed leaned ahead and pointed towards the fresh pugmarks of a tiger. The marks indicated movement in the opposite direction. Naturalists are trained for keen observation powers and pugmarks are one of the directest hints of a tiger.
It was 4.45 PM when our Canter reached Lakarda Forest Chowki. There were a few more Canters parked here. Syeed announced a scheduled stop for 5 minutes. Lakarda is a rustic place with just a forest Chowki and toilet facilities for the visitors. It is placed in the middle of the forest. I believe this place is devoid of electricity.
What made this stop interesting was the presence of many Rufous Treepie on the trees. Everyone got busy clicking these lovely birds. Tree Magpie is a distant cousin of the crow. They are in abundance in the Jhalana forest in Jaipur where I used to frequent until the Jhalana Leopard Safari was launched.
Once everyone boarded, the Canter set towards the entrance park. Syeed mentioned all safari vehicles need to return and report at forest check-post near the entrance by 5.30 PM. A delay beyond 5 minutes attracts a hefty fine.
On the way back, the sun looked absolutely beautiful inching closer to the horizon with every passing minute. A Gypsy appeared from a nearby trail and raced forward full throttle causing dust barrage.
I realized clothes were smeared with a thin layer of dust thanks to the drive over the dirt trail of zone 4. It was something that I didn’t even anticipate since this was my first wildlife safari.
I’m averse to taking a safari in a national park as the idea of animals safari doesn’t appeal to me. I feel animals need to be left alone in their native habitat. Realizing this is the sole way to witness the beauty of Ranthambore, I gave in. Ranthambore possesses one of the best dry deciduous forest in India apart from the ones in Madhya Pradesh.
For once, I didn’t have any regret of being unable to sight a tiger. The ride and the dust were worth the experience. I can’t say this for everyone because the tiger sighting brings everyone to Ranthambore.
The ride way back to the hotel was full of cold wind with the intermittent views of a setting sun. By the time we alighted from Canter at the hotel, it had been dusky; the coffee at the hotel was waiting. It wasn’t a good day for the driver and guide because the sighting of a tiger promises tips from the guests. But what can anyone do when the tigers of Ranthambore decided to stay away from the tourists?
In the absence of tiger sighting, the only picture I have of a tiger is this sketch which was sketched by an artist in the hotel.
Is Ranthambore National Park A Good Place To Visit?
Yes, it is if you love wildlife, nature, or quietude.
Wildlife – Ranthambore is one of the most popular tiger reserves and national parks in India. Apart from Corbett, and Bandhavgarh forest reserve, Ranthambore ranks high on the list of wildlife lovers. The tiger sighting is not guaranteed but is considered as fairly easy. The industry is fairly organized therefore obtaining a permit or a safari vehicle is not difficult. Wildlife safari in Indian national park is cheaper than the one in Africa. For this reason, many wildlife lovers opt for safari multiple times during a 2-3 day stay.
Nature– Ranthambore is one of the most beautiful dry deciduous forest reserves in the Aravali hill range. It has a variety of flora and fauna and spans over a 300 sq km area. People who have undertaken an African Safari in Serengeti, Masai Mara or elsewhere in Africa confirm that topography of Ranthambore tiger reserve is different from the African Savannah.
Ranthambore has many resorts and hotels. A few are modern contemporary resorts and hotels while some are heritage properties converted into a hotel. It offers peace and serenity, away from the hustle bustle of a modern city. Ranthambore is 11 km from the dull Sawai Madhopur town, a renowned area for supplying some of the amazing Guavas in India after Prayagraj. A few of the well know resorts are Oberoi Vanyavilas, Nahargarh Ranthambore Resort, Ranthambore Forest Resort, and Vivanta Sawai Madhopur.
One of the reasons for the popularity of Ranthambore National Park is accessibility. It is well-connected with Delhi, Mumbai, and Jaipur.
How To Reach Ranthambore National Park?
Flights– The nearest airport at Jaipur 160 km away. Jaipur is well connected with all notable cities of India – Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkatta, Guwahati to name a few.
Trains– The nearest train station is at Sawai Madhopur which is 11 km away. Sawai Madhopur station is connected with the Delhi-Mumbai train route. It is also well connected with Jaipur.
Road– The best way to visit Ranthambore by road is by taxi or self-drive car. There are many buses too. For people visiting Ranthambore from Delhi, there are two route options. One can opt for either Alwar-Dausa or Jaipur-Niwai highway. Both roads are in good conditions.
What To Wear During Ranthambore National Park Safari
If you are taking a Ranthambore safari in winters, layer well as it is pretty cold. During the afternoon safari, make sure you are carrying warm clothes because it gets cold around sunset. You will be driving through the dusty trail so expect lots of dust. Cover your head with a hat, cap, or scarf. During summers, stick to cotton clothes. Carry enough water and cover the skin to avoid sunburn.
A thumb rule to stick by during safari-avoid flashy colors; stick with earthy colors for safari. Olive green, khaki, brown, and grey are one of the best colors to camouflage during a safari.
Best Time To Visit Ranthambore
October to March is a favorable season to visit Ranthambore as the weather is not too harsh unless you live in hot tropical weather. March to May/June is considered good for tiger sighting. For all practical reasons, Nov-Feb is a major tourist season. The core area of the park is closed during the monsoon season every year between July to September. In 2018 the forest department opened the buffer zones during the monsoon. In 2019, zone 6 to 10 will be open in the monsoon season while the rest will be shut down for the tourists.
How To Book Ranthambore Safari
The best way to book Ranthambore Safari is by booking it online from the forest dept. website https://fmdss.forest.rajasthan.gov.in/ and then choosing SSO login. If you are a new user, you will need to register first and then come back to the main website-fmdss.
There are hundreds of websites having domain names consisting of the word Ranthambore to fool travelers. Most websites charge an exorbitant amount which is a waste of money. If you prefer not to book online, you can get it done from your hotel which will be pricier. I paid double the amount by booking through the hotel! As of now the cost of Ranthambore Safari in Canter is Rs 510 and Rs 727 in a Gypsy. Frankly, if you want to save yourself from many hassles (which is inevitable when booking on state-run websites) it worth spending extra money to buy it from your hotel. This ensures you have someone to run to in case of any deviations. Safari vehicles pick & drop from the hotel at the designated time. Safari can be undertaken during the morning or afternoon. A large number of travelers prefer undertaking both!
Which is a better option- Canter Safari or Gypsy safari?
I have only undertaken a Canter safari but my friends who are wildlife enthusiasts prefer Gypsy as it allows them to drive deeper into the jungle. Canter ride is noisier and less comfortable vis a vis Gypsy. Do note taking a Gypsy doesn’t guarantee tiger sighting. Generally, a Gypsy ride costs one and half times that of a Canter. Your Ranthambore safari experience also depends on your driver, guide and luck.