Although Ranthambore National Park in India is hailed as one of the best places in the world to see a tiger in the wild, apparently your chances of spotting one are still fairly slim.
I met many other travellers who skipped it during their tour of Rajasthan because they heard the chances of actually seeing a tiger were very low or non-existent. On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I went on a full day jeep safari in Yala national park which is famous for Leopards. We managed to catch a mere glimpse of one in the middle of a bush a long way away before it disappeared into the vegetation. Although the rest of the wildlife in the park was amazing, I still felt that I was not satisfied with my big cat viewing for the time being. I think back to all the Tiger and big cat related David Attenborough documentaries I have watched in awe and I knew I had to see more.
I decided I would go to Ranthambore National Park despite what I had heard and just stay there doing safari’s until I saw a tiger. Most of the accommodation near Ranthambore is highly inflated and I had to do a lot of research in order to find somewhere which wasn’t too far out of my budget. That coupled with the cost of the safaris had my budget shaking at the knees with the prospect of spending a week or more searching for the elusive master of the jungle. I was also the only person staying at my guest house, which is a bit disheartening, even though its low season.
The next morning I woke up at 6am ready to be collected for the safari I booked and ate a quick breakfast before waiting for an hour, only to be told something went wrong with my booking and I couldn’t go this morning. At this point I was pretty low, what a horrible start. I managed to get booked in to the afternoon safari and occupied myself all day writing and sorting photos while I waited patiently for my chance.
At 3pm I was picked up by a canter, which is a 20 seater truck with an open top. I chose this instead of a 6 person jeep because I thought I would have a better chance of meeting other travellers. More bad luck, we picked up a big group of families with several children under 5. We made it through the majestic gates of Ranthambore National Park and It became clear very early on that I would not be enjoying the peace and tranquility of nature on this ride. I think the adults made just as much noise as the children. The guide did the best to explain to them that if they make too much noise, we will never find a tiger and that they need to listen for the alarm calls from the monkeys in order to track them. It made little difference. I looked on with envy at the other canters and jeeps filled with quiet tourists sitting and patiently waiting for the tiger.
Fortunately, much to my surprise and delight, we found a tiger pretty much straight away. It was a couple hundred meters away across the edge of a lake sitting in the rushes and watching a herd of spotted deer graze peacefully by the edge of the water. Our driver managed to get us into a better position than any of the other vehicles and we could see it pretty clearly through the one pair of binoculars shared amongst the group. We watched it for at least an hour before it turned around and disappeared into the bush. We couldn’t find it again. As we were heading back I was pretty happy about seeing the tiger but knew I would need to do more safari’s and see one closer before I was satisfied.
As we left our section of the park we heard from one of the rangers that a tiger had been spotted near the road on the way out of the park. We raced away and soon came across another canter stopped by the side of the road, the tourists inside straining to get a good photo. It was clear from the level of excitement and the way they were all jostling for position that the tiger was not far away. Our driver drove up the road a bit past them and stopped. Seconds later the tiger walked into view right beside our vehicle. My eyes grew wide. This was the moment I was waiting for!! It was incredible up close. You could clearly see the raw power which existed behind the vibrant orange and black fur. We followed along beside it, since we were on the main road out of the park at closing time, soon the road behind us filled up with other hopeful vehicles trying to catch a glimpse. Fortunately we were at the front of the queue for the whole show.
The tiger walked alongside the road for about 15 minutes, then sat down. It started walking again and came up on top of some cliffs beside the road making some magnificent photo opportunities. At one point we were driving alongside it and I called out to stop, because this would be the perfect photo. The guide explained that the tiger could jump from there into the canter and attack us. I didn’t argue. That’s how close we were – I had never even considered that this was a dangerous animal until then. That my personal safety might be at risk. It was a rush to hear something like that. My heart rate was already pretty high but it jumped up another notch as my excitement compounded. I loved it.
We drove past it and as the terrain came back to a low point the tiger walked out onto the road and we were caught in front of it. There was another canter in front of us blocking the road and the tiger was 10 meters away walking straight at us! Our driver was yelling at the one in front to move it and soon it caught on and we were able to make some distance from the tiger to relative safety. Most of the other jeeps and canters were behind the tiger but somehow, once again, our driver has positioned us into the optimal position – even better than all of the smaller, more manoeuvrable jeeps. This guy was getting a good tip from me.
The tiger throughout all of this remained pretty unconcerned about the jeeps. T-19 is the tigress’ name I found out later and she was the ruling matriarch in the park with the biggest territory. She has grown up in the park was used to seeing tourists I guess. She gave birth to 4 cubs recently, an unusually high number, but they were nowhere to be seen. We stuck with her for another 10 minutes or so before she went off the road and disappeared into the jungle. Everyone in the canter was absolutely ecstatic and we all gave a cheer for the driver as we drove away.
The guide has been doing it for 20 years and he said he has never seen a tiger walk along the road like that before. Fortunately I would have no more need to do any other safari’s and I could now leave and continue with my trip, this would be pretty much impossible to top, unless I saw some cubs or a hunt. I wasn’t that greedy though. I felt bad for everyone in the jeeps and canters at the back of the queue. It all comes down to luck at the end of the day, that and a very skilled driver who can predict the future.
I will remember this for the rest of my life. Photo’s below.