Monday, June 26, 2017

Ranthambhore again - Once is never enough! (June 2017)

Beware before you see your first wild tiger! Once you see it, you're hooked. Completely and hopelessly entrapped. Without any hope of redemption or escape. This wonderful animal casts its magnetic lure on you to draw you back again and again. And it is never enough; you always want more. Just look at us. Having had a super trip in May didn't quite cut it, we wanted more. So when Hemraj suggested that seats on a full-day safari might be available, we jumped at the opportunity. And found ourselves back in Ranthambhore in less than a month.

Once again, the train took us to Sawai Madhopur early in the morning and Hemraj was there with the jeep to pick us up. He'd told me earlier that were headed to Zone 6, but once we were in the jeep he casually said we were going to Zone 2, where all the action was. Surprise! We were almost giddy with excitement at the prospect of reacquainting with T-39 (Noor) and seeing her current litter of cubs for the first time. We entered the park at around 7 am, and drove straight to Phoota Kot, where this family has taken up residence this summer. We were waved to a side path by the guide on another jeep and there, in the middle of the road sat the beautiful queen Noor and one of her three female cubs. She posed, groomed herself and then walked up to her cub to nuzzle and lick it. One of the most tender moments in the forest, as mother and cub showed their affection for each other. She walked purposefully to another waterhole, followed by this cub and soon the other two also joined in for a little dip and drink. It wasn't the best light for photos, but to have the good fortune to see this family rendered photography to a mere footnote. Silent thank you to Noor and verbal thank you to Hemraj!

Then she got up and climbed up the nearby slope while her cubs walked into the shade of a nearby nallah and out of sight. Before that though, one of the cubs attempted to stalk a wild boar, quickly realised she was out of depth and trotted off to join her sisters. And we drove on, hoping to find the second family in this zone - T60 and her 3 cubs. Further down, we saw some stationary jeeps who waved us to stop. And in a bush on our left, sat a tiger. We thought it was T60, but it turned out to be Noor. She'd climbed over the hill and come down in search of prey. And there were some spotted deer on the other side that she was stalking. As she stealthily crossed the road, she was almost within touching distance of our jeep! The deer were too alert so she gave up and sat down to rest. And we drove further to check for T60 who managed to elude us by being exactly where we weren't!

That afternoon, we headed to Zone 6 to try and get good sightings of T-8 and her cubs, my 4th attempt! We first drove to the hill where she'd made a Nilgai kill. From the base of hill we could see the kill at a distance, but no tigers. So we drove all over, checked other spots, tried to locate the resident male, Kumbha, all without any luck. And then, with half an hour to go we return to the kill to see one cub feeding on it. At one time, he disappeared fully into the carcass! Too far for any photos, we watched through binoculars and hoped they would come down to the water for a drink. And then mom and sibling also appeared at the kill, and all three started to walk down to the water. The jeeps all made a beeline for the waterhole, but surprisingly, Hemraj turned us back towards the gate. He said there's no way she will come to the water now, and time is running short, so let's drive back. As always, he was right. The tigers stopped somewhere along the way and left all the jeeps high and dry, with a scramble to get back to the exit on time. Once more, I was left marveling at this man's impeccable knowledge of the forest and its denizens.





Day 2 was the big day - a full day safari. It was the first time I would be in an Indian forest from dawn to dusk. And as you can imagine, the adrenaline was pumping as we entered the forest. The plan was simple - find Noor and her cubs first up and then look for other tigers, based on the morning's activity. A sambhar called from the hillside as we approached Noor's territory but we drove on to check the entire stretch. Hemraj's logic was simple; this call could be for a distant leopard or male tiger - our first task was to locate the family. Not finding them, we turned back, just in time to see them come down the hillside. They went to the same pool, drank a bit and then walked along the same hillside. Pretty much their daily routine I guess. And we drove forward and waited alongside a wide nallah (near Kisni Deh), where Hemraj estimated that she would emerge. As if on cue, she came out of the undergrowth and immediately pressed herself to the ground. She'd seen a chital and was trying to stalk it. It was too far though and she carried on walking towards us and her cubs appeared as well.

The next half an hour was a feast. There were tigers all around us. Sometimes a cub would appear to our left and disappear into the grass on our right. Another time, a cub would emerge ahead of us and another right behind. We seriously ran the risk of neck sprains trying to track all this activity. And then Noor used the cover of the jeeps to stalk another chital.  She stationed her cubs in one place as a decoy as she stalked from the back. In hushed silence, we all watched as she sneaked up and then in one sudden burst of speed, she was almost on the deer. Inexplicably, she stopped at the very last moment, giving the deer an unexpected lease of life. The grateful herbivore bounded off with a prayer, no doubt to his family deity. And Noor walked back across the road and settled under a tree with her cubs. A kind gent in the next jeep gave us a good angle for photos and we had an absolute ball for the next hour or so. The regular safari jeeps said their goodbyes, leaving only 3 jeeps with the family. And as we sat there and watched Noor groom her cubs in turn, the feeling was one of privilege, to be able to breathe the same air as these beautiful, noble creations of Mother Nature.

And then the family headed further into the bush, to a water hole that was out of bounds for jeeps, so we carried on to renew the search for T60 and her almost fully grown cubs. We'd had a fantastic sighting of the family last year so I was keen to see them again and renew acquaintances. And we searched everywhere for them; looked up every single water hole, managed to find her pugmarks which we diligently followed. All dead ends. The family seemed to have vanished into thin air. Resigned, we went back to Noor's area where one of the waiting jeeps told us that the family crossed back into the nallah they came from. They were gone and not even the recently arrived scion of one of India's biggest business families (with impolite police escorts in tow) could do anything about that. Mother Nature can be a great leveler in many different ways!

Another jeep brought us news of a mating pair of tigers near Singh Dwar, the entry gate for Zone 4 and 5. So, polishing off a breakfast of eggs and sandwiches, we headed towards this next appointment on our full day calendar. We drove through the beautiful lake areas and descended via Tamba Khan (site of an old copper mine) towards Gular Kui, a small pond by the roadside. And on our way there, I saw a man sitting a little off the road and he didn't look like a forest staffer. Hemraj saw him too and immediately got the jeep stopped and started after them. They were woodcutters who obviously thought they were alone in the forest after the morning jeeps had exited the forest. No one told them about full-day safaris, I presume. Anyways, they ran off, leaving their spoils behind. If it wasn't for a tourist jeep, no one would have even known that two men were able to enter a prime area in the tiger reserve and cut wood with impunity. Some benefits of much-maligned wildlife tourism.

Arrowhead
Shaking with anger, Hemraj had the driver move us forward and barely a couple of hundred metres from the woodcutters lay a large male tiger under a tree. Driving forward, we saw the female sit on a ledge right above the waterhole. It was Arrowhead with her third beau T-86. She yawned and preened, all ready to get up and go to her mate. Until something made her freeze and get into alert mode. Maybe another tiger, we all thought. Incredibly, it was the woodcutters again, walking towards the water! This time they probably wanted to get some water. Hemraj shouted to them that there were tigers around and they stopped in their tracks. By now, both tigers had spotted the men and were in attention. We all tensed, hoping nothing untoward would happen. What happened next left us completely baffled as Both tigers scrambled to their feet and ran away from the humans! And as they themselves ran, we shook our fists and roundly abused them, first for messing up the forest and then our sighting.

Hemraj calmed us down saying that the tigers would come back in a while and in the interim we aumsed ourselves with the other visitors to the waterhole. The ubiquitous Crested Buntings and Indian Pittas came forth while the less prolific Eurasian and Jacobin Cuckoos also arrived to quench their thirst. A Monitor Lizard scurried about in the undergrowth and a pair of Rufous Treepies koochie-coo'd overhead in their typically metallic tones. And then, just as Hemraj said earlier, the male came back. He sat some distance away, reclining majestically. This handsome bloke was indeed a superb representative of his species. Which is why Queen Arrowhead was wooing him so frantically. As we watched, she too came out and went straight to him, nuzzled and brushed against him, time and again. But while he superficially seemed to reciprocate the affection, it stopped there for him. Perhaps he just wanted to be friends! But she wouldn't give up and continued her wooing with great endeavour.


Then, one more example of Hemraj's understanding of this animal. He sensed that the male wanted to come into the water, but was probably hesitating because of the couple of jeeps around. T86 was relatively new in the tourist area so not as comfortable with jeeps as Arrowhead. So he asked Kantar (our driver) to reverse the vehicle about 50 metres and requested the guide in the other vehicle to do the same. And we both waited and watched. In about 10 minutes, the male slowly started walking towards the water. Hemraj held back the jeep. The tiger came closer and slowly descended into the little depression that formed the waterhole. Only then did we move our jeep. And even as we arrived slowly and carefully, he still snarled at us a couple of time to let us know who's boss. I remember the old King T28 doing this to us nearly a decade ago, when he had just arrived at the lakes. This handsome, benign tiger would go on to be one of the favourites showstoppers in the years to come.

While we gave T86 his space, Arrowhead would not. She kept coming up and nuzzling him, trying desperately to awaken his romantic side. But he seemed disinterested, unwilling or unable to take things forward. Her persistence was praiseworthy but every lady has her pride, so she got out of the water, crossed the road and lay down under a tree on the other side. Our friend lingered in his private jacuzzi for a bit and then followed her reasonably purposefully. This only served to get her hopes up and she tried yet again, only to be rebuffed yet again. Hemraj and Kantar opined that she's probably keen because she needs to mate with the dominant male of the area to keep her cubs safe in the future. At this point the lake area is contested by 3 males and she's mated with 2 other males (T57 and T91) So, she needs to cover all her bases, just in case T86 becomes the unquestioned ruler of the lakes. They still couldn't figure out why he wouldn't mate. Stage-fright perhaps? After a point, she shook a metaphorical head at him, called him a few choice names in 'tigerese' and walked away. And drawn like a nail to a magnet, he followed her down a shady nallah till they both vanished out of sight. Leaving us to realize that the growling sounds that continued came from our stomachs!

And so we headed to Jogi Mahal gate where our lunch had been delivered. Over a sumptuous meal of parathas, aloo, pickle and dahi we finalized the game plan for the afternoon. The prospect of spending it with Noor and her cubs was a very agreeable one, but we decided to explore the rest of the park and look for (amongst others) T19 (who had probably just given birth to a new litter), T41 and her cub or any of the 3 large males that split the rest of the tourist zone between them. And we drove on past Rajbagh and Malik Talao, through Lakkarda and the rocky valleys of Adidanth and Semli, before we arrived at the beautiful Bhakola valley. This thick, densely wooded enclave is enriched by a perennial stream and is not called 'A/C for tigers' for nothing. Finding no joy, we drove through almost all the way to Kachida, searching for one of the males or for T73 and her cubs. Not finding anything, we drove back and then decided to explore the ridges and valleys for T19. Then we came across a forest patrol, who told us that T41 and cub had been seen in the Berda valley that morning. And so we headed back to that part of the park.

Driving through the Berda valley, we came across a couple of other jeeps near the spot where T41 was spotted earlier. There was no sign of her, but all the guides guessed that the tigers would be in the bush, lying in the shade till it got cooler. They estimated that she would head to one of two water points, one of which was Bhakola (where we came from) Hemraj decided to take the Bhakola option, so we waited near a path that she would take if she chose Bhakola. Half an hour without action and we were resigned to a tiger-less afternoon. And then, out of nowhere, she appeared in front of us and started walking towards Bhakola. We saw her reuniting with her cub in the bush and the two of them started to walk through the forest. And we turned around and took the long way around. Hemraj estimated that she would cover the distance in about 25 minutes, so we slowly made our way to a bend on the road where he said she would appear. 

And lo! Roughly 22 minutes later, mother and son appeared at exactly at that place. They were in golden light, so we prayed for them to walk towards us on the road. But she was thirsty, so she took a short cut through the hill and descended into Bhakola. We could see them through the foliage, but there was no scope for any photography, so we decided to make our way out of the forest. On the way, we saw a Sloth Bear with two grown up cubs and I picked up a lifer - Yellow Legged Buttonquail... definitely did not expect this one! And that ended one of the finest days of my life. We'd seen 8 tigers, covered 4 of the park's 5 core tourist zones and most importantly, we'd spent roughly 8 out of the 13 hours in close proximity to one of the finest animals on this planet. All through the day, I remembered the man whose dream it was to do an unfettered full-day in his beloved Ranthambhore. He's with his tigers 24/7 now but how I wished he was in the jeep with me that day.

The last 2 safaris were spent in my nemesis area (Zone 6) to track the family that kept eluding us. The morning started with sightings of an Indian fox, which served to whet the appetite. And as we drove through the area, Hemraj and Kantar saw fresh pugmarks of a male tiger. We drove on for a bit and then turned back, only to find more fresh pugs, this time over our gypsy tracks. Hemraj was furious with himself; 'poor tracking', he kept muttering to himself. Any attempt to soothe him down only went the other way. He calculated where the tiger could have gone and led us to a pool right in the middle of a rocky valley. And in the water sat T34 (Kumbha) the dominant male of the area. He was sitting against the light so we decided to leave him and look for the female. Barely 20 metres down a bumpy, rocky path and we all realised the folly of our decision. How could you leave a tiger like that? And so we went back, only to find that Kumbha no longer occupied said waterhole. Hemraj was beside himself now. He sets very high standards for himself and this was just not acceptable. So we hurtled on towards the place he expected the tiger to head to, and sure enough, we found the majestic form of the ruler of that realm, the tiger named after a legendary Rajput king, Rana Kumbha.

Since he was walking off the path, it allowed us to get ahead of him and station ourselves a fair distance away, to be able to get pictures as he approached. He headed to a waterhole, lowered himself there and lapped in content. But he was on a mission, so had no time to dawdle. He heaved himself out of the water and walked forth, stopping only to spray his markings and once to relieve himself. He roared a couple of times to let his tigress and cubs (who were nearby) that he was around and all was well. Job done, he continued his walk, no doubt to check out the far reaches of his territory and weed out any upstarts to dared to threaten his reign. Now while we were with Kumbha, a couple of vehicles got fleeting views of the tigress and cubs on the far side of the same hill. We only got a couple of glimpses as they disappeared into their little cave for some rest.We were all sure that they would come to the water to drink that afternoon and so we came back for our last safari with a great deal of hope. But save for a 10 second sighting of the female without the cubs, we got nothing.

T-8 was the only aberration in a fantastic trip. A superb 3 days full of tigers, a dream full-day safari Noor and her cubs, a mating pair plus Kumbha in all his glory. But then, why was I still surprised? It's Ranthambhore after all!


Ranthambhore Trip Guide

Getting there

Ranthambhore is arguably the 'most easy to access' Tiger Reserve. Sawai Madhopur (SWM), the adjoining town, is a major junction on the Mumbai to Delhi/Jaipur trunk line hence train connectivity is excellent. From Mumbai, the Delhi August Kranti Rajdhani is the best option (leaves Mumbai at 17:40 and reaches SWM the next morning at 06:30) and on the way back it leaves SWM at 20:45 and gets into Mumbai at 9:45 the next morning. There are a number of options to Delhi, including the August Kranti.

Jaipur (140 kms) is the nearest big city and airport, a comfortable 3 hour journey on largely good roads.

Stay
Ranthambhore has it all. From budget hotels to home stays to mid range to full-on opulence, you can get the whole nine yards. 


For those who prefer a home-like ambience, the best is Tiger Home, an 8 room place (www.ranthambhoretigerhome.com) built by Hemraj Meena, a local who is one of the park's finest naturalists. A personal friend, Hemraj's dream had always been to have a place of his own where he can host wildlife lovers. And Tiger Home does exactly that. It's a really comfortable 8 room house with air-conditioned rooms and all the mod cons. Excellent home cooked food and very helpful staff make you feel genuinely like you're at home. And the best part is the company, Hemraj's experiences are incredible and you could well hear all about his stories with Ranthambhore's amazing tigers.

Two of Ranthambhore's best options at the next level are the Ranthambhore Regency (www.ranthambhor.com) and Ranthambhore Bagh (www.ranthambhore.com)

The luxury options include Taj Hotels' Sawai Madhopur Lodge, Oberoi Vanyavilas and Amanbagh. 

Safaris
Ranthambhore offers two types of safaris - gypsy (6 seats) and canter (approx 20 seats) Unlike most other parks, here the bookings are on a seat basis, so you can book individual gypsy or canter seats without having to pay for the whole vehicle. All bookings need to be made on the website (www.rajasthanwildlife.com

Please do book well in advance, especially if you need gypsy bookings. And always carry your ID proof with you, since there might be some checking at the entry gates.

Other attractions 
Ranthambhore Fort and the Ganesh Temple - one of Ranthambhore's most distinctive features is the huge fort that looms over the park. This medieval fort also has Rajasthan's oldest Ganesh temple, which attracts thousands of visitors, especially on Wednesdays.

There are village visits and homestays - Hemraj's village Bhuri Pahari is an example where there are some comfortable stay options. You can explore and experience village life and also spot some interesting birds, especially in winter.

Other Tips
Ranthambhore can get really hot in summer, so sunscreen, comfortable clothes and headgear are a must. It can get equally cold in winter, so carry a thick jacket for sure.

The full day safari is a delight but it also takes some getting used to. Please carry a bag or haversack with sun-block, adequate water and also some dry snacks or fruit if you get peckish during the day. 

While a gypsy can take 6 people, it's advisable for a full-day (or half day) safari to have no more than four people. 6 is a tight squeeze and manageable for a 3 hour safari, but to spend 6 or 13 hours like that is not recommended, definitely for your sanity!

Another factor is the dust, so if you're troubled or allergic, a face mask will come in handy.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ranthambhore - Back to tiger-land (May 2017)


Summer is tiger time. The heat, coupled with the drying up of the deciduous forests of Central/North India make it the best time to spot the striped wonder. Conveniently, the birding season is more or less over, save for a few select summer migrants, which gives one the luxury of focusing exclusively on what I consider the finest animal on the planet. No biases there! And tigers invariably lead me back to my spiritual home, the spectacular forests of Ranthambhore. The tigers there are like family now, and so are many of the people who make these trips an absolute pleasure.

As always, we arrived from Mumbai on the August Kranti Rajdhani Express, which gets there just in time for us to make a decent fist of the morning safari. In summer, the park opens at 6 a.m. and the train gets in at 6:20, so it's just after 7 by the time we get into the park. Still more than 2 hours of safari time left and as it almost always turns out, enough time to spot our first tiger. This time too, we were picked up at the station by Rajesh Gujar, one of Ranthambhore's finest and most experienced naturalists. We headed straight from the station to the park, stopping en route to pick up some more of our party from the hotel.

Zone 3 or the Lake Area is one of Ranthambhore's most spectacular parts. Three beautiful lakes with the imposing Ranthambhore fort in the background make for some stunning panorama shots. It is also the most accessible and fastest to reach, making it the perfect choice for the truncated first morning safari. And that's where our canter headed, with all of 16 people on board. We entered through the Jogi Mahal gate, breezed past Padam Talao and into the Rajbagh lake, with the ruins of a medieval hunting palace, ironically home to tigers now. Late entrants search for other vehicles, since stationary jeeps almost always indicate a tiger sighting. With no sign of any jeeps here, Rajesh decided to head to the Mandook plateau, one of the highest points in the park. And as we rounded a bend towards a water hole, a phalanx of vehicles in the distance made us all pick up our cameras. Tiger!

T-91, the new Lord of the Lakes
As we neared the waterhole, we saw a large, tawny form lying in the grass a few metres away. It was T-91, a young male tiger, who had recently deposed T-28, the aging monarch of the lakes. Soon, he stood up and regally walked up to the water for a drink and a wallow. He was young, handsome and looked every bit the reigning king of the area, nonchalant to the presence of his human throng going ballistic with their cameras. It was all getting too idyllic and predictable. The jungle however is full of drama and one never knows what's around the corner. In this case, quite literally.

A movement on the far side of the bushes attracted our attention. To our astonishment, we saw another male tiger walking towards us. It was T-85 (PacMan), a young nomadic male who hadn't still found his territory. He walked purposefully towards the jeeps near the waterhole, completely unaware of the big male in the water. And then he suddenly stopped, he'd seen the other tiger. Even as we were all licking our chops at the prospect of a territorial fight, young PacMan clearly was not in the mood to risk life and limb for our entertainment. He turned and ran, just as purposefully as he'd arrived. Clearly, he'd had some unpleasant conversations with T-91 in the recent past and (which Rajesh confirmed) and had no desire for a repeat. Still, to see a large-ish male tiger run for his life was unusual to say the least. In all of this, the monarch sat in his little pool, unmoved apart from a casual flick of his head towards the intruder. And that was the end of our first safari.

The afternoon saw us head back to Zone 3 and we went looking for our morning friend. As we headed down the road, we saw jeeps heading towards us, waving us back - the tiger was on the move. So we turned around and saw him cross the road in front of us and head into the undergrowth. We anticipated that he might make for another waterhole some distance away so we headed there and waited. And as if on cue, he made his way there. And the way it turned out, he wasn't just going to get water, but also a free lunch. A dead sambhar lay by the water and our friend found himself a feast. Such luck comes rarely in the jungle and he was not going to pass on the chance to avail of a free meal. He may be top of the food chain, but he's not going to let ego get in the way of a full stomach.


And for the next hour or so, we watched him tuck into the deer with gusto, once again oblivious to the bystanders at his private luncheon. He had the grace to drag the kill from the open to a spot behind a tree, but it was more a token gesture of privacy-seeking than any real intent. Having demolished a significant portion of his serving, he came up to the water for a drink and a wallow. Once he was done, he seemed to be in two minds on whether to continue eating or walk away to find another challenge, maybe seek out his mate Arrowhead, who was being aggressively courted by 2 other males. He seemed to vacillate for nearly 20 minutes before choosing to continue his repast. His mate and the males could wait. And we left him in peace with his decision and headed to search for other tigers.

T-57 eyeing a passing peacock
No other tigers were forthcoming and it was almost time, so we headed towards the gate. Rajesh kept saying that he had a hunch that we would see T-57, a huge male with a massive territory. And as we neared Padam Talao, a congregation of jeeps around a small stream piqued our curiosity. Rajesh led us there and we saw a male tiger having a wallow in the stream. It was T-57!! He sat in the shallow water and started roaring, wooing his potential mate, the aforementioned Arrowhead. His roars got got louder and more urgent as time went by but the lovely lady was nowhere close. She was apparently cavorting with T-86, a third male some distance away. And apparently this T-86 had bested T-57 in a fight so our friend didn't dare intrude any further. His heartfelt appeals fell on deaf ears and he walked back to more faithful felines in his territory, no doubt shaking his head at the infidelity of his lady love Arrowhead. Life isn't always easy, even for a large male tiger! And we exited the park, only to spot a bear on the main road outside the park. It was too dark for any pictures, but bear sightings are always special.

The second day was spent in Zone 6, in search of T-8 (Ladli) and her cubs. These were the only cubs we were likely to see on the trip, since the rocking Zone 2 (home to 2 other families) was arbitrarily closed for the larger canters, ostensibly to not disturb the tigers though over 10 additional VIP jeeps are allowed there every safari. Go figure! Zone 6 being one of the 'lesser zones', we were able to get jeeps, so we headed there hoping to see these cubs or their father, the majestic T-34 (Kumbha). There was no sign of them initially, so a couple of us jeeps drove deep into the zone. At one point, I saw a feline rounding a bend on the road and I said 'Tiger'.
Spotty Dada
Turned out to be a leopard, a large male called Spotty Dada. Hearing us, he got off the road and walked alongside on the slopes. We tarried with him till he climbed far ahead and out of sight. Only to encounter a Sloth Bear walking on the road. It was a large male and he ambled along confidently towards our stationery jeep. He got really close and then climbed down a ridge and out of sight. A jeep coming the other way said that there was a female further down the road and the couple had been mating. So we drove on ahead, saw the female and waited in case the leopard came down again. No juice on that so we drove back towards the tiger point.

Bruin on the road!
En route we passed a forest check post where some tourist jeeps were taking a break. And, much to our chagrin, we found out that T-8, cubs and Kumbha had been seen at the waterhole. We sped to the location to find our third jeep there, having seen their fill of the family. The tigers had just left the water to head towards their resting spot amidst the rocks. We managed to see Kumbha's back as he walked on to explore his territory. Then we spotted a couple of the cubs on a rocky ledge, with the mother close by. All we could make were a couple of record shots as the cubs disappeared into their den in the rocks. And a few of decided that we would return that afternoon to see the family come to have a drink. The rest of the group headed to Zone 4 where T-86 and Arrowhead were having a romantic encounter. And the afternoon turned out to be as frustrating as the morning, mother and cubs gave us a glimpse and nothing more as they never ventured into the water. The others saw the mating pair (though no mating happened) along with glimpses of 4 other tigers.

T-8's male cub
The final day dawned with another visit to see T-8. We arrived at the same spot and saw the tigress amble up a wooded slope, above the waterhole. She was dry so obviously hadn't stepped into the water. Then we saw the cubs emerge from the bush and gambol about around her. But they were far and amidst thick foliage so no real photography was possible. We waited for them to come to the water but they just wouldn't come. And there was no sign of Kumbha either, so that was the end of that safari. The last safari of the trip that afternoon (on Zone 4) proved fruitless as the mating pair had moved elsewhere and none of the other tigers deigned to make an appearance. And as we headed back on the train, I ruminated on a trip that began magnificently, but ended rather tamely. But seeing 3 large male tigers on a single day more than made up for missing the cubs.

The highlight was seeing Tiger, Leopard and Bear on a single safari, something that's never happened to me before. Ranthambhore always delights. Always.


Ranthambhore Trip Guide


Getting there

Ranthambhore is arguably the 'most easy to access' Tiger Reserve. Sawai Madhopur (SWM), the adjoining town is a major junction on the Mumbai to Delhi/Jaipur trunk line hence train connectivity is excellent. From Mumbai, the Delhi August Kranti Rajdhani is the best option (leaves Mumbai at 17:40 and reaches SWM the next morning at 06:30) and on the way back it leaves SWM at 20:45 and gets into Mumbai at 9:45 the next morning. There are a number of options to Delhi, including the August Kranti.

Jaipur (140 kms) is the nearest big city and airport, a comfortable 3 hour journey on largely good roads.

Stay
Ranthambhore has it all. From budget hotels to home stays to mid range to full-on opulence, you can get the whole nine yards. 



For those who prefer a home-like ambience, the best is Tiger Home, an 8 room place (www.ranthambhoretigerhome.com) built by Hemraj Meena, a local who is one of the park's finest naturalists. A personal friend, Hemraj's dream had always been to have a place of his own where he can host wildlife lovers. And Tiger Home does exactly that. It's a really comfortable 8 room house with air-conditioned rooms and all the mod cons. Excellent home cooked food and very helpful staff make you feel genuinely like you're at home. And the best part is the company, Hemraj's experiences are incredible and you could well hear all about his stories with Ranthambhore's amazing tigers.


This time we stayed at the Vatika resort. It's a nice homely place with comfortable rooms and good, vegetarian food. The fare is tasty but limited so not for those expecting lavish buffets. 


At the mid-level, two of Ranthambhore's best options are the Ranthambhore Regency (www.ranthambhor.com) and Aditya Singh's Ranthambhore Bagh (www.ranthambhore.com)

The luxury options include Taj Hotels' Sawai Madhopur Lodge, Oberoi Vanyavilas and Amanbagh. 

Safaris
Ranthambhore offers two types of safaris - gypsy (6 seats) and canter (approx 25-30 seats) Unlike most other parks, here the bookings are on a seat basis, so you can book 2 gypsy or canter seats without having to pay for the whole vehicle. All bookings need to be made on the website (www.rajasthanwildlife.com

Please do book well in advance, especially if you need gypsy bookings. And always carry your ID proof with you, since there might be some checking at the entry gates.

Other attractions 
Ranthambhore Fort and the Ganesh Temple - one of Ranthambhore's most distinctive features is the huge fort that looms over the park. This medieval fort also has Rajasthan's oldest Ganesh temple, which attracts thousands of visitors, especially on Wednesdays.

There are village visits and homestays - Hemraj's village Bhuri Pahari is an example where there are some comfortable stay options. You can explore and experience village life and also spot some interesting birds, especially in winter.

Other Tips
Ranthambhore can get really hot in summer, so sunscreen, comfortable clothes and headgear are a must. It can get equally cold in winter, so carry a thick jacket for sure.

Another factor is the dust, so if you're troubled or allergic, a face mask will come in handy.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Kaziranga - Paradisus Rhinocertainus (February 2017)

I've sometimes been accused of using the word 'paradise' very liberally across my various posts. Guilty as charged, but is there a better word (or term) that does justice to the magical wildernesses that adorn this country of ours? So, till someone pitches in with a better option, 'paradise' it will be. And no park deserves this epithet more than Kaziranga, for a visit here is truly an out-of-this-world experience. And as the title suggests, seeing a magnificent rhino (or seven) is almost a certainty in this most spectacular of habitats. Enough with the adjectives and on with the trip report, you say? Aye, aye Cap'n!

This trip was planned more than 6 months ago, with a couple of close family friends. The primary motive was for our kids to see the rhino, a privilege not available in our part of the country. And of course we wouldn't be averse to seeing a few tigers (or even one!) such is the magnetic lure of that most royal of cats. And for me, the feathery friends that inhabit this place were an extra motivator. And so we set off, a party of 9, with a couple of pleasant days in Kolkata to kick things off. We arrived at the Iora Resort in Kaziranga late one afternoon, and I caught up with the resident expert, Kushal Boruah. He casually asked me if I'd like to check out Grey Headed Lapwings nearby. And while the Lapwings gave us only a distant sighting that evening, Kushal's company and skill really set the tone for what would become a superlative trip.

The next morning started at dawn, before the scheduled jeep safari. Kushal took me for a walk in the small hills behind the hotel, to look for Laughingthrushes. And we climbed towards the top of one hill, he stopped to check in the bushes along the road. I was a couple of steps ahead of him and he suddenly asked me to stop. Almost at the same instant I heard a growling sound from the bush not more than 15 feet away. I turned to Kushal and he motioned me to walk back down the hill. And then he whispered 'Leopard'. He'd seen a smaller leopard jump down the hill and the silhouette of another climb up, almost up to the road. A few more steps and I might have been breakfast. What a thrilling way to start off this trip!

Safari 1 - Agaratoli (Eastern) Zone
Kaziranga National Park is broadly divided into 3 tourist zones - Kohora (Central), Baghori (Western) and Agaratoli (Eastern) And we headed towards the east for our first safari. Agaratoli does not conform to the classical 'Elephant Grass' Kaziranga stereotype. Is more mixed, with large waterbodies breaking up dense forest as well as the occasional grassland patch. It is also the best zone for tiger sightings these days, with 2 families being sighted quite regularly. So we crossed all our fingers as we entered the zone. For me, the first 10 minutes threw up 3 lifers - a Red Collared Dove in a little forest patch, followed by Northern and Grey Headed Lapwings alongside a waterbody. They were all quite far so no great images, but it was a great way to open the account.

Swamp Deer
Further into the zone and we saw a beautiful sight - a mother Swamp Deer nursing her young calf on the banks of the waterbody. Behind her were hordes of ducks - Pintails, Gadwalls and Wigeons. Heading further, I got my first lifer of the trip - an unexpected one that too; Mallards. A few birds were feeding in a smaller waterbody and I was thrilled to see these beautiful ducks dive in and out of the water. This was followed up by a family of smooth coated river otters basking in the morning sun. And we did get a glimpse of a rhino, but it was far and in the middle of thick bush. Not quite the Kaziranga stunners that we were used to. So I advised the kids to be patient and wait for a proper rhino sighting. Till then a Grey Headed Fishing Eagle and a White Tailed Eagle in flight would have to do. Now Agaratoli is a single track zone where you go along a single path up to a point and then come back along the same road. On our way back a Small Niltava came and sat right in front of us, but completely against the light. And right across the road, a little bird flitted about and as I pointed it out to Kushal for ID, he said Little Pied Flycatcher. Another little joy that I was least expecting but very happy to get!

Little Pied Flycatcher
On our way out, we saw a rhino move in the grass across a small waterbody. And we waited, in the hope that it would come into the open. And, much to everyone's joy, it did! It was a beautiful male rhino and he came down to the water for a drink. And then he proceeded to lie in the water for a little wallow, allowing us to get a sense of how huge really was. A herd of elephants further down was the icing on what was a superb debut safari. 

Safari 2 - Baghori (Western) Zone
The afternoon safari was in the Western Zone, home to a lot of elephant grass and swamps and hence perfect for Rhino. And almost as soon as we got into the zone we spotted a couple of Rhinos up close. We then headed towards a watch tower which allowed spectacular views of the waterbody as well as the vast meadows on the other bank. And these meadows were dotted with Rhinos. And as the kids started their Rhino count in earnest, Kushal tried to find me some of the feathered friends I was gunning for. An Abbott's Babbler and a Blue Eared Barbet both called from somewhere near, but neither of them were willing to come out into the open. And then as we headed back, we saw Lakpa with his bunch of guests frantically motioning us to come towards his side of the waterbody. When we got there, we saw jeeps queueing up on the road alongside a small meadow which had a few feral cattle grazing. And vehicles only queue up for one reason - the striped wonder. Apparently, one of the drivers had seen a tiger slink into the grass a few minutes earlier. We all waited in anticipation, guessing that the tiger might be stalking the cattle. And they too were on high alert for quite a while before settling back down. And we knew we had to move on. 
Rosy Pipit
Further ahead in another waterbody, I got Common Pochards and a large flock of Ferruginous Ducks. And then in another little swamp a little bird flitting around turned out to be a Rosy Pipit. By then, it was almost sunset and we turned around to head back. We passed a gap in the elephant grass and noticed a herd of Hog Deer grazing peacefully in the open. Barely 20 seconds after we crossed that gap we heard urgent alarm calls from the deer, followed by the deer running away at top speed, still continuously calling. It could only mean one thing - a Tiger! We searched through the bush for any signs of the striped wonder, but no luck. The tiger would have walked through the gap barely seconds after our jeep passed it. Such are the ways of the jungle. It also makes one even more aware of how much of a privilege it is to see tigers, or indeed any of the other species in the forest. And thus ended the day on a philosophical note.

Safari 3 - Kohora (Central) Zone
The morning dawned bright and clear as we drove into Kohora. And almost at once we saw a Rhino right next to the road. This guy was battle scarred and had some recent souvenirs etched on his rump. He saw us, thrust his head into the air and pulled back his upper lips, almost like sizing up our odours. We thought he might charge and pulled slightly further away so as not to agitate him. And a little further were 2 other rhinos, possibly a mating pair. While we watched them, Kushal pointed out a bird sitting far away on a post. it was a Striated Grassbird. I managed to see it clearly through the binoculars though it was too far for a photo. And we drove further along the meadow and suddenly a large flock of small weaver-like birds perched on the tall grass stems. I'd assumed they were Baya Weavers, but Kushal and our superb driver Papu, both confirmed that they were Finn's Weavers. What a bonus! The birds then arrived on a tree almost right above us, so while they were too far up for quality pictures, I was satisfied with record shots.


Swamp Francolin
Driving on and I saw two largish birds cross a path on our left and quickly pointed them out to the expert duo in front. Swamp Francolins! Got a couple of records as they melted into the grass, but the morning was turning out to be quite special already. We stopped at the nearby watchtower to scan the surrounding area for any sign of tiger activity. A couple of alarm calls had us on edge for a bit, but that soon died out. Instead, a Chestnut Headed Babbler started calling right from right next to the path, followed by a Slender Billed Babbler across the path. As I kept watching for signs of either, almost like a tennis match... the Slender Billed made a fleeting appearance, though not for pictures. Even as we headed back in the jeep, the Chestnut Headed appeared in the open, obviously keener on a photo shoot than his Slender Billed relative. Got off a few shots of this beauty and then it was back to the hotel.
Chestnut Capped Babbler

Safari 4 - Agaratoli Zone


Northern Lapwing
The last safari of the trip and the tiger became the focus of all attention. Kushal and Papu recommended that we head to Agaratoli where 2 tiger families made frequent afternoon appearances. And that settled it as we headed back to the Eastern zone. A beautiful Rhino all in the open started that safari, followed by a Northern Lapwing up close. A raptor on a tree turned out to be a Peregrine Falcon. But we pressed ahead to the spot where the tigers were normally seen. And waited. And waited. At one point, the Hog Deer seemed genuinely on alert and there were frantic few alarm calls. And we waited breathlessly as the tall grass parted... and a Rhino walked out! To have the last laugh, I suppose. Though the striped wonder was probably sitting in the grass nearby and chuckling its stripes off at us. Net, we didn't see a tiger on that safari  though our Rhino count had swollen to very respectable levels.

Day 3 - Birding in the tea estates
White Browed Piculet
The final morning in Kaziranga dawned with me heading out with Kushal, Papu and Lakpa for a morning around the tea estates. The kids had a taken an elephant safari where they saw Rhinos up close, but still no tigers. And we drove to a nearby tea estate and skirted through the surprisingly tough tea bushes into the undergrowth. 3 birding experts with me and I was thoroughly spoilt. In the tea gardens itself, we saw a flock of Rufous Necked Laughingthrushes, albeit slightly far away. Into the undergrowth and immediately they conjured up a Pale Chinned Flycatcher, followed by a White Browed Piculet and then a Rufous Fronted Babbler. The Piculet was the only one who posed for a photo, thus proving himself to be a far more willing model than his Speckled cousin. Even as I clambered up the slope back into the tea gardens, I had my first encounter with the local leeches. It's amazing how quickly they can latch on to you and this friend helped reduce my considerable weight by a few ml of red fluid.
Yellow Vented Flowerpecker
We walked on, to the calls of White Browed Scimitar Babblers and fleeting glimpses of a Large Cuckooshrike, Black Rumped Flameback and Yellow Bellied Warbler. And then Lakpa noticed a movement far above in a tree. It was a Yellow Vented Flowerpecker, one of the rarer varieties of this species. Another superb stroke of luck. We walked towards a stream where Kushal hunted for Black backed Forktail but all his efforts were in vain. With another flock of Rufous Necked Laughingthrushes and a glimpse of a Fulvous Breasted Woodpecker to close out the trip, we headed back to the hotel. I had to see off the rest of the gang on their way to Mumbai and then Lakpa and I would head further to bird in Upper Assam and then Arunachal Pradesh.

Kaziranga is truly spectacular and the Rhino alone makes it a 'must visit' destination. But there's so much more to see and experience in this most wonderful of National Parks. And with experts like Kushal and Papu for company, you will always come out with more than you'd expected. 
Rufous Necked Laughingthrush

Kaziranga Trip Guide
Kaziranga National Park is about 200 kms east of Guwahati, Assam's main city and nerve centre. The closest big town (and airport) is Jorhat, about 110 kms away. It's a park that's surprisingly easy to access and has a number of well appointed places to stay, across a range of prices.

How to get there
Jorhat's Rowriah Airport (110 kms - 2 hours) is the closest airport. The highway is being expanded to a 4 lane (except in the Park area) so the drive will be even more pleasant when it's completed.

Jorhat is connected to most big Indian cities via Kolkata and Guwahati and most airlines have a daily flight here.

You can also drive here via Guwahati (4-5 hours) if that provides a better flight connection.

Where to stay
Kaziranga has a number of places to stay, across budget ranges. Since we were traveling as families, with kids and an elder with us, we chose the comfortable Iora Kaziranga. It's a lovely setting with wonderful, large rooms and an excellent Assamese restaurant. The rest of the F&B act can do with some tightening though. Iora also has Kushal, so it was the perfect choice for us in more ways than one.

Wild Grass is the oldest hotel in Kaziranga, though not as luxurious as Iora. Hardocre wildlifers not chasing luxury usually head here. Their naturalist Palash Barua is also a local legend. I've stayed there on a previous visit.

Safaris
Zones: Kaziranga has 3 tourist zones - Kohora (Central), Baghori (Western) and Agaratoli (Eastern) One should aim to cover off all these zones at least once, so please plan a trip with at least 4-5 safaris.

Timings: The timings in Kaziranga are a bit strange. The park opens at 7:30 in winter, which is probably the latest of any park in the country. Given its location in the far east of India, it is bright at 6:00 am even in peak winter, so the 7:30 time is a bit difficult to fathom.

The afternoon safari is more in line with other parks, entering around 2 pm, till around sunset.

Guides
All hotels have their own naturalists, so do ask for them in advance. The park has forest guards (with guns) who accompany some of the vehicles and these guys are very well informed as well. Unlike other parks, mandatory, rostered Forest Guides do not exist in the Kaziranga system,

And if you're staying in Iora, please do ask for the superb Kushal Boruah. If possible, he will team up with the super-sharp Papu Choudhury and together they will make your trip a memorable one.

Food
Assamese food is absolutely delicious, with a combination of delicate flavours and some serious chilli. The local food that we had in Iora's assamese restaurant was superb!

Other tips
Kaziranga can get cold in winter, so do pack some woolies or jackets.
Check for rain forecasts, and pack some basic rain wear and protection for your cameras.


Finn's Weaver

Grey Headed Lapwing

Lesser Adjutant Stork

Mallard