It turned out that our train to Sawai Madhoper was a mere 6 hours delayed, so we enjoyed a lazy day at our homestay before heading out by tuk-tuk across a decidedly blustery and grey looking Bharatpur. Overcast and heavy, you could almost hear the clouds groaning above us, ready to drop the monsoon on our heads.
Arriving at the station, we mooched along the platform until we found ourselves a spot to sit down on our bags, enjoying feeling of being outside and having the wind to cool our skin. But before we could get even begin to get comfy, an Indian police man popped up almost out of nowhere in his khaki uniform with pin badges and sash, and sporting a fantastic bristling moustache that had a life of its own. Without pausing for a single breath he whipped us up and bustled us down the platform into a waiting room – apparently something our reserved tickets entitled us to- who knew? From there, without a moments hesitation he promptly began to gesticulate at the passengers already waiting in the room, shifting them aside, before insisting that we sit ourselves down in newly freed up seats. We of course embarrassedly tried to apologise to the unfortunate passengers and make them stay, not that they seemed the least bit non plussed by it. and before we had time to take in what had really happened moustache man was gone.
I wanted to go back out onto the platform, as the waiting room was hot and stuffy, and the wind outside was cooling, but we were both a bit wary of moustache man popping up again and forcing us to sit back down. Lucky for us we hadn’t stayed out on the platform, because next thing we knew, the rain came. And what rain… The sheer volume of water dropped by the monsoon in such a short space of time has such an intensity to it that it truly has to be seen to be believed. It just poured down onto the red tin roof, and within a matter of minutes the entire platform outside was flooded, ankle deep in some places, with thick brown water, spreading over the tiles right where we had been about to settle ourselves down a minute or 2 before. The intensity was short lived, and within 5 minutes it started to clear up, within 10 it had gone completely, leaving everything behind it dripping and bedraggled, but all the fresher for it.
After that, the 2 hour journey was relatively uneventful. Moustache man popped up again just before our train was due to dutifully whisk us down the platform and ensure we found our seats. And then it was goodbye to Bharatpur and onwards to Ranthambore.
The vegetation rushing by outside the train window continued to grow greener and lusher as we watched, with little hills popping up now every now and then to punctuate the otherwise totally flat landscape. Miles and miles of green to be seen. Little flashes of bright reds, brilliant oranges, hot pinks, and deep ochres sped by, the light catching the colours of the saris worn by ladies walking or working in the fields.
By the time we reached Sawai Madhoper, the air was decidedly cooler, and the temperature outside made everything much more comfortable for everyone involved. Once again the streets teamed with tuk-tuks and cycles, weaving between market stalls, families of pigs, cows, donkeys and even camels pulling along little wagons in the dusty streets. Huge elaborately decorated trucks honked cheerfully. Vans bumped by with what seemed like entire villages in the back.
We stayed at Rajputana Heritage Hotel, where the owner, Vishnu, gave us a generous welcome and introduced us to his family. We were led upstairs to the rooftop where there was a restaurant and we could overlook the local neighbourhood. Across the road, kids were playing football in a grassy enclosed field, and their shouts and yells floated up to us, more often than not arguing about who had to get the ball back when it went over the wall into the road. A nearby temple blared out with women singing and chanting, celebrating Shiva everyday in August, Vishnu informed us, beaming proudly, from 5.30-7pm, followed by a general yell-along call-and-response type thing involving what seemed like all of the local kids, followed by a clanging on of bells, drums, and candle lighting, followed by cake more shouting, followed by cake, which Vishnu was delighted to invite us to try.
We went out for a walk to explore the neighbourhood. It seemed to be a much more wealthy side of India than we had yet encountered on our travels, with large gated family homes and hotels, and relatively cleaner and quieter streets, more like the sort of place we ourselves could imagine living (don’t worry Judes we’re not getting any ideas!). The local kids were chirpy and cheeky, one kid running up to us and in far too perfect English teasing us saying ‘Please give me just 10 rupees, I’m very poor’ before squealing with laughter and running off while his friends caught him up on their rather shiny looking bicycles.
Dinner was had on the rooftop, overlooking never ending football match below, the sunset exploding into colour on the horizon, and we spotted some more of the large bats in the moonlight, stalking their way over the house and out towards Ranthambore forest.
We were hoping ourselves to go on 1, maybe even 2 safaris, out into Ranthambore- a vast protected area of jungle and craggy rocks, home to 70+ wild tigers, plus leopards, sloth bears, various deer, monkeys, peacocks and much more. I was excited to see more of the majesty of Rajasthan’s undisturbed nature, jungles, and animals. Unfortunately for me, I got sick at this point… so I hand you over to my first ever(!) guest blogger… the wonderful and witty (his words not mine) Richard Lloyd… Here we go…
Ranthambore Park is a huge national park, over 1000 square Km in size, 20% of which is open to the public, for twice daily safari’s, each 3 hours long, either on Jeeps or Cantors, which are more like small open-top trucks, that can hold 20 people. Only about 400 guests can come into the park each morning or evening.
The main park, split into 10 zones, is open from October to June, during the dry season, and this is when the vast majority of tourists visit. All other national parks are closed from July-September, during Monsoon season, to allow the animals space and time to mate, and for the Parks to recover.
However, because of Ranthambore’s popularity (and profitability), the Park Service keeps open Zones 6-10 throughout the year, which are more border zones, less deep in the jungle, and more arid and shrub-like. Theoretically, they are less good for seeing the Tiger, but our host had heard that there was a mother and 2 grown-up cubs in Zone 6. The chance of seeing the tiger seems to be down to patience, the skill and eyes of your guide, and a heavy slice of luck. None-the less, the omen’s seemed good!
We’d set the alarm for 5.45 in the morning, to get into the National Park for sunrise, the best time to spot the elusive and fabled tiger.
Unfortunately, be it due to the Masala Chai on the train, or one of the sweet biscuits given out at the temple, Roo was developing the early signs of a viral gastroenteritis (more affectionately known as Delhi belly) and was not able to come with me. So I jumped onto the already packed with families open-top jeep (quite how Roo would have fitted if she had been well, I’m not entirely sure) that had pulled up outside our hotel, and off we went.
The park entrance was about 10km out of town, and as we drove in, hawkers tried to sell some tiger-branded Safari Hats, so we could at least look like a serious naturalist. The jeep took us round the muddy, rocky tracks – being in a 4×4 made it feel vaguely like you were prowling around, relying on your eyes and tracking skill, but in reality, all vehicles have to follow a set route.
The early signs looked good – we quickly spied deer herds, and some a couple of peacocks performing their mating dance. We even saw (okay after the guide pointed them out) some fresh tiger prints in the mud. Conditions seemed perfect – cool, with some slight mist and drizzle in the air.
However, the drizzle slowly became heavier, and the monsoon season, decided to fully unleash itself, and show really why most visitors came to the park once the rainy season had passed.
Other jeeps had tarpaulin roof’s that the could attach to the jeep. One even had umbrellas that all the passengers huddled under. Unfortunately, our’s had none of these mod-cons. More unfortunately, everyone else had not brought a coat with them (initially, I felt a bit guilty putting my waterproof on while there was a family of five getting rained on beside me, but then the rain turned into a deluge, and once everyone else was soaked through, there wasn’t any more point in us all getting drenched right?)
As the lashings of rain ropes kept coming, and as even my trusty blue cagoule started to fail under the torrential weather, the driver made the executive decision to abandon proceedings. Skidding and sliding along the muddy rivers that were replacing the tracks, we made it out (telling ourselves that in these conditions, the tigers would be hiding safely away out of the rain anyway).
We went back through the town, where localised flash flooding meant some of the roads were suddenly over a foot deep in water. In England, this would have cued mass panic, school closures, bin collection cancellations etc, but here people nonchalantly carried on as normal.
It was only later that we found out the better prepared jeeps (ie with any sense of wet-weather-contingency plan), who hadn’t abandoned the park, were rewarded with a tiger sighting, and were more-than-happy to show off their incredible upclose pictures of these incredible animals. We would still have time to go on another safari tomorrow morning, and hoped Roo would be better, so fingers crossed for then…
Helloooo I’m back… So, after laughing at a soaked through Rich and a lunch of plain rice, by the afternoon I was feeling a bit better, so we both headed out by safari jeep to Ranthambore Fort. The fort is situated in the very centre of the park, so to get there we actually ended up driving through the heart of the jungle, seeing deer, peacocks, and many scampering and leaping monkeys. It was a truly beautiful place full of nature and life, and we drove between craggy cliffs where wild leopards made their homes and through fords of bubbling water. You could easily see why Ranthambore had become such a sanctuary for the tigers, with its untamed trees and grasses I could just imagine a tiger stalking through the undergrowth.
The fort itself was teeming with other people, locals who were paying respects to the oldest temple dedicated to Ganesh in Rajasthan. It is a strange thing being a white tourist in India, everywhere we went people would smile at us and reach out to take our hands saying ‘hello, hello’, ‘namaste’ and ‘how are you’, or those with more daring would ask us for selfies on their phones- and once you say yes to one, you end up with everyone wanting one. At one point I ended up surrounded by a group of ladies who wouldn’t let me go, all reaching out to take my hand or wanting to squeeze my cheek and touch my hair and of course have lots of photos with me. I personally find it quite fun, especially when it is with women or kids, but I can easily see how quickly it could become overwhelming.
We slowly climbed up through many great gates, eventually coming to the temple, where in peak times, people would queue for up to an hour to get inside. Luckily for us it was quiet and we were able to go straight in. Flower garlands were placed over our heads and bindis pressed onto our foreheads as seen cakes were pressed into our hands. As we shuffled past, we took the opportunity to formally invite Ganesh, the elephant God of fortune in new beginnings, to come to our wedding in May- a tradition at this particular temple that, according to Vishnu, couples would travel from all over India to do.
As soon as we left the temple, any sense of spiritual zen we might have been feeling was immediately destroyed by a large monkey who proceeded to bully Rich and mug him of his spectacular flower garland- much to my great amusement.
Any ideas of fitting in another tiger safari the next morning were soon dashed as I got more sick again that evening. Guess it’ll just be plain rice for me for the next few days…