The prospect of seeing a tiger in the wild was one of the things that drew me to visit India. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to see one of these majestic creatures in their natural habitat? While researching my tiger safari trip to Ranthambore National Park in May, I was surprised by the lack of comprehensive up-to-date info. I found plenty of blog entries describing experiences but little on what you need to do. And most information dated back at least 4-5 years - was it still relevant? Hopefully I can clear up some of the areas I struggled in, while also giving an account of what I experienced.
The 4:20am alarm buzzed – I groaned then remembered why it was set. I grabbed my things and headed for the road. The initial plan had been to use the guesthouse bicycle to reach the safari office but the previous day I’d been warned it was not a good idea – apparently tigers and leopards can occasionally stray outside the unfenced park boundaries and night is prime hunting time! The advice was to flag down a safari vehicle headed to the office; as luck would have it, I found a driver having early morning chai at a roadside café and he was more than happy to drive me. I arrived in plenty of time and soon had my ticket – a canter vehicle (a 20-seater truck, see below) in zone 3. After collecting the majority of passengers from hotels back in Sawai Madhopur (the benefits of pre-booking rather than winging it like me), we were off for our safari!
A brief stop at park HQ so our guide could do the paperwork, we then headed into Zone 3. The obvious landmark was Ranthambore Fort, looming over everything on a rocky escarpment in the centre of the park. The terrain was already brown from the first month of the hot season. Ruins of old temples and houses were common, and several lakes provided animals with some respite from the heat. Over the next 2 hours, we encountered plenty of wildlife – peacocks everywhere, brightly coloured kingfishers, several species of deer plus a crocodile. But no tiger. Before we knew it, time was up and we were heading back to Sawai Madhopur. Strike 1 in my quest for a tiger.
With memories of my Sri Lankan whale watching trip in mind (peak whale season but no blue whale spotted), I headed back to the safari office with mixed feelings – was this to be another enjoyable yet fruitless attempt to see one of nature’s iconic creatures? After a 4km cycle in early afternoon temperatures hitting 45 degrees, I reached the safari office again. Being the only foreigner who had not pre-booked (and therefore not having pre-arranged hotel pickup), I was recognised and before I knew it they had granted my request – gypsy vehicle (a 6-seater jeep, see below) in Zone 2. They even beckoned me into the fan-cooled office to wait for the ticket to be issued. Definitely a lot friendlier than from the other side of the ticket window!
We headed off in the gypsy; immediately I noticed how much roomier it was than the canter. 4 more guests were collected from hotels; the benefit to pre-booking again. As I’d been first on board, I had the pick of the seats – I grabbed front row/right side, although all seats in a gypsy have a great view.
Our guide KK introduced himself and we headed into Zone 2, Ranthambore Fort again looming into view to our left, towering above the park. As with the morning safari, deer and an array of birdlife were common but nothing bigger. 30 minutes in, I was already thinking I was out of luck. Suddenly our driver veered right – the guide had spotted a group of vehicles clustered in the distance. We pulled up near a waterhole; as we were blocked by others, our view was obscured. Then KK turned to us and grinned – “Tiger!” We headed to the far side of the waterhole and there it was, partially obscured by trees but unmistakably a tiger, an adolescent male. A few vehicles departed so we headed back to the other side of the waterhole. Much closer to the water, our view was much clearer but not perfect, one vehicle had the prime spot and selfishly didn’t budge the whole time (our guide spoke to their guide, he turned to look at his sole passenger, a well-dressed middle-aged Chinese women, probably imagined the forthcoming tip and shrugged his shoulders).
Having cooled off sufficiently, the tiger slowly rose from the water and ambled off. We tracked him from a distance, with fleeting glimpses through the trees before he finally disappeared. Before leaving the park, we made a detour back to the waterhole, maybe his brother was there? No such luck but with the absence of any tigers, birdlife was everywhere, notably several adult peacocks.
As we drove back to Sawai Madhopur, I had a grin on my face – mission successful!
How Do You Organise a Safari?
If you want to pre-book your safari booking, head to www.rajasthanwildlife.in. Another major advantage of pre-booking is that a trip to the safari office is not needed as you can be collected from your accommodation, although this means you will need to have your accommodation booked before you book your safari.
I chose not to pre-book as my fluid itinerary meant I didn’t know my Ranthambore dates until a few days beforehand. If you’re a spontaneous traveller like me, the obvious advantage is that you are not tied to specific dates. I got away with this approach as I was travelling in the low season, where the heat tends to scare off a lot of travellers. In the peak months of November to February, this approach may riskier as safaris into prime zones may be full and you will likely have to settle for a less popular zone. In addition, I visited midweek so managed to miss the weekend trippers from Jaipur, Agra and Delhi.
Where to Stay
Unless you’re on a budget substantially higher than mine, you’ll stay in the nearby town of Sawai Madhopur. The budget hotels and guesthouses are here, whereas the luxury hotels and lodges tend to be out of town.
Sawai Madhopur is where you’ll find the railway station, which has good links to many other traveller favourites – Agra, Delhi, Jaipur etc. There are also plenty of cheap places to eat.
I chose Hotel Aditya Resort – at 500 rupees/night for a basic but presentable double (no doubt higher in peak season), this seemed to be as low as it gets. Again, low season rewards a flexible itinerary – no need to book ahead as I was their first guest in 9 nights!
Safari Office Facilities
If you’ve not pre-booked, you’ll need to visit the booking office in person. It’s about 5km east of the train station – there aren’t many options to reach here – rickshaw and hired bicycle are about it.
There are basic facilities at the booking office. There is a restaurant but a word of warning – it’s not open mornings in low season so forget about a pre-dawn breakfast. I did eat here prior to my afternoon safari - prices are very reasonable for what is a fairly basic menu of Indian and western dishes.
You’ll also find a stall with basic supplies (water, soft drink etc) and several souvenir shops should you wish to commemorate a tiger sighting with a mass-produced sweat shop item.
There is a toilet but in true Indian fashion, it’s BYOP (paper).
When it comes to safari vehicles, you have 2 options:
Canter (below top: a 20-seater open-deck truck). A little more comfortable than it sounds. Views are reasonable but as we didn’t find a tiger I can’t vouch for what happens if something notable is sighted on the opposite side of the truck. The main risk here is noise as this is the generally the vehicle of choice for Indian families and groups.
Gypsy (below bottom): this is a 6-seater jeep with an open back. Seats are comfortable and views are good out both sides. Surprisingly, prices are only a little higher than the canter.
This can change from year to year. Most of the info I’d read online recommended zone 3. Not the case anymore I’m afraid, apparently only 1 tiger in that zone as I found out later. The word from the guides is that zones 2 and 4 are currently (mid 2018) the best places to spot a tiger, followed by zone 6.
To summarise the zones I experienced:
Zone 3 – despite no tiger sightings it’s a very beautiful zone. Located east of Ranthambore Fort, the terrain is largely flat with 2 scenic lakes. You’ll find ruins of old buildings and temples. Wildlife viewing is good; expect deer, peacock, crocodile.
Zone 2 – located south of the fort, the terrain is more varied. No lakes but several small waterholes, one of which proved to be the bullseye as far as finding a tiger went.
Zones 2 and 4 were what I was recommended by drivers. I chose 2 after initial failure in 3 and was rewarded with a tiger. An English couple in my jeep had visited 4 that morning and were rather successful – mother, father and 2 cubs!
What Will You See?
Obviously everyone visits Ranthambore to see tigers but there is plenty of variety in the fauna of the park. Leopard and sloth bear are present but rarely seen. We found sloth bear tracks but unfortunately no sloth bear to be found You’ll almost certainly see:
Deer (Sambar ,White Spotted)
Birdlife is plentiful - Kingfisher, stilt, parakeet and, of course, India’s national bird – the peacock
Time of Year
I was lucky enough to visit Ranthambore in May. Sure, that meant dealing with temperatures in the mid-40s but I was going to have to deal with that everywhere, might as well do it on a tiger safari! The extreme heat from April to June leads to lower water levels, which mean less places for tigers to drink and bathe; it also means less places for other animals to drink so therefore more hunting opportunities for the tigers.
Monsoon (July to September) sees Ranthambore activity curtailed drastically. In the past it meant closure for the whole park but as of last year, several zones remain open.
The remainder of the year (October to March) is a popular time to visit - there are good opportunities to encounter tigers, while temperatures are moderate.
Costs are determined by vehicle type and whether you are Indian or a foreigner. As a foreigner, you can currently expect to pay (per person):
Gypsy: 1674 rupees. This is the rate to share with 5 others – it is possible to book the whole vehicle but obviously this is at a higher cost, you will generally have to pay for all seats in the vehicle
Canter: 1322 rupees. This price is per seat, regardless of how many other passengers are on-board.