Our first few days in Rajasthan were actually spent in Jaipur, seeing all the sights we had missed out on last time. We had shipped my motorcycle there from Hyderabad, so Ranthambhore (actually, the next-door town of Sawai Madhopur) was the first stop on our road trip.
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We had wanted to visit Ranthambhore for a long time, especially because we had been contributing to Tiger Watch for a while. Tiger Watch is a conservation organization that works with local villagers to fight poaching and track wildlife movements, among other things. We were curious to see what our contributions were being used for, and this was the perfect opportunity.
The initial plan was to spend Diwali in Jaipur, because the city’s famous for its lighting and decorations. But a planning glitch (because of weird mismatches in the various social-religious calendars involved), we actually kicked off our motorcycle tour on Diwali day. That meant that we were in Sawai Madhopur for Diwali. Less than ideal, but not too bad either.
Also read: Jaipur: Our motorcycle tour kicks off
Our trip starts on an inauspicious note
Because it wasn’t too far to Sawai Madhopur, we planned to leave after breakfast on Diwali day, at around 9:00 AM. As things go, because we like our breakfast, and because it was the first time we were loading everything on the bike, we left at 9:30.
We had gone down the 10-metre stretch from our homestay’s lane to the main road the wrong way.
We set off full of vim and vigour and wanderlust, only to be stopped by traffic police five minutes out! It seems the tiny 10-metre stretch of road from our homestay’s lane to the main road was one-way, and we had gone down it the wrong way! The bunch of policemen made heavy weather of the entire thing, making it obvious they wanted to be bribed. They even made veiled threats to confiscate my license, despite us being willing to pay the fine. Finally, because we didn’t want to waste too much time, we paid them a few hundred rupees under the table and set off again.
Onto the open road
This sort of thing happens often in India, so we didn’t let it bother us too much. After a quick stop to top up the tank, we set out in earnest. We took a while to get out of the city, though, and I took some time to get used to the weight of the fully loaded bike.
Finally, though, we got onto the open road. Locals had recommended that we take the route via Chaksu, Kothun and Lalsot, so that’s what we did. It was a bit longer than the alternative route, but they said the roads were better, so that settled it. With that route, we were looking at about three-and-a-half hours of riding, with a break or two thrown in. We ended up taking about an hour longer.
The bike felt heavy, so I decided to ride slower than usual.
Once we got out of the city, the open roads were nice and smooth, so I opened up the throttle a bit. But the bike felt heavy, so I decided to be a little careful and go a bit slower than usual. Maybe the local driving culture had rattled me a bit, too. Maybe. So we trundled along at around 70 kmph. I figured that, because the roads were empty, it wouldn’t affect our schedule too much.
A glitch in time saves nine
We took our first break just after Chaksu, at a little tea stall under a tree on the sandy roadside. After a bit of tea—the Indian road tripper’s best friend—and some stretching, we hopped on again.
As soon as I started the bike again, I knew something was wrong.
As soon as I started the bike, I knew something was wrong. The engine was coughing and gasping, and kept dying when I eased off the throttle. I hoped it was a bit of dirt in the petrol that would burn off in time, but after about half an hour of nursing the bike along, I realized we needed help. I was annoyed that we had run into a problem so soon, but no point pulling out my hair.
After some asking around, we finally found a willing mechanic near Lalsot. That young chap seemed to know what he was doing, because after some testing, he found the problem. It seems some obscure little bit of the carburettor assembly had fallen off during our break. I can’t even remember what it was called! Five minutes later, though, he had replaced it, and the bike was thumping contentedly again. We paid a grand total of 200 rupees for the fix, and rode into Sawai Madhopur an hour later. That was the only real bike problem we had during the entire trip.
Into Sawai Madhopur
Sawai Madhopur turned out to be a dusty little town, whose main claim to fame was obviously being the gateway to Ranthambhore. This became more obvious the closer we got to the national park side of town. Hotels and resorts of every description lined the road. Most seemed aimed at the large number of visitors from the neighbouring state of Gujarat.
When we rolled up to our hotel, we were greeted by the bruised face of our host.
Our hotel—the modest little Tiger Haveli—turned out to be a little off the main road and down a side street. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for our GPS, we probably wouldn’t have found it. Anyway, we finally rolled up in front of the door. There, we were startled to be greeted by the bruised face of our host, Satyendra Singh. It seemed he had been in a small accident that morning, and had had a disagreement with a pile of bricks. We commiserated appropriately.
Settling in at Tiger Haveli
Our room was quite decent, with a little balcony looking out onto the road, and a large bathroom. We did get the feeling, though, that it had seen better days. It was also a bit noisy, because the rooms were all built around a central atrium that echoed. Our host’s family were temporarily living in a few rooms on the ground floor, so there was constant conversation.
On the other hand, we seemed to be the only guests there, so we had some privacy. Maybe they were all staying at our hosts other, more up-market hotel on the main road? Or maybe it was because it was Diwali. Whatever the reason, we were alone in the little rooftop restaurant that day for lunch, and for all the rest of our meals.
Diwali in Sawai Madhopur
Our Ranthambhore safari was the next morning, so we decided we would take it easy for the rest of the day. After our usual afternoon snooze, we watched the sun set over the town from our balcony. Then we went out for a little stroll around the colony, watching people celebrate Diwali. Many were lighting their diyas and greeting family as they arrived. Of course, plenty were also letting off firecrackers, so we avoided those lanes. The firecrackers were surprisingly loud. We had assumed that, with the national park next door, there would have been curbs on noise.
The firecrackers were susprisingly loud, given that the national park was next door.
After some dinner—prepared by a cook who was working despite it being Diwali—we were content with just watching the fireworks from the roof. Because our Ranthambhore safari was so early the next morning, we decided to turn in early.
Our Ranthambhore safari experience
We had made preparations for our safari about a month before our trip. We had been told that we needed to book our safari online at the official Rajasthan government forest department website, so that’s what we tried.
Aside: On the site, you can choose your safari date, time slot and type of shared vehicle (either small ‘Gypsy’ SUV, or large ‘Canter’ mini-bus). Most importantly, you also have to choose a zone of the park, because they only allow a fixed number of vehicles in each zone.
We had wanted to book a Gypsy because we would have to share it with fewer people. To our disappointment, there wasn’t one available for our date. An acquaintance in Sawai Madhopur then recommended we get in touch with an agent, which we did. This agent told us that each zone had a spare Gypsy that one could book half an hour before each time slot. We had to book the whole vehicle, though, he said, and it would be expensive. We figured it was worth it, so we went with that, despite the expense.
Also read: In the shadow of elephants in Valparai
A Gypsy morning
The morning of our first Ranthambhore safari dawned clear and freezing. It was still November, so it wasn’t as cold as it would be in December, but it was still pretty cold! We had asked for some tea at 6:00 to warm us up (because we had to be at the entrance of the park by 7:00) but that never materialized. But it was some consolation that the Gypsy was picking us up, instead of us having to make our own way to the park.
The Gypsy had an open top and sides, and the wind chilled us to the bone.
The Gypsy had six passenger seats, and we were the only two there, so that was nice. But it was a bit run-down overall. And because it was open to the sides and top, the wind chilled us to the bone. And to top it all off, the guide who was supposed to accompany us was missing, so we had to make do with the driver. Luckily, he was quite knowledgeable, so that was alright.
In search of a tigress
They had assigned us zone three of the park, the most picturesque, with views of the Ranthambhore fort and the two lakes. The entrance to this and a few other zones lay inside the fort walls, so as we drove through the fort, others groups joined us in their Gypsies and Canters.
As we were about to branch off into our separate zones, a loud bellow echoed through the hills!
Just as we all were about to branch off into our separate zones, the drivers and guides suddenly stopped and listened intently. We listened too, and suddenly heard a loud bellow echo through the hills! The alarm call of a sambhar deer, our driver said. That meant a predator was near. The bellow was followed by the barking alarm calls of langurs. A tigress had been spotted in the area earlier that morning, and it was probably her that was causing the alarm, they said. Everyone stiffened in anticipation. It was like a scene straight out of The Jungle Book!
After over an hour of waiting, though—and some driving to and fro following the alarm calls—everyone gave up. Our time slot was only two-and-a-half hours long, so we decided to try our luck inside the zone. The drive through the park was lovely. The fort loomed over the lake and its island tree, and the water reflected the hunting lodge on the shore perfectly. We saw lots of animals and birds, and even saw a massive male nilgai charging through the undergrowth. But of tigers there was no sign.
We got back to our hotel bitterly disappointed, especially because we had splurged on the last-minute Gypsy booking. Breakfast didn’t do much to cheer us up, either. But a late morning visit to the Tiger Watch office, and a long chat with its field biologist Dr. Dharmendra Khandal, did the trick. The coffee and cucumber sandwiches at their nice little café probably helped, too.
Back at the hotel, we asked our agent if he could get us onto a Canter that afternoon.
Back at the hotel, we decided we would give the safari-ing another shot, and called our agent again. We had heard that tigers had been sighted in zone six, and asked if he could get us onto a Canter during the afternoon slot. Luckily, he managed to get us the last two seats available! That afternoon, we set off again. The rest of the Canter was occupied by a noisy extended family, a less-than-ideal arrangement. But we didn’t have a choice, so we decided to grin and bear it.
Noise and dust in zone six
Zone six was very different from zone three. The terrain was much drier, with fewer trees and a bumpier road. And because the road was dusty and the Canter was open, clouds of dust blew over us all the time. Luckily, the hotel staff warned us, so we were carrying scarves to cover our mouths and noses. But the dust kept settling between the barrels of my Tamron 18-400 lens, and gave me some anxious moments. The lens didn’t seem to mind, though.
Also read: Review: Tamron 18-400 mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom lens
An endangered sloth bear came within a few metres of our Canter and treated us like part of the furniture.
Pretty quickly, we caught sight of an endangered sloth bear! It was rooting through the grass near the trail, hunting for termites, and didn’t give us a second look. In fact, it came within a few metres of our Canter, treating us like part of the furniture. To our intense annoyance, our noisy co-passengers started making loud grunting and barking sounds in an effort to make the bear pay attention. It didn’t work, but they kept trying anyway.
Our second safari pays off!
Soon, we left the bear behind and were driving through the undergrowth again. And then we heard the magic word: tiger! Ahead of us on the trail were a few more vehicles, all parked next to some tall bushes. We stopped and strained our eyes (all the while trying not be trampled by our friendly neighbours), and finally saw what everyone was looking at. It wasn’t one, but two tigers! They were lying in the shade of the big bushes, enjoying their afternoon nap. Further noises issued from our Canter, but the two striped siblings—adolescent males—ignored us.
One of them slowly rolled over, looking like a house cat with paws the size of dinner plates!
After about 15 minutes, one of them slowly rolled over. He looked, for all the world, like a big striped house cat—if house cats had paws the size of dinner plates! After he rolled over towards us, he gave us a mildly annoyed stare through the grass. And continued to stare at us until a forest ranger shooed our group away for disturbing the peace.
The rest of the safari was relatively boring, spent trying to ignore the noise and the clouds of dust. By the time we got back to our hotel, we had had enough. But we had seen the kings of the forest, and that was the important part. Our Ranthambhore safari had been a success, after all!
The next morning, we packed up again, and hit the road. Our destination this time: Bundi.
IQ’s top tips for Ranthambhore
Booking your safari
- Start making your safari booking arrangements at least three months in advance, especially if you want seats on a Gypsy. Those sell out out first.
- The government booking site doesn’t have much information and is difficult to use. Though they say it’s mandatory to book through the site, we found it’s possible—and much easier—to go through an agent. They’ll also have the best on-the-ground information about tiger sightings, and might even be able to make last-minute changes to your booking accordingly.
- There are plenty of booking agencies available online, though not all are probably reliable. You could also contact our agent Vishnu (+91 941 404 5353). Using an agent can be expensive, though.
- If you’re booking through an agent, expect to pay around Rs. 3,000 for a seat on a Gypsy, and about Rs. 1,500 for a seat in a Canter. The last-minute Gypsy booking will cost you upwards of Rs. 15,000 for the entire vehicle for a single time slot.
- We’ve heard they’ve also started taking bookings for half-day and full-day slots, apart from the usual two-and-a-half hours in the morning or evening. These will probably be even more expensive.
- Booking charges only include the vehicle, driver, guide and any agents’ fees. You’ll also have to pay a little extra for still/video cameras if you’re booking directly on the government’s website. Some fancier hotels might throw in some extras on their own, like blankets, tea and snacks to take along.
Going on your safari
- Once you book your safari, the vehicle will pick you up from your hotel. You’ll be given the name and number of your driver, so make sure you give that to your hotel staff so they can coordinate. Shared seats will fill up depending on how close your hotel is to your assigned zone, and how many people are picked up before you. This means that the good seats might sometimes be taken before you get on.
- Your co-passengers might be a little unruly, especially if they’re Indians (This isn’t racist, it’s the truth. And as an Indian myself, I’m allowed to say it!) This is why it’s usually better to book a Gypsy instead of a Canter: fewer co-passengers.
- If you’re going on a morning safari, make sure you dress warmly. And take gloves, if possible. We regretted leaving ours behind.
- There’s no guarantee that you’ll see a tiger, and you might end up disappointed. Book at least two safaris to increase your chances of seeing one.
- Hotel Tiger Haveli is a decent budget option, and will cost you about Rs. 2,000 a night (including breakfast and all taxes) for a deluxe double room. It might get a little noisy if there are lots of guests, though.
- If you’re interested in contributing towards to conservation efforts in and around Ranthambhore, you might consider making a donation to Tiger Watch. They do awesome work on the ground.
Rajasthan’s cuisine is mainly vegetarian. It’s also endlessly creative. Try asking for gatte ki sabzi (a dish made with gram flour dumplings) or jamun ki sabzi (made with the same milk-dumplings as gulab jamun, but not sweet).
I took most of these photographs with my trusty Canon EOS 200D DSLR camera, using my new Tamron 18-400mm zoom lens (read my review). One or two were taken with my brilliant old Samsung Galaxy S5 phone. I took the footage for the video (and some photographs) with my GoPro Hero5 action camera. I used my Moza AirCross camera stabilizer (read my review) to keep it steady when I wasn’t on the bike.
|Tamron 18-400mm lens for Canon cameras||Tamron 18-400mm lens for Nikon cameras|
In case you’re wondering how I took the videos while on the road… First, I tried strapping my GoPro Hero5 onto my helmet’s face guard with a few of these useful extra-long Velcro-type straps, but that threw my helmet’s balance off. So I alternated between strapping it onto my chest with an elastic chest harness, and mounting it on my bike’s crash guard with a handlebar mount. I used a protective case too, and strapped it in place, just in case. It doesn’t last too long on a single charge, so I had to take along an extra battery and an external charger. I used these high-performance microSDXC memory cards for the hours of footage (Tip: You can use them for your phone too, and they come with an adapter to fit DSLRs and card readers).
This is all the riding gear I was using during our motorcycle tour.
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