Posts Tagged ‘Ranthambhore’

The Sanjay Gandhi National Park is a cruel joke perpetrated on the visitors in the name of environmental and wildlife preservation. We went there last Saturday, and were shocked by the complete apathy of the authorities towards showcasing whatever wildlife is in there. Apart from the fact that we managed to spot one white tiger in the open, a lion sleeping behind a bush, and a few deer, we didn’t spot anything else and nor were the officials there too interested in showing us.

They have one enclosure for the white tiger and another for a lion, which visitors are taken past in a riot-control bus. The bus stops for a few minutes, during which time, visitors are told to take pictures through grills. You can well imagine what kind of pictures one can take through a grill in two minutes! Then we are abruptly driven out of there. End of safari in a priceless 20 minutes. The point is, if the humans are kept away from the animals by a fence, and if there is more wildlife to admire, why not have open 4WD or Canters to take visitors around for a longer time, and charge more? What stops the authorities from making the whole experience more enjoyable?

This was like a trip to the neighbourhood grocer to buy provisions! To me it looks more like a 9-to-5 job, where the workers seem more intent in getting the job done than showing any really enthusiasm for it. In a place like this, only those workers who love animals should be sent – not those who consider this an endurance test. The people at SGNP should learn from their counterparts at Ranthambore and Gir on how to arrange a safari.

At both these places one travelled in open jeeps or Canters, and got the opportunity, not just to view the animals at close range but also photograph and videograph them. In Gir, we were so close to the lionesses and their cubs, that we could almost touch them. By now we all know that animals attack only in self-defence, and that was obvious at both these wildlife sanctuaries because we were up, close and personal with the magnificent beasts and they looked at with a kind of disdain, that humans reserve for their fellow beings. We paid Rs 500 per head at both places for a three-hour safari, but were warned that there was absolutely no guarantee that we would be able to see either tigers or lions. The point is, real nature lovers, who love to see animals in their natural habitat would not have a problem paying more. And if they didn’t spot any, they wouldn’t mind, because they understood that there was no guarantee of that.

The guards spent hours tracking pugmarks and droppings to track the animals so we could get a glimpse of the elusive tigers and lions. Spotting deer and peacocks were quite common but to spot the ‘dadas’ of the jungle lolling around was the icing on the cake. They gave us the real jungle experience. At one point as we waited for lionesses to show up from somewhere, they were sitting right behind our Gypsy in some thick foliage. They emerged with their cubs only when they realised that we meant no harm.

At Ranthambore, I remember a tourist, sitting in the Canter with us, saying that it was the first time in 13 attempts that he had spotted a tiger – and that too just 15 metres away. The next day he made another trip to see the magnificent animal with us, because he thought we were lucky for him! He spotted one again, although from quite a distance! The guy thought he had been blessed and thanked us repeatedly! There are countless others like him who love the environment and the wild, and would have no regrets if after two hours in the SGNP they spotted a few deer and maybe an odd lion – or none at all. For them it’s the experience that matters and not the cost.

All credit to the government for not succumbing to the powerful builders lobby and maintaining such a wonderful ‘natural’ habitat in the midst of a concrete jungle called Mumbai. Whether the SGNP has more than the odd lion and tiger and if so, would the government be interested in popularising, is something for them to decide. While our safaris may not be comparable to the ones in Africa, can the authorities at SGNP at least ensure we don’t leave the place feeling cheated?


“If you see a tiger at Ranthambhore you’ll be lucky,” were the words we heard from a lot of people, before we left for our holiday. Now whether that was supposed to be sarcasm or sheer honesty, I don’t know. But with the dwindling numbers of tigers being hotly debated, we wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bit of both in that comment.

I was hoping and praying that the visit to Ranthambhore would not be a repeat of the one to Dandeli Tiger Reserve where we didn’t spot one big cat and had to be satisfied with deer and bison! So when we set off from Chittorgarh that morning, it was with a silent prayer! Once we reached the highway, we were on our way to Kota from where we would be driving to Sawai Madhopur, which hosts the Ranthambhore wildlife sanctuary, another home to the fast dwindling species of the striped cat.

On the highway, what we realised once we had gone a little over 100 kms was that we had not spotted a petrol pump since we left Chittorgarh. I guess we never realised that because we were once again on a dream of a road, all the way to the outskirts of Kota. Off the NH 76, once we were on the outskirts of Kota, we travelled on a dirt road for around 15 kms till we reached Kota town from where we took the road to Sawai Madhopur.

After checking in to RTDC’s Vinayak, a quick lunch and a siesta we were driven to the Ranthambhore Wildlife Sanctuary, where we hoped to see the elusive tiger. After a fruitless search of over an hour, during which I nodded off, we landed up at a watering hole. Suddenly there was a hush, because just 15 feet away from us was this magnificent striped cat, lolling in the pond. It looked at us and then turned its face away disdainfully. Our Canter moved closer to the animal and we were worried it might walk off, but it stayed put. For close to 20 minutes we were clicking away.

Then it emerged from the water, gave us another look and sauntered off into the thicket, marked its territory by raising it hind leg (!) and disappeared. It was then that everyone broke into excited chatter. When there are just 1400 odd tigers left in the country and around 38 in Ranthambhore, we considered ourselves lucky to have spotted one. Before we left we were to see one more, but not so up close.

But as far the tigers go, once was never enough and the next morning we set off again. This time there were a lot of fresh pugmarks our forest guide saw but no tiger. I decided I had had enough, so stayed back in the hotel. My wife and son set off again in the afternoon for some more tiger spotting. They got lucky, because in another zone, across the lake, a tigress oblivious to the humans observing her, was playfully slapping a monkey around! They saw a herd of deer too.

But tigers are not all that we experienced. There’s a hotel in Sawai Madhopur which gave us the creeps. The night before we left Sawai, we decided to have dinner out and drove to the hotel. The gates of the hotel were closed and when we were allowed in, we had to drive in pitch darkness towards the hotel. On the way we saw a Nilgai running alongside our car and got quite excited.

As we drove up the winding road, I saw the silhouette of the hotel and it sent a shiver down my spine. It reminded me of Norman Bates’ Motel in Psycho. It was enveloped in darkness, and there were no lights outside or in the hotel. We pushed our way into the Reception area, and stood there also in the dark waiting for someone to greet us. Someone was talking on the phone in a room and he just stared at us, refusing to get up. Then we saw a tired looking, old man come shuffling along to meet us.

“Do you have a restaurant?” we asked and were shown a room again enveloped in darkness.
“Can we get something to eat?” was our next question.
“If you order the food, we’ll make it,” said the old man very mournfully as he advanced toward us.
We turned and fled.
“You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave…”

Back at our hotel, we narrated our experience to the manager and he laughed loudly. He told us about a friend of his who wanted to celebrate his wedding anniversary at ‘Bates Motel’. The manager tried his best to dissuade the friend but the chap was adamant. So he booked a room. The friend and his wife checked in one evening and were out of there in 30 minutes flat, terrified of the dark, and the absence of any guests. Of course, during season time, you wouldn’t find a room here or in any of the hole-in-the-wall ‘hotels’ we saw in this little town.

No tigers, but lots of monkeying around...

The hotel manager told us another interesting story about how tourism was the only means of survival for the people of this town. According to him there were more Maruti Gypsys in Sawai Madhopur than at an Army Command post! The villagers competed with each to buy these vehicles, not realising that fewer vehicles meant more trips to the Sanctuary for each of them and more business. Since the government did not allow more than 20 vehicles at one time into the jungle and each trip took three hours, most of the guides could only make two trips a day. So, the 150 odd vehicles usually had to wait for more three to four days before getting a second chance to take tourists into the sanctuary. Since most of the vehicles had been purchased on loans so, unknown to outsiders, a majority of the guides were living a hand-to-mouth existence.

During the off season they struggled to make ends meet and to make up for their losses, they charged exorbitantly during season time. Since these safaris were booked online these guides blocked the seats and literally sold them on the black market for anything from Rs 1000/- upwards depending on the demand. Hotels chains like the Oberois, where guests paid almost Rs 50,000 a day would have to shell out a whopping amount for the safaris. Interestingly enough, we were told that off season was the perfect time to see tigers! We paid Rs 4500/- for three trips into the Sanctuary during off season, so I guess we were lucky!

Interestingly, this misconception also helped them when it came to finding a suitable match for their sons! Outsiders seeing four Gypsys parked outside a house thought the family must be really rich and readily gave their daughters in marriage! Reality struck home later, but by then it was too late. Mixing with the rich tourists – both Indian and foreigners – also made these guides look at life through rose-tinted glasses – which, in the long run hit them hard.

It was an eye-opener for us on how these forest guides survived the cut throat competition. We left Ranthambhore the next day for Ajmer.

The man who drove us around in Udaipur told us a few interesting things about the royals in Udaipur and about the place in general – and none of it was complimentary. While speaking about the present royals, he snapped, “All blood suckers, especially the old man. If it was left to him, he would charge everyone money for just standing outside his palace!” he said a lot more, which I can’t repeat here.

So, as we walked around the City Palace, those words kept ringing in my ears! Incidentally, we paid 130 bucks to get in; another 50 bucks for the car park and was told I would have to pay another 200 just to take the camera in. I drew the line at that and was helped along by the friendly driver who said, there was nothing worth photographing inside, because all the antiques had been moved to the hotel, which had been carved out of a part of the palace. And he was right. The place was like any government museum and not worth the visit.

In complete contrast was the memorial of Maharana Pratap and his horse Chetak. The driver told us another story as we drove to Haldi Ghati, the scene of one of the most famous battles in Indian history between Maharana Pratap and Man Singh, a Rajput who sold his soul to Akbar. While successive governments over the last decade played politics over Maharana Pratap, a school teacher begged banks for a loan to fulfil his dream. One village bank finally gave him Rs 50 lakhs and this teacher launched the project – a memorial to the Maharana.

If you go to Udaipur, drive down to Haldi Ghati and see the memorial – a handiwork of love and devotion – constructed in three years and still coming up. My reason for mentioning this memorial is because not even 30 metres away is a wall that lies incomplete in spite of having been started a decade ago – a symbol of the dirty politics being played out between two successive State governments. And we were taught this lesson in school that Maharana Pratap belonged to India.

Frankly, considering its rich heritage and history, Udaipur is wasting away. The place is supposed to be a Lake City and yet the natural lakes are going dry and don’t even supply water to the city. Strangely enough the lake that supplies water to the city is manmade! And while the people cry out for water, the politicians engage in one-upmanship.

It’s a bit like the roads that we drove around on since we started our holiday. We all know that the roads underwent a dramatic change when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister. Sadly at a lot of places we found patchwork and incomplete highways. It is almost as if the Congress Government’s playing cussed and would rather not do anything because it would end up in someone other than the Gandhi -Nehru clan getting credit. The Congress government should know that whether they complete the highway projects or not, it will always be known as Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s dream project. And there’s not a damn thing they can do about it!

There had been governments before Vajpayee’s but no one bothered to bring India closer to its people. Look at how long it took them to make the Pune-Mumbai expressway one of the finest stretches in the country. Last week, as we drove to Chittorgarh, I couldn’t help marvelling at the expressway between Vadodara and Ahmedabad. In the last three years, I have driven around the good, bad and the terrible roads in this country, so this stretch was, I thought till then, the best road I had driven on in India.

So should I be thanking Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the state of Indian roads? Let’s be honest, if it had not been for him I don’t think a lot of (not too adventurous) middle class Indians like me would ever have ventured out to see the country by road.

Then there was Ajmer and Pushkar, which are a conman’s dream location. When we left for the Ajmer dargah we were told to leave everything, but the clothes we had on, behind in our room. By everything we were told it meant wallet, handbags, watches, rings, mobiles, necklace just anything. so that’s how we went.

At Pushkar, of course, it was a different story. From the toll gate to the temple every attempt was made to fleece us by extremely polite guides who were hand-in-glove with the so called Brahmin priests. They tried to wheedle us out of Rs 11,000 till they ran into another Brahmin – my wife – who knows a thing or two about saving and making money! They tried really hard, but gave up!

Before we left Pune on May 2, I hoped we would encounter some decently constructed roads that we could drive on without having to feel we were on an obstacle course. Except for the stretch between Sawai Madhopur and Ajmer, it’s been a pleasure driving in Gujarat and Rajasthan. We reached Udaipur driving on a four-lane highway in quick time. Let’s hope it stays that way. We leave for the Gir Lion Sanctuary tomorrow. After watching a tiger from just ten feet away at Ranthambhore, I am hoping the lions too will give us something more to remember this holiday.