Usually, long weekends just seem to creep on us and we are never left with enough time to plan anything. This year, I have started marking the holidays in my planner so I knew in advance that I had Thursday and Friday off last week, giving us a nice 4-day stretch to plan something exciting. After some discussion with my mom (who was to join us for the trip), we froze on Sawai Madhopur, which is home to the tiger sanctuary of Ranthambore.
We arrived in Jaipur on Wednesday evening and left for Sawai Madhopur by car after breakfast on Thursday. The car journey was almost three and a half hours long and Ayaan surprised us by being reasonably manageable through the drive. He slept through the first hour or so but even when he woke up, he was chatty rather than hyperactive.
We reached our hotel just in time for lunch and figured out that there was a safari planned for 5 in the evening and signed up to go for it. But Ayaan was pretty pooped after the morning excitement and come 5 o’clock, he was still fast asleep. We decided to let him sleep and by the time he woke up, it was already getting dark so we decided to save the sanctuary visits for the next couple of days. So the evening panned out into a relaxed affair over drinks and dinner.
On Friday morning, we wasted no time in getting bundled into the jeep to head out to the sanctuary. We had been warned that the tiger sightings can be a matter of chance so we had kept our expectations low. And the first 45 minutes seemed to be in line with those expectations – we saw deer, peacocks and monkeys but no signs of the elusive tiger.
We decided to catch breakfast at this lovely little jungle lodge but before we could settle down to eat, the jeep driver told us that a sighting had been reported not too far from where we were. So off we went in the direction where the sighting had been reported.
After driving for about ten minutes, the driver suddenly screeched to a halt and pointed deep into the foliage. We looked and looked and then finally were able to make out the head of the tiger through the dense foliage. It was amazing that the driver had managed to see it while he was driving! He also told us that it would pass right by us since it seemed to be taking a break on its way to the watering hole, which was just beyond us.
And sure enough, it soon got up and ambled by our jeep, barely three feet away. And just when we got over the shock of that, three more tigers proceeded to do the same! The forest official with us told us that this bunch was a tigress with her three fully grown cubs and that’s why they were all together. But it seems the kids are just about ready to leave the nest so there have been a lot of fights in the family. And we were witness to one such fight when the tigress walked up to one of her kids, reared up, roared and then swatted him across his face! Here's a picture from just before she did that:
And then one of the other cubs decided to take a break and sat himself down just two feet away from where we were parked:
We made it back to the hotel well before lunch time so my mom and Jai took Ayaan to the swimming pool at the hotel. But the intrepid tiger-watcher was having none of it and refused to get into the pool. So other than when my mom carried him around the pool, he had a fun time playing on the edge of the pool.
After lunch and Ayaan’s afternoon nap, we headed off to another part of the sanctuary, where a baby panther is being bred in captivity. She was found wounded and abandoned by her mother when she was just a few days old and the forest officials have adopted her. There was a lot of discussion on whether this was the right thing to do. Because her chances of being able to survive in the wild are slim and her most likely fate will involve the caged walls of a zoo. There was some talk about how this current solution interfered with the way of the jungle and that the panther cub would have otherwise ended up as jackal food, which is how it should be. Cruel though it may be, I am inclined to agree.
Our Saturday morning trip to the sanctuary was also fruitful but it paled in comparison to the previous day. We saw a tiger cross our path just as we entered the sanctuary but after that we spent a back-breaking, bone-rattling hour on a wild goose chase for another sighting before giving up and heading back to the jungle lodge for another sumptuous breakfast. But you know what they say about the mountain coming to Mohammed and while we were eating, the staff there picked up some distress calls and told us that there was a tiger in the vicinity. And when we went on to the porch, we saw a tiger sitting at the edge of the grounds, peacefully sunning itself!
Anyway, we left for Jaipur on the Saturday afternoon train. It was Ayaan’s first train journey and it was a bit chaotic since Ayaan threw a tantrum, pushed another kid and then topped it all by peeing through his pull-up diaper all over the berth (requiring not only a change but a complete scrubbing down of the berth with some sanitiser ). All in all, a journey I was happy to be done with!
We spent the night in Jaipur and Sunday afternoon saw us back home in Mumbai. Overall, it was a great trip. I think Ayaan had a ball and had a lot of new experiences – jeep rides through the jungle, wild animals, a train journey, and a starlit sky the likes of which he will never get to see in Mumbai! Here's to more mini-breaks!
Back to the tigers, funnily enough, the only moment when I actually got scared was when the tigress got aggressive with her cub on the first day because otherwise they seem to be so habituated to the jeeps and didn’t bother to throw more than a passing glance our way. Also, the forest guys accompanying us were so chilled out about our proximity to these wild beasts that one could not be blamed for thinking that we were watching some perfectly harmless jungle fauna! But the enormity of it all struck me when I saw the shock on the faces of my colleagues at work today when I told them that I was in an open jeep less than five feet away from a dangerous, wild animal!