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Hooray, we heard a tiger roar!

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Galtaji » Ranthambhore National Park - 22 to 25 February 2013

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Warning! This blog contains negative comments!

But first, here are some positive ones:

We'd had a great time in The Pink City, but were now on our way to ten days of tranquil wildlife safaris and bird-watching, starting with the well-known tiger reserve of Ranthambore (that's the negative bit, which comes later).

On the way, we called in at the Monkey Temple, Galtaji, about 10 kilometres from Jaipur on the road towards Agra.

This is not a very well-trodden tourist site like most other places hereabouts. You'll be asked to make a tiny donation if you plan to use a camera and, for a few Rupees, you can buy some peanuts to feed the monkeys from the man at the entrance; he'll put them into little bags that he makes from old newspapers. You might find a snake charmer somewhere around too, but that's about it. It's a refreshing change to come across a place of worship without crowds or overt commercialism.

It's actually a slightly down-at-heel complex of ancient shrines and temples, with holy pools of water (known as kunds), around which small gangs of rhesus macaques play and swim - yes, swim. The main temple has shrines to a saint who spent his life here in meditation and prayer (Rishi Galav, after whom Galtaji is named) and to Lord Hanuman, the ape-like humanoid Hindu deity. A steep path beside a large kund fed by waters flowing from the mouth of a marble cow's head, where pilgrims and monkeys alike come to bathe, takes you to another temple atop the highest hill.

It's a pleasant place to spend a while. And the monkeys are friendly.

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Then, it was back on the road southwards to Sawai Madhopur and the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.

Now, I don't want you to get the idea that we didn't enjoy our visit to Ranthambore, but let's just say that with better accommodation, better conditions for tourism and better luck it could have been, well, better...

As our base for the next three nights, we'd chosen what we thought was a 'homestay', partly because we like to spend time with local people and to support their economy, and partly because the website said it was run by a naturalist who's consulted by documentary film-makers about wildlife in the reserve. It transpired that this expert actually lives in a big house miles away, the 'homestay' is a very average guesthouse run by a manager, and said expert, having promised to be our guide one afternoon, decided instead to take some Indian visitors he called 'VIPs'. So much for 'Guest is God', the maxim at most places we stayed elsewhere in India.

Poor tourism conditions, however, were a big area of concern. We booked our three half-day safaris 90 days in advance on the Internet; we were among the very first to do so, on the very first day that bookings opened. The park authority's computer lets you choose between safaris by Gypsy (an open-air jeep for six passengers sharing two bench seats) or Canter (an open-air truck with bench seats for 20). On the day, it allocates which of the eight zones within the park you'll visit. It obviously then ignores how early or late you made your bookings because it allocated us two of the notoriously worst zones for our first two safaris! You're supposed to present yourself at the booking office an hour or so before the 6.30 morning departure or 2.30 afternoon one. In practice, for an extra Rs.100 (£1.20/US$1.90/€1.50) per person per safari, one of the staff at our guesthouse went there during the night and queued on our behalf. Then, our chosen form of transport came to pick us up.

Each safari is scheduled to be for 3½ hours but, by the time you've picked up and dropped off other passengers at their hotels - all of which are a long way from the park entrance - you can kiss goodbye to about an hour of that.

Once in the park, you'll discover that the tracks are potholes with occasional rocks, that your vehicle's shock absorbers need replacing, and that you're one of at least 378 people (90 in jeeps and 288 in canters) who are bouncing around looking for tigers or anything else that moves - most of which have been scared off by the vehicle ahead of you! It's more like a circus arena than a conservation area.

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You'll also discover that there are very few tigers in the 275 square kilometres that make up the core of the reserve's total of 1,334 sq km. No-one seems to know precisely how many tigers there are; some say 50, some say 40, I think they're all guessing. Only a few individuals are regularly seen and, anyway, an adult tiger needs a territory of around 20 sq km (8 sq miles), so you don't need a calculator to realise that your chances of actually spotting one among the brown, boulder-strewn scrub are very low indeed. We did see a tiger's pug mark one day and we did hear a roar somewhere in the distance the next. People in a canter ahead of us claimed to have seen one running across the track just minutes before we arrived. Yadu, our driver, on his way to a temple outside the park in the evening, saw one. Perhaps we just needed better luck!

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Fortunately, although it's the one animal that people hope against hope to see, the tiger is not the only attraction at Ranthambore. We saw deer of several species, plus monkeys, crocodiles, turtles and birds of many kinds on our three safaris in the park. I'm not a wildlife cameraman, so you'll have to excuse the variable quality of photographs which follow.

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It was our final afternoon that was to be a real highlight of our visit, when just the three of us went with Vipul Jain, an amiable and extremely knowledgeable naturalist (who replaced the 'expert' to whom I previously referred) on a birdwatching sortie to a reservoir on the outskirts of Sawai Madhopur. Here were flocks of Flamingos, Geese and Pelicans, Black-headed Ibis, colourful Indian Rollers, an Osprey diving to catch fish, Sparrows attacking themselves in our jeep's wing-mirrors, and wading birds aplenty.

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We were also treated to smiling women working in the fields alongside the lake and an informal visit to a neighbouring village, where adults and children alike delighted us with their friendly welcome and constant requests for pictures to be taken.

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It was proof, if proof was needed, that Rathambore's not only about tigers.

Accommodation: (No hyperlink provided as I do not recommend staying there!)
We stayed at Tiger Home. It has two floors with a total of eight double rooms with bathroom and air-conditioning, all rather basic and plain. One floor seems to be permanently occupied by documentary film-makers and their computer equipment. Meals, included in the daily rate of Rs.3,000 (about £36/US$55/€42) per double room or Rs.2,000 (about £24/US$36.50/€28) per single room, are taken at a table on each of the two floors. They were basic curry cuisine. There's no lounge or outside space and WiFi is intermittent.

Posted by Keep Smiling 15:23 Archived in India Tagged animals birds india rajasthan ranthambore galtaji

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