The previous instalment of this story is Indian Summer: Temple of the Monkey God.
After the chaos and mayhem of Jaipur and Delhi, Ranthambore was a real treat. We stayed at another heritage hotel, arguably the best we’ve experienced so far. Good service, decent food, swimming pool (in February! my head exploded!) and – most importantly – a booked tour to the much-touted Ranthambore National Park. In other words, an all-paid trip to the tiger’s den.
We arrived late in the afternoon, so we took advantage of the remaining few hours of daylight and took a stroll through the village. Since I forgot my sunglasses at home, I got myself a pair of “original” Diesels for half the original price – they were lifetime guaranteed, but only on Indian soil, since they broke on our way to the airport. We also got ourselves a guava – our new favourite fruit – and promptly proceeded to consume it while watching a local game of cricket. It was all in all a peaceful afternoon. We had an early dinner, then retired to bed; the next day would start early indeed.
It was surprisingly cold at half past four, when we woke up to get ready for the trip to the jungle. We bundled up best we could, I checked my camera for the hundredth time and then we were off! To have some tea! And possibly biscuits! Because the canter bus that was scheduled to take us to the reservation was fashionably late.
After days and days of waiting – or about half an hour, if you’re into that objective time thing – we were finally off. Our guide told us though that our chances were slim – it had rained just the day before, and the tigers were unlikely to come down from the hills to the water. Damn you, dry season, couldn’t you hold it for one more day? Still, he was hopeful. We held on as the driver accelerated towards the dawn, and possibly the fateful meeting with a certain large predator, whose name by know you probably know.
The first wild animal we were to encounter in the park was not the aforementioned feline, but its prey. The graceful, shy Indian spotted deer belied its reputation by shamelessly posing for tens of hungry tourists. Hungry for perfect images of unsoiled, beautiful nature, and just possibly an extra biscuit.
There weren’t that many species to see, to be honest. But then again, if you want to actually see the animals – in lieu of staring at every wind-blown straw or leaf – you’d be much better off visiting a zoo. But I wasn’t disappointed, not really; the absence of tigers was more than offset by the spectacular vistas the park had to offer. Including, but not limited to some very insistent and shameless magpies. That didn’t mean that I was just going to give up, however. The moment we got back, I asked our faithful guide and miracle-working driver to please, please, arrange another trip for tomorrow morning. In a jeep, if possible. Our guide book recommended them for tiger hunting – the Mahindra Gipsy being faster, quieter and wider-ranging than the canter busses the park has to offer. The only problem? Jeeps are booked in advance. Way in advance. Not possible via the hotel reception, and almost impossible on a day’s notice, the receptionist said. But that “almost” gave me hope.
In the meantime we went sightseeing again. On the heights near the park’s entrance there is a formidable fort, with more than a thousand years of attested history. One can visit it for free – not counting the cost of transport from the village – and its temples are still being used. It was indeed an impressive sight.
Ranthambore is now a national park, but in the olden days it was a royal hunting ground, with the mighty tiger being on the top of the list. Indeed, according to ancient custom, a rajah had to kill no less than 109 tigers to ensure an auspicious rule. The introduction of the modern hunting guns – and the attached Brits – brought the big cats on the brink of extinction. In modern-day India, poaching is just as perilous for tigers; their pelt, bones and internal organs can fetch really high prices on the black market. They are mostly used for so-called “traditional remedies” – for instance, tiger’s testes are thought to be an “effective” “cure” “for” “impotence”. That is why today there are less than 1500 tigers left in the whole of India. I sincerely hope that when tiger’s organs become increasingly unavailable, the “traditional medicine” will look to the poacher’s testes as a possible replacement in their cures.
In any case, a nice surprise was waiting for me back at the hotel. Sunil, our guardian angel, had kept his promise: I had a place in a jeep the very next day. We celebrated this amazing feat with proper quantities of beer before retiring to another night of uneventful sleep.
Alas, the only tigers I saw that day were the ones in my dreams.