Monday, Day 4 -
Today is jeep safari day. When Jimmy put in the long hours planning our trip to India, he thought that the kids might like some time away from museums, palaces, forts, and temples. And so the first real destination of our trip is Ranthambhore National Park, a tiger preserve established in the seventies. The park is home to roughly 40 tigers, but also an enormous variety of other wildlife.
We are met Monday morning by a guide/tracker and driver. We take the front bench in their two bench jeep. Behind us sit three young men from Jaipur. They are a bit shy, as are we, but friendly. As we pass out of the gates of our palace hotel we are treated to the site of local families tending their sheep and goats. The landscape is scruffy and dry. The air is crisp and slightly chilled. The sky is blue. This is gonna be good.
At the entrance to the park, we stop to purchase tickets. Hawks land. Not the winged kind, but the kind with t-shirts, hats, and postcards. They are persistent, trying to get my children to don a hat. The hawks know that a parent will fold when the kid starts begging. "Do you want a hat?" I ask Hazel, in a well-rehearsed routine. She shakes her head no. That's my girl. One mango lassi for you. Mango lassis are the currency of choice in Hazel-land. Before this trip both girls were promised that they could have all the mango lassis they could drink, as long as they behaved well. Hazel has been docked several times for bad behavior and her running average is "all you can drink, minus 3," a threat that carries more weight than you might think with a 4-year-old.
As we enter the park, Ranthambhore Fort becomes visible on the ridge above us, we pass through an inner gate and our guide is suddenly in his element. After ten years working in the park, he has mastered both tracking wild animals and entertaining tourists. We pause briefly for some snaps of a huge banyan tree (not even the largest in the park) and yet another formidable gate. Several buildings and memorials existed on the land when the Maharajahs of Jaipur ceded it to the state of India at the time of Indian independence (1949). The buildings are all in ruins. Previously it was kept as a hunting ground for the royalty. They didn't hunt it clean, though, because now we see the ruins of several buildings on a small island in a lake where several large Sambar deer are grazing. They are huge. And gorgeous. They are surrounded by peacocks.
Our guide's head darts here and there and on we go. I'm scanning all around trying to drink in the beauty. Then we screech to a halt. "Down there," he says, and points at the dusty road beside the jeep. "Tracks." Oh yeah, tiger, game on!
We plunge into a creek and all of us struggle to photograph a beautiful heron calmly sitting there as we fly through the water. "Now is the time to look for tigers," the guide explains, "We will have time later to look at other things." We spend the next hour or so touring the area. We see more tracks, more deer (including beautiful spotted deer) and peacocks We also stop several times while the guide chats with other guides in other jeeps and trucks full of tourists. Their exchanges are in Hindi, but all seem to be saying, "Yes, I saw the tracks. No, I didn't see a tiger."
Then the guide shushes us. "A call," he says. I heard nothing. We are not likely to simply happen upon a tiger, he explains, but the alarm calls of prey may indicate where the tiger is this morning. We all instantly turn into ears. I shush the kids. An enormous shriek pierces the air. Everyone's eyes grow and we look to the guide for, uh, guidance. "Mating call," he says, "Deer." Mating call?! Can I see big deer mating, please, Mr. Guide? In my head, I start rehearsing my birds-and-bees-and-Sambar-deer speech for Hazel and Eleanor, when off we rush again.
We spend the whole of the morning like this. Zipping around. Listening. Looking. Awed. Expectant. We see kingfishers, tons of magpies, an owl, green parakeets and langur monkeys. During one stop the fearless magpies (technically, rufous treepies)start landing on our jeep. As Eleanor struggles to use our binoculars to find magpies, one lands on her head. She is delighted. I am delighted. We are all happy. We have been warned that the chances of seeing a tiger are not great, but at this point, who cares?
Back at the hotel for a short lunch break we all agree that tigers would simply be the frosting on the cake. I fully understand that good fortune, Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma must all simultaneously prevail if I am going to see a tiger. Or even Sambars mating. But cake is cake, and that's good enough.
Our afternoon guide arrives with a Swedish family already settled in to the front bench of the jeep. We climb into the back bench and head back out. The Swedes, like us, are an expat family living in China. They are friendly, but not effusive. Definitely Swedes. The afternoon seems much calmer than the morning. Hazel dozes. Our guide actually pauses to show us a fisher eagle, baby crocodiles, more deer. We stop in the middle of a wide stream to watch a Sambar. At one point, I see another large male rear up on his hind legs and wail a cry of love. "Baby, I love you!" I think he says.
The afternoon is fully spent and we turn back to the park entrance when the guide prompts the driver to take a quick detour on a less-worn road. We are all content and quiet. I'm fiddling with the camera when I hear, "Tiger!" We stop. Tiger?! Where?! I see a big tree and that's it. We inch forward on the bank of a muddy creek bed and there he is in the creek bed. Maybe 20 yards away. "Number 23," the guide informs us. Hello, Number 23! A male. Huge. Unbelievable. The words "oh my God" escape my lips several thousand times.
He pays little attention to us and settles into a dry spot for a late-afternoon cleaning session. Big paws. Big tongue. I don't know if a tiger has thoughts, but if he does, this thought surely dominates: I am the shit! Every motion he makes is self-assured. He fears nothing. We stare and chat and grin and watch him shift around like a house pet trying to get comfy on your bed. He's posing like a model. Our driver makes various noises to get his attention, without much response until the guide walks around to stand between the jeep and the tiger. The tiger starts thumping his tail and the guide opts to get back in the jeep.
We agree it is time to leave him alone and head back to the hotel. We are all grinning like idiots. The formerly sedate jeep is now a party on wheels. Eleanor and Hazel, with Jimmy's encouragement, invent special tiger dances to celebrate our triumph. Even the Swedes are grooving in their seats. We pause briefly at the gates to watch a band of langur monkeys. Two of them are mating. Whatever.
We finish the day with our nightly feast of grilled chicken, curry, naan, beer and lassi. Then more dancing.
Oh my God!
Bonus footage: me babbling and filming tiger