On the Tiger Trail
"The range opposite to this is called 'Rann', this fort is 'thamb' and the deep valley from which the range arises 'bhor' – that is how this place came to be known as Rann-tham-bore" our guide revealed as we strode past the famous Ganesha temple in the Ranthambore fort. Ranthambore is magic – a secluded island of wilderness – a living tale of humans and tigers sharing the same serene terrain of the gurgling water of River Banas and Chambal snaking its way through the valleys to rejuvenate the forest and of unending, unparalleled myths and tales of Maharaja Hamir.
Our tryst with the enigmatic Ranthambore tiger started with six of us joining in from different parts of the country. Like most of the young tourists in the country, we holed up in our resort and spent our day making arrangements for the next day's big game.
A mist had enveloped the sky, and the morning wind still carried the night's chill, but the splendid panoply of the forest displayed its own warmth. The 'tiger magic' had already cast its spell on us and was reflected in the exclamations of 'My Gosh!! To get up at six' being changed to 'definitely up at six' by nightfall. The resort did its bit to enhance the magic. Our safari was to head towards Zone 6 – the outer forest area of the park. The landscape was adorned with trees sending out long roots, forlorn palm trees strutting out as if were seeded in the wrong climatic zones and tall grass to provide a perfect camouflage to the most celebrated predator. The entire landscape was wrapped and tangled with the branches and tendrils of nature so intricately that the thickets had got impregnable. The smell of the forest was just delicious.
The gypsy trundled slowly up the dirt path. "Ranthambore has everything to offer – They are not just tigers, they are characters we identify ourselves with," said our driver Shabbir, on our way to Zone 6. Tiger is the magic mantra here. Hardly had he said these words, when he jumped off his seat and cried,–"Tiger." The word seemed to resonate in the air. It was a fully grown tiger; his stripes could be seen from in between the thickets of babool. The gypsies raced, but the tiger moved unhurriedly through the tall grass, peacefully making its way through the vegetation. We were moving parallel with the tiger and then stood still waiting for the tiger to cross to the other side. Our eyes didn't blink for a moment. We waited patiently, and expectantly. The forest seemed to freeze for a moment and then came alive with alarm calls. The air was still and alert. A faint rustle and then a movement. The 'sher khan' was there – right in front of us, crossing over to the other side. Vehicles jostled to be in the right place, tourists cried out in surprise but the 'sher khan' moved on unperturbed, its velvet paws landing softly on the dirt road. T-34 halted, looked up, holding our gaze – compelling and powerful. Two more steps and it was back into the thickets – a stripe of gold and ochre disappearing into the bush. We followed it for a few minutes before it disappeared in the dark of the jungle. We moved on in anticipation of it coming out from the other end. As we moved on, the landscape offered us a charming picturesque mosaic. The plum faced parakeets enjoying their morning play on the high branches, scarlet minivets lazing away the day, magpie robins breasting to the soft winter morning sun, greater caucals rummaging for food among the dead foliage and the colourful peacocks basking themselves in the sun, presenting myriad hues to leave even the best artist wanting; this natural klaidescope was mesmerising. A langur perched high on a mahua tree, its golden vigilant eyes darting back and forth and ears twitching as it barked to mark its territory.
Zone 6 is a perfect place for leopard and sloth bear sightings. In the matter of a few minutes, the terrain changed from grassy plains to tabletop plateau. The distant hills seemed to fill the up the emptiness of the area. Before we could call it a day, a shy male blue bull appeared out of the thicket, halted for a picture perfect photo and hurriedly made its way back from where it had come.
On our way back we halted for our brunch and the bati-choorma and spicy poha, just added to the thrill of the morning. After lunch, we got a canter booked for ourselves for an evening safari and waited under a tree listening to the tales of Maharaja Hamir. We soaked in the ambience and the battle story of Maharaja Hamir and Ala-ud-din Khilji and the long history of Ranthambore fort.
At 2:30 pm we headed for our second safari in Zone 4. This zone, unlike the zone 6, had water bodies and thicker forests. Beautiful green hills stood on both sides. We were greeted by the gregarious cormorants roosting in the sun. Macaques were chattering away busily on the tree-tops and the fragrance of wild fruits floated in the air. Zone 4 is the home to the most famous tigers of India – Machli and her daughter Sundari, whose lives have been intensively captured by BBC. We moved ahead from one terrain to the other, enjoying the different colours of Ranthambore. Cooing of birds, pecking of wood-peckers and the chuckling of langurs filled the air. A little away, we could see the Ranthambore lake. Several water birds – greater egrets, ibis, pond heron, sat on the wet rocks. A river tern was hovering in the air trying to fix its eye on some careless fish. A lone snake-bird sat on the tree in the water, taking a full view of its territory. Quite close to us, an ibis rummaged through the pebbles and wood, looking for crustaceans; unaware of our presence. Our guide pointed out four baby crocodiles sunbathing, right in front of us. They looked clueless and on the other side, some eight grown crocodiles were lazing away in the sun.
A little more into the deep forests and we saw six or seven gypsies and canters halting. "It must be a tiger," we whispered. We learnt that a tiger was resting in the bushes after its hunt. Our guide decided to turn the vehicle and come from to the other side. We had estimated that the animal would move from one side and go towards the water. The remains of its prey were lying there – a deer. Now only the bones remained for the crows and jackals to feed on. Hesitantly we made off towards the tiger oblivious to the deer's distress calls. It looked like a traffic jam with every gypsy trying to get a toehold. The tiger had been in the bushes for more than an hour. Just a few minutes after we reached and the tiger moved (as if it was waiting for us to arrive). It was a tigress, smaller in size and build; dragging herself, limping, maybe a little old. She came forward, paused pondered contemplating our awe and surprise; but was not too happy seeing so many vehicles lined up to have her 'darshan'. She moved on, lost in her thoughts – her 'auggghhh augghh' grunts resonating in the air as a farewell. Her eyes held an ancient mystery – untold story of sadness. She was dangerously beautiful. We couldn't have been luckier – two safaris and two tiger sightings, wow! Our thrill knew no bounds when we were introduced to the tigress – she was Machali. "There was a time when she was called the Aaishwarya Rai of Ranthambore," our guide said. We had been face-to-face with Machali – the face of tiger conservation in India.
On our way back we again halted at the lakeside, to witness the great flight arc of a crested serpent eagle. Ranthambore had cast its spell – from tiger sightings to seeing an eagle soar across the skies, from crocodiles idling in the sun to the play of minivets feeding on tree pines to catching a jungle fight live, from chattering monkeys to the shrill calls of brain fever cuckoo – everything was burnt in our memory forever. Our tryst ended with the words of our safari guide, 'These animals are so magnificent that it seems a tragedy they should be allowed to vanish' and his appeal to plant for each of us to plant a tree to maintain forests for these majestic animals.