Pushkar & Ranthambhore: scooters, tigers, camels and cowsh*t

We had our first experience of luxury Indian travel on the journey from Jaipur from Ajmer in our beautifully cool 1st class AC cabin.

 

Sadly it was only a 2.5 hour journey, we could have done with travelling like this on some of our epic journeys

From there it was a scenic taxi ride out of the not-so-scenic Ajmer, over the Aravelli Mountains and down into the pilgrimage city of Pushkar. Centred around a sacred lake, which itself is surrounded by 52 bathing ghats, Pushkar is home to over 52 temples, including the world’s only Brahma temple. It’s considered an essential stop on any Hindu pilgrimage.

It’s also apparently considered an essential stop on any hippy pilgrimage. The place is full of Indian and foreign hippies alike, hanging out in tie dye and macramé shops, learning to hula hoop and sipping ‘bhang lassies’. We gave the bhang lassies a miss, but spent our first afternoon mooching around the market stalls, cooling ourselves down with iced coffees in the many rooftop cafes and feasting on Tibetan thukpa and momos.

After a few days in the city, we were keen to get out into the countryside and so we rented ourselves a couple of handy little scooters and set off for a quick sunset explore.

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As you can see from Jamie’s face, he’s overjoyed at the chance to snuggle up to his girlfriend’s Father on the way to the rental shop

Stunning scenery and we had the arid mountainous roads mostly to ourselves, excepting for the odd cheeky camel, cow or monkey.

 

We planned to head out and explore more the next day but, sadly, Jamie was struck down by a second bout of the flu bug we’d had in Haridwar. We left the almost-birthday boy in bed and headed out on a Duckitt-only mission into the Rajasthani countryside.

I’ve never driven a scooter by myself before and, given my general track record in anything involving coordination or skill, set off with some trepidation.

Within five minutes I had obviously managed to drop the bike and get stuck in the sand, but I found my feet (or wheels) eventually.

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A great day heading whichever way took our fancy, through traditional villages and along sandy dirt tracks through the semi-desert. We stopped to have a look around a local school (guess whose idea that was) and to say hi to the locals along the way.

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Of course everyone wanted to greet us and give us high fives as we went past, which would have been lovely but I hadn’t quite got the hang of steering the bike with one hand so I was terrified every time a friendly Indian child so much as gave me a cheerful wave.

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Lots of fun and so nice to be outside and away from the hustle and bustle.

The one good thing about Jamie’s invalid status was that it left us some time for last minute birthday shopping and we bravely took the scooters down to the hectic marketplace. Can’t say it did much to improve my confidence on the bike, and my Dad was left with a particularly smelly foot after he was forced into a putrid drain on the side of the road, but we made it through otherwise unscathed.

Until five minutes after I returned the bike, at which point I promptly stepped in some disturbingly fresh cow dung in the middle of the road. Yep, it was still warm.

To be fair, considering how abundant the stuff is here, I’m just impressed that this hadn’t happened sooner.

img_2094Back to the lovely Gulaab Niwaas Palace for a spread of delicious vegetarian curries (religious site, no alcohol or meat, same old same old) and to check on the invalid, who had recovered enough to join us for some pizza. I think he just wanted to make sure we had time to get him a present…

And by the next day, the birthday boy was (almost) right as rain. After a birthday breakfast by the pool, our taxi arrived to take us down to the Ranthambhore National Park to start our search for the elusive Bengal tiger.

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A very long journey over some pretty shoddy roads, but at least we had air con and a huge private car. The road was supposedly a national highway, but let’s just say it wasn’t quite as smooth as the M25 and the last hour of pot holes took us further and further into the middle of nowhere.

Dad, of course, had great fun continuing the process of filming his sixth feature length film on Indian traffic, including such highlights as a small child being dangled out of a van moving at over 80kmh as he peed.

Luckily, the incredibly luxurious Ranthambhore Heritage Haveli awaited us and we had the perfect afternoon relaxing by the pool and enjoying our fair share of the hotel’s Kingfishers. That evening, we surprised Jamie with a candlelit birthday dinner served by our own crew of personal waiters who somehow managed to appear with a refill the second we took a moment’s break from eating.

 

Needless to say, we all ate way too much, but at least we were sufficiently fuelled for our first foray into the national park the next day. There are 62 tigers in Ranthambhore, spread over an area of 392sq km, and, given that they are nocturnal, solitary and very secretive, there is only a 30% chance of spotting one. Still, it’s one of the best places in the world to give it a go and, after dutifully performing our lucky tiger dances, we set off in some excitement.

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For our first attempt, we were taken into zone five by our guide and driver. Only around 20% of the park is open to tourists and the area is divided into ten zones to minimise the traffic and impact on the wildlife.

 

It felt like we were so close the whole time, as the guides listened for the warning calls of monkeys and birds and we spotted fresh tracks in the dusty trails, but in the end we didn’t have any luck. The zone itself was beautiful though, and as we moved from dry savannah landscapes to luscious green forests, we spotted summer deer, crocodiles, kingfishers, parakeets, langurs, blue bulls and macaques.

 

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Despite the lack of tigers, we loved the safari and eagerly signed up for the next day, convinced that this time we’d be in luck. Our next attempt took us to zone ten, which was almost an hour away from zone five, with another completely different landscape.

 

This one was slightly less enjoyable, however, with far less wildlife to see and a hell of a lot more bouncing around the back of the jeep. And still no tigers, despite the teasing footprints appearing everywhere.

 

Still not ready to give up, we decided to give it one more shot and booked in for that afternoon. We’d heard that there had been a good sighting of a tiger and cubs in zone six that morning and so we were delighted when we were told we were heading there (I think our incredibly attentive hotel staff had taken pity on us and had called in some favours…).

The first couple of hours were pretty similar to the previous two safaris, with lots of evidence of tigers nearby but no sight of the slippery orange buggers. Two hours in, however, one of the other jeeps came past us, excitedly shouting something garbled in Hindi, of which the only intelligible part was ‘TIGER, TIGER, TIGER’.

I have never seen anything like our driver’s incredible off-roading skills as he instantly lurched into action and, with a quick shout of ‘hold on!’, nearly sent us flying off the back of the jeep. We hurtled our way through the narrow jungle paths, competing with a mass of other jeeps that suddenly came careering from nowhere.

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When we arrived at the place where the tiger had been spotted, however, it was clear that we weren’t going to see anything – there were at least ten jeeps closing the poor animal in, including two or three big canters holding 20 people each.

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Luckily our driver had a better idea and we reversed at breakneck speed to intersect the tiger at the next crossing. At last, we had our first brief sighting of the mythical Ranthambhore tiger, Ladali.

 

We were all feeling pretty chuffed with our spotting, although also slightly sorry for the tiger. Our driver was quite good and moved us along quickly, saying that it was only fair to share our sighting with our people and to make sure that everyone had a turn with the tiger, but some of the other drivers insisted on closing her in and getting right up to her.

 

We headed off to a shady spot near a watering hole to chat excitedly with the guide and watch as a family of deer came out for their evening drink.

Ladali has two cubs who weren’t with her and so, on our way back to the entrance, the guide suggested we take one more look at the spot where her cubs were last seen. We pulled into a small enclosed patch of jungle by a watering hole and settled down to look for a few minutes, but no movement to be seen.

Just as the driver started to pull away, however, I spotted a faint glimpse of bushy tiger beard through the trees in the distance. The next ten minutes were absolutely magical as the massive male ‘cub’ made his way slowly down through the trees towards the jeep, stopping every now and then to have a stretch or give us a curious glance.

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He didn’t make a sound as he slowly padded across the road, right in front of the jeep, before eventually disappearing into the jungle behind. There were definitely some sharp intakes of breath each time he looked up at us, but he didn’t seem too concerned.

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We couldn’t believe our luck at having had this moment all to ourselves, with no other jeeps around, and it was one of those experiences that will stay with us forever. There are only 2,500 Bengal tigers left, most of which are in India, and I never thought I’d have the chance to see one in the wild. So humbling to see the majestic creatures up close and, of course, I was overjoyed at being the one to have spotted him. Bragging rights for life.

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We were all very excited to make it back to the hotel in time to share our story over sunset and an equally humbling interaction with another endangered species, the Kingfisher.

 


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