The dry, deciduous vegetation of the forest makes it easy to spot animals. You will find not only tigers, but also sloth bear, leopard, nilgai, boar, hyena, sambar and more.

There’s a loud, panicked grunt, and our driver points out a nilgai, almost entirely hidden as it stands alert between the dry, leafless trees. “There’s a tiger around,” he tells us. As if to confirm this, a solitary gray langur, or hanuman, as it’s commonly known, starts to screech. “These hanumans are the tiger’s worst enemy,” we are informed. The langur is staring into a clearing, his screeches getting louder, punctuated by the nilgai’s short, deep grunts. We are in an open jeep, easy to manoeuvre, and we find ourselves following the hanuman’s line of vision. Within minutes, we are at the clearing, and sure enough, there it is — the tiger. The thin grass barely conceals his lean, muscular body, or his watchful, alert eyes. He doesn’t as much as look at the jeep. He knows we are there, but the nilgai is more worthy of his attention.

How can a zoo compare to a trip into the jungle? A tiger in the wild is where he belongs, and where he should be. The Ranthambore National Park offers you an opportunity to spot this animal on his own turf, and throws in the chance to experience an environment that is at once awe-inspiring, intimidating and inspiring.

Burning bright

Perhaps one of the best places to spot the big cat, this sanctuary is home to over 50 tigers, and an entire eco-system of wildlife that includes sloth bear, leopard, nilgai, wild boar, sambar and hyena. About 10 km from the Sawai Madhopur railway station and 110 km from the Kota railway station, this national park in Rajasthan is conveniently located, and easily reached. The closest airport in Jaipur is also an option, and the RICDOR runs a mega highway between Kota and Ranthambore. Inside the park, you are flanked by the Aravalli and Vindhya hill range, at the junction of which the park is located. It covers an area of over 400 sq km.

The sleepy district of Sawai Madhopur, its streets lined with open jeeps and canters, and almost every hotel’s name a tribute to the big cat, thrives on the inflow of visitors from all over the world lining up for safaris. While not everyone spots a tiger, the sighting rate is still high. Of course, it’s the excitement before the sighting that gives the entire experience the colour of an adventure. The forest comes alive, with sounds that you have never heard, and the drivers of the canters and jeeps exchange information. Once you know where the sighting is, you are off, hurtling through the forest till you reach the tiger, sometimes still there, waiting for you to arrive with your camera. It is said that the tigers in Ranthambore, along with the other animals, are the most camera friendly ones in the world. Quite wonderfully, each tiger has been given a fond name by the locals. There is Machhli, a photographer’s dream, along with others like Bachcha, Sultan and Romeo.

Even if you don’t spot a tiger on your safari, the forest offers other wonders that you should keep an eye out for. The spotted deer, sambar and langur step out frequently to drink water, or lie in the shade, the heat making them too lazy to move. The sheer number of beautiful birds is breath-taking, and it isn’t uncommon to spot a treepie or a pied kingfisher, along with other birds like graylag goose, woodpeckers, Indian gray hornbill, bee eaters, cuckoos, parakeets, and Asian palm swift. So far, 272 resident and migrant types of birds have been documented. The golden oriole, with its bright yellow colour, is one such gorgeous migratory bird. While it is easy to spot, it’s also very difficult to photograph, barely staying still to oblige the cameras.

The dry, deciduous vegetation in the forest makes it easy to spot animals, especially between April and June. The sanctuary is home to nearly 300 species of flora and fauna, including trees like babul, imli, banyan, khajur and khair. The dhak tree, or palash, forms a striking picture, its bright red-orange flowers set against the dry brown landscape of the forest.

The safaris are scheduled twice a day. While a trip into the forest is a must, it wouldn’t do to return home without a look at the Ranthambore fort, a formidable structure that has played witness to many historical developments. The fort lies within the Ranthambore national park, and once upon a time, the kings living in the fort would use the forest for their hunting ground.

Apart from the fort, a look at the three lakes within the forest should also make the itinerary, as should a pit stop at the Dastakar store with its beautiful handmade knick knacks that are impossible to resist. A traditional meal of daal-baati-churma from a local eatery, too, is a must, and is available at every corner. Of course, after a long, hot safari, you should opt for the local snack of poha from a street stand. It’s cheap, delicious and quite surprisingly, healthy!

So pick up your camera, put some sunscreen in your bag, don a hat, and make your way to the jungle.

Quick facts

Nearest railway station: Sawai Madhopur

Nearest airport: Jaipur

Open from: October 1- June 30

You can spot: Tigers, Leopards, Striped Hyenas, Sambar deer, Chital, Nilgai, Common or Hanuman langurs, Jackals, Jungle cats, Caracals, Sloth bears, Black bucks, Rufoustailed Hare, Indian Wild Boar and Snub Nosed Marsh Crocodiles.

Other Attractions: Ranthambore Fort, Jogi Mahal (The Forest Guesthouse), Padam, Rajbagh and Malik Talao (Lakes), Dastakar Store