George Roshan crosses a dry ravine to meet the Rani of Ranthambore, only to be taken by complete surprise.

At around 3 in the afternoon on a summer’s day, an open jeep arrived to take us for a safari ride. Our guide for the day was Rajkumar, an expert in jungle lore and the wild denizens of Ranthambore National Park. At the entrance to the park, we were besieged by a legion of local touts wanting to sell souvenir caps, vests and the like. We had gone with our sun hats, so we politely declined. Rajkumar returned from the Forest Department post to inform us that we had been allotted beat no.2 for our ride. It would still be some way before we would reach the foot of the Ranthambore Fort, from where we could take our specified route through the designated gateway.

Almost immediately after crossing the gateway, we saw a peacock, perched on the bough of a tree. As the jeep slowly traversed the stony track, we scanned the water bodies around. Tigers love to cool themselves in the forest pools, and are believed to never stray too far from them.

We moved on. Nature seemed at peace with itself. Where were the famed tigers of Ranthambore? We had been inside the park for close to two hours, and had not heard the call of a tiger, much less glimpsed the stripes or tail of one. Then we came to a spot where the trail dipped and cut across a dry ravine. This ravine held a tiny pool, something like a puddle of algal water actually. We soon settled at a suitable vantage point above the waterhole and waited anxiously.

It was Rajkumar who spotted the tiger in the undergrowth and pointed it to us. The tiger’s coat was so perfect a cloak of camouflage in that tangle of tawny bush and weeds, light and shadow, that he would be invisible to all but the most highly trained eye expecting such a canvas. Through the telephoto lens of my camera his thick, muscled forelegs seemed huge as he stood there briefly surveying the scene. We were fully expecting and hoping that he would step forward into the ravine and on to the waterhole, but he decided to half turn and spring on to a rock with cat-like grace and then disappear into the jungle from which he had emerged. The king had opted for privacy over extroversion.

Machli’s territory

Rajkumar arrived with the jeep and driver at 5.45 the next morning. He told us that we had been allotted beat no.4 for the drive that day, and that beat 4 was tigress Machli’s territory.

We drove endlessly, passing scrubland, lakes and rock-strewn open spaces, but not stopping by herds of sambar or spotted deer which were common in the park. The big cat lay in a shallow, stony ravine to our right, relaxing under a small tree. This was Machli, probably the most photographed and famous tiger of the wild. She paid us no mind as we manoeuvred our jeep into the best position for observation and photography. This particular animal had a reputation for not being shy of jeeps or human presence. We spent about 15 to 20 minutes at the spot, in which time I had exposed a roll of film on the “Rani of Ranthambore”.

There was plenty of wildlife to engage our attention as we went on our way. And just before we exited the beat gate a peacock danced in front of the jeep. By a quirk of coincidence it seemed like we had been first welcomed into the park by a peacock and it was a peacock, again, bidding farewell to us.

At the park entrance the souvenir salesmen were missing. After checking out of “Ranthambore Bagh” post lunch that afternoon, we rode in the hotel’s open jeep to the Sawai Madhopur railway station to take the train to Jaipur. But I felt a sense of regret that we had not purchased any souvenirs from the locals outside the park entrance — no matter what the cost. For conservation to succeed, the local people living in the area have to benefit from the effort.