A trip to Ranthambore National Park can leave you awestruck

It’s 5 am. The sleepy Nizamuddin railway station is beginning to stir, and only half awake, I have somehow managed to find my seat on the Nizamuddin-Kota Superfast, though it’s taken me a while. Four women, one child and a half empty bag of Cheetos greet me. I begin to wake up; taking in the faces and names of people I will be travelling with. Five women, strangers to each other, have signed up with Soul Purpose Travel’s trip to Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park, hoping for a short but wonderful holiday, and making a few more friends along the way.

A jerk, hiss and scrape later, the train’s on its way to Sawai Madhopur, home to the famous tiger reserve. It will take us six hours to get there. Meanwhile, Vidya Deshpande and Mimi Chakrabarti use the time to distribute bags filled with Soul Purpose merchandise to us, and as we examine the colourful coasters and badges, they tell us about the company they started a year back, one that is already on its eleventh trip. Based out of Gurgaon, Soul Purpose Travel is an adventure travel company for women, and every month, it organises one adventure holiday. “We try to visit lesser known, offbeat places. And when we visit common holiday spots, we try to approach the place differently, arranging activities that are unusual and exciting”, says Deshpande. Advertising through word of mouth and social networking platforms, Soul Purpose has undertaken trips to places such as Bharatpur, Bandavgarh National Park, Nagaland, Munsiyari, Jageshwar and Khajuraho. “We try to keep the group small, making the trip both easier to handle and also intimate”, adds Chakrabarti. Over the hours, the conversation ebbs and flows, and each topic comes back to that one thing. On our way to one of the largest national parks in North India, of course we have tigers on our minds.

It is said, and rightly so, that the tigers in Ranthambore are the most camera friendly ones in the world. With the heat turned up, the deciduous forest dry, and over 50 tigers on the prowl for shade and water, our chances of spotting one, I am told, are high. The park is open to visitors from 1st October to 30th June every year, and Soul Purpose has chosen what is considered the best month to plan a trip into the forest.

Reaching Ranthambore from Delhi, I realise, is fairly easy. The Superfast gets us to the Sawai Madhopur station at 11 am on a Friday morning. Our rides to the Pugmarks Resort are open jeeps, the preferred mode of travel in this Tiger City. The sun is strong, but the light gust of wind surprisingly cool. The vast, desert flatland that surrounds us is overwhelming. So far removed from the city we have left behind, it seems to reinforce the fact that we are, after all, on a holiday.

The almost empty roads, dotted infrequently with canters and jeeps rushing past, curves into the dusty, unpaved path that leads to the resort. Surrounded by acres of land, Pugmarks is a bit like a cool, green haven. We look longingly towards the pool, but there’s a safari waiting for us and our window of time to prepare for it is short. A quick lunch and shower later, we have sunscreens, hats and cameras in place.

The safaris in the park are scheduled twice daily — early morning and late afternoon — and they last for three and a half hours. The park is huge, located at the junction of the Aravalli and Vindhya hill range and covering an area of approximately 400 sq km. A short ten to fifteen minute ride brings us to its entrance. A family of common langurs or Hanumans greet us, and the safari begins.

Before the trip, a look at the itinerary had assured me that this was a well planned, balanced trip, with three safaris, plenty of food and rest, and some shopping and sight-seeing. Now, on our first safari, we enter the deep, seemingly never-ending forest. In the first half hour, overwhelmed by the foliage, the forest cover largely made up of palash or dhok, we spot langurs, sanguine looking spotted deer, nilgais and at least three different kind of beautiful birds, including the ubiquitous tree pie. The bright orange-red flowers of the dhok tree are gorgeous against the backdrop of a dry forest land. While we are still softly exclaiming at a deer delicately sipping water from a pool, our jeep’s radio crackles to life — there has been a sighting.

The mere whiff of a “sighting” (the word used only to refer to tiger appearances) is enough to send excited ripples travelling through the forest. There is hushed chatter, and the canters and jeeps communicate with each other, exchanging information rapidly. What is heartening is the wonder and excitement, laced with affection, that runs through the guides and drivers. The tigers have been given fond names — Machhli, Star, Sultan— and each sighting makes for stories that last weeks. Swept up in the excitement, our jeep gathers speed, racing towards the spot of the sighting, and, once we reach it, the spot of a traffic jam. Everyone wants a glimpse of the sleeping tiger, down in the ravine, inside his cool, cosy cave, oblivious to the excitement above. He sleeps, and we stare at him. “T-28” is beautiful. Long, lean, almost completely hidden from view but still intimidating, he obliges us by lifting a heavy paw to swat a fly. We sigh, our day made.

It only gets better though. Our first safari brings us a bagful of sightings, and we even manage to spot a leopard. “Thieves, these ones,” our driver tells us, affection softening his words. “They are impossible to track properly, masters that they are at hide and seek”. This makes the leopard sighting even more valuable, and we take countless pictures of this animal, still as a rock, almost entirely camouflaged by the bush he sits behind. A couple of snub nosed marsh crocodiles are next, along with the blackbuck and an Indian wild boar. Before long, it’s time to return, but not before T-28, awake now, graces us with another look-see. He appears quite suddenly, and walks with our jeep, stretching luxuriously, yawning and licking his paws. We follow him, keeping only a foot or so between him and the jeep, till he finally gets bored of us and disappears into the jungle.

We are almost completely silent on our way back to the resort. The excited chatter has died away, replaced by a silent awe. The jungle, it turns out, can do this to you, and its impossible to not be deeply impressed by the beauty and power that it hides within. A meal of the traditional daal-baati-choorma rounds things off fabulously.

The next day, we take a trip to the Ranthambore Fort, steeped with and boasting a long, complicated history rife with succession battles and intrigue. On our way back, we intend to make a quick stop at the Dastakar store, but the visit proves to be long, leaving our luggage heavier and wallets lighter. The Dastakar society, founded in 1981 to help craftspeople, especially women, use their own traditional craft skills as a means of employment, income generation and economic self-sufficiency, produces beautiful, colourful things that are nearly impossible to resist.

The last day of the trip, complete with another fruitful safari sans tiger sightings, and a much needed break inside the resort, ends with a night drive to the station. Our train is scheduled to arrive at 10:40 pm, and we leave the resort early enough for a last, pitch black and slow drive through the almost deserted roads; early enough to spot the lone hyena making his way into the forest.