A chance invitation, an impromptu plan, led me back to Ranthambhore after almost 18 years. It was the first time that I would be going there without the cheerful figure of Fatheh Singh Rathore to greet us and it was with very mixed feelings that I embarked on the train journey to what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful National Parks in India.
I arrived to be greeted by staff from Sher Bagh at the Sawai Madhopur station with glasses of chilled lemonade and was soon on my way to Sher Bagh. After a warm welcome and a quick bite I was whisked off into the Park accompanied by Yusuf and Jaisal. The sense of excitement grew as I waited to experience the magic of Ranthambhore. No other Park has quite the same landscapes with the fort, the roots of the banyan trees, and the platinum blond grass. The Park was even more breathtaking than I remembered as there had been three years of abundant rain.
The lakes this year are full and there is water in the ravines. Large Fish can be seen swimming in the pools of water, something I had not seen before. April brings with it the flowering of the Flame of the Forest. As we drove deeper into the Park, I began noticing the differences between the forests of Madhya Pradesh where I have been living and working for almost two decades and Ranthambhore. In Kanha we have the evergreen Sal forests but here the Anogeissus forests were covered with minute, ethereal little leaves – a hair trigger response to the chance rains in the days before.
The mammalian and bird species are the same but there is a marked difference in the abundance and behavior of some of the animals found in the Park. In Kanha, it is rare to see Sambar deer in large herds and the Cheetal deer seemed to be smaller in size to the ones in Kanha. The first carnivore of the day was a jackal busily rummaging for food in the scrub. As we drove on deeper into the forest the beauty of the Park unfurled before my eyes. I was told that I would be shown as much of the Park as we could cover on that drive. After driving a while we were near a river bed with long grass and a pool of water. And my tiger feeling grew. As we slowly scanned the area there seemed to be no signs of any tigers and we drove on. A Nilgai alarm from behind us led us to backtrack and there on the road was a beautiful female tiger. She was padding intently forward with her ears on alert, and looking into the river bed on our left. In a few minutes she went off the road into the river bed and we saw that there was another tiger hidden in the tall grasses. This was her cub and he greeted her affectionately with sinous rubs of his body against hers in an ethereal dance before they melded into the vegetation. It was a beautiful moment and a great welcome back to the Park for me.
We headed on across the Park an through some incredible landscapes where the forests were ablaze with the orange fires of the Chula tree (or Flame of the Forest) and some moments later came across a sloth bear on an incline. A bear sighting is fantastic at any time but to see one in the middle of the afternoon was incredible. Bears are shy and this one too peered at us short sightedly before he ambled off in a matter of minutes. The drive was proving to be incredible. The evening ended with us spending half an hour with three well fed and lazing cubs who seemed to have just eaten to their fill and were now soaking in a pool of water whilst their mother remained hidden in the bamboo.
It was now time to head back and yet the sense of anticipation remained. Would we meet a leopard tonight to complete a hat trick on one drive? Wanting to give ourselves the greatest chances of a sighting, Jaisal and Yusuf decided that we would take the long route back to Sher Bagh along the Park boundary. In the twilight, as we slowly drove down into a dip in the dirt track our driver spotted a pair of eyes shining in the centre of the road. With bated breath we drove closer and it was a leopard. She crossed the road, walked back towards us and sat on the stone wall of the Park giving us a chance to admire her feline beauty before flowing in that special leopard way into the forest. The final, beautiful ending to a perfect drive.
Meals at Sher Bagh are special and that evening was even more so as we bathed in the afterglow of that incredible drive at a campfire lit by many lanterns and ate a meal cooked for us by Jaisal on a wood fire.
The following day brought even more incredible moments for me – six tiger sightings with the chance of spending a few hours with some of the tigers. A magical moment watching an Osprey at one of the lakes, turtles basking on logs in the sun, chinkara, crocodile and the Ranthambore special – treepies that come to eat off your hand whilst waiting for the tiger sitting in the water on his way to crossing through one of the lakes, made the day perfect. The Pièce de résistance for me, was being able to photograph one of the tigers at the edge of the lake with the famous Jogi Mahal framed in the background. This to me is quintessential Ranthambhore.
Yet the magic never seemed to end. The evening brought many old friends to the campfire and reminisces and discussions filled the hours till late in the morning. As the time at Sher Bagh drew to an end, we decided to go for a drive to see what there was to see. The stars filled the skies and jungle sounds penetrated the silence. As we drove in one of the restored jeeps towards the forest, suddenly in the moonlight we saw some porcupine. Porcupine always remind me of little ballerinas with their tutus on. As they ran down the side the road with the quills quivering an owl called softly. It was good bye and time soon to head off to Delhi. I headed back to the city promising myself that this time I would not let so much time go by before revisiting Ranthambhore again and experiencing the magic of Sher Bagh.
Written by Latika Rana
Photography by Jaisal Singh
Dr. Latika Nath Rana, dubbed as the “tiger princess,” is one of the foremost tiger experts and tiger conservationists in India. She was the first woman to have been awarded a doctorate in tiger conservation. Dr Rana along with her husband, Nanda Rana, runs a conservation camp, Singinawa in an area that borders Kanha National Park’s buffer zone.
Read more about the Superb Experience of a Ranthambhore Safari.