On his trip to Ranthambore, Arindam Bhattacharjee is lucky enough to see a real jungle battle — a tigress bidding her time as a host of crocodiles drags a trapped sambar
It was the call of the wild that took me to the Ranthambore National Park on a busy weekday. The summer was not at its peak, thankfully. Ideally, a train to Sawai Madhopur from New Delhi should have been the easiest, given the two-and-a-half days I had at my disposal. But the Railways don’t encourage the luxury of reservation if you firm up a trip two hours before the train leaves. So, I finished dinner early, packed some clothes and my DSLR, a Canon 500D, battery packs, memory cards et al in a backpack and boarded the 10 pm bus to Jaipur from India Gate.
Excitement, not sleep, ruled the next few hours. It was 3.30 am before I could find a waiting room corner to catch a few winks at the Jaipur station. The first train to Sawai Madhopur would not be before 5.30 am — the Kota-Hanumathgarh Express. A general compartment ticket upgraded to AC III and sound sleep for the next four hours ferried me afresh through the scrubland of Rajasthan to an unusually clean destination modelled on a miniature royal mansion. A walk in the sun to the hotel on the desolate road to the national park (the town is on the other side), hard negotiation and a room at Rs 600 a night set the mood for a wilderness wayfarer.
The next task was to arrange the maximum number of jungle safaris that I could do in the two days I had. And the unequivocal mandate was to spot the tiger. It was quite a task! But self-appointed friend, philosopher and guide Vishnu Rathore came to my rescue. The bonhomie I built with him helped me book a seat on three safaris — two on a single day.
I spent the afternoon of day one at Zone Five on a Canter with a large crowd. There are eight zones one can cover, but not when time is a premium. It was mostly langur, deer and sambar, an occasional wild boar and lots of tree pies. At the exit of the park gate, someone announced that a tiger had been spotted very close to Zone Five, where I was. But it was a false alarm.
We hit Zone Three on day two, again on a Canter. It had three water bodies, which meant more chances of a tiger coming into the open to drink. But in vain! There was apparently a tigress spotted in the zone so far away that even my 70-300mm lens could not capture it at full zoom. It was dejection once again. But I forgot Rathore was my friend and he had promised at least one Jeep safari. He made me go to Zone Three again on my final safari in the afternoon.
With just a family of four with me in the Gypsy, the afternoon safari seemed unusually quiet compared to the others. And I turned out to be a key advisor! We reached the spot where a tigress was spotted in the morning at distance infinity. We waited, but nothing moved. It was a marshy lake in the middle of which was a building in ruins. We saw hordes of sambar entering the water, followed by spotted deer. The whole place was calm. They say the call of the wild is the key to the big cat’s whereabouts, but the deer were deafeningly silent. The driver suggested we drive closer to the periphery of the lake. We did. Nothing moved. Suddenly, there was a call of the deer, and a rush of the sambar out of the waters. It was all happening about 2 km behind us. We turned, rushed towards the sambar and there it was!
A sambar trapped in the marsh was being dragged by a crocodile, while a tigress — numbered 17 in the tiger census — sprang out of the ruins and sped towards the hunt, only to be stopped on the way by five or six crocodiles darting towards the trap. I was witnessing a scene straight out of National Geographic barely 20 feet from me. Shutters went clicking, as the tigress sat for her prey. Over two hours and a lot of roaring and screaming later, we decided it was time to go. The light was fading, but the tigress would not give up, though we had to. It was time to return, but not without a lingering sense of achievement.
Next stop? Kanha!