We were wide awake and ready to go well before the wake-up knock on our door at 6am. In the pre-dawn darkness, we ate our chapattis and bananas and drank our coffee, waiting for the jeep to arrive. It was to take us out to Ranthambore National Park, in Rajasthan, India, where we were hoping to see some tigers. We'd been told that there were still quite a few tigers to be found within the park, though no-one ever knew exactly where they would be found from one day to the next. Our transport rattled up to the front door and we climbed in, wrapping ourselves in the blankets we’d brought from our room.
It was still pitch black as we bumped along the road through the gates and into the park itself. We had the inevitable forms to fill in, money to be paid and receipts to be collected before transferring to a small blue utility for our trip through the sanctuary. We were rather taken aback when we realised that we were off searching for wild tigers while sitting totally unprotected on the open deck of a small truck, guarded only by a bony little man clutching a rather short stick. Still, everyone seemed to know what they were doing. So we put our trust in them, offered a few more pujas to Ganesh and settled ourselves on the hard bench seats trying to keep warm in our scratchy blankets.
The first daylight began to show pale behind the hills. Birds stirred and murmured in the trees. It was still very cold but slowly the sun began to warm us as it rose higher and higher above the trees. We drove along dusty tracks throughout the park between clumps of bare trees beneath which long golden grass concealed, we were sure, any number of tigers. On and on we ground in low gear, winding our way through the outer regions of the flat grasslands before returning to the deeper woods where we were spotted various kinds of deer, quite close by. We stopped beside a small lake and admired the gentle colours of the dawn reflected in its still waters. The sun was well up by now and a pale lavender mist softened the harshness of the landscape.
Around us peacocks stalked through the long grass, doves burbled in the trees and quail skittered across the track. A crocodile warmed himself in the sun and pure white egrets shone against the grassy riverbanks. A large black and white stork surprised us, flopping lazily through the air right over our heads.. Countless monkeys squealed and chattered as they flung themselves from branch to branch. It was quite exhilarating, winding slowly over the bumpy, dusty tracks never knowing what to expect but hoping for a glimpse of the magnificent tigers. We spotted many tiger footprints in the dusty surface of the road. We could hear them quite close by, grunting and rustling in the undergrowth and then…nothing.
We admired the colours of the land, the soil and rocks a mix of gold, tan and ochre. Open clearings were covered with soft, tawny grass. There were silent, tranquil lakes bounded by gangly trees and spiny scrub; rocky gullies cut sharply down between the hills. A feature of India especially in the rural areas of Rajasthan is the soft pale lilac haze which is such a sharp contrast to the harshness of the reality of life for so many Indian people.
The lonely ruins of Ranthambore Fort lined the jagged ridges high above the roadway through the park. We were told that some of the local village people walked all the way up here each day, to go to the temple. We drove beneath enormous banyan trees with twisted roots and trunks choking some of the perimeter walls of the fort. Hundreds of monkeys make their homes in these trees and spend much of the day screaming and chattering as they race through the roots and branches. They are a menace to any traffic passing nearby and en masse can be quite frightening.
We returned to the Lodge for breakfast, disappointed - and ravenous. We ate poached eggs and seven pieces of toast and jam each, with two cups of awful coffee. The dhobi wallah brought our clothes back, washed, folded, pressed and layered with newspaper. We relaxed in the warm sunlight surrounded by roses, bougainvillea, canna lilies and chrysanthemums. From the road just outside the gate, we could hear camel bells jingle as three laden animals plodded slowly by. Overhead vultures circled, and in the distance a train whistle shrilled as it approached a crossing.
The men in the yard spent their time, tinkering with the engines of the cars. They all seemed so resourceful when it came to mending things. Parts were swapped from one vehicle to another and the odd laugh accompanied the proceedings. The people we had met here were very gracious. They had a great sense of humour, even the hawkers on the streets.
Later that afternoon we returned to the park, but once again found no tigers. We saw more tracks and heard one within a few metres of our vehicle. Fresh tracks were clearly visible in the dirt and we could hear quiet growls and grunting sounds not too far away. The driver stopped for twenty minutes in one place and drove the truck very quietly, very slowly, backwards down an illegal road. We spoke in whispers and I held my breath and dared not move a muscle. But this was not to be our time for seeing tigers. We heard later that some people stopped for a few minutes on their way back from sightseeing - in a spot where no tigers were supposed to be - and two tigers wandered out and sat on the roadway, right by their car.
Karma, I suppose, but it would have been such a special treat to have seen a tiger ourselves. On our return to the park’s main entrance we thanked our driver and guide and offered them extra rupees as a sign of our gratitude. The hotel jeep and driver were waiting in the gloomy shadows just outside the gates.
We hurtled back from our search, in the near dark, no lights anywhere, let alone on our jeep. People walked along the roadside, scooters carrying three or four people, in some cases the whole family, dodged in and out of the shadows. Buses packed solid with not an inch of room to spare and laden trucks, shared the centre of the road. Some of the vehicles had no lights, some had their headlights full on. There were no white lines to show which side of the road was which, and monkeys and the usual road dwellers were liberally scattered all along the way.
When we arrived back, thankfully in one piece, our own driver was there to meet us. “6.30 in the morning we will be leaving, please. We are having a long way to go" he informed us.
We returned to our room and repacked, finishing just before the power went off again. We had our candles and torches so did the rounds of the walls, flattening as many mosquitoes as we could, before retiring to bed plastered with insect repellent. We lit two coils to fend off any bugs that may have survived our earlier onslaught and went to bed wondering what new sights and sounds the following day’s journey would bring.