Tuesday, 3 May 2011

India - The first tiger safari

April 21-24

Hello everyone!

Back solo once more, I had a few days before heading off to my volunteering stint in the far north of India. I had a ponder about what I could do or see that would be a unique opportunity in India. Then I remembered one of the things that many tourists flock to India to see – tigers!

There are two places within striking distance of Delhi. I say striking distance; they’re still an overnight journey from the capital. Of the two, I opted to head to Ranthambore National Park, back in Rajasthan. One overnight train later – on which I was bumped up to first class - landed me 10km away from the park in a place called Sawai Madhopur. Not even the folks I stayed with in Delhi had heard of it. Middle. Of. Nowhere.

I arrived at 7am. The national park runs two safaris – one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. The one in the morning, however, commences at 6am, so I was left to hunt tigers later in the day at 3pm. This resulted in me spending my morning reading and writing in a hotel. Hotels here are very expensive – they know the only reason people come is for tigers, so they will pay more – which explains why I didn’t stay the night.

Soon after a lunch of parathas – a type of fried, greasy, filled bread which is just delicious – I headed to the office from which you are taken into the park. Ranthambore is huge – 1334 sq km – and divided into five zones. Your vehicle will only be allowed to explore in one zone. This may seem trivial information, but it helps to explain a later issue. There are over 20 tigers in the park, but as it is so big you have to be lucky to see one. Many people will go on numerous safaris in the hope of spotting the rare creature.

There are two type of vehicles – a jeep and a canter. I was in the latter, which resembles a bus with the top chopped off. We headed off in the blazing afternoon heat – another bad sign, as tigers will generally appear only in cooler times of the day. Nonetheless, I was hopeful and excited, especially when the nice English couple in front of me showed me an amazing picture of a tiger that they had seen in the morning.

In we go. The landscape was stunning, and quite arid – something I would more expect in Africa than in India. Within five minutes we had seen vultures, a mongoose and monkeys. So many monkeys. They were drinking out of a shallow crevasse near the entrance, which was an intriguing sight. I’ve seen monkeys, however. I wanted to see Shere Khan.

Much of the scenery was reminiscent of the backdrop to The Jungle Book or The Lion King. Well, more The Jungle Book, otherwise animals would have been swarming all over us. And lions don’t exist in India. After sighting of copious amounts of interesting, yet lame animals – deer, peacocks and the like – our canter driver violently accelerated over the rocky road. Excitement began to fester amongst us.

We soon skidded to a shuddering halt as our guide has spotted something. A footprint. A tiger’s footprint! Shere Khan is around here somewhere! They were fresh as well, as they were on top of the tracks of other canters. We followed the prints…to the edge of our zone. Tigers, of course, don’t adhere to the rules of the zone, and our stripy orange-and-black giant had crossed into a different zone. One which we couldn’t enter. Frustration.

I’ll say it right now – we didn’t see a tiger. It was a frustrating but fun experience, and seeing animals in the wild is very different from watching them in the zoo. The highlight was probably watching a deer fight. Antlers were locked for minutes as the two tried to butt each other to the ground. Other animals we saw by one of the watery areas included wild boar, warthogs and several birds of which I know none of the names. Nonetheless, the elusive tiger had escaped our canter for the whole trip.

After hitchhiking back to the train station – yes, I am pretty nonchalant about doing that now – I waited around for a mere five hours for my 1am train. I tried to find some quiet in one of the upper areas of the station building, but a small child was trying to tell me to leave. He ended up kicking me. I probably shouldn’t have used one of those Hindi swear words I learned on him. Well, at least they work!

The next two days in Delhi were non-events. I saw the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque which holds a mind-boggling 25,000 people. If you slip Rs100 to the ticket counter you can also climb one of the 40m high minarets. The views are worth the steep climb. But other than that, and collecting my tailored suit (pimpin’), I feel that I have seen what Delhi has to offer, so spent most of my time hanging out with the Kashmiri men in A2.

I will miss them – though maybe not the way they force me to eat 3 people’s worth of rice – a lot during the next three weeks. Many of them had been home during the previous two weeks, so had brought back some local delicacies. One of these was Kashmiri cake. I do miss cake, and this was similar to a sponge cake at home.

So after a frustrating, interesting few days, it is time to venture on. Onto a new state, and onto a new experience. For the next three weeks I will be based in the northerly Himachal Pradesh, volunteering as…well, I’m not entirely sure. Probably some English teaching. It will be a very different experience to ones I’ve had lately, and hopefully very rewarding for all involved. Maybe they even have tigers up there, who knows. Actually, that may not be a good thing…

Love you all


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