India – Burning Bright

An entry to our 2019 Writing Competition, Becky Dine travelled on our 'India – Ranthambore, Bharatpur & Chambal' tour.

The masala chai was both warming and reviving. In the cool pre-dawn of a new Rajasthan day, the heat of ginger, fragrance of cardamom and milky spiced sweetness was very welcome. Fortified, we climbed aboard our open jeeps, blankets on knees, binoculars and cameras held tight in anticipation.

The air was still fresh, not yet laced with the heat and dust of the day, and it flowed across our faces as we bumped past sleeping dogs and cows, vibrant green fields of chickpeas and potatoes and closed-up roti and puri stalls. Then we were through the ornate Mughal arched gate into Ranthambore National Park.

A ridge-top red sandstone fort dominated the skyline in places, and sported both living ornaments of peacocks on its battlements and brightly coloured flags raised in the temple of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of success and good luck, the mover of obstacles.

On into open woodland where Spotted Deer, the stags sporting magnificent antlers, grazed with Nilgai (“also called ‘blue bulls’:  named after a cow, looks like a horse, is an antelope” quipped our guide), while Common Langur monkeys – elegant, athletic, long-limbed – sat and watched, bemused, as another group of expectant faces rolled by.

A Grey Francolin tapped away at ants and termites under the trees; a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher flicked out of sight and Indian Peacocks strutted and called. Spotted Owlets gazed out from the sanctuary of their tree holes. The limbs of a giant banyan tree created a natural gazebo through which creatures threaded themselves.

We rounded a bend; ahead was a stationary jeep. Then I registered that to one side was a tiger, languishing close to the track on a dry creek bed. Slowly, surely, she rose up and stretched. 

A tiger! A wild Bengal Tiger! Not in a zoo, not in an enclosure, but a wild, free animal in her home habitat. What a privilege to share this moment.

With utmost confidence she padded beside us, but a leap away, stripes rippling, paws looking deceptively soft and then – she stopped, gaze fixed, tail dropped and twitching. A jeep had pulled up behind us; it reversed at speed and there was palpable tension in the air. We followed her gaze.

A small group of deer had wandered through the woodland on the other side, contentedly grazing, unconcerned by the jeeps, the tigress hidden from their view. Perhaps it was the movement of the jeeps, but suddenly alert to danger, they turned and moved away, no doubt aware the distance was still to their advantage.

Nonchalantly our tigress, Nuri, daughter of Noor, a two year old, resumed her stroll and crossed the track between the jeeps. As if to make a final point about whose territory this was, she rose up onto her back legs and reaching up, scratched at a tree before melting away out of sight.

We can so easily be given false expectations of wildlife viewing when watching nature programmes in the comfort of our own homes, the days and weeks invested by camera crew distilled into a few moments of stunning intimate footage. I had not dared articulate it, but this was the sort of encounter I had wished for. 

Some experiences generate a visceral emotional reaction; for me, this was one, as although we saw other tigers, that first sighting was the most special. We were treated to other animal encounters too in the park over the next few days. An ambling Sloth Bear, rooting in the undergrowth, was unconcerned by our presence, and a spectacular Leopard crossed our track and lay down to sleep, having washed its face with its paw. 

Yet back to that first day; on leaving the sanctuary of the park, it was striking how the scene outside had changed since the early morning. Hawkers waved hats and shirts at us with optimism and perseverance.  Brightly painted lorries rumbled past followed by plumes of dust and diesel fumes that left an unpleasant metallic taste. Tractors with loud speakers strapped to them pumped out blaring music. Mopeds whizzed past, horns tooting, a balancing act as multiple people perched, riding pillion. Food stalls bustled, oil frying, smoke rising. Dogs dodged traffic, a look in their eyes as if they expected the worst but hoped for the best. Women cocooned in vivid magenta and orange saris steadied large metal pots on their heads. Men stood round, chatting and enjoying their milky sweet masala chai, just as we had done at the start of the day.

Read more about our 'India – Ranthambore, Bharatpur & Chambal' holiday.