The range opposite to this is called ‘Rann’, this fort is ‘thamb’ and the deep valley from which the range arises ‘bhor’, which is how this place came to be known as Rann-tham-bore,” our guide revealed as we strode past the famous Ganesha temple in Ranthambore fort. Ranthambore is a magic—a secluded island of wilderness, a living tale of humans and tigers sharing the same serene terrain, of the gurgling waters of River Banas and Chambal snaking their way through the valleys to rejuvenate the forest and of unending, unparalleled myths and tales of Maharaja Hamir Singh.
Our tryst with the enigmatic Ranthambore started with six of us pooling in from different parts of the country. Like most of the young tourists, we stacked ourselves in two cramped rooms and spent our day making arrangements of the next day’s big game.
Mist had enveloped the sky, and the morning wind still carried the night’s chill, but the splendid panoply of the forest displayed its own warmth. The ‘tiger magic’ had already casted its spell on us and was reflected in ‘My gosh! at six’ being changed to ‘definitely at six’ in the night itself. Our safari was to head towards Zone 6—the outer forest area of the park. The landscape was adorned with trees sending out long roots, forlorn palm trees strutting out as if were seeded in the wrong climatic zones and tall grass to provide a perfect camouflage to the most celebrated predator. The entire landscape was wrapped and tangled with the branches and tendrils of nature so intricately that the thickets had got impregnable. The smell of the forest was just delicious.
The Gypsy trundled slowly up the dirt path. “Ranthambore has everything to offer, They are not just tigers, they are characters we identify ourselves with,” said our driver Shabbir on our way in Zone 6. Tiger is the lingua-franca here. Hardly had he said these words, when he jumped off his seat and cried ‘Tiger!’ The words seemed to resonate in the air. The Canter and Maruti Gypsy ahead of us had all turned their wheels. It was a tiger, fully grown; his stripes could be seen from in between the thickets of Acacia. The off-roaders raced, and then moved unhurriedly, peacefully making way through vegetation. We were moving parallel with the tiger and then stood standstill waiting for the great beast to cross to the other side. Eyes didn’t blink for moments. We halted, waited patiently, expectedly. The playful langurs had taken safe positions, sending warning signals to others. The forest seemed to freeze for few moments and then enliven with alarm calls. The air was still and alert. A faint rustle and then a movement. ‘Sher Khan’ was there—right in front of us crossing to the other side.
Vehicles jostled to be in the right place, tourists noised their surprise but ‘Sher Khan’ moved un-annoyed, its velvet paws landing softly on the dirt roads. It was T-34. It halted, looked up, holding our gaze—compelling and powerful. Two more steps and it was back to the thickets—a stripe of gold and ochre alighting from the thresholds. We followed it for few minutes before it disappeared in the darks of the jungle. We moved on in anticipation of it coming out from the other end. As we moved on, the landscape offered us a charming picturesque mosaic. The plum-faced parakeets playing on high branches, scarlet minivets lazing away the day, magpie robins breasting to the soft winter morning sun, greater caucals rummaging for food among the dead foliage and the colourful peacocks bracing themselves to the sun presenting myriads hues to leave even the best of artists panting; were some of the mosaics in this natural klaidescope. A langur perched high on a mahua tree, its golden vigilant eyes darted back and forth and ears twitched as it barked to declare its territory.
Zone 6 is a perfect blend for leopard and sloth bear sighting. In a matter of few minutes only, the terrain changed from grassy plains to table top plateau. The distant hills seemed to fill the vagueness of the area. A group of black shouldered kites hovered above us as they kept pace. Before we could call it a day, a shy male blue bull appeared out of the thickets, halted for a picture perfect and hurriedly made its way back from where it had come.
We made our way back, halting for brunch, bati-choorma and poha and waited for the next safari in the afternoon. After lunch, we got a canter booked for ourselves for the evening safari and waited under a tree listening to the tales of Maharaja Hamir. We lent our ears to the battle story of the Maharaja and Alauddin Khilji and the long history of Ranthambore fort.
At 2:30, we headed for our second safari in Zone 4. This zone, unlike Zone 6, had water bodies and thicker forests. Beautifully painted hills stood on both sides. We were greeted by the gregarious cormorants roosting in the sun. Macaques were chattering away busily on the tree-tops and the fragrance of the wild fruits floated in the air. The place was lush green —a perfect abode for nature to thrive.
Zone 4 has its own story. It is the home of the most famous tigers of India, Machali and her daughter Sundri, whose lives have been intensively captured by BBC. We moved ahead from one terrain to the other living the different colours of Ranthambore. Cooing of birds, ticking of wood-peckers and the chuckling of langurs filled the air. A little away on our way, we could see the Ranthambore lake. Several water birds—greater egrets, ibis, pond heron—sat on the wet rocks. A river tern was hovering in the air trying to fix its eye on some careless fish. A lone snake-bird sat on the tree in the water, taking a full view of its territory. Quite close to us, an ibis rummaged through the pebbles and wood, looking for crustaceans; unaware of our presence. A blue-throated kingfisher waited for its turn of a shot at a branch of a dead tree in the water. Our guide pointed out at four baby crocodiles having their sun-bath, right in front of us. They looked clueless and on the other side some eight grown crocodiles were lazing away under the sun.
A little more into the deep forests and we saw six-seven gypsies and canters halting. “It must be a tiger,” Ishaa uttered. We learnt that a tiger was resting in the bushes after having its hunt. Our guide decided to turn the vehicle and come from the other side. He had estimated that the animal would move from the other side and go towards the water. We took a turn.
Unhesitantly, we raced oblivious to the little actions of the spotted deer. We came around from the other side. It looked like a traffic jam with every Gypsy trying to get the toehold. The tiger was in the bushes for more than an hour. Just a few minutes past and the tiger moved (as if it was waiting for us to arrive). It was not tiger at all, but a tigress, smaller in size and build; dragging herself, limping, must be a little old.
She came forward, paused pondered contemplating our awe and surprise; but not too happy seeing so many vehicles lined to have her darshan, she moved on, lost in the woods, her “auggghhh augghh” resonating in the air as the farewell words. Her eyes held an ancient mystery, and an untold story of beauty. She was dangerously beautiful.
Our thrill knew no bounds later when we were introduced to the tigress. Her name was Machali. “There was a time when she was called the Aishwarya Rai of Ranthambore,” our guide said. Ranthambore had cast its magic on us; tiger sighting, watching a serpent eagle touch the sky, spying a crocodile idling away in the sun to the plays of minivets, chattering monkeys and the shrill calls of brain fever cuckoo.
Our tryst with Ranthambore ended with the words of our safari guide, “These animals are so magnificent that it seems a tragedy that they should be left to vanish”, and an appeal to plant a tree each to maintain forests for the majestic denizens of the wild to roam free.
– Aakash Mehrotra
(This travelogue has been published in Indian Express: http://www.newindianexpress.com/lifestyle/travel/The-call-of-the-wild/2013/11/10/article1878722.ece