Wanderlust

LAND OF THE MIGHTY PAWS

By Vir Sanghvi

Located at the junction of Aravali and Vindhya ranges, Ranthambhore National Park was once a private reserve for the royal family of Jaipur

You never really forget the first time you ever see a tiger. My first encounter with the magnificent animal is still etched in my brain. It happened like this. I had been to the Ranthambhore National Park before. I went in the 1990s and I was told I would see a tiger because it ‘is so easy to see one at Ranthambhore’. Ha. I have lost count of the number of trips we made to the forest in the hope of a single sighting. We saw monkeys. We saw peacocks. We saw deer. But no tiger.

I had friends in the tiger conservation world. I knew officials in Delhi who were in charge of India’s wildlife reserves. They heard of my plight. And they offered to help. So, every morning and every afternoon, an expert would take me to spots where I would be certain to see all kinds of wildlife. And indeed, I saw a lot of deer. But no tiger.

Disappointed. I went back to Delhi where I was regarded as the one idiot who went again and again into the wildest areas of Ranthambhore and saw nothing. My friends, all of whom had impressive picture of tigers snarling into the lenses of their cameras, could not stop laughing at me. I didn’t go back to Ranthambhore for a decade or more after that. Tigers didn’t like me, I said. It was a case of unrequited love. Then, I was tempted, I am not ashamed to say, by another opportunity to finally try and see a tiger, but by stories about The Oberoi Vanyavilās Wildlife Resort, Ranthambhore. I have been a fan of the Vilas properties since the very first one, The Oberoi Rajvilās opened in Jaipur. I went to school in Rajasthan, at an institution originally built to educate the sons of Maharajas, where every boarding house was built in an ornate palace-style. So the Rajasthan of palaces and its memories of princely India left me a little cold. Of course I admired it but there was always -as far as I was concerned - a sense of been-there-done-that.

The Rajasthan I loved had less to do with courtly splendour and more with the land itself. I loved the rolling sands of the desert, the thousands of birds who migrated there each season, the stubby Aravali hills, the brown, burnt landscapes and the people themselves: proud, colourful, warm and deeply connected to the soil.

I liked the Vilas because they did not celebrate a tourist-guide view of Rajasthan. They celebrated the people and they were totally in tune with nature and the environment. When you came to The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur the peacocks danced in your garden. At The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur you watched the birds hover over the lake. I am not exactly a minimalist when it comes to travel. I like my luxuries, the sense of being pampered, of drinking the best wines, of eating gourmet food, and of getting the best service in the world. The Vilas made all that possible. On one occasion, at The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur the chef cooked me a dinner, that I had under the stars, with rare and secret recipes from the restaurants in Jaipur’s Muslim quarter, a vanishing cuisine that is significantly different from say, the food of Delhi or Lucknow. The next night, he cooked up a feast based around fresh black truffles. Only at the Vilas did this seem normal. It didn’t matter whether you ate the food of a disappearing Rajasthan or drank a Grand Cru Bordeaux with your truffles. All that mattered was a sense of discovery and commitment to excellence.

So, when I heard that The Oberoi Vanyavilās Wildlife Resort, Ranthambhore had opened, I was prepared to forget that the tigers were keen to avoid me. The property itself sounded amazing. Like all the Vilas hotels, it had a distinct sense of place. Because it was at the edge of Ranthambhore (it shares a wall with the sanctuary), it had been designed to appeal to guests who had come tiger spotting. There were 25 Luxury Tents with free-standing bathtubs, four-poster beds and an air of quiet, no-expense-spared comfort. Musicians played folk songs every night in a glorious amphitheatre. Lapwings made their nests in the garden. When it got dark, you could hear the animals next door. And if you were an imaginative kind of person, you might wonder: would a leopard shimmy up the trees and jump the wall into The Oberoi Vanyavilās Wildlife Resort, Ranthambhore? And so I went back to Ranthambhore with zero expectations. I would not see a tiger, I told myself, but so what? The national park alone would make the experience worthwhile. (I was lying of course; the real draw was The Oberoi Vanyavilās Wildlife Resort, Ranthambhore!)

If you have never been to Ranthambhore, then the sheer size and magnificence of it is hard to describe. It dates back to the 11th century, when a magnificent fort was built at its centre and Ranthambhore was, a century ago, the private hunting reserve of the Jaipur royal family. It has been a tiger reserve since 1955 (though it took its present form in 1980) and has 1344 square kilometres of protected area.

I hesitate to call it a park because it is really a piece of the jungle, wild, untamed and vast. There are at least 35 species of animals, though some of them, like sloth bears are hard to spot and others, like the leopards and the wild cats, are famously elusive. There are now so many tigers that some have been moved to other sanctuaries. Each tiger rules his or her territory, an area of many square kilometres, and if any tiger tries to intrude into another tiger’s space, a violent battle for supremacy always ensues.

I knew all this when, on my first visit to The Oberoi Vanyavilās Wildlife Resort, Ranthambhore, (and my second trip to Ranthambhore) I set out for a drive through the forest to see a tiger. But of course, I saw no tigers. Don’t worry, they told me, we’ll see one in the afternoon. But we didn’t. In fact, I made four trips in vain. There were just no tigers. The then General Manager of The Oberoi Vanyavilās Wildlife Resort, Ranthambhore, Tapan Piplani, noted my disappointment and made it his mission to ensure that I saw a tiger. On my last day, before I left for the airport, he woke me up early in the morning and took me into the reserve himself. I told him he was wasting his time but he had taken this as a personal challenge and would not be deterred. And so, we went into the park, and of course, we saw monkeys, deer and every other kind of animal. But no tiger.

It was our driver who spotted her first. “That is Machhli”, he said, pointing to a shape in the distance. I was hugely impressed by his ability to recognise individual tigers from so far but it turned out that he had made an educated guess because we were in Machhli’s territory. Even I had heard of Machhli, the Queen of Ranthambhore. She was quite old now but had lived a full life, fighting territorial battles with her children and giving all the deer something to worry about.

As we drove closer, I realised that Machhli was stalking a herd of deer who were grazing nearby. As we watched in horrified fascination, Machhli came up on the herd. Now, she was clearly visible. She moved with an amazing speed and a grace that was mesmerising to watch. As she neared the deer, they finally began to scatter. But it was too late. Machhli pounced and stuck her teeth in the neck of a young fawn. She picked it up with her mouth and walked towards us. I held my breath as she came near our jeep. But she was not bothered about us. She crossed the road in front of the jeep and came to a stop about six feet ahead of us, the young deer still twitching between her jaws. She moved away, presumably to eat her breakfast and to hide away her kill so that she could return to it, again and again in the course of the day. “Oh my God, I said to Tapan, I didn’t just see a tiger. I saw a kill!" He had the look of a satisfied man and his grin grew broader as we saw two more tigers in the course of our drive. The jinx was broken. I went back to The Oberoi Vanyavilās Wildlife Resort, Ranthambhore, a month ago. It was summer so the forest was arid, the trees looked thirsty and the deer seemed to hunt for shade. It was, I discovered, also the best time to see tigers because they frequented watering holes and took shelter from the heat in the many medieval structures that dot the forest.

Ten minutes later we had our second sighting. Our driver took us to a watering hole where a tiger was enjoying a leisurely dip. Like all of the Ranthambhore tigers, he regarded us with nothing more than mild curiously, unwittingly posing for close-ups in our cameras. Then, after his swim was over, he got out, shook his body to get rid of the water and disappeared into the undergrowth.

It was exhilarating but also, let’s be honest, a little frightening for a city boy like me. Of course Ranthambhore is not just about tigers so I should be excited that I saw a sloth bear carrying her cub on her back (a rarer sighting than a tiger) but I have to say, for me, it was all about the tigers. For years they had refused to have anything to do with me and now, here they were, walking up and sniffing our car.

That night, as we ate dinner by the amphitheatre and drank champagne by the light of the silvery moon, I thought back to that first abortive trip to Ranthambhore and the desperate, failed attempts to see a tiger. Now, not only did the whole experience seem wonderful, it actually seemed easy to see the tigers as they slept, stalked, swam and hunted. The Oberoi Vanyavilās Wildlife Resort, Ranthambhore makes things like that happen!

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