Posted by: Tommy | April 1, 2011

Sawai Tiger Hunt

From Udaipur, we traveled by sleeper train (no a/c, lots of snoring Indian men) to Sawai Madhopur.  Interesting fact – having your name preceded by the word Sawai means that you are 125% greater than an ordinary man.  Sawai Madhopur is a standard small Indian town, except for the fact that it is near Ranthambhore, one of the best tiger reserves in India.

I was scheduled for 3 safaris and Anna for two.  We’d missed the tiger at Mudamulai and this would be our last opportunity.  The incredibly accommodating and helpful owner of our hotel, Mr. Mahesh, actually got me upgraded from Buffer Zone to inside-the-park for my first safari.  Ranthambhore is divided into 8 zones.  3-4 jeeps are assigned to each zone for each safari time, morning or evening.  Zones 1-5 are considered inside-the-park, while zones 6-8 are “buffer zones” – local people live alongside these zones and can be found wandering through them occasionally.  No one is allowed inside zones 1-5 except for safari.

I was excited about the upgrade – when I booked 2 weeks ago, every park zone was sold out for the dates we’d be there.  I thought we were going to be in the buffer zone for all three safaris.  I was less excited when my Jeep pulled up at the hotel before safari #1.  Jeeps are all 6 seaters and this one was full except for my seat.  The other 5 were a French couple…and their 3 small children.  The oldest looked about 8, while the youngest couldn’t have been older than 3.  Shocker – a 3 year old boy can’t sit still and be quiet for 3.5 hours.  Why would you bring a child that small on something as boring as a tiger safari?

The kids were pretty well behaved at first – they all sat quietly for the first hour.  I talked briefly to the father and found out that this was their third safari and they hadn’t seen anything at all yet.  Great!  Our guide assured us that zone 4 (the one we were in) was very good.  I’ll have to take his word for it – we spent 3.5 hours and we saw mostly spotted deer (very, very common in India). The only thing notable we saw was a jungle cat (think housecat, but lives in the jungle).

Jungle Cat

I’m not sure if it was the guide, bad luck – or the fact that after the first hour, we had a 3 year old in our Jeep who alternated between crying and singing at the top of his lungs.  Once, the guide stopped the Jeep because he heard a noise in the brush beside us; he asked for quiet.  So the little boy started bawling at the top of his lungs…we didn’t see a tiger.  I was getting mad, not at the little boy but at the parents.  Again, that’s not the place for a 3 year old.  At least buy all 6 seats, if you are bringing 3 small kids, so you don’t waste someone else’s opportunity to have a real tiger safari.

As we were getting ready to go, the guide asked us if we wanted to wait a bit and try to see a male tiger near the gate (one lives there and can frequently be seen at sundown, as all the Jeeps are exiting the park) or if we needed to get back.  The dad and I agreed to wait a few minutes.  The guide and the driver parked the Jeep along the road and got out to talk (probably about cricket) with some other drivers.  After 5 or 10 minutes, we saw the people in a Jeep ahead scramble for their cameras, pointing excitedly into the jungle.  We called for the driver to get back and move up.

He did – he drove right in front of the other Jeep who’d seen the tiger.  The tiger was heading straight for us – we had a great head-on view – I just had to get out the camera.  And then we moved.  I had just landed the tiger in my digital screen when we lurched forward.  What are we doing? Why are we moving?  I was so confused.

We drove ahead 50 yards and found another place to squeeze between 2 Jeeps.  After 30 seconds or so, we were again in perfect position with the tiger come straight for us.  And again, the driver took off like a rocket.  Neither the French man nor I understood what was going on.  Why are we leaving every time the tiger shows up?  We figured it out – all the drivers race to see who can be the first one to the next good tiger viewing pit.  The drivers and guides expect big tips at the end and the only way they can see that they add value is to get ahead of the other drivers.  How they’d really add value is by staying put and letting me look at the amazing tiger that we found.

My only tiger picture. I swear, its a tiger.

At some point, I finally had the tiger in my camera viewfinder….I pushed the button…waited for the flash to charge…and then…the French guy stood up just as the camera flashed.  Check out this awesome picture of his blue shirt.

A blue shirt... not as good as a tiger

Ultimately, my solo safari was successful, though unsatisfying.  I’d rather have seen a tiger poorly and frustratingly than not at all, I guess, but it was not how I would have chosen to do so.

Anna was both luckier and less lucky.  She was with me the following day for both safaris.  Mr. Mahesh had gotten us in the park again, this time in Zone 3.  We have been told several times that Zone 3 is the best as it has natural lakes that draw prey and predator alike.  We didn’t see a tiger, but we did have a nice time.  Instead of screaming children, we had two older couples, one British and one Canadian.  They had binoculars and fancy cameras and didn’t say a word the whole time.  We rode in silence except for the occasional comment by the guide.  We saw wild boar, spotted deer, sombo deer, crocodiles, a variety of beautiful birds and peacocks, and some monkeys.  Even though we didn’t have a big sighting, we were watching something interesting every 10-15 minutes and we had a nice time.  It helps that Ranthambhore is naturally beautiful.

On our evening safari, Mr. Mahesh couldn’t do anything and we were stuck in Zone 6, the buffer zone.  It was definitely different – instead of French children or old Brits, we were in the Jeep with 3 20something Indians.  They were desperate to see a tiger – and talked at full volume constantly about this desire.  I wanted to point out to them that their chances would be much improved if they’d be quiet, but the guides were yelling back at them in Hindi the whole time.  How do you tell the whole Jeep to shut up, including the guides?

In the end, we just let it go.  They were having a good time and the guide didn’t seem to think it was ruining the spotting.  We actually saw a ton of stuff, including the elusive sloth bear.  The sloth bear is a totally nocturnal animal that is hardly ever seen on safari – the guide assured us it was much, much rarer than the tiger.  He was the best guide we had despite his constant chatter with the other passengers – we’d stop at different water holes and he’d explain the terrain and where to keep our eyes out for tiger or he’d look at his watch and explain that once the sun hit a certain point on the ridge the game would approach the watering hole.  He was the first guide we felt like really enhanced the experience of Indian safari.

The sloth bear.

While I enjoyed the safaris in India and the tiger would have been amazing if I’d been able to look at it for more than a few seconds, there’s no contest.  If you’re thinking about safari, Africa is the champ, hands down.  The guides are better, the jeeps are better, there are more animals, the animals are cooler, and the other passengers are generally more well-behaved (perhaps due to the fact that African safaris are more expensive). Unless you have some sort of weird tiger fetish.

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  1. tiger!

  2. That sounds so frustrating! Glad you got to see a tiger though, and the sloth bear sighting sounds amazing.

  3. I have a weird tiger fetish.

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