Ranthambore national forest remains a great attraction especially for wild life or nature lovers. Chance to see the elusive tiger in the wild though remains the most sought-after attraction. We, bunch of 3 families with kids, had planned the journey way before in August but still we were not able to avoid last minute hassles.
We approached the planning in 3 clear steps. First, get travel reservations done, 2nd get hotel done and 3rd book the safari. Let me take you through as it happened. Journey start was Friday evening and journey end was reaching Mumbai by next Tuesday morning.
1st; Booking the travel
Ranthambore can be reached from Mumbai either via Jaipur, if you are taking a flight or via Sawai Madhopur, if you are taking a train. Flight remains a costlier option as Mumbai Jaipur flight cost will be much higher than train cost and additionally one need to incur additional cab cost for making the journey from Jaipur to Ranthambore (~ 3-4 hour).
Hence, we settled for train. There are number of trains but ‘Aug Kranti Rajdhani Express’ is the best one as it takes shorter time from the rest. It starts at evening in Mumbai and reaches early morning (~ 6:30 AM) at Sawai Madhopur. We booked in 3AC to keep cost down.
For return, we booked Jaipur-Mumbai express which reaches Sawai Madhopur around 4 PM and expected to reach Mumbai early morning. ‘Aug Kranti’ is also an option though its timings are an hour or so w.r.t Jaipur-Mumbai.
While our return journey was all confirmed tickets, the onward journey was partial waitlisted resulting us in remaining tensed up till 4 hours before the hour of journey as it got confirmed only after charting ☹
2nd; Booking the hotel
In hotel, there are so many choices but Ranthambore is a costly place as there are lot of foreign tourist influx in Rajasthan. Choice was easy for us as I had stayed at ITC WelcomHeritage earlier & had found it decent especially with wide grounds & lot of trees & flowers. Their all-inclusive (room with all food) was quite reasonable (7-9 K INR on average per day; depends on your kid age & # of kids as well) and was midrange. We did the booking through Makemytrip w/o much hassle except a few anxious moments when we found the prices are moving up for a moment!
3rd; Booking safari
Rajasthan Tourism Department has an online reservation facility for safari booking. It starts 3 months in advance and is better to book it on opening day itself to ensure availability in right zone & right slot.
First of all; not entire forest is open for safari! Only a small area of the forest is for safari and even that area is divided into multiple zones (1,2,3,4,5,6,7 etc.) for wild life safari. Mind it, the area is small from the forest perspective but more than enough for anyone taking the safari.
We did certain amount of research and realized that Zone 2 & 3 are the most sought-after zones though there are some occasional sightings in Zone 5 & 6 even. One can either book the canter (~ 500 INR per person) or the Gypsy (1000 INR per person). Canter are like open deck buses and is fun but Gypsy is best for real forest safari experience. Gypsy can go to places where canters cannot venture in due to road condition and Gypsy gives you more personal space to enjoy.
2 safari is least one should go for. We booked for 1 canter and 1 gypsy; zone 3 & zone 2 respectively; for morning and for the evening on the day after we hit the hotel. Mind it, the reservation website does not allow more than 1 booking in a day by one ID (it also tracks IP and hence multi ID from same laptop does not help). We got it done between the family in our individual laptop & IDs. This is the most important and the best thing that we did as otherwise booking after reaching there through hotel is very costly (agency fees) and you may not be able to pick your zones.
Remaining travel related aspects
- We spoke to the hotel in advance to arrange for a pickup cab at Sawai Madhopur. It cost as nearly 800 bucks for a 10-min journey to hotel in a Innova. Same would have pinched us only 100 by Xylo or 80 by an auto if we had just taken something from the station. But this is sometime what you would end up paying if you are travelling with small kids and want to avoid risks
- We also informed the hotel of our need to do early check in. They told that no charges for early check in as long as rooms are available. They were true to their words
- Also take at-least 2 copies of your ID cards (also original) for safari bookings along with the booking voucher printed from online reservation.
We were there at Borivali station on day of journey, 30 min before the train arrival. Boarding was smooth and early morning we found ourselves standing in the platform of Sawai Madhopur. The car was waiting and we boarded it with lot of excitement. Stopped the car in-between for a cup of tea for our entourage and it was a great experience sipping tea in the early morning after an overnight travel.
The check in at the hotel was perfect. No hassles, room ready and we were ushered in our rooms. All the 3 rooms were in the same block. The hotel compound had lots of trees and plenty of flowers of varying colors; making our stay more colorful. Swimming pool, badminton court, a large swing and a SPA; something for everyone to cheer😊 The restaurant is large with a bar on the top. We found the food and buffet spread quite good. Lunch & dinner were sumptuous treat and even more; as we spiced it up with a couple of drinks in the bar accompanied by spicy chicken starters. They also arranged an evening cultural program where Rajasthani folk dance/ puppet show was briefly held along with tea/ biscuits to keep you warm in the cold evening.
Coming back to the room, it is well equipped with a large bed (2 beds put together); coffee-tea maker; portable room heater (we did not require it; it was tucked inside one of the wardrobe); mosquito repellant machine; TV and bathroom kits. Bathroom had hot water supply and was quite clean & nice.
The first day at Ranthambore ended with a visit to Ranthambore fort and the Ganesha temple. We hired a cab through the hotel only and started at 5 PM. My advise is to start by 4 as it was quite dark by the time we finished our fort tour and actually depended on mobile torch for last 10-15 minutes to traverse the numerous steps (lots of them but comfortable). We negotiated a guide for INR 300 and it was a good decision as w/o guide, it is very difficult to know & appreciate the history of the fort. Edged out of a single hill and looking like a thumb and surrounded by a river, gave the name of Ranthambore to this fort. There is a ancient Shiva temple inside a cave, very interesting and a Ganesh temple at the end. Lots of monkeys, peacocks kept our company as well!
Next day morning we were off to our first safari in canter. We were all excited waiting to catch a glimpse of the tiger. The morning nature was mesmerizing in the forest, lots of deer & Sambhar deer but unfortunately no tiger.
Frustrations had started to set in! By the time we were back to hotel, some were swollen faced; some were blaming luck while some were blaming choice of zones. I for one; was very upset as I wanted the kids to watch tiger from close. We had a lunch with a heavy heart though the hotel manager tried to lift our spirits up by giving us confidence that Zone 2 won’t disappoint us.
The manager was RIGHT! Just as we were thinking that evening will also be a watershed, our guide noticed paw marks. Within couple of minutes, there was distress call (warning calls by birds to warn off other animals as soon as they see the tiger). As our Gypsy was frantically trying to locate the distress call origin, we were transfixed by the sight of the His Majesty, Royal Bengal Tiger, a few feet away slowly emerging from the forest. The next few moments were off fear & awe. The tiger (male, ~ 2/ 2.5-year-old- nearing full adulthood) slowly crossed the road at 10-15 feet in front of your Gypsy. For a change, it was completely nonchalant of our presence! For 1 full minute, we remained transfixed.
The guide immediately guided the Gypsy to a water hole close by as he sensed that the tiger is going for a drink after a sumptuous lunch (the stomach looked heavy as if they had a good kill). We reached the water hole in a minute and then waited breathlessly for the tiger to appear again. It did not disappoint us. We spotted the tiger very soon, coming out of the jungle, walking straight towards us (actually; towards the small pond at side of otherwise dried river bed). It slowly crossed us and lazed itself into the water. That’s not the end of the story!!!
While we were engrossed in taking pictures, we hear another distress call followed by 2 peacocks hurriedly flying off the ground. That’s the indication of one more tiger nearby. Bingo, comes the 2nd one (realized later, that this is the brother of the earlier one). Same path, crossed with similar vein, it settled beside its brother with no fuss.
The drinking (the tigers😊) and the shooting (our camera’s) continued for 15 more minutes.
The tigers were now done and would return. So, we would also.
The return through the jungle in setting sun is of significant bliss of mind! That night was a wild party (as wild as possible when you are travelling with family & kids) with us, kids all engaged in merrily discussing our ‘tryst with tiger’ over a few chicken & mutton pieces. Good weather added its bit too!
Next day is when we experimented with the Spa, pool and lot of nature shooting in the midst of colorful lawns of the hotel. The return is always somber but not much so as were already planning our next! The train was late by more than 2 hours and reached Mumbai 1.5 hour later. So; kids school plan was dropped but office goers were in time for office though! Ranthambore has forever etched its own place in our memory!
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