50 sightings of 15 individual tigers in five different zones seems like the synopsis of a fairy tale. Yet, those are exactly the numbers the group was left with after the Ranthambhore Full Day Tour! And in the few moments when the tigers weren’t in attendance, the other jungle denizens enchanted their onlookers with their sheer presence.
On the first evening, the participants arrived in Ranthambhore and after settling in at the hotel, they met for a brief introduction and orientation session in which Skipper Santosh Saligram discussed the strategy for the coming days of the Tour. The most sought-after striped beauties on our second full-day Photo Tour to Ranthambhore this April were Noor (T39) and her three small female cubs in Zone 2.
For the first full-day safari, the group woke up early and were extremely excited about being anywhere at any time in the forest from six in the morning to six thirty in the evening. Fully ‘armed’ with all necessary photography equipment, they began their journey into the wild in Zone 3, which is enormously scenic with beautiful views of lakes. Even in summer, green grass looks fresh and the mahals, the hunting palaces and other monuments in the Zone give it an eerie, inexplicable charm.
After a quick check until Malik Talab, Tour Skipper Santosh Saligram decided to move on to zone 2. And just before Kishni De, within 45 minutes of the first morning in Ranthambhore, Noor made her grand entrance! Aptly named, the ‘light’ of her presence filled participants with an exhilaration that was almost spiritual. Although a few chitals walked past her, she seemed to be indifferent about them and went to sleep as the group watched in amazement and curiosity.
With Noor sleeping out of view, they went in pursuit of the other resident star of the zone, T60, with her three sub-adult cubs, but the group couldn’t spot them, so they returned to where they had found Noor. As the regular morning safari vehicles left, the sighting was expected to be all the more exciting and to satisfy everyone’s eagerness, Noor’s ears popped up from behind the grass and she got up and walked right by the vehicle, affording a hair-counting view of Noor and leaving participants spellbound.
The tigress then proceeded to sit in the puddle of water in the middle of the dry nallah as the group admired her quietly from the road, until she rose and walked away. Anticipating that she might appear on the other side of the nallah, they soon drove towards the dam, but she didn’t appear, and nor was any headway made about the whereabouts of the cubs. So after a quick breakfast recess, they went to Gandhra, where a waterhole attracts the T60 family to find asylum from the heat. After a brief wait, spotted deer alarm calls rang aloud but no cat entered the scene. Continuing on to the concrete ‘saucer’ (an artificial waterhole made of concrete) closer to Guda Camp, a fresh trail of water leading out from the waterhole and into the bush on the perpendicular road arrested their attention. Santosh was quite sure that the trail was made by a tiger, based on the premise that a herbivore’s trail would be much narrower.
Kicking themselves for not checking the saucer earlier, Santosh and the driver-naturalist progressed slowly scanning the forest on the side into which the tigers had melted. Having walked off into the bush, the tigers had no logical reason to turn back towards the road, and yet…as they came upon a break in the bush, there they were! All four of them! Soon, T60 sat down, and the cubs followed suit. Shortly afterwards, she rose to her feet, and one of the cubs nuzzled against the mother’s face, prompting one of the participants to declare that he had never witnessed such an intimate tiger moment before!
Soon, all four of them crossed the road back towards the saucer side, and came to rest under thick brush.
Santosh took this as the cue to take a break to collect lunch from the Jogi Mahal gate, and gave themselves a splash from the bore-well just outside the gate, before refreshing their internals with some chilled chaas (butter milk).
Returning to zone 2, they decided to check for Noor again where they had been looking for her in the morning, and found her! They then walked her all the way to Kishni De, where she crossed the road and sat showing her stripes off just by the road under a large tree, looking intently in the direction of the water there, possibly for prey.
Some time later she carried on, and so did the group, proceeding to their originally intended station of the concrete saucer. Meanwhile, they had forgotten all about lunch, for such is the allure of the tiger! And surely enough, two of T60’s cubs were found there, cooling off from the heat.
After watching and photographing them to their heart’s content, the group finally had lunch by 3:30 pm.
Having had a wonderful time with Noor and T60, Santosh decided to try the group’s luck in zone 3, but en route to there, their way was blocked by Noor, in what was the fourth sighting of her of the day! She never moved away from her assumed place, and strapped for time, vehicles were forced to pass her by.
On the way out, they saw Arrowhead’s head popping out from amid the tall grass in Jhalra, ending the day with six tigers!
Back at the lodge, participants were ecstatic after the amazingly productive first full-day safari. Although they couldn’t see Noor’s cubs, they knew they had the next day ahead of them and called it a day after a delicious dinner.
The second morning in the Ranthambhore National Park began with a pursuit of Noor’s little ones. The group saw a safari vehicle stop in front of them and followed the gaze of people in it. They saw a tiger walking head-on on the road. It was T57, the father of Noor’s and T60’s cubs, and participants were able to make some nice pictures until he went off the road.
The group then continued to Noor’s territory but she wasn’t about yet. Hence continuing onto Lahpur Road to look for T60’s cubs, they saw a few safari vehicles stopped a long way down the road. Getting there, they learned that they were all mutely admiring three cubs sitting on the road while the mother was in the adjacent forest! A little while later one of the cubs went off to the right, before making a dramatic reentry and crossing over to the left. Shortly thereafter, the cub sitting in the front also rose and joined her siblings and mother, leaving only a male cub sitting regally for some time, before he quit the arena to join the others.
Leaving them, they returned to the dam in Noor’s range to find an incredibly adorable nilgai calf on the way. Just then vehicles proceeding in the opposite direction informed the group that Noor and her cubs were just descending a hill and headed their way! Taking their position at the gorge where she was expected, they stood pulsating with anticipation. Noor was first seen on the crest of the yellow-grassed hill, bathed in the glorious morning light. When she started moving, it was like seeing this flaxen of a thing moving along with its cubs following it… until they all disappeared on the other side, leaving their admirers wondering if what they had just witnessed was real or something surreal.
Suddenly, one of the cubs crossed the water gorge to come to the near side where the safari vehicles were standing. It briefly stalked a sambar all on its own, watching its prey cautiously. The other two cubs were seen on the hill again, until they disappeared near the dam this time. The group followed Noor and her two cubs until the dam, where she’s wont to deposit her cubs before carrying on to Kishni De. But instead of heading straight there, Santosh decided to turn back towards the gorge, to take another chance with the cub that was left behind and had stalked a sambar. When they got there, surely enough, the cub was still there! Calling out to the mother and siblings, it kept wandering around taking in the scents, and even crossing the gorge and getting very close to the vehicles before returning to the sanctuary of the other bank.
Then getting back to Kishni De, the group found Noor to have reached, and wandering about on the stony stream-bed. Presently she disappeared behind the embankment to one side of the stream bed, and while many thought she was headed for the road, the next thing they saw was a few people furtively pointing to the crest of the hill overlooking the stream! In less than a minute, Noor had reached the top from the riverbed! Leaving her there, the group went to Guda Camp for a break, and when they returned to Kishni De, Noor was sitting royally under a large tree right opposite the stream-bed. Spending a lot of quality time with her, for the regular safari vehicles soon left, leaving only the full-day vehicles to enjoy the sighting, breakfast was taken.
When they returned, Noor was still there, having barely moved an inch! Some time later she stirred, and after a brief vigil, walked off into the jungle. The group waited, and she reappeared further down the road, stepped onto the vehicle track, smelled and spray-marked a tree, and went away from view again.
Proceeding to check for T60 at the concrete saucer, they learned that the female and the cubs had been sitting in the waterhole, but had fled the scene some time before, upon seeing some villagers on foot. Getting back, they found T60 cooling off at Phoota Kot! After sitting in the water for some time, she stepped onto the road, emptied her bowels, spray-marked the road, and melted into the forest.
They were then carrying on back towards where they had last seen Noor, when they came upon her, and how! She was dragging the carcass of a nilgai fawn she had just killed, pausing every few metres to catch her breath in the intense heat. With a hollow-looking belly, four mouths to feed, and having paced up and down the road for much of the day, this was a much-needed meal for her.
As she was reaching Kishni De Talab, the mother and the sibling of the nilgai watched helplessly, sometimes calling heartrendingly… the rule of life in the wild that’s beyond human comprehension of what’s just and what’s notD
Anticipating that she’d now get busy fetching her cubs to the kill, the group carried on towards Jhalra to look for Arrowhead, who was reported to have made a kill in the area. Surely enough, as they reached Jhalra, they found her cooling off in a small pool under a palm tree!
After watching her to their heart’s content, they left her in favour of lunch, as feed themselves they must. A quick lunch at the Jogi Mahal gate ensued. Now the question was whom to pursue. Arrowhead was unlikely to be still hanging around. With a fresh kill, she’d return to feed, and would be localized at her dining table for most of the day. The situation with Noor was similar. T60 had already disbursed her share of viewership for the day, and with the cubs spooked by men earlier in the day, chances of their reappearance looked bleak. So Santosh, in consultation with the drivers, decided to check a couple of hotspots in zone 1, should T57 had crossed from earlier in the day, and then proceed to zone 4 in pursuit of T41 Laila and her solitary cub. Such is the luxury of being on a full-day safari, that picking the tiger you want to try to see becomes reality.
The route through zone 1 to T57’s favourite water bodies was traversed in reasonable time, but only sambar and langur haunted them. So a long and extremely bumpy and hilly transfer to the end of zone 4, Bakola, took place, via an “achingly scenic” route, as Santosh put it. Getting there, they joined other safari vehicles already present, to catch an adorable glimpse of Laila’s cub at the lip of a cave, while the other safari vehicle saw the mother, making it 12 tigers seen in the day! Shortly the cub collapsed to sleep, so the tea flasks were opened for much-needed refreshment.
Soon, Laila broke from slumber and appeared on the face of a knoll. And as she sat in royal display of her easy elegance, a sambar, in blissful ignorance of her presence, nearly walked into her mouth, and then ran back as soon as it found out the predator’s lethal presence! And then she descended to plainer land and walked for quite a distance, sending participants on a ride over giant waves of ecstasy.
On the way out, they spent some time in zone 3 looking for Arrowhead but she stayed safely invisible. However, a male sambar charmed them and they went back to the lodge after a wonderfully eventful day in the wilderness that Ranthambhore is.
The last morning, the group went to Zone 2 but predictably, Noor was still busy with the kill and wasn’t to be found. T60 remained elusive as well. The morning thus went by, and after lunch, luck struck, as two of T60’s cubs were found at the concrete saucer. The group watched them reverently for some time, during which one of the cubs drank from the pool as the other lazed.
After watching them for some time, Santosh chose to move on and pursue Noor and her cubs, being as it was the last session of the Tour, and hence the last chance at a family flourish. Kishni De was empty, but carrying on further, they found them by a sandy nallah!
Mother Noor sat aside, where she could be seen through the foreground foliage basking royally, while the cubs slept under a tree. Some time later Noor came by the cubs, and after exchanging pleasantries, together they descended into the nallah, walked a bit, and settled down in the coolness of it.
As cameras motored away furtively, the quartet put on a spectacular show for some great portraits and action images in various familial combinations. A couple of times one of the cubs shed the languorous torpor and played with a twig, looking extremely adorable.
Then all four settled down to sleep, in marvellous formation, and it was time to leave. As they drove back, the group reflected on what a fantastic Tour it had been – with nearly 50 sightings of 15 individual tigers, and several precious hours spent with the planet’s greatest cat.