TIGERS OF RANTHAMBORE
PART ONE: ARROWHEAD AND HER SUB-ADULT CUBS
In early March 2020 we left Australia and went to India for a trip organised a year ago. We arrived and that night India closed its borders, which was a shock! As far as we knew, India had less than 100 cases of COVID 19, and my husband said they would be extra careful because they suffered so many losses in the Spanish Flu. They were careful, all right – those temperature-taking gun things were everywhere - we have never had our temperature taken so many times, in the airport and the hotel! They even took our temperature when we came back into the hotel from the front driveway, where we spotted hawks soaring around the façade.
We rang the Australian Embassy in Delhi next morning and asked, ‘What shall we do?’ They told us to keep going because we were in India and domestic travel was still functioning. We stayed in our room nearly all the time because we were being extremely careful. We have explored Delhi thoroughly before. This time we were there only to photograph tigers in four national parks. We walked in the hotel garden, which basically meant around the pool, and spotted three-striped squirrels - interesting to wildlife photographers!
After a few days in Delhi we headed off to Ranthambore, which is in Rajasthan, south of Delhi. This involved a short flight to Jaipur and a 3-4 hour taxi drive to get to our hotel near Ranthambore National Park. Our trip to Ranthambore was very capably organized by Camazon, recommended to us by a friend. I have photographed an old atlas map and written Ranthambore on it to help you visualise the location.
On the flight we took extreme care with masks, gloves, and sanitizing our seat area. Our daughter and her husband had joined us so we hired two taxis for extra space on the long drive. Our daughter was grateful she didn’t have to sit on the uncomfortable little fold-down seat in the back with the luggage! (I was sent this photo by our contact at Camazon)
Our guide, Nafees Mohammed, rang and asked if we would arrive in time to go out and try to spot a tigress who had made a kill near the fort – for an extra 10,000 rupees. We were game and excited about the prospect – after all, we were there to see tigers! This was his phone photo, sent to whet my appetite a few days before.
Strangely enough, our driver turned out to be his nephew, and they had a dialogue about when we would arrive. Nafees was waiting when we pulled up at our hotel. We quickly got the photographic gear together and hopped in the Gypsy, as they call the jeeps there. (Below is a photo of a jeep sent to me by the travel agency when I was planning the trip. The windscreen is folded down.)
We roared off to the Fort hoping to see the tigress and her cubs. We had no luck, but while sitting outside the gates had wonderful opportunities to photograph other wildlife like this langur monkey. Peacocks are everywhere at Ranthambore! A friend and top wildlife photographer had said that his project this year would be to capture a flying peacock. He was supposed to join us later but couldn’t, owing to the borders being closed.
After watching and photographing peacocks perched on dead trees in front of our jeep, I felt sure that one of them was preparing to fly. I can’t hand-hold the heavy Canon 1DX Mk II and big 200-400 lens with inbuilt extender. Using a tripod and gimbal, I focused on this peacock. It was very awkward in a vehicle but I was glad of the tripod supporting the weight, because I had a long time to wait!
At one point, another peacock on the same dead tree took off and my attention was distracted.
I began to despair that my chosen subject would ever take off, but he was in the best spot and I gave myself a stern talking to: “Keep your eye on the prize!’, I told myself – and eventually, he flew! It was a huge thrill to get a photo of this beautiful bird flying, showing the gorgeous colours of his wings as well. There was a lot of backlight which made him more of a silhouette, but I have cropped the photo and lightened the bird, while trying to minimise the noise which was the inevitable result of that.
We returned to our hotel and got settled in, had a hasty meal and off to bed as early as possible after making sure all the gear was ready, batteries charged, settings right for an early morning start. I didn't take photos of the hotel, so here is a ring-necked Parakeet.
The next morning we had the great privilege of seeing a rare brown fish owl. It is a beautiful owl with lovely feather patterns, and opened its eyes a little so we could see that piercing gaze. If I were a mouse on the forest floor I would be transfixed!
We also saw a Scops Owl but he kept his eyes firmly closed as he prepared to sleep the day away in his accustomed hollow.
That day was really frustrating. Our excellent guide Nafees Mohammed and skilful driver Meena tried and tried to find tigers. We drove around for hours and hours without any luck. Our daughter, who has been to India before to photograph tigers, said that it was bumpy –but I had no idea HOW bumpy!
I have three compressed discs in my neck, so I took a neck brace – but I was soon also clutching a neck pillow around my neck as well - and even then it was a trial and tribulation as we lurched from bump to bump with the occasional ditch or rock to make it even worse. However, I suppressed my groans and we saw animals such as this chital and sambar deer in beautiful forest settings.
We paused at a Sambar Deer carcass to check whether a tiger might come to eat it – they are not unduly fussy about whether they killed it or not – food is food. However, neither the tigers in the park nor a crocodile seemed interested.
Further along, we saw a mugger crocodile basking by the river. We are very happy to see any form of wildlife, and the park is beautiful with its varied terrain and watercourses.
We ate a picnic lunch out in the park to avoid spending hours driving back to the hotel. We were waiting near a place where our guide thought a tigress might cross the road. Waiting for a long time, we felt very drowsy after all the travel and getting up at 4.30 a.m. Eventually we nodded off. (My husband went to sleep first, then woke before us. He photographed the sleeping beauties - but accidentally took one-second videos!)
Then someone wanted to go to the loo, so we had to drive out of there to get the nearest toilet. I have to say the toilets were not pleasant. Take your own toilet paper unless you like to use a spray hose. It was very stressful to try to keep clean. Hand-washing with no soap was substituted for by anti-bacterial wipes and gel. Trying to be socially distanced from other people wasn't easy either!
When we drove back to where our guide had expected to see a tigress, we heard a coughing call which we were told was a male tiger …..and spotted the tigress beating a hasty retreat up the hill! She was avoiding the tiger, our guide told us. We must have missed her crossing the road while we went to the loo. Should’ve held it! Not the best view of our first tiger - but our own fault.
We passed by a picturesque lake with buildings from ancient times. Google tells me the area was used as a hunting park for the pleasure of the Maharajahs of Jaipur until the time of India's Independence.
Then a bus was spotted parked on the side of the road out of the park, with all its passengers trying to see something over the wall. We stopped and clambered onto the seats to peer down into the bushes. A tiger! However, it was asleep and far away.
On the way out of the park we saw the Brown Fish Owl and Scops Owl again. Here is the brown fish owl in its habitat – a real highlight of the day in the beautiful forest.
We retreated to the hotel exhausted and rather disappointed not to get clearer views of tigers. However, we had lots of wildlife photography behind us and were well aware that tomorrow would be another day. This is a barasinga or swamp deer.
All I wanted to do was tumble into bed! We went to grab a bite to eat and learned that we could upgrade to the suites above the lobby and main part of the hotel. No photos of the hotel, we were concentrating on wildlife, so here is a photo of a red-vented bul-bul.
They’d had some cancellations due to the borders being closed and I was the squeaky wheel, I guess. After our first night I had asked if they had any quieter rooms. Ours backed onto the local village, with constant horn noises all night as people drove through the town – Indians honk their horns to let people know they are coming on the chaotic roads. The shrill motorbike horns were the most annoying. (My husband took this photo.)
I was super tired and almost felt like saying no. The suites were up a flight of stairs, not great for my knee – but it was much quieter and the rooms were extremely spacious. We packed up and moved, then unpacked again and put everything away. Next morning we were up at 4.30, having got to bed much later than I expected thanks to our room move. We drove to the park, where we saw a Chital (Spotted Deer) in the early morning light.
If you go on any trip to see wild animals, be aware that you need plenty of layers! The dawn drive in an open vehicle creates a frigid blast. It was spring and the days were warm, but at dawn it was freezing. We wore shirts, scarves, face-coverings, a hoodie cardigan, wind jacket with hood, and hat. (Phone photo of my husband, taken by our daughter.)
We drove past the fort high on its hill and spent hours searching for tigers. It began to seem that we were out of luck again. There are 35 tigers in a park of 1,334 square km, and you have no guarantee of seeing any of them.
Nafees received a call from another guide who had spotted the female and her cubs! A mad dash ensued, with me hanging on to my cushion and neck brace for dear life, suppressing squeaks of pain. (My husband took the photo - that grey thing is my neck cushion.) The scarf served to keep my cap on as we drove along, as well as keeping me warm.
We inserted ourselves into the scrum. I had no idea that it would be so crowded! This was Zone 2 and you cannot get in there if you don't have a full-day pass - half day passes can only enter Zones 6 -10. I did a lot of research with the help of friends and Camazon. We paid twice as much for full day safaris in order to get into the zones most likely to have tigers. Luckily our guide and driver were skilful at securing a decent spot while respecting others. This phone video I took shows Nafees negotiating a change of position.
To be honest, I was shocked, after the rules in Africa of only three vehicles at a sighting! In Africa one vehicle must withdraw before another could come near to the animals. At Ranthambore it's on for one and all and many people want to get close enough to take phone photos! There was a lot of shouting and negotiation as vehicles were being manoeuvred about so people could see. We are in the second vehicle. If you zoom in, I am the white blob behind the folded down windscreen. (This was taken by one of the other guides and shared with me by Nafees.) The face of the tiger closer to the camera is showing distress at the melee.
Anyway, there we were with three tigers! Awesome! This was a rare privilege considering how few tigers there are in a vast space. It was fascinating to watch the tigress Arrowhead and her two sub-adult female cubs. These are the cubs, which are not given names until they have survived to adulthood.
I had help with the heavy rig. The tripod was not helpful because I had to scramble up and stand on the seat to see. Sometimes the driver, Nafees or our daughter supported the heavy lens as it sagged in my hands. Sometimes I gave the Canon to Nafees and took shots with the lighter Sony with its 70-200 lens. (My husband took this - and accidentally made a one-second video of it!)
I'm wearing a mask, as I did the whole time. I developed an allergic reaction to the dust and pollution of India on a previous visit, so I searched for masks without success in February 2020. They had all disappeared - no-one knew why at the time. In the end I ordered masks from the chemist and got one packet. I washed and re-used them. It certainly prevented the allergy reaction. (My husband took this phone shot.)
This is Arrowhead. It was super-exciting to have an up-close sighting of this most regal of the big cats. They are even more magnificent and imposing in reality than I imagined. She is a powerful and dominant tigress who has taken possession of the fort area, Zone 2, at Ranthambore, like her mother before her.
It was absolutely fascinating to see the tiger family interacting. Mother was looking for some peace and quiet, but like young ones everywhere, the kids were restless.
One went over to Mum for some affection. Arrowhead just wanted to sleep, but she tried hard to be a good mother. Here she is giving her daughter an affectionate lick – but you can see from her body language – leaning away, a slight wrinkling of the nose – that she just wants to be left alone. It no doubt sounds familiar right now to parents in this period of lockdown because of COVID 19.
Sometimes the kids just don’t know when to stop, and mother tiger Arrowhead is fed up with the persistence and neediness of her cubs. All she wants is some peace and quiet!
Arrowhead is over it with her bothersome cub, and is not being PC about it!
I had a good position looking over the top of another vehicle if I stood on the seat – so long as the kid in the red hoodie in the other jeep didn’t move into my shot!
However, Oliver said he mostly saw the trunk of a tree, so I asked Nafees (our guide) if he could come into the front and sit on the bean bag along the folded down windscreen. Then Sarah joined us, and it was a tight squeeze with the three of us in the front seat. (This phone photo was taken by Oliver in a different part of the park).
I was perched on the roll bar while standing on the seat, the other two were sitting on the bean bag carefully so they didn’t put weight on the folded-down windscreen. In the next photo, a cheeky Rufous Treepie has taken up residence on the beanbag.
Having seen off her annoying cub, Arrowhead groomed herself like any domestic cat.
She then gave a gigantic yawn and prepared to get some sleep.
As Arrowhead flopped down for a snooze, her chastened daughter retired hurt and prepared to lie down with such a look on her face of teenaged chagrin - priceless!
It wasn’t long before cub number two came over for some attention. She got more than she bargained for and you can see her thinking, ‘Whoa!’
The drivers and guides were yelling at each other and jockeying for position. Nafees had our vehicle move a bit so someone could get in, which left us with a not so good view, although of course other people have to see, too. I could not believe how crowded it was around the tigers!
The National Parks Authority have changed the rules so that everyone has to leave Zones 1-5 at lunchtime. Those with full day passes move to Zones 6-10 when the half-day people go home. This gives many tigers a break, because Zones 1-5 are generally the most sought-after zones for tigresses to establish and hold their territory.
Arrowhead is now the dominant tigress and has the prized Fort area, Zone 2. (My husband took the photo above.)
As Arrowhead tried to get some sleep, one of her daughters came over to get some affection - and got a good telling off instead.
That was IT! Arrowhead decided she had had …. ENOUGH!
She got up with a very peeved look on her face. The two cubs – well, butter wouldn’t melt.
As Arrowhead expressed her displeasure, our guide urgently said ‘She’s going to the river! Sit down! Sit down!’ That was somewhat of a problem for us. You may recall that to get a good view, our daughter and her husband had moved, and we three were all in the front seat area!
Arrowhead began moving off and the cubs soon followed. I couldn’t sit down till the others returned to the back seat. As Oliver attempted to move along the outside of the vehicle the driver took off! Oliver tried to get in over the back door while we lurched over the rocks. There was a muffled curse as he tumbled into the back seat, hurting his ankle and hitting the camera on the door.
Sarah was still trying to get into the back through the middle of the jeep, so I couldn’t sit down but remained standing on the seat holding onto the roll bar behind me like grim death as we swerved around a corner. I really thought I was going to fly out in front of a very pissed off tigress!
Eventually poor Sarah managed to get over the roll bar and I was able to slide down into my seat. What a ride! I have never experienced anything like the crazy urgency in Ranthambore to seize the advantage – but thanks to @nafees.mohammed.12 and Meena our driver, we did get a great position to see what unfolded at the river – and thanks to our own tenacity we were still in the vehicle! Phew!