“You’ll like Nepal, people don’t harass you there” said my friend, as I prepared for my solo trip to Nepal, an overnight visa run from India turned week long jaunt. He was wrong. I LOVED it.
Nepal In a week
Sunauli – Kathmadu – Pokhara – Chitwan National Park – Lumbini
Did You Know: The Nepalese flag is the only flag in the world that is not a quadrangle (four sided).?
To Fly or to Crawl?
When travelling to Nepal from India, it’s possible to fly from Delhi to Kathmandu in 1.5hrs, but why do that when you can do it in 26hrs? Well because in 26 hours you see and experience a lot more than you do in 1, so I chose to crawl.
Getting there (from India)
Contrary to expectation, I love train travel in India. It’s a very inexpensive, comfortable way to watch unobserved, see day-to-life, watch the landscape change, read a book when you want, have a nap when you don’t, all punctuated by frequent shots of sweet tea delivered to you by an incessant stream of chai-wallahs. So I caught the 14hr train from Delhi to Gorakhpur (USD 25), followed by 3hr local bus ride (USD 1) to the Nepalese border, and then another 9hr bus ride (USD 9) to Kathmandu.
As I only had a day here, I made my way to arguable the most famous places in Kathmandu
Swayambunath or the Monkey Temple.
At the bottom of the hill, I’m welcomed by Lord Bhuddha, and am delighted to see a little monkey nestled in the palm of his hand. After taking my blessing, I puff my way up 365 stairs, and am rewarded with this beautiful view – a large white stupa adorned with a tall golden crown, with streamers of colourful Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze against a cloudless dark blue sky. The hypnotic Buddha eyes follow you wherever you go, looking beyond into the valley that surrounds it. This site has been sacred since the 5th century BC, and is revered by Bhuddist and Hindus. I sat at one of the rooftop café sipping a lemon soda, absorbing the serene atmosphere while watching the city below without the crowds – nice.
I then headed to Durbar Square without a map, through this gully and that alley, stopping to play a game of Carom with some kids.
There are lots of temples, palaces, courtyards and shrines you can see, but I prefer to just soak in the place. So once again, after collecting my free hug, I headed to a rooftop, and to combat the midday heat, settled down with a nice cold Everest (if I cant climb it, I may as well drink it) to watch people enjoying the old square.
The Himalaya at dawn – view from Sarangkot
A 7hr bus ride brought me to Pokhara. At 4am I was picked up from my hotel and headed to Sarangkot, a place 15km from Pokhara with the most unbelievable panomic views of the high Himalayas. Some of the highest peaks in the world can be seen here, as the morph from ghostly silhouettes to majestic megaliths painted in the golden hues of the morning sun – sublime. A picture could never do it any sort of justice. I sat there gazing in awe at these giants who where basically 7km vertically up from any beach I had laid on…staggering. I wondered what it must be like up there. These silent mountains are quite inhospitable preferring their own company. This became apparent the next day as I heard that sadly 20 people had been killed in an avalanche in the very mountains that I had just been gazing at. Nature is as powerful as it is beautiful.
Pokhara town is set on the side of a lake, with the picturesque mountains as a backdrop. It is the starting point for many treks, and is mostly full of places catering to tourists, but still retains a tranquil atmosphere.
An Elephant Safari | Chitwan National Park
From Pokhara I do a 6hr bus journey to the small village of Sauraha, bordering Chitwan National Park to see the endangered one horned rhino. While walking from my bus stop to my hotel, I pass a small hut with an elephant parked outside – an uncommon curious sight. It rained all day ad all night and a safari the next day was looking unlike. I stayed in and finished reading The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. A very profound book, though after months of arduous trekking, he still does not see the Snow Leopard, but he is okay with that. I think this is an omen that I wont see the one horned rhino, and start to make my peace with that. The next morning I go on an elephant safari, and it’s a good thing I made my peace as I didn’t see the rhino, but the safari was no less special. Ambling along on the back of a 3 ton giant, one minute plains, one minute dense jungle, while being watched by 3 squillion ton petrified giants – very special.
Lumbini – the birthplace of Lord Buddha
When the local bus deposits you in the middle of T-junction, with a small collection of road side stalls and shops, and yells “Lumbini!”, trust them, you are there, in one of the most sacred places in the world. It’s a very small, nondescript town, some 20km from the border with India, that owes it’s existence to the fact that someone very important was born there – Lord Buddha, who founded Bhuddism in the 5th century B.C., which is now followed by almost 500 million people worldwide.
The surroundings are very tranquil – a docile lake dotted with lotuses and birds is partially obscured by the trees and shrubs that line the walkway. I enjoy the unhurried walk to the ruins of the Maya Devi temple, the place where Lord Buddha is said to have been born. Again, the serenity is palpable. There are more pilgrims here than tourists, monks, nuns and devotees praying and chanting all add to the spiritual atmosphere.
From here, a one hour bus ride covering 15km will get you back to the border with India with memories of amazing landscapes, unforgettable sunrises, and friendly people.
In the crowded centres of civilization, microscopic men are running hither and thither, inflated with their self-importance and quarrelling over the crust of the planet, which in the last analysis, does not belong to them. [In the Himalayas] a score or more of high peaks squat perfectly still with their heads uplifted above the planet, as though unconscious of their kingship, power and grandeur.
– Paul Brunton, Hermit in the Himalayas
“What an unearthly place!” I thought, as I turned the page of an inflight magazine saw a picture of immeasurable beauty. Latte coloured bare mountains rising high above a lightly grassed valley, in the midst of which lay a startling blue lake. “Chandertal Lake, Spiti, India” the small text at the bottom went on to explain. I promised myself, if ever I had the opportunity, I would go to see it. Recently the opportunity arose.
Halfway between the heavens and the earth, Spiti lies nestled in the remote Himalayas in north eastern India, ironically once of the least populated places on earth. Starting at 3000m above the earth’s water line, a height greater than Machu Picchu, and rising to the half the cruising altitude of a plane, 5000m, this isolated desert lies hidden from the world for three quarters of the year. For only 3 months, she lowers her drawbridges and let’s in the lucky, the curious, and the bold, and what they will see will take their breath away (quite literally!)
We leave Manali for Spiti in our hired Tata Sumo jeep, complete with an “I’m married but don’t mind if I hit on you” driver. Within minutes we’ve left the noise of the city behind, and were labouring up a narrow road scratched into the edge of the mountainside, loop upon loop, hooting as we round blind corners. Had it not been for the captivating scenery, I might have had holes in my palms, as we skirted scarily close to the edge to take sharp bends, or let an oncoming vehicle past, mauled and mangled remains of vehicles in bowels of the mountains, a sobering reminder of the dangers.
We pass through Rohtang La (3950m), meaning “pile of dead bodies” owing to the hundreds of people who have frozen to death there due to unpredictable and swift weather changes. From here on, the traffic dies down considerably to a car every couple hours, and it becomes apparent why.
As we approach Spiti, the weakening of our feeble grip on the land becomes apparent. The paths (for to call them roads is like calling donkeys horses) are bumpy and coccyx breaking. Unruly waterfalls that seem to start in the sky come crashing down, turning the roads into rivers. Rockslides are frequent, and take their toll too. Despite being cleared daily, jagged rocks, sometimes as big as buses, litter the path. I shudder as I think that we could just as easily have been under one of those rocks as behind. We rarely go above 30km/hr, and it takes us around 8hrs to cover 120km.
CHANDRATAL LAKE (MOON LAKE)
We arrive at our campsite around 6pm, having risen 2.3km vertically in the last 8hrs, and head straight for the “moon lake” a few hundred metres away. As soon as I take a few steps, my breathing becomes labored, and my heart thuds very heavily and fast, as if I’ve just done a 100m sprint. I think I could have a heart attack. Luckily I don’t. This is my first taste of thin air. At 14,0000ft (4300m), this is the highest I’d ever been with my feet on terra firma. As I came over the hill, I stopped breathing momentarily. The sight before me was unlike anything I’d ever seen – smooth brown mountains cupping a turquoise motionless lake. Whether through sheer enchantment, or shortness of breath, none of us spoke. This must be how Neil Armstrong felt upon landing on the moon.
Despite being peak summer, the air was cold, and at night, the temperature dropped to about 5 degrees (still better than the -30 degrees of winter). I couldn’t sleep. It was quieter than I had ever known. Not a cricket, bug, bird, train, plane. Nothing. An unearthly silence. I lay awake in my tent for hours staring up at the light cobalt blue sky, glittering with a million stars, and an exfoliated and scrubbed moon, shining like a diamante bindi, with a halo twice it’s size. I saw at least five shooting stars. I froze the frame and deposited it in the permanent storage section of my brain as I may never see anything this beautiful again.
Chandratal Lake – Kumzum La – Kibber – Ki (Kye) – Kaza
“Good Mahn-ing! What’s up?!”
I look at my watch. It’s 5am. I am staggered at the ridiculous conversation taking place without any regard to the other sleeping campers. We witness instant karma in action as we see the perpetrators broken down on the roadside a few hours later.
From Chandratal Lake, we cross Kunzum Pass (4550m) and descend to Spiti valley where horses and goats graze contentedly. They look like little dots giving and make the towering mountains look even more imposing.
We stop for breakfast in Losar. There is a stall nearby selling trinkets and handicrafts. “Do you think that guy has Tibetan balls?” asks Angie in her Northern English accent. I am surprised by the question. I glance across at the vendor, a Tibetan looking man. “It’s quite likely” I respond on reflection. “I want to see them but I don’t want to get his hopes up”. It dawns on me what she is talking about. “I want the balls that come with the stick to make them sing” she continues earnestly. Mike and I fall about in fits of laughter.
Bowls said in Northern English = Balls
KAZA, KIBBER, KYE
The landscape becomes more dramatic and rugged as we progress. Several hours later we spy a little blob of white in the distance. This is Kye Gompa (Monastery), a 1,000yr old monastery with a spectacular view, dwarfed by the imposing mountains that surround it. It housed 350 monks, which seems a lot for its size, who probably enjoyed the isolation and solitude, as it would have been very difficult to reach here in the old, pre vehicle days. Furthermore, they served as forts as approach from any direction would have been quickly spotted.
Then we proceed to Kibber 10km away, a picturesque cluster of rectangular white washes houses perched on steep barren mountain slopes. At 4350m, this is one of the highest villages in the world, and certainly one of the most photogenic!
Unable to find accommodation in Kibber, we head back to Kaza, the capital of Spiti. It is a very quaint, small, town full of old wordly charm. The dogs are fat and happy. Pedestrianized stone streets make it easy to get around and appreciate. This town appears to have changed little over time. People go about their business without more than a passing glance at the tourists, of which we only see a handful. This sleepy town is tucked in bed by 9pm and the only eatery that’s open has one dish to offer (despite a 5 page menu) – veg momos (Tibetan dumplings). We all decide to have the veg momos. “Any drinks?” I inquire not trusting the 3 page menu of beverages. “No. Hmmm, maybe I have Fanta.” “I’ll take it”. The friendly waiter returns a few minutes later with a half drunk, fully flat bottle of Miranda”.
Kaza – Dhangkar – Tabo
After obtaining our Inner Line Permits which are necessary to proceed to Tabo, as the journey takes us past the highly sensitive and well protected Indo-Tibetan border. I am pleased to note that it is referred to as Indo-Tibetan and not Indo-China as this indicates India’s repudiation of China’s claim on Tibet. We traverse through more imposing and grandiose lands. Jagged, hulking, dark mountains rise high into the vivid blue sky, their stratified layers pushed up sometimes vertically, displaying 50 million years of history, and making you marvel at the power of the earth to push up million of megatons of rock so high.
We approach Dhangkar Gomp, which is also perched on a high ridge. It’s made of up of mud, and wood, and from a distance looks like a beehive.I walk out one of the little doors and am briefly immobilised by vertigo. There are no fences or railings; one wrong foot could send you tumbling 1,000ft. The silence echoes across the mountains. We see a locked wooden door and spy a key on the adjacent ledge. The key opens the lock we look upon a small room, less than 3x3m, with faded muralled walls, a painting of Buddha on the main wall with little lamps in front of it. The monastery was perched very high in a very isolated place – that alone made it very special. However, what amazes even more is the fact that it is mostly is made up of mud and wood, and despite this has endured for 1,000 years!
We then try to hike to Dhangkar Lake on top of a near by mountain. Ange and I decide to take a short cut go straight up the steep mountain. The rocks become shale and grit and, and climbing in any direction precarious. We learn first hand that there is no such thing as a short cut. Suffice to say, there is probably a very pretty lake in Dhangkar that I have not seen.
By evening we reach Tabo, yet another quaint isolated village with little more than 100 homes, lying in the shade of a large mountain emblazoned with a Tibetan prayer – “Om Mani Padme Hum”.
There is something indescribably special about sitting to 6am prayers in an ancient monastery, listening to low chanting of a monk, the only other person there. This could well have been 996A.D, when it was built, for there is nothing in this scene to link it t the 21st century. I leave and hour later feeling very peaceful and calm.
Today we say goodbye to beautiful and unforgettable Spiti, as we travel along the world’s most treacherous roads to Kinnaur.
The landscape quickly becomes green, the mountains even higher. We stay the night in Kalpa, and are treated to glimpses of the 21,000ft high, sacred Kinnaur Kailash, winter home of Lord Shiva.
Kalpa – Sangla – Chhitkul
We climb high up some very steep mountains to get to the little village of Chhitkul.
Chittkul is a village forgotten by time. The village is wooden, the people simple, the setting rustic. They follow Bhuddism and Hinduism. They live in this isolated town far from it all.
Chitkul – Cholling – Tapri – Wangtu – Sarahan
Once again traversing insanely high roads (definitely not for the faint hearted!). The road from Cholling to Tapri was closed due to a landslide which meant that we had to go up and down a mountain, so what should have taken 15mins took over 2hrs. This is the way things are in the mountains. We stop for toilet break. As was often the case, we find ourselves in a forest marijuana plants – it was incredible, big fat bushes about a metre flanking the sides of the road and beyond. It may as well be the state plant! In the words of the illustrious Michael, “if I was hash smoker, I’d be having a wet dream”
We stop over in Sarahan, a small quiet town (except at prayer time when the hindu prayers and bells rings though town). Panoramics views and a few beers at the Himachal Tourism Hotel are the perfect way to wind down the trip.
Sarahan – Shimla
We visit the famous Bhimakali temple in the morning, a beautiful wood carved temple that is the centre and the drawcard of the town. A few hours later we have left Kinnaur, to me a lush land of sky roads, mighty rivers and green hats (Kinnauris, men and women wear them).
And this is how one can be amazed beyond belief in just seven days on under $500.
“If the entire world sought to make itself worthy of happiness rather than make itself happy, then the entire world would be happy.”― Criss Jami, Venus in Arms
Gandhi’s suggestion, “be the change that you wish to see in the world” is something I aspire to, but am far from.
To see the terrible things, the gross injustices, the suffering in the world, and shake one’s head, is as effortless as it is useless, and something I am as guilty of as the next guy. There are those rare individuals who see it, and will fight to make it right. Deb Jarrett, the founder of DAR, is one of them.
In 2008, she volunteered at a preschool in Dharamsala, India. The children were unforgettable, but an injured dog that she saw outside the school took her heart. Her concern for his plight was met with indifference by the villagers. Upon returning home to USA, she knew she needed to do everything in her power to help. She created Dharamsala Animal Rescue (DAR) to care for injured animals, control stray dog population through birth control projects, and lead the fight against rabies. Today, Tommy the dog, is healthy and being well cared for by the same villagers, and as remarked by a Ann, a vet from Australia, “Dharamsala strays are some of the luckiest in India”, and I have to say, having been to here many times over the last 30yrs, I wholeheartedly agree!
“I hope he survives”, I say grimly, trying not to gag from the stench of rotting flesh, as we pull out yet another maggot from head of a dog who looks like he’s been scalped. “Of course he will, why won’t he?” says Parveen casually as we were talking about a superficial nick rather than a dog which less than 24hrs ago was about to be put down, and at once I was so proud to be a part of this amazing team that brings Deb’s altruistic endeavours to life.
They are an endearing lovely bunch, each with their own story, and their own quirky personalities, the common denominator being their deep, genuine, unconditional love for all animals.
For example Kamlesh, the assistant vet, was told to euthanize a 3 week old puppy that had been badly mauled by dogs. He had the injection in his hand when the pup looked up at him, “my heart started beating really fast and my hands started shaking, and something happened inside me, I just couldn’t do it”. He brought her back from the brink death. After that she had three nearly fatal illnesses. Her will to live and Kamlesh’s love and perseverance have seen Froggie through. She is now a gorgeous lady (she even sits like one with her legs crossed!)
I’ve never looked forward to work as I do now. Firstly the commute is infinitely more interesting and pleasurable – noise, colour and chaos abound. One day I see an elephant in the street, another I see a drunk guy feeding strays. A red sari, yellow sari, golden bangle, silver anklet, hooting, swerving – action packed!
Secondly, the reception is incomparable – a Welcoming Party eagerly awaits my arrival each morning, around 10 tails wagging, and squeals of delight.
And thirdly, the work, I can’t wait to get started because I’ll hopefully be a part of making a life even a little better.
In my two short months with DAR, I have seen some pretty horrific, some pretty amazing, and some pretty unbelievable things.
I’ve watched heartbreakingly as two of our dogs have lost the battle to Canine Distemper, a life threating neural virus (something vaccinate stray puppies against), I’ve seen at least five dogs being put down, I’ve seen maggot infested wounds that would put you off food for days.
I’ve also seen a dog whose back legs were paralyzed, and who had clearly lost the will to live, not only get the spark back in his eyes, but unbelievably starting walking again (at meal times, sometimes jogging!).
I’ve also met some angelic human beings in the form of volunteers, donors, and guardian angels who feed the strays with no expectation of recognition or reward. I think that each day I work with them, I will learn compassion and generosity, and start to embody the change that I wish to see in the world.
Nature does not hurry yet everything is accomplished – Lao Tzu
It has sometimes been said that I have my head stuck in the clouds, which I vehemently deny, however, this time I must concede.
When I came India, I wanted to volunteer, and trek. Given I was based in Himalayan foothills, it would be criminal not to explore the beautiful rugged landscape all around. One of the guys from the animal shelter I work at, Munna, is an avid trekker, who heads out every evening, and spends his only day off going for long hikes with his dog. I had hinted at my interest to join several times, but this never amounted to invitation. So on Sunday morning when he said “if you wanna come for a walk with us, be ready in ten minutes,” I was ready in seven.
It was a pleasant overcast day – a welcome change from the simmering heat of the past few weeks. We met up with a couple of his friends, a 50yr old man in flip flops, Sirji, who turned out to be the fittest 50yr old I’ve met, and another guy, Tenzing, thirty something, and not nearly as fit.
Soon after leaving the house were already walking on brown needles among the plentiful deodars, the scent of pine and manure in the air. We stopped at a stream to take in the view – mountains upon mountains of lush green, with patches of terraces looking like crinkles in an emerald green carpet, some with grey scar tissue where the rock had broken free.
We began our ascent, Munna and Sirji in the lead, chatting, laughing, joking, nothing giving away the fact that they were climbing 45 degree inclines with loose rocks. I walked behind, trying to work out my centre of gravity with each step, clutching at rocks and branches to reduce my chances of a perilous fall, working up a fair sweat, but feeling good that at least I wasn’t last. Tenzing brought up the rear, moaning and muttering, cussing and swearing, to anyone who could hear, to which Munna responded “don’t worry mate, all your farts will come out yet”. This continued for at least ten of the twelve hours – a great source of amusement.
Yes, that’s right, we ended up hiking up and down mountains for the better part of twelve hours, stopping along the way to make a hot cup of tea with wild mountain mint, a roti or biscuit, and watching the city become smaller and smaller, the sounds of civilisation diminishing, and the sound of tweeting birds getting louder. As we climbed higher still, the tweeting got less. We passed the odd goat and goatherd, but not much else. We also came across the rare Monal, the very pretty state bird of the Himachel Pradesh (the size of a chicken, and the colours of a peacock).
There is silence, and there is silence, and when we reached the top of the mountain, there was silence. After some eight hours of determined climbing, at 10,000ft (3000mtrs), we were sitting atop a high mountain, gazing at the grey and white peaks of the Himalayan Dhauladar Range, the sun was above us, the clouds before us, birds flying below us, the city of Dharamsala far away, a little splash of non green in the distance, and all around us was silence.
It felt like having your head in a ball – vacuous silence. My head was stuck well in the clouds, and I loved it – what a feeling!
We all sat peacefully revelling in it. In minutes we were covered in a dense mist. It really was like being in another world. The sun had started lose it’s brilliance and fading into a warm glow.
One last look over the edge of Middle Earth and it was time to head back.
Finding a place with no address is every bit as tricky as it sounds. Dharamsala Animal Rescue (DAR), where I planned to volunteer, was simply in ‘Rakkar Village’. I had no idea what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t this – I could have been in a remote valley in the Swiss Alps – surrounded by lush green mountains, that were dissected by thin streams, strewn with boulders of all shapes and sizes. The water from the mountain ice melts, rushing over one stone in its haste to get to the other, making the only sound, other than the occasional cry of a circling kite. For the first time in India, I experienced silence. It really was a truly magical place that I never knew could have existed in this populous land.
And suddenly it was over. I looked down to see the offender – a white dog sat in the window of the lonesome building, one paw on top of the other, in a very human-esque fashion, who I would later come to know as Froggie (more on Froggie’s story later). On her cue, the symphony kicked off; some 5-10 different pitches and tempos of barking joined in – what a reception!
Deb, the founder of the shelter, and a couple of staff members came rushing out to meet me, followed by a few more dogs, limping, bounding, tails wagging, they all looked so happy, and I knew at once that this was the best decision I had made in a while – It was going to incredibly rewarding working with these dogs, and these wonderful human beings who clearly loved them dearly . “Why don’t you head out with the guys on the mobile clinic and see what you think?”. And so begins my contribution, whatever it may be, to this charity, that inspired me. Deb’s courage, determination, and huge heart led me here, let’s see where the road goes..
Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend, or a meaningful day.” – Dalai Lama
Daybreak roused me from exhausted drug-induced sleep. Either that, or the bus swinging from side to side, as it slowly chugged up the narrow, winding mountain roads. The view outside the window ensured I did not fall asleep again. It felt like being suspended mid air – way down below the quiet valley bathed in the new light of the morning sun, up above the green mountains, and much higher still, as if stabbing the sky with their jagged peaks, and making holes that sent bright sunbeams shooting through, were the gigantic, sombre, bluey-white mountains – The Himalayas – I was in my old and new home.
On arrival in McLeodganj, needing to stretch my legs after a 30hr journey, I went for a walk around the Tsuglagkhang Complex, the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in exile, and home of the Dalai Lama. To see this humble complex, in its very modest surroundings, one would struggle to believe that it’s home to one of the best known, best loved personalities of our time.
It was 8.00am, and hardly anyone around. Those who were about, had also come to enjoy the tranquility. The multi-coloured Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze brightened the walk. I encountered several people along the way, some humming their prayers while rolling their prayers beads in their hands, others softly chatting away. There were old ones who struggled up the steep dirt path, but still managing a smile as I passed; there were people sitting on the makeshift benches in quiet contemplation, there were even monkeys who looked comically reflective as they sat side by side with the maroon robe clad Tibetan monks.
All along the way I received indulgent smiles, which I thought a bit odd, but rather nice! Later I discovered that being a Bhuddist place of worship, one is supposed to walk around the complex in a clockwise direction. I couldn’t help smiling to myself thinking about the silly joke where, on being told to avoid a certain one way street because some crazy was driving in the wrong direction, the man remarked, “you should see all the idiots on this street!”
“The Wild, cruel animal is not behind the bars of a cage, he is in front of it” – Axel Munthe
We had been driving around for almost 2hrs before we came across the animated group. “You just missed her! She just went past with her three cubs”.
Whilst an ardent animal lover, I’ve always steered clear of zoos as I find it quite depressing to see them confined. So when the opportunity arose to see a wild tiger, I grabbed it. I was in Jaipur and had a couple of days to spare, so I decided to head up to Sawai Madhopur which is a couple of hours by train. This little town derives it livelihood from Tiger tourism. It is the gateway to Ranthambore National Park, one of nine tiger sanctuaries set up by the Indian government to protect the significantly dwindling tiger population.
Being India, with its land and population pressures, the very reason the tiger was under threat, I had low expectations of the park. I expected the reserve to be small crowded, with a few weather beaten trees, and a couple of mangey looking tigers, it at all any were to be seen, surrounded by a gazillion vehicles, and generally, largely exploited.
At 5am I was ready and waiting, camo pants, green jacket, and even a silly green hat that I wasn’t ready to wear yet (or ever!). The hotel staff were phenomenal – the manager lent me his binoculars. I had booked a ride in a canter (big open air vehicle that can seat about 15 people), as the gypsies (smaller, like a jeep) were booked out. The gypsies tend to book out early as people hope to get a more personalized experience. These are the only options as no private vehicles are allowed and numbers into the park are restricted. This was my first surprise.
A quick twenty minute ride later, we were at the entrance of Ranthambore National Park. We were allocated a zone, my second surprise. The park is divided into 8 zones forming tiger territories. 4 gypsies and 4 canters are allowed per zone, to ensure that it does not become like a drive through zoo. I was pleasantly surprised, and continued to be as we progressed through. The park is set in old fort. We passed through the gate, a high bricked archway covered with bits of moss and lichen, and largely obscured by the large Banyan tree that enshrouded it, making it seem part of the it part of the landscape, resplendent peacock perched atop it. Apparently the tigress could often be found lounging in in the gateway, under the arch, and shaded by the Banyan. I could just picture it. What a sight that would be! The king of the jungle guarding his jungle kingdom.
As we drove through the park, passing tranquil lakes scattered brush, we spotted groups of sambar deer, sheetal, spotted deer, monkeys and peacocks, but, after a couple of hours, the real prize still remained elusive. With less than half an hour remaining before we had to leave the park (this is controlled by the park authorities to ensure that the park is left undisturbed to the tigers for a large part of day, another commendable and unexpected thing), we resigned to the fact that we probably wouldn’t see one, and made our way to the gate. Approaching the gate we saw a couple of gyspies with their passengers all peering intently into the thicket. My heart started to beat a little faster, only to be told, as we arrived on the scene, that a tigress had just been past with her three cubs five minutes ago! We waited patiently, all eyes trained on the dense foliage where she had disappeared into. Nothing.
With only ten minutes remaining, there was a rustle in the bush, and there she was – at first only glimpses of burnished orange highlighted by the backdrop of greenery. The excitement was tangible. After a few moments, comfortable that we were no threat, she sauntered out the bushes and onto the road, she with all her avid admirers in tow.
There was a bit of squealing going on in our canter, which I wasn’t happy about, but I guess this is the compromise. The overzealous tourists’ money supports the infrastructure that gives the tigers their space and peace, and still, they meant well, they were just excited. For my part, while I managed to abstain from an outward reaction, I was ecstatic. She was beautiful and healthy, and looked like she knew this was her domain. What a sight! She lingered in the clearing, glancing around lazily, giving everyone ample opportunity to admire her, and we did. Then it was time to leave – I left feeling very lucky to have glimpsed this magnificent creature, not behind the bars of a cage, but wild and free!