Pretty birds and lazy cats
I was on a very bumpy road but we were hot on the trail of a tiger. We took a blind turn and there he was. Just like that. Wait, it did not look like a tiger, it was more like a African lion. A huge one. Straight out of Ghost and the Darkness. My camera won’t click. What was wrong!!! I remembered something from the book “Maneaters are cursed. Camera won’t click them”. I took the battery out and my lens mount broke and the precious 100-400 landed on the concrete. I started banging my camera on the jeep. Thats when I got up. The banging was the knocking on the door. It was my wakeup call. 5:30 am. Nightmares…
I got down by 6:10 am and avoided the morning tea. It was colder than before. Actually the coldest day in my whole trip. Salim came up with the same optimistic smile and informed me that we are going to try our luck in Zone 3. I liked Zone 3 and welcomed the opportunity of not having to go through zone 4. My back was not ready for action yet. We got on to the main road and then we realized the gravity of the situation. It was cloudy, misty, dark and cold. Perfect weather to let the camera be in the bag and hands in the warm jacket. As we entered Zone 3, the visibility was down to a few meters. The weather was not going to let up today. We drove around and found everything enveloped in the mist and hardly any animal activity. After making a futile round, we came back to Padam Lake and parked there. A lone cormorant was giving a wing display. A treepie was hanging around hoping for some food. A few ducks were swimming lazily. It was almost as if the birds were still waiting for the morning. A pair of Red-wattled lapwings joined the cormorant and were going about their business.
All of a sudden the Lapwing male started fluffing up and flaunting its wingspan. It was a pleasure to watch. I am guessing its the mating ritual. It went on for about half a minute but the male was not to get lucky this cold morning, female flew away. The male was left dejected and contemplating its options before it followed the female.
Salim drew our attention towards something on the ground. As we looked really hard, we realized there were tiny birds looking for grass seeds. though they looked like common sparrows, they were smaller than them. I think he told me they were named Sparrow finches. As we saw them, some more pretty birds started coming around.
Anyways, as we moved on some spotted deers decided to come out and have a drink. We left them in peace and started our journey back. As it was too cold, Salim offered us some hot “Aloo Vadas” and Samosa with tea. How can anyone reject such an offer. While having tea, I told Salim that I wanted to see Sandgrouse. He told me that he will see what he can do. For going back to hotel, he instructed the driver to take another route. While on that route he was scanning the area and suddenly he spotted the bird. Once again we tried our best to locate what he spotted but it was not until we came really close to the birds we saw them. There were 2 pairs of them. One resting and another busy feeding.
I was happy to see them. Everytime I visit Ranthambhore now, I will go looking for them. As we started from there, on a wall we came across something unusual. There was a red faced monkey grooming a langoor. I have never seen that happening. They are generally arch-enemies.
While on the way back we decided that if anyone asks what did we see, we are gonna say a mother and two young ones. A trick that earned us quite a few looks.
Back at the breakfast table, there were three Aussie ladies, who had another glimpse of a tiger and it was their first safari. Well, some people have all the luck, we were content with just great breakfast.
After lunch we decided to split the group differently. My much better half and the cub decided to join other friends. I went ahead with my friend Imtiyaz (Bhai). Zone allocation was Zone 4 and 5. As no one from our group had been to zone 5, we decided to take zone 4 and let rest of the group go to zone 5. I was bracing myself for another bumpy ride and was contemplating if I had enough Iodex when I came back. As we started, Salim said “Sir ji, today we will see nothing but tiger and will not stop for anything else”. All my attempts to ensure him that there was no pressure were futile. As we entered zone 4, quickly scanning the area for pugmarks, we saw an imperial eagle perched on a dead tree on the fringes of Malik talao. Though we wanted to get a good look, Salim vetoed us out. Our driver Goldie was being very vigilant as well. I was mentioning that I had not seen bush quails so far, and he braked very hard. There they were, right next to the jeep. Are they fast?? I did not get a chance to capture one on my camera, but at least I got a good look.
As we moved further on the road, we came across a black shouldered kite perched on a branch. It was querying it’s area for an evening snack and gave us a chance to capture it even though the sun was on the wrong side. As we moved on the forest was quite. A few deers here and there going about their business. We moved on towards Semli junction.
After a bone jarring journey, we arrived at Semli junction. We met a guard coming back from there. He informed us that all was quite there. We settled in our seats and moved on anyway. We took a downhill road from the junction and came towards a green patch on the way. There were palm trees and a little water. The jeep halted silently.
“Tiger Tiger” whispered Goldy, our driver. All of a sudden we snapped to attention. There she was. My first Tigress. The Stripped Orange Godess. Sitting near the waterhole in the shade. I almost forgot that I have a camera with me. It was mesmerizing to see her in her domain. Bhai whispered “He is big” and I corrected him. All of a sudden we realized we were looking at two cats. Yes, a male and a female cub. Siblings, said Salim. They were the cubs of Semli female, about 9-10 months old. They were in no hurry and were being cats. Camera shutters started clicking. All of a sudden I felt foolish to have bought only 10 Gig worth of cards with me.
The male cub exploded in a charge, I barely managed to get a half decent picture of it. As I looked for the victim of this 5 meter dash, I found myself chuckling. The fierce tiger was hot on trails of a squirrel. But then boys will always be boys. By the way even when I say cubs, you may not want to cuddle them like a kitty. They were half grown tigers and were big. I did not try but I am sure he could have squashed me with just one swipe of his paw. Lucky for me, the cats were on a low fat diet and a fat photographer did not promise much nutrition to them.
After almost 15-20 minutes, we heard a little commotion behind us. A canter full of tourists was approaching the scene fast. All of us started gesturing them to make a silent entry and after a while the driver of the canter agreed to comply. It was too late by then. Cubs had become a little uneasy already. They started moving away. Salim told us that they will cross road a little further. We followed them slowly. By now even the canter driver was acting sensible.
As we moved along the cubs, we came across a little dune kinda formation. As we were climbing, I noticed ears, then eyes and then the face. It clicked to me. Another tiger. I was wrong. It was a Tigress, the Semli female. Sitting there right in front of us she made me understand the Royal part of “Royal Bengal Tiger”.
The cubs came and greeted their mother. After the formalities the family started moving on and went into the bushes after a while. By now the commotion behind us was too great already. There were jeeps coming from all directions. We decided to leave the prime seats and let the family be. As we were leaving the scene, a foreigner lady said “Tigers, there are tigers in the bushes. You might see them if you try a little”. Salim replied “Yes, We know” with a sly smile. Poor lady was watching us in amazement as we left the sighting without trying to see the tigers.
Mood in the jeep was jubilant and there was a silly grin on all our faces (I wonder why). Every jeep in the zone was hurrying up to the spot. Whole zone 4 was empty. As we crossed Malik Talao, we came across a little opening where some Sambars were enjoying their evening Snack. Salim asked the driver to stop again. As we stopped, he folded his arms and sat back in his seat. I asked him what was it. He said something is not right. One Sambar was alert and was looking into far away grass. We decided to sit back as well and give a rest to our backs. One by one jeeps from previous sightings started coming back. Everyone asked what we were doing, all we said was waiting. No other guide or tourist insisted to wait with us. They had already seen tigers or parts of them and they wanted to move on. After a while we were almost all alone there. Only one official jeep kept faith in us and joined up. Suddenly there was an alarm call. We all moved to a road where we will have a better vantage point. We sat there and waited. Then it happened. She emerged from the tall grass and walked towards us.
Machli, the most photographed tigress of Ranthambhore. She was coming right at us. Confidently strolling she made her way. By the time she came out of the thicket she was too close for me to get a photograph of her on my 100-400. I checked and AF won’t work, she was closer than 1.8M, the minimum focusing distance. She paid no attention to us, marked her territory before walking up in the grass a few meters further. We saw her spellbound till she disappeared completely in the distance.
Thrilled, we dashed back towards exit. It was close to gate timings. As we exited from the park, we were all smilling funny. A canter was waiting near the road for the formalities to complete. A man asked us if we got lucky. We replied, yes, we did. He asked how many did you see and we replied 4. A boy sitting right with him suddenly got disappointed “They saw 4 and we did not even get 1??”. Seeing the boy getting disappointed I said “Don’t worry, two of them were just cubs” and he got pushed to the verge of tears. The dad gave us a mock warning and we moved on.
As we joined the other group in the resort, we realized we were in big trouble if they have not seen a tiger. We got some choice words for our luck which only best of the friends can part with. Dinner time was upon us and tonight we dine with tiger stories. We met up with another family who missed seeing a tiger in Corbett and they were trying their luck here. Around the bonfire conversation was really funny.
“Did you see tiger?”
“4, 2 cubs and 2 adults”
“Are you a professional?”
“You keep visiting these national parks?”
“Not yet, this is our first visit. But I have a feeling that every now and then we will be here”
While having dinner Salim saw me and told me that tonight I will have worse backache. Tiger sighting generally result in a very sore back. I was puzzled but then I realized, holding your body in various positions motionless is the cause. We spoke a while and he retreated back to safe heaven as my dear wife accused him of not being fair. He promised they are going to see the Tiger tomorrow. As he left our group got into talks and silly giggles with promises of an orange tomorrow.
Salim was right about the sore back. Remember Iodex is your friend.
Today we got zone 1 and zone 3. As other members of our party had not been to zone 1, we opted for zone 3. We were joined by two members of the family we met last night. As we had enough room in the jeep we welcomed the company of the ladies. It was another cold morning. As expected nothing much was happening due to mist but we drove on anyway. We came very close to possible tiger sighting but no one could find the tiger. After waiting a while we decided to head back to Padam Lake. We decided to drive around on smaller paths to see if anything interesting could be found. The sun was up by then. As we stopped near a stream, Salim said “There, a Shikra”. Right there it was. In front of the jeep sitting in the stream, hopefully after just finishing his drink. Clicks clicks clicks the cameras moaned.
As we were about to exit from the gate, we saw a peacock perched against clear blue sky. We started shooting it and it decided to take a flight. I was prepared this time and I got it in full flight. As an added bonus, it was in focus. My first almost successful BIF.
We got back to the breakfast. Other party had a tour and had nothing new to report. We decided to take a rest till lunch.
After a nice heavy lunch, we decided to cram into one jeep. Generously we decided to let go of one jeep and all of use got into one. It was not to be a photographic drive but a fun drive. Bad jokes found their way in the jeep and we went on. I was getting quite acquainted with the roads of Zone 4. Familiar bumps welcomed me. Salim told my wife “Madam, I promised, today you will see the tiger”. And our party went on. We crossed Semli area and stopped a while to waited for alarm calls. None came. We moved on and scanned an area all the way till a small water reserve. Nothing. As we were waiting, other people started arriving and waiting with us. Then an alarm call came. A Sambar was announcing presence of a predator in the area. A langoor joined up in the wake. Salim scanned the area and pointed at something distant. Cubs he said. We strained our eyes and finally saw the shapes. The cubs were moving amongst tall golden grass. Only their heads were visible whenever they scanned the area. Slowly they came a bit near, but still to far for good pics. There was a lot of commotion around as about 10-12 vehicles were trying to get a good look. They were not going to come out of their nice calm environment to these noisy creatures. After a few minutes when everyone had a look at them through the Binos, we decided to move on. At least one less vehicle to bother them.
As we were getting out, we came across a cantor halted in the middle of the road blocking the exit. “Tiger” Salim said. We stopped. In a few seconds, she emerged on the side of the road. Nearly as close as Machli had been the other day. Our hearts skipped a beat when this huge cat looked at us. In barely 1 minute we spent with her, she got so close that I had to resist an urge to reach out and touch her. Wise decision on my part. This was T-17, a collared tigress, who was patrolling her area. We got out of the park. Everyone in the jeep running short of breath while Salim was taking a breath of relief.
“You guys will need Iodex tonight” I said to all of them. Indeed the tiger god was smiling down on us. We left the park with a heavy heart as this was to be our last drive inside the park.
We had no safaris booked for this day. We were to catch a late night train to get back to Bombay. Aditya, our host gave me an option to visit a nearby buffer area. The place is called Kundal. This place shares its boundary with Zone 1. A tigress and her 2 cubs were seen on a kill in this area a couple of days back. They could still be there, Aditya said. “This place has other wildlife as well, you will not be disappointed”.
We made the right choice and trusted him. Salim came and picked us up and we were on the way. Through the narrow lanes of the sleepy town of Sawai Madhopur. We got to kundal and started scanning the area. Within 5 minute we came across a crowd of jeeps. Salim said it got to be a tiger. So many of them won’t stop for an owl or jackal unlike his current clients.
Well, he was wrong. It wasn’t a tiger. It was “Tigers”. Two more cubs. These were the cubs of the Zone 1 female. We were thrilled. We were feeling lucky. We had seen 7 different tigers in last 2 days. Which was more than what other around us had seen. My reward was not just Tigers but everything. Small Kingfihers to Jackals, Owls to Spotted Deers. Everything.
Well, the cubs were a fair distance away and were partially hidden by the bushes. We tried to take some photographs but it did not look like we would have much success with that. The cubs had a drink in the stream and then started going to the thicket. They were not gonna move in the day. They had a nice big meal waiting for them from last nights kill. The mother showed no signs of showing up. We waited there a while, but then decided to move on and see more of Kundal.
As we moved a little further, we came across a couple of Jakals returning from the nights hunt. It was still very early morning and light was bad. We had a chance to shoot them and did the best we could with the conditions.
As we moved we came across a lone chinkara sitting in the golden grass of kundal. The soft light of the morning had started to make its way onto it. After a few minutes of waiting in silence, he stood up but did not move away. When he took his first step we realized. Due to the cold night, one of his knee was kinda frozen. He will have to wait for that knee to get ok before he could move on. This whole incident happened just about 50 feet away from where we had seen Jakals. Lucky guy.
As we moved a little further, we came across a lil family of spotted owls. There were 4 of them. Sitting in the soft light without moving were my favorite birds.
A few minutes down the road, we came across a Buzzard. I forgot which one was that. As we moved we came across a family of blue bulls. The female was looking great through the mist in the early light. I managed to get a shot but they were a bit shy there.
As we stopped and waited under a tree, a shrike came and perched right next to us, while a sambar deer was volving in the waterhole.
We got back to the resort after a while to the rest of the people to tell them about the tigers. A few choice words later, we were congratulated by everyone.
We wanted to return to Balas for the noon drive as well, but the news of the sighting had spread. Only 4-6 jeeps were allowed to enter the area so we decided to go somewhere else. Aditya suggested that we should try Balas. Another Buffer zone area which is somewhat different from the national park. We trusted his judgment and went ahead with the plan. As we were waiting at the reception of Balas for Salim to finish the formalities, we spotted quite a few birds there.
Plum headed parakeets were shouting there lungs out. I messed up the shots. I could have gotten better but anyways. While trying to shoot the noisy birds a sound registered to me. It sounded like a machine gun. Woodpecker all of us said in unison. We looked around and saw the little guy busy having a go at a tree nearby. Again the fast moving bird defied my ability to shoot it. I just managed to get a record shot, but soon I will have a nice shot of him.
Balas is famous for its vultures and I could see why. It’s an ideal place for them to nest. Unfortunately we did not have a sighting but this place again deserves a visit next time I am in Ranthambhore for a longer period. After the drive as we were getting back Salim took us through the old town to get some really hot Dal vadas. Spicy and hot, what a combination that is. Specially on a cold evening.
As we got back we barely had the time to grab some dinner and rush to the station. We bid our goodbyes to our hosts Aditya, poonam and to Salim.The train was already waiting for us. We got into the compartment as the train started slithering away from the station. In the dark of the night I saw Sawai Madhopur vanish with a heavy heart. Only a few minutes and we would have missed the train… Alas next time.
I would like to list some of the lessons learned by me on this trip for everyones benefit.
1. A guide can make or break your trip. We were lucky, a lot of people are not that lucky.
2. If photographing wildlife is what is on your mind, take a jeep and make sure there are not more than 4 tourists in it. You can do that by booking the whole jeep.
3. Take as many cards as possible with you. I had 10 gig and a 40 gig hard drive with me. Hard drive failed. Backup your images daily and make 2 backups of backup. DVDs are cheap. You would not want to loose all your images. Shoot raw as much as possible.
4. Do not rush for the most celebrated animal. You will miss a lot of small wonders. Relax, stop and smell the roses.
5. Do not mix tea/coffee with a cold morning on a bumpy ride.
6. Buy a beanbag. It helps even if you have IS on your lens.
7. Keep your guide and driver happy (Read tips). You will make many good friends.
8. Iodex. Nuff said
9. Master your equipments before you leave for a trip like this. You would not want to be fiddeling with settings when the action starts.
10. Take the longest lens with you for the trip.
11. Get close to wildlife and let them accept you. Better, let them come to you. Do not corner or scare them.
12. Nature does not work on our schedule. I met too many people who were expecting tigers to be sitting at a pre-designated location, concept of wild animals moving around was too much for them.
13. Take your eyes off the camera and live a little. 🙂
14. Take a small logbook to note down the names of the animals/birds. Your memory will fail and you will not remember much.
What to take there:
1. Take cleaning supplies for your geat with you. It’s an arid reagion. Dust gets into everything.
2. Take only the gear you plan on using. There is no point in taking all the gear you have. I felt the follwoing should be enough:
A 100-400mm for all around shooting and wildlife
A 24-105mm for general shooting and landscapes
A 500mm/600mm if you have one and you are into birds
2 bodies, One main, one backup. It will also reduce the number of lens changes you may do in the dusty tracks.
Flash is not allowed in the park. There are a lot of places around the park where you can use one for shooting interiors and portraits
At least 2 batteries for each body
A box of DVDs and a USB Hard drive. Backups are very important.
A mini-laptop if you have one. I plan on buying one of those cheap netbooks (about 1600 aed)
3. Decembers are cold. When I say cold I mean you will be praying that nothing interesting comes up cause touching the gear will hurt.
4. Take a good pair of gloves. Not too thick as it will hamper your ability to handle your SLR.
5. April onwards the place is hot but its great for sightings.
1. Your best shooting time is in the morning. Softest light and good chance for shooting backlit subjects.
2. Afternoon drive starts at 2pm. Light is harsh but gets softer in a while. Great for shooting in true golden light.
3. When the animals are in shade you will have to use your judgement. Light varies from being soft to quite dark. Over exposing by 1/3 helps.
4. The safaris are scheduled to make sure you make best use of available light. Conditions can vary depending on sand storm, cloud cover or mist.
1. Getting an accommodation there is no big deal. There are various resorts to suit everyone’s requirements. From guest houses to Taj and Oberoi. Try Ranthambhore Bagh, you will thank me for recommending them.
2. There are two modes of booking a safari. You have a choice between Cantor and Jeep.
Cantor is a 20 seater open truck. Provides you with a higher vantage point and is cheaper. It can be booked at the last minute as well. But there are still 19 people who may not think like you. They will stop only when the guide and driver decides. There is a good chance of Camera shake due to 20 people moving about.
Jeeps are open top. Gives you a lower angle and can accomodate only 6 people (max). They are expensive and not exactly your landcruiser kind of comfy. Also they are very hard to get, I booked mine 6 months in advance. But you can stop them at your wish. You can talk to guide and driver to ensure they understand your requirements well.
3. There had been a recent change in administration of the park. It has been handed over to Forest department from Tourism department. This change makes it even more difficult to book jeeps as there is a lot of red tape involved.
4. Jaipur is the closest airport. It takes 3-4 hours drive to reach the park. If you are coming from Bombay or Delhi, there are various trains available which is the best option comfort and economics wise.
1. As there is a govt. department involved, there may be hiccups sometimes. You should be open to change your plans.
2. Roads are bumpy and most of the times you can not call them roads. Trusty Gypsy does a good job there, but if you are used to UAE roads be prepared for taking a painkiller everyday.
3. Not a difficulty faced by me but just an observation. If you are going to share a vehicle with some strangers for the drive be open to adjust. Not everyone is alike and different people have different views. I saw a lady slapping another guy in a cantor at my tiger sighting. His offence was that he did not give her the spot where he was standing, as far as I know. Not a position I would like anyone to be in.
4. Sometimes it was too overcast for shooting anything decent.
If you dream of golden grass, amber fall leaves and dry forests, thats what you get in December. Landscapes in that area are breath taking and in their unique way. I did not take landscapes this time, but have planned what I would be doing next time