India — Living like maharanis on a Ranthambore National Park visit

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Trucks, lined with tourists sporting assorted hats like exotic crested birds, raced jeeps to the gatehouse in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India. After securing route assignments, the drivers fanned out like beaters on a tiger hunt over dirt roads pockmarked by monsoon rains. My daughter, Anna, and I were among the lucky few in a jeep.

We zipped past colorfully saried women and children processing to temples hidden within an ancient fort, its stone fortifications snaking across the hilltops above us like the Great Wall of China. The worshipers called, “Hello, hi,” and waved to us as though we were maharanis. We waved back like visiting royalty.

A tiger was our highest priority, but, unlike the maharajahs of old, we did not ignore all else in quest of shikar (hunting). We paused to watch troops of langur monkeys cavorting amidst peepal trees while a herd of sambar, India’s largest deer, grazed nearby.

We admired one of India’s biggest banyan trees, or “walking trees,” its aerial roots hanging from its branches like cobwebs ready to ensnare those who wandered into this enchanted forest. The wee head of a spotted owlet peeked from a hole in its trunk.

We marveled at the ubiquitous peacocks, India’s national bird. In Padam Talao, the lotus lake, we spotted the eyes of a crocodile that moved like periscopes through the reflection of an ancient rest house.

We stopped at a delicate chattri, a memorial to past heroes, where tigers sometimes paused, and were only slightly disappointed to find this gazebo unoccupied because it, too, was part of the allure of Ranthambore, where picturesque ruins dotted the landscape.

Anna and I were in India for the first time — at Ranthambore, where life was reminiscent of a bygone era.

The royal treatment
After our morning game drive, we returned to Vanyavilas, a former maharaja’s hunting palace. In its dramatic courtyard, staff wearing impeccable khaki uniforms and smart turbans greeted us with “Namaste” (“I bow to the divine in you”), inquiring about our drive while escorting us into the foyer. There, others offered damp towels and cool drinks to dispel the forest dust.

Vanyavilas was fit for a queen. Large windows splashed sunlight onto a chessboard floor of black and white marble, elephant frescoes bordered high, white ceilings, and painted peacocks fanned their tails under fluted arches.

After breakfast, attendants opened doors leading into a gravel courtyard where we strolled past a fountain sprinkled with rose petals and crossed a bridge over a stream that meandered into a lily pond. Birds chirped amidst hibiscus flowers.

Our tent, strategically placed to offer complete privacy, resembled a royal hunting pavilion. On the inside, our roof, which peaked like a circus tent, was made of white silk brocaded with miniature gold-and-black tigers. Stylish decor and leather-lined cabinets created a Ralph Lauren feel and scent. My daughter, a decorator, was in heaven.

We changed in our marble bathroom, graced with a claw-foot tub and walk-in shower, before heading to the pool. After swimming laps, we reclined on towel-wrapped chaises under hand-painted umbrellas. Waiters offered us yogurt drinks and sunscreen. We dined poolside on the best chicken burgers ever and salad from the resort’s kitchen garden.

On the “hunt”
On our late-afternoon drive, our guide and naturalist, Mehesh Chowdry, like generations of trackers, hunted for tigers by checking for spoor (in this case, animal tracks). After repeated glances at the red dirt, he had our driver race back over the road we had just covered. We stopped, and Mehesh stood pointing at a perfectly clear paw print the size of a man’s hand embossed in the dust. As Anna and I began taking photos, he asked, “Don’t you want to see the real tiger?”

We rounded a bend and there she was — a magnificent Royal Bengal tigress — ambling down the road a few yards ahead of us before retreating into a thicket. Instead of following, we moved away into an open grassy area. Minutes later she reappeared from behind the bushes 15 feet from us, majestic in her burnished fur. She crossed the clearing, relaxed yet capable of immense power in a nanosecond. She did not even glance in our direction.
I was humbled and awed by this superb cat. The true sovereign here was the tigress; we were merely her subjects.

The next day, Anna and I were introduced to more of the park’s fascinating ruins, varied landscapes, numerous animals and spectacular birds. Between game drives, we rode sister elephants Laxmi and Mala along the road while cars honked and people waved at our stately procession.

Night stalker
On our afternoon drive, Mehesh had our driver stop often and switch off the engine. At first, my Western mind found these listening periods tedious, but I soon began to detect a chaotic rhythm to the creatures’ noises, which, when interrupted by an alarm cry, signified the appearance of a predator.

It grew late. Darkness stole through the forest like a phantasmagoric mist. Ahead of us, coming from a copse of dhok trees that arched over the road like the vault of a Gothic cathedral, alarm cries pierced the twilight. Between the twisted branches, we could barely discern the screaming monkeys, their black faces distorted like gargoyles.

Another jeep pulled alongside us just long enough to convey the news that a leopard in the vicinity had killed a langur, then it sped away. Our driver pulled off the road and killed the engine. The langurs’ staccato shrieks continued to shatter the eerie silence.

We could not see it; we could not hear it, but we sensed the leopard nearby. Its infrared eyes watched us, easy prey in an open jeep. My flesh prickled at its proximity.

I kept still, listening for it to break a twig, straining to see its burning eyes or dappled form. Time moved like a snail on a hundred-mile march.

We waited until it grew so dark that the leopard could have brushed the side of our jeep without our knowing. Finally, Mehesh signaled “Go,” and our driver switched on the lights and we headed for the exit.
I wished I had seen it… or did I?

Reflection
Thus ended our 2-day game drive. We returned to Vanyavilas to savor a delicious candlelit dinner in an interior courtyard while sitar players serenaded us. Their music created a dreamy, otherworldly atmosphere.

Later we sat on our porch beside honeysuckle vines and exalted in our good fortune. We were the only people during our stay at Vanyavilas who had seen a tiger. After the monsoon rains, plentiful water allowed the animals to disperse over the 400-square-kilometer park, making them difficult to find. We settled in our beds under billowing mosquito nets and dreamed of the Bengal tigress that had honored us with her presence.

When morning came, we boarded the train bound for Delhi. Harish, our favorite attendant, bowed as he gave us elegantly boxed lunches for our journey. Then he stood on the platform waving good-bye as though we were departing royalty.

Anna cried because this was the best place she had ever been. I empathized because I had never been treated like a maharani before — and probably will not be again unless I revisit this awesome safari lodge and tiger reserve in the midst of India.

Getting there
Anna and I traveled the 450 kilometers from Delhi to Sawai Madhopur by train. The trip took about five hours.
Because we joined an Abercrombie & Kent tour of India after visiting Ranthambore National Park and Vanyavilas on our own, A&K (Oak Brook, IL; 800/554-7016, www.abercrombiekent.com) made all the arrangements for our stay. Our cost for three nights was $1,500 per person including two game drives a day and breakfasts. The elephant ride cost extra, $38 per person.

The airport nearest to Ranthambore National Park is at Jaipur, 180 kilometers away. A direct train connects Jaipur to Sawai Madhopur (10 kilometers from the park). Vanyavilas provides transfers to and from Sawai Madhopur.

Where to stay
For further information on Vanyavilas, fax +91 7462 22 3988 or visit www.oberoihotels.com. (Under the “Hotels and Resorts” option, select The Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambore.)

A number of other hotels exists both in the town of Sawai Madhopur and on Ranthambore Road, one to 10 kilometers from the Sawai Madhopur Railway Station. You will find a list at www.royalrajasthan.com under “Ranthambore.”

When to go
December, January and February, the winter months, offer good tiger sightings, very little rain and icy mornings.
During March, April, May and June, as summertime approaches, temperatures soar. Tigers tend to be sluggish and can be found near water holes. During July, August and September the park is closed due to monsoon rains.

In October and November the forest remains verdant after the rains, but plentiful water permits the tigers to spread out, making them hard to sight. We saw our tigress on October 31, Halloween, an apt day to meet a black-and-orange cat. ITN

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

Trucks, lined with tourists sporting assorted hats like exotic crested birds, raced jeeps to the gatehouse in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India. After securing route assignments, the drivers fanned out like beaters on a tiger hunt over dirt roads pockmarked by monsoon rains. My daughter, Anna, and I were among the lucky few in a jeep.

We zipped past colorfully saried women and children processing to temples hidden within an ancient fort, its stone fortifications snaking across the hilltops above us like the Great Wall of China. The worshipers called, “Hello, hi,” and waved to us as though we were maharanis. We waved back like visiting royalty.

A tiger was our highest priority, but, unlike the maharajahs of old, we did not ignore all else in quest of shikar (hunting). We paused to watch troops of langur monkeys cavorting amidst peepal trees while a herd of sambar, India’s largest deer, grazed nearby.

We admired one of India’s biggest banyan trees, or “walking trees,” its aerial roots hanging from its branches like cobwebs ready to ensnare those who wandered into this enchanted forest. The wee head of a spotted owlet peeked from a hole in its trunk.

We marveled at the ubiquitous peacocks, India’s national bird. In Padam Talao, the lotus lake, we spotted the eyes of a crocodile that moved like periscopes through the reflection of an ancient rest house.

We stopped at a delicate chattri, a memorial to past heroes, where tigers sometimes paused, and were only slightly disappointed to find this gazebo unoccupied because it, too, was part of the allure of Ranthambore, where picturesque ruins dotted the landscape.

Anna and I were in India for the first time — at Ranthambore, where life was reminiscent of a bygone era.

The royal treatment
After our morning game drive, we returned to Vanyavilas, a former maharaja’s hunting palace. In its dramatic courtyard, staff wearing impeccable khaki uniforms and smart turbans greeted us with “Namaste” (“I bow to the divine in you”), inquiring about our drive while escorting us into the foyer. There, others offered damp towels and cool drinks to dispel the forest dust.

Vanyavilas was fit for a queen. Large windows splashed sunlight onto a chessboard floor of black and white marble, elephant frescoes bordered high, white ceilings, and painted peacocks fanned their tails under fluted arches.

After breakfast, attendants opened doors leading into a gravel courtyard where we strolled past a fountain sprinkled with rose petals and crossed a bridge over a stream that meandered into a lily pond. Birds chirped amidst hibiscus flowers.

Our tent, strategically placed to offer complete privacy, resembled a royal hunting pavilion. On the inside, our roof, which peaked like a circus tent, was made of white silk brocaded with miniature gold-and-black tigers. Stylish decor and leather-lined cabinets created a Ralph Lauren feel and scent. My daughter, a decorator, was in heaven.

We changed in our marble bathroom, graced with a claw-foot tub and walk-in shower, before heading to the pool. After swimming laps, we reclined on towel-wrapped chaises under hand-painted umbrellas. Waiters offered us yogurt drinks and sunscreen. We dined poolside on the best chicken burgers ever and salad from the resort’s kitchen garden.

On the “hunt”
On our late-afternoon drive, our guide and naturalist, Mehesh Chowdry, like generations of trackers, hunted for tigers by checking for spoor (in this case, animal tracks). After repeated glances at the red dirt, he had our driver race back over the road we had just covered. We stopped, and Mehesh stood pointing at a perfectly clear paw print the size of a man’s hand embossed in the dust. As Anna and I began taking photos, he asked, “Don’t you want to see the real tiger?”

We rounded a bend and there she was — a magnificent Royal Bengal tigress — ambling down the road a few yards ahead of us before retreating into a thicket. Instead of following, we moved away into an open grassy area. Minutes later she reappeared from behind the bushes 15 feet from us, majestic in her burnished fur. She crossed the clearing, relaxed yet capable of immense power in a nanosecond. She did not even glance in our direction.
I was humbled and awed by this superb cat. The true sovereign here was the tigress; we were merely her subjects.

The next day, Anna and I were introduced to more of the park’s fascinating ruins, varied landscapes, numerous animals and spectacular birds. Between game drives, we rode sister elephants Laxmi and Mala along the road while cars honked and people waved at our stately procession.

Night stalker
On our afternoon drive, Mehesh had our driver stop often and switch off the engine. At first, my Western mind found these listening periods tedious, but I soon began to detect a chaotic rhythm to the creatures’ noises, which, when interrupted by an alarm cry, signified the appearance of a predator.

It grew late. Darkness stole through the forest like a phantasmagoric mist. Ahead of us, coming from a copse of dhok trees that arched over the road like the vault of a Gothic cathedral, alarm cries pierced the twilight. Between the twisted branches, we could barely discern the screaming monkeys, their black faces distorted like gargoyles.

Another jeep pulled alongside us just long enough to convey the news that a leopard in the vicinity had killed a langur, then it sped away. Our driver pulled off the road and killed the engine. The langurs’ staccato shrieks continued to shatter the eerie silence.

We could not see it; we could not hear it, but we sensed the leopard nearby. Its infrared eyes watched us, easy prey in an open jeep. My flesh prickled at its proximity.

I kept still, listening for it to break a twig, straining to see its burning eyes or dappled form. Time moved like a snail on a hundred-mile march.

We waited until it grew so dark that the leopard could have brushed the side of our jeep without our knowing. Finally, Mehesh signaled “Go,” and our driver switched on the lights and we headed for the exit.
I wished I had seen it… or did I?

Reflection
Thus ended our 2-day game drive. We returned to Vanyavilas to savor a delicious candlelit dinner in an interior courtyard while sitar players serenaded us. Their music created a dreamy, otherworldly atmosphere.

Later we sat on our porch beside honeysuckle vines and exalted in our good fortune. We were the only people during our stay at Vanyavilas who had seen a tiger. After the monsoon rains, plentiful water allowed the animals to disperse over the 400-square-kilometer park, making them difficult to find. We settled in our beds under billowing mosquito nets and dreamed of the Bengal tigress that had honored us with her presence.

When morning came, we boarded the train bound for Delhi. Harish, our favorite attendant, bowed as he gave us elegantly boxed lunches for our journey. Then he stood on the platform waving good-bye as though we were departing royalty.

Anna cried because this was the best place she had ever been. I empathized because I had never been treated like a maharani before — and probably will not be again unless I revisit this awesome safari lodge and tiger reserve in the midst of India.

Getting there
Anna and I traveled the 450 kilometers from Delhi to Sawai Madhopur by train. The trip took about five hours.
Because we joined an Abercrombie & Kent tour of India after visiting Ranthambore National Park and Vanyavilas on our own, A&K (Oak Brook, IL; 800/554-7016, www.abercrombiekent.com) made all the arrangements for our stay. Our cost for three nights was $1,500 per person including two game drives a day and breakfasts. The elephant ride cost extra, $38 per person.

The airport nearest to Ranthambore National Park is at Jaipur, 180 kilometers away. A direct train connects Jaipur to Sawai Madhopur (10 kilometers from the park). Vanyavilas provides transfers to and from Sawai Madhopur.

Where to stay
For further information on Vanyavilas, fax +91 7462 22 3988 or visit www.oberoihotels.com. (Under the “Hotels and Resorts” option, select The Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambore.)

A number of other hotels exists both in the town of Sawai Madhopur and on Ranthambore Road, one to 10 kilometers from the Sawai Madhopur Railway Station. You will find a list at www.royalrajasthan.com under “Ranthambore.”

When to go
December, January and February, the winter months, offer good tiger sightings, very little rain and icy mornings.
During March, April, May and June, as summertime approaches, temperatures soar. Tigers tend to be sluggish and can be found near water holes. During July, August and September the park is closed due to monsoon rains.

In October and November the forest remains verdant after the rains, but plentiful water permits the tigers to spread out, making them hard to sight. We saw our tigress on October 31, Halloween, an apt day to meet a black-and-orange cat. ITN