Safaris seem to appear on most people’s bucket list. It had crept onto mine, not so much because I love animals, but because I thought a safari could be interesting to photograph. So here I am staying at the Sawai Madhopur Lodge on the fringes of Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in Northern India. Formerly a shooting lodge for a Maharajah, this a stunning art deco building with a stuffed leopard in the reception and assorted heads of game on the walls. There is even a photo of the Queen with a party of hunters standing in front of a shot tiger taken when she visited in 1961. I hope Prince William doesn’t see this. The reason for this hotel is to feed the safari business, and nothing else. Every conversation you have with your fellow guests starts as follows: ‘Have you seen a tiger?’
So it’s 6.30am, still dark, and I’m dressed for winter as it is pretty chilly, not what you expect in India. Along comes our open top jeep with four other safari goers on board. As we drive at speed along the potholed streets, it’s not just chilly but more like bloody freezing as I am perched at the back, with the wind chill coming straight at me. Luckily the organisers supply blankets and these give some relief. It’s quite a sight.
Luckily for us, today’s route through the reserve is one of the nearest and soon we take a sharp right off the main road and head through iron gates. We have a local driver and an Indian guide who looks like a hangover from the Raj days and he starts to tell us facts and figures about the tigers. He explains they are solitary and nocturnal creatures, that the reserve covers hundreds of hectares, and one starts to suspect he may be preparing us for the potential lack of tiger viewing. We spot deer and antelope, but to be honest there is more wildlife to be seen on the road outside through the villages with numerous load carrying camels and wild boars sniffing through the street debris. The landscape though is stunning, and now we are starting to climb, and we are being thrown around as the track is pretty rough. I’m thinking to myself, is this a form of torture? It’s cold and we are being jolted something terrible, but hey, the views are great. The main excitement for me is spotting other jeeps full of safari goers that I can photograph.
So this goes on for about another ninety minutes and then we head back. The sun is starting to break through the morning mist and it is warming up. But we have not seen a tiger, just tiger footprints. Back at the lodge breakfast is served, and very welcome too.
I am back on the jeep at 2.30pm about to head out again, and I have to say things are looking up. It’s now much warmer and the track on this next excursion is considerably smoother. However the hitch for this trip is the terrible dust along the main road that is being upgraded. It is therefore a gravel track with numerous lorries, buses and camel carts, all throwing up clouds of dust. We get into the reserve and after about an hour we are told a tiger has been seen! Our driver takes us at breakneck speed to the supposed sighting spot and lo and behold we see a hyena. Our guide claims they are much rarer than tigers. At the end of the drive we sit in the spot where our guide had seen a tiger that morning, along with about half a dozen other jeeps. We wait for thirty minutes then pull away and head back.
The following morning, same time, same cold, same rocky ride and now our spirits are flagging and to top it all it starts raining. There is no tiger to be seen at all. So that is the safari well and truly removed from my bucket list.