Getting from Chennai, where the Semester at Sea ship was docked, all the way up north to Ranthambore was not the easiest of trips. But if you have the opportunity—and more so, the time—it’s worth every plane, train and bus ride.
We rose at approximately stupid o’clock—that’s 3am (or 0300 if we’re following the ship’s insistence on military time) for those of you not in the know—then took a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride on Spicejet (I’m not even kidding; that’s the airline’s name) up to Delhi. After a city tour followed by a feast of curries, we drove another hour and change to the train station to board our six-hour train to Sawai Madhopur. (India tip: Like in Morocco, always book a first-class ticket if you want to be guaranteed a seat. The second and third-class train cars had people spilling out the windows, with approximately three people to every one seat sold.)
Once there, the station was alive with activity. I immediately spotted what I thought to be a cat scamper across the roof of the station—only it was hardly a feline, but rather a band of monkeys and baboons! And if I’ve learned anything in my travels it’s that baboons are not, in fact, nice guys. Give them a wide berth and steer clear.
Our hotel sent two safari vehicles to pick up the group at the station and transport us the last 20 minutes of our arduous journey, and we arrived just in time for dinner—which we greedily consumed after the traditional welcome of leis and smudges, of course.
After dinner, all the students hung out in the downstairs lounge for a long while, but this grandma was having none of it. I couldn’t wait to go to bed after a 16-hour travel day!
The next morning we got to “sleep in” until the golden hour of 5am, at which point we met for our first drive through Ranthambore National Park. Ranthambore was once the hunting grounds for the Maharajas of Jaipur and has that sort of regal feel to it with its towering fort and old colonial structures that blend in seamlessly with the park. While it’s rich with other wildlife, the majority of visitors come from every corner of the globe for one reason alone: to see a tiger in its natural habitat.
But many friends had gone before me and not had such luck—several drives over four days, or even a week, and not as much as a lone tiger in the distance—so I went in with low expectations, especially since just a few years back, the number of tigers in the park had dipped to as low as 20. Though it’s since nearly doubled again thanks to increased awareness and conservation efforts, seeing one of 36 tigers in a 392-square-kilometer span still is a shot in the dark.
I also didn’t know how unlike my previous safari experiences our game drives through Ranthambore would be. While on safari in South Africa last year, we drove through low brush and wide open spaces, Ranthambore was the polar opposite: We hardly ever were out under the beating sun, which was a blessing as it is hot in India in October. The foliage was thick and flourishing, offering ample cover, which also meant even without tigers we saw a bevy of other wildlife. As cliche as it sounds, many times I felt a bit like we were starring in a live version of The Jungle Book.
SVV and I had stayed behind that morning to wait on two of the students who hadn’t received the wake-up call, so our four-hour morning drive wound up being in the smaller vehicle of six, instead of with the rest of our group of 18. This meant we sped along a lot quicker, but wouldn’t you know our other group of 18 just happened to be the only vehicle in days to spot an actual tiger? In the final minutes of the drive, too, right before they headed back to the hotel for breakfast. Lucky dogs! I’m just a wee bit envious.
(tiger photos by SAS student Montana Wilson)
At least they all took some great photos, so the other six of us could pretend to our friends and family back home that we’d actually seen the splendid creature in the flesh.
Was I slightly bummed I didn’t see a tiger myself? Sure. But I’ve had plenty of cool travel experiences in my relatively young life, and I’m really happy the students were able to witness such a novelty. (Besides, all the more reason to come back in the future.) And tiger or not, I think Ranthambore is still a magnificent place and definitely a spot worth seeing. I mean, if it’s good enough for Katy Perry and my pal Russell Brand, it’s good enough for me.