First Sighting!, originally uploaded by rpgold.

We have sorted through several hundreds of photographs from our four safari drives in Ranthambore National Park. The photo set is on our flickr site.

We made our way to Northern India after 2 1/2 months in Mysore. India is a huge country and we found out first hand. A four-hour drive from Mysore to Bangalore; a 2 1/2 flight from Bangalore to Delhi; and a four-hour train from New Delhi to Sawai Modopur (the nearest rail junction to Ranthambore) will give you an idea of the travel involved.

We stayed at Aman-i-Khas, a fantastic tent-camp resort nearby. We have stayed at other Aman properties in the past (one in Montana and one in Turks and Caicos) and were equally impressed. They really run a tight ship and make sure their guests have an awesome experience. But, back to the safari…

We took four safari drives (two early morning; two late afternoon) and were lucky enough to see a wild tiger on our third drive. It was a singular thrill, indeed. We hadn’t spent more than 15 minutes in the park on our third drive when we came upon another vehicle moving towards us and saw the driver and naturalists waving their hands frantically. In Ranthambore, this seems to be the universal signal for “Tiger! Tiger!” Lo and behold, behind the other vehicle was a massive tiger walking along the road. He quickly made his way into the adjacent river bed and lay down in the water.

This tiger has the not-so-flashy name of Tiger 24. He’s a 250 kg male that clearly looks like he knows how to hunt. Our guide pointed out his distended belly and noted he had indeed fed the night before.

At the time, we were the only two vehicles on the scene. The tiger spent a long time in the river. He drank, he splashed himself with his tail. He dipped his paws into the water. It was around 7:30 am and already the temperature in the shade was climbing into the lower 30s Celsius.

We were lucky enough to go on safari in Africa and several of these places were private game reserves not national parks. So, our previous experience didn’t prepare us for the arrival of what seemed to be every other vehicle in India on the scene. Each vehicle was full of people wanting a glimpse of the tiger. Oh yeah, some of these vehicles weren’t six-seater jeeps, they were full-on buses with at least 30 people on board. Quickly, the quiet riverside tiger encounter became a frenzy of buses and jeeps trying to maneuver to get closer to the tiger. And people on safari in India behave like people everywhere else in India… they make lots of noise. However, the tiger was completely non-plussed by the circus that was in full swing less than twenty feet away.

Our driver and guide were savvy enough to know that the tiger wasn’t going to sit in the river bed forever. As the other vehicles began arriving on the scene, we moved into position anticipating the tiger would get up and continue in the direction it was walking before sitting in the water. At the time, it was hard to leave our prime viewing position and think long-term. In fact, I was pretty annoyed that I was now being blocked by buses and other jeeps full of people. In the end, our patience and planning paid off. The tiger got up and walked from the river back up to the road. It sauntered down the road a few hundred meters and then crossed making it’s way uphill where it sat again.

Now our jeep was right beside the tiger who was laying in the dry grass no more than seven feet away. Rachelle was on the near-to-tiger side of the jeep and took the camera. Many of the great close-ups we have she took, including the tiger yawning. The tiger and we sat motionless for another fifteen to twenty minutes. It was sheer bliss to have such close access to this amazing animal. When he was ready, the tiger got up and made it’s way deeper into the forest away from the road. When it was clear that Tiger 24 was indeed out of sight and staying that way, the motorcade dispersed.

Safari drives are an interesting exercise in heightened expectations. First of all, when you mention that you are going on safari, anyone who has been lets you know that they’ve seen the most amazing animal sightings. This unavoidably raises expectations and creates a sense that it’s inevitable that it’ll happen to you. The start of a safari drive is full of promise and hope. However, these feelings quickly lead to frustration and disappointment if the object of the safari isn’t found.

People say all kinds of things but 99% of us go on safari to see big cats. Doesn’t matter if it’s lions, cheetahs and leopards in Africa or tigers and leopards in India. We want the big cats and put enormous stock in seeing them. When we didn’t see a tiger on our first drive, we shrugged it off and looked forward to our afternoon drive. But when we didn’t see a tiger that afternoon, we started wondering if we would at all. And what would that mean?!?! Would we be that unfortunate couple who travelled all the way to Ranthambore and didn’t see a tiger? Heaven forbid. But wild animals don’t run on a schedule. They aren’t aware that Rachelle and I only had two drives left, etc.

What we had in our favour was the time of year (hot and dry improves the odds as water sources are fewer and the vegetation is thinner and easier to see through) and the fact that we could do several drives. It’s a ton of pressure to take one drive and expect to see a wild tiger. Apparently, if you wait until May, it’s practically guaranteed to have mind-blowing tiger sightings, but it’s also 48 degrees Celsius in the freaking shade!!

Thankfully, we were fortunate enough to see Tiger 24. With a tiger sighting under our belt, our final drive was pressure free. It wasn’t nearly as disappointing when we didn’t see another tiger that afternoon.

Enjoy the pics.