Wintering with the Tigers in Ranthambore 

If there’s one thing that’s been on my bucket list for the longest time – it’s been to see a tiger on safari. Somehow, the thought of heading out on a safari is enough to jinx the plan for me. Countless plans have died out before they even began, and I was beginning to give up. 

Until the opportunity to take a wee break at the end of the year was suddenly a possibility. 

I decided that come what may, we were going to Ranthambore. I would take care of the logistics. The actual tiger spotting I would leave to the benevolence of the Universe. While it has been proven that there are better places to spot tigers than Ranthambore – Kanha and Tadoba being two of the most densely populated tiger reserves in the country today – we choose Ranthambore for several reasons. 

One was that we had only four days in hand including travel. If we visited Pench or Bandhavgarh, a large chunk of that time would be taken in just getting to and from our destination. Optimising our time spent in the jungle was the need of the hour, and Ranthambore was the logical conclusion. 

How to get there

The easiest way to get to Ranthambore National Park is by flying into Jaipur. Jaipur International Airport is located just outside the city, 13 km away in Sanganer. It is well connected by several domestic and international airlines with regular arrivals and departures throughout the day. We flew in from Mumbai on a cold December morning to an airport that was clean, well-maintained, and easy to manoeuvre around. Terminal 1 is the domestic terminal in Jaipur and has many transport options available to you upon landing. You can take a bus into the city or book a pre-paid taxi to any of the nearby destinations. We had already pre-booked our taxi via our homestay, so there was no haggling or waiting time once we landed. 

A three-hour drive (177 km) from Jaipur airport will get you into Sawai Madhopur – the small city adjoining the park. This is where all the hotels and lodges are and the main entry gates to the national park. Today, Sawai Madhopur is regarded as the base city for any Ranthambore safari, but historically, the city has been an important seat for several rulers, from the Mughals to the British. Once the railway line between Jaipur and Sawai Madhopur was laid down, the city blossomed into the tourist destination it remains today. 

About Ranthambore National Park

Apart from being the entrance to the park, Sawai Madhopur also has a few attractions of its own worth visiting. There is Ranthambore Fort, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sawai Madhopur, along with the Trinetra Ganesh Temple and the Galta Temple. However, with the restricted amount of time at our disposal, we hadn’t managed to schedule any of these visits. Our focus still remained on the mighty tiger, and we had worked our entire schedule around increasing our chances or viewing this fantastic beast. 

Ranthambore National Park is spread over nearly 1500 sq. km in area and is about 14 km from Sawai Madhopur. There are several entry gates to the park and zones numbered from 1 to 10. Zones 1 to 5 have the largest concentration of the park’s tiger population and the most dense vegetation. Zones 6 to 10 are further away from the main tourist hotels and are largely visited by locals and other animals. You can check government websites that helpfully tell you how many tigers and cubs are located per zone. Keep in mind, though, that this is more in theory than in practice. Only an experienced guide and driver can pinpoint a tiger’s movement and location, no matter what the numbers say on paper. 

Where to stay

Since we decided on this holiday a little too close to our intended departure date, finding a still available hotel was proving to be more difficult than expected. The week between Christmas and New Year is prime travelling time for everybody. And the fact that Jaipur is well connected by road or air to everyone helps the hospitality industry flourish throughout the year. All the big hotel names were quickly ruled out due to unavailability. I had just disconnected yet another phone call with an incredulous reservations executive who repeatedly asked,” You need a room for New Year’s Eve this year?” Thankfully, I may have lost hope on my tiger dreams, but the Universe hadn’t. A desultory search for boutique hotels in Sawai Madhopur threw up an intriguing lifeline. Fateh’s Retreat in Ranthambore is a homestay with a proud history. 

Fateh Resort was well located and reasonably priced

Guests can now stay at the farm of Fateh Singh Rathore, aka The Tiger Man of India. Often attributed as the conservation hero responsible for Ranthambore National Park, this gorgeous property answered my prayers. Built on the edge of a cliff and facing the Aravali Hills, the homestay is ideally placed on the forest’s edge. The family members still live in his house and run the resort. The rooms are large and well-appointed with garden views. There is also a beautiful infinity pool that faces the forest, but unfortunatel,y it was too cold for us to take a dip. Breakfast is included in your room rate, and lunch and dinner can be had at the onsite cafe and restaurant, which serves some delectable home-cooked meals. 

The only thing that Fateh Resort could not help me with was booking my safari. Unlike several other hotels that offer a package deal, I was left to my own devices when it came to booking our safari. And what an adventure that proved to be. 

Booking a safari

There are several websites that promise immediate and speedy safari booking. Many of these sound and look official enough. One click, and you are led to multiple options and a variety of payment packages. But beware. The moment you fill in the form online, you will be inundated with calls urging you to pay up immediately so as not to lose your place. That was the first red flag for me. What government agency ever calls their customers for business. I decided to dig deeper and found out that even though these sites looked credible, they were just glorified tourism portals out for a quick buck. There is only one official site to book your permits. Visit Once you click, you will be taken to a page that allows you to book your safari up to 365 days in advance. 

You may use this user manual to navigate the government website to book safari:

If you are carrying video equipment you will have to pay a small extra fee. 

Vehicle number and guide are mentioned on your ticket. Only receipt numbers starting with RNP indicate a confirmation. Remember to carry multiple copies of your tickets with you when you visit the park. 

It is true that booking your permits online can be difficult. More so for the fact that bookings are usually sold out months in advance, especially for zones 1 to 5. There is the possibility of tatkal bookings – the availability is released on the day itself – so it’s not really something you can plan with confidence. We managed to snag the last three seats in a jeep safari for one day and a canter on the other. Jeeps seat 4 to 6 while canters are open air buses that seat up to 22. 

It is generally recommended that you squeeze in at least two to three safaris during your time in Ranthambore. This will increase your chances of sighting a tiger considerably.  

Safaris operate twice a day and last three hours each. Some guides recommend morning safaris as it is believed that most tigers are on the move in the morning – getting to the water hole or simply moving after a good night’s sleep. In the afternoon, they may be asleep or hiding out behind the thick vegetation. Safari timings alter as per the season, but as a rule, the last jeep / canter has to leave the park before sunset. Since we travelled in December, the morning safari is between 7 to 1030 am and the afternoon between 230 and 6 pm. If you book your slot independently, the ticket mentions making your way to the respective gate half an hour prior to departure. However, our hosts at Fateh very kindly arranged for the guide to pick us up en route for a small extra fee. Make sure you carry the ID you booked with. Other essentials include water and a scarf to wrap around your nose and mouth. The terrain is rocky and dusty, and the open-aired vehicles barely offer any protection. Morning safaris can also be bitterly cold, so bundle up and keep those ears and hands covered. 

I later discovered that you can choose your guide at the safari booking office when presenting your ticket. This will come at an extra cost, but many regulars swear by certain experienced guides. We were none the wiser and gamely went along with the guide mentioned on our ticket. 

The consensus is that the best time to visit the park is during the summer months of March to May. The heat draws the animals out of hiding and to the waterholes, where spotting is easier. In the winter months, there is a greater tendency for these magnificent beasts to hide behind the vegetation decreasing the possibility of sightings. Keep in mind that zones 1 to 5 are closed during the monsoons. 

Our safari experience

Our first safari was booked for the afternoon. We were picked up bang on time at 215 and taken down the short distance to our Gate no. 5. A small pause at the forest department’s office in front of the main entrance, where our guide did the necessary paperwork and we were off. Excitement was high in the canter, and we managed to view various deer and even a crocodile immediately. As the hours passed, the tigers, however, remained elusive. We were seated just behind the driver and guide, and I was so impressed by their keen attention to every noise from the jungle. A monkey’s call was a signal of distress or warning. A deer darting across our path indicated danger was near. Birds chattering and flying off suddenly could only mean one thing – the king of the jungle was near. We picked up a faint trail and veered off course, but after several minutes of waiting it out, it was evident that we would not be lucky that day. Reassurance came in the form of another safari booked the next day, so we tried to keep our spirits up. As we approached the exit gate, the driver noticed a group of vehicles ahead. He stepped on the gas, and suddenly our canter found itself amidst several others. And there he was. What a giant. His tawny stripes undulated menacingly between the tall grass, and there was a moment where my heart stopped as he turned and looked in our direction. Even the catcalling and whooping of the other tourists could not take away from the magic of the experience. We followed him until we couldn’t spot him any longer as he made his way down the river. After a three-hour safari through bumpy terrain and dusty cold wind, we were rewarded – and how. Tick that one off my list!!  

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