The drive from Agra to Ranthambhore is about 180 miles and including the odd comfort break and photo stop takes a good six hours. So it was no surprise when we arrived at the Oberoi Ranthambhore that we simply wanted to unpack and have a rest. However, we didn’t take into account just how beautiful the hotel was going to be, and how friendly all the staff were, and how we wanted to explore the grounds, and how we just wanted to gawp in amazement and gratitude that this was where we were going to be spending the next two nights.
On arrival we were greeted by the hotel manager, a charmingly hearty lady named Ratna, whose enthusiasm for her job and her hotel spreads infectiously throughout all the staff. The next day we would meet her Customer Services Manager – Lakshmi, the elephant. Yes, this hotel has its own elephant, on duty for a couple of hours every morning to wave visitors off on their morning tiger safari, or to welcome them back safely afterwards. The hotel also has its own naturalist, who gives a different lecture every evening about the local flora and fauna. Normally that kind of thing strikes dread into the hearts of Mrs Chrisparkle and me, but he was actually a really interesting and funny presenter, and you wouldn’t want to miss his talks before going in for dinner or drinks every evening.
A helpful, funny and friendly young lady by name TJ took us to our room. I say “room”; it was – as they almost all are – a luxury tent. I expect some are a little more luxurious than others, but ours had absolutely everything you could possibly wish – and all exquisitely furnished with that special Oberoi taste. Dinner could be taken in the restaurant or out in the sunken courtyard – outside was just too irresistible – and the words “feast” and “veritable” come to mind. And whilst they have a comfortable looking old-fashioned Last Days of The Raj type bar, nothing could keep us away from having a drink outside round the campfire, listening to local musicians. It was simply heavenly. The Oberoi in Agra remains my favourite hotel in the world – but the Vanyavilas in Ranthambhore runs it a very, very close second.
It may come as a surprise, but the reason we took two nights to stay in Ranthambhore was not simply to drink gin round the old campfire and be spoiled rotten in the restaurant. We were booked on two tiger safaris, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. For a relatively tiny place, there’s a huge local industry that stems from the Ranthambhore National Park; home to much wildlife including the famous Bengal Tigers. The hotel lobbies are full of people recounting their “we saw a tiger! It came up right this close!” stories to anyone who will listen; the other people with whom you share your jeep will doubtless have been on other safaris and will explain precisely why the one you missed was the one you really should have been on. But do the maths; Ranthambhore National Park is home to (at the time) sixty tigers. It covers a vast area which is split into ten zones. That works out as 6 tigers per zone. The park advises each jeep which zone it will visit on each safari trip. So you will only visit one zone at random. Each zone is large enough to drive around for hours on end, so in a two to three hour drive you’re probably only ever going to be in the vicinity of one tiger, two at a push. And your job, or your driver and guide’s job, is to go find him!
We visited zone 6 in the morning, an area with a lot of open grassland, which, when you think about it, is probably not the kind of terrain a tiger is going to mooch around in. We saw plenty of blue bulls (Nilgai), deer, storks, antelope, and some extremely tame Rufous Treepies who will eat from your hand. But no tigers. It was a fascinating experience though, and after we popped back to the hotel for lunch, and to feed Lakshmi some apples, camera whore that she is, we went out again with renewed vigour for our afternoon safari. This time we called on zone 4, which is much more stereotypically jungly; at times I thought we might bump into Mowgli. Again, plenty of nilgai, antelopes and crocodiles silently floating in the lakes, but no tigers.
We did all the right things – stayed silent whenever possible; watched for their tracks, signs of a kill, their faeces (sorry if you’re having lunch) – and we found all these. We were very hopeful at one stage because the peacocks had flown into the trees and were making nervous cries – a sure sign that they didn’t feel safe on the ground, so maybe a tiger is prowling and they’re getting the word around to all their peacock pals. But no tigers.
Even so, it was a magical experience. Just parking up your jeep in a jungle and silently observing all the life going on around you was absolutely brilliant. And as the light started to fade, and sunset started to loom, the views took on an exciting life all of their own. Staying late behind in the jungle, maybe being one of the last vehicles to leave, felt surprisingly daring. I really loved it. So did my chiropractor, when I returned to the UK a few days later. Spending six hours getting tossed around in a bumpy jeep isn’t great for your back, so please be careful! However, I’d do it again in an instant – and hopefully spot my first tiger.
When we left the next morning, there was an apologetic letter for us to read on departure, personalised, and on Oberoi Vanyavilas notepaper: “Thank you for visiting Ranthambhore and staying at the Oberoi Vanyavilas. We are sorry we were unable to meet you in the jungle. But we hope to see you again soon. Warm regard, Tigers of Ranthambhore.” On the reverse was a splendid pen and ink drawing of a tiger, signed by the hotel’s naturalist. I suspect he might have something to do with it.