Getting to the Ranthambore National Park felt like entering a ticket line at an amusement park. There was one road that lead through the city and lining the streets were trucks painted in a plethora of colors, bright and festive like carnival stands. Boars wandered through the gutters and cows were parked in front of buildings with yellow bindi marks on their foreheads. The animals served the role of the actors dressed as cartoon characters, wandering through the manufactured streets, waiting for their photo op.
We had been picked up in topless jeeps from our hotel and from curving roads, to stops and starts in traffic, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. I was only waiting for the giant cobra to rear its head and dive for us on a shaky bridge road. Instead I was headed towards the next best thing: Tiger spotting in the jungle.
As the city passed behind us, the one road turned into a landscape of large boulders, sparse green plains and cracked earth. What kind of jungle was this? We lurched up the hill than dropped down the other side of the mountain, emptying at the entrance to Ranthambore where we paid our entrance fees through our driver and continued to sidle in our jeeps on through to the real show, the jungle itself.
Finally the landscape was changing. There was tall green grass, more trees, thickets and bushes. Wild animals started to be spotted. A peacock unfurled it’s tail like a giant blue fan. Spotted deer gamboled through the trees nibbling on grass. Birds flitted in and out of mud puddles. Was this Bambi or the Jungle Book? Where were the tigers we paid to see?
Our guide, Raj, warned us that on some trips there wasn’t a single tiger spotted. We were in the wild after all. It might feel like an amusement park but amusements were not guaranteed. There was no way that they could ensure that a tiger would be seen, we could only follow drivers hunches and where other guests had spotted something a day or two before. Unlike the Serengeti, this jungle ride was not as sprawling. There wasn’t a large savannah reaching in all directions around us. We had only so many roads to follow.
We ended up in a line of jeeps, trailing along a river on a dirt road. There was only one path to follow, a track so to speak, and there were signs that this track was the right one.
Suddenly the jeeps ahead started to slow. We stood up and peered over the top of the metal bars, whispering between our two jeeps. What was it? Why are we stopping?
“Tiger,” someone spoke from up front.
The jeeps fanned out in a line so that everyone could get a view. Directly in the middle of the dirt road, a large tiger lounged, taking a nap and stopping all vehicles.
We got our cameras out and shot like it was nobodies business. This was big game hunting, the catch of a lifetime. A real Bengal tiger in the wild. The drivers refused to get any closer. This tiger was the biggest one in the park and his name was the Cruel One. Rumors said that he got this name because he was the only tiger to have ever attacked anyone in the park.
Was this story true or just something the drivers told us to make the trip feel dangerous, making our visit special in some way? Was every tiger the Cruel One? I don’t know, but it worked. We gaped at the large beast as it suddenly rolled upwards, yawning in a large circle and stretching its limbs like a lazy house cat.
The Cruel One lumbered up and began to walk down the road. The engines of the jeeps roared to life and slowly we inched closer, keeping the same distance between car and tiger but following him down the path nonetheless.
The tiger moved to the side of the road. He stopped, he turned slightly and squatted over a mound of dirt on the side of the road. The tiger took a dump right in front of us as if saying, this is what I think of you and your jeeps and cameras.
After a sufficient amount of picture time, the drivers decided that it was time to go. We wouldn’t be able to make our way past the Cruel One so each jeep had to do an intricate reversal and head back out the road we came on. As we made our way out of the jungle, a pilgrim walked through the woods with his belongings balanced on his head. Apparently there was a pilgrimage site dead in the jungle and for religious reasons, those who sought it were allowed to travel freely through the park. The drivers warned the man that a tiger was just down the road but he didn’t seem to care or hesitate. Barefoot, he continued on down the road, making his way to make his blessings.
On our way out, we made our own blessings. As we idled in the jeep waiting for a herd of spotted deer to move across the road, we reflected on seeing an actual wild tiger. Had this just happened? Was this a hologram? No, this wasn’t an amusement park after all. This was the real thing. A buck with giant horns stared us down. It was time to move on, we were beginning to overstay our welcome.
We exited the park and on our way out of town, we spotted children on rooftops flying kites. It was like the end of the day at Disneyland where children queue up to watch the fireworks at the end of the night and the characters parade down the road. Only we were the characters, we were the ones being watched as we drove out through the city. We, too, were part of the show.