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Bugger the Budget

23rd April 2010, Jaipur
Since I wrote last we’ve left the south of India (surviving the 43 hour train journey along the way!), visited the sublime Taj Mahal and other Agra sites, watched tigers at Ranthambore. All good stuff.

I always make a point of not complaining about the heat when I’m away, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to make an exception: India is HOT!! The country is currently in the grip of a heatwave, with temperatures around ten degrees higher than the seasonal average. The locals are complaining; schools are closing; the government are issuing warnings (to residents, not tourists) advising against going out in the extreme heat of the afternoon. Monsoons of the last couple of years have provided less rain than they should, which is having a knock on effect on the climate and of course the availability of water. As much as I normally insist on fan only rooms, travelling sleeper class and walking rather than taking rickshaws, I have got to be sensible. Better to blow the budget than to do myself a mischief in the relentless sun.

The temperatures in Kochi were not excessively high – 36 to 39 most of the time we were there – but the humidity was a killer. Even at midnight the air was stifling, and you could watch the sweat beading on your arm. Our energy levels were low and our tempers short (even shorter than usual!). By our third night there we had to give in and get the air con switched on in our room, for an extra Rs200 (about £3). The idea was to get a good night’s sleep before our 43 hour train journey, but my cough meant I was still awake much of the night. Luckily Chris could sleep through an earthquake, so I didn’t disturb him – wish I had that talent.

The train journey was . . . well, long! We were sat with some less-than-pleasant Indian people – one woman in particular, who looked down her nose and sneered at us for most of the two days. When we first got on, our section of carriage was over-full of people who should have been travelling in unreserved class, meaning there was insufficient room for our bags or us. The extra bodies raised the temperatures another couple of sweaty degrees, which we could well have done without. When Chris complained to the Travelling Ticket Examiner he was told that there are many people in India; the conclusion we drew was that he had received backsheesh (bribe) to allow them to sit there. It wasn't the best start to the journey. We did find some comfort in the fact that, as the train travelled north into a hotter, drier climate the Keralans who had been unpleasant to us suffered much more with the heat than we did. Call us mean spirited if you like . . .

We survived the journey, and arrived in Agra just a couple of hours behind schedule. The hotel we’d booked was meant to send a driver for us, but didn’t, so we took a rickshaw into the Taj Ganj district and found the Saniya Palace. The rooms were poky and grubby, and I asked them to change the sheets as the blood stains from mosquito bites proved that they’d not been laundered since the last occupant (and god knows how many before that), but that’s pretty much par for the course in India, as is constant noise from before six in the morning till gone midnight. Anyway, compared to a bunk on a sleeper train, the room was more than adequate – and the location was great.

The view of the Taj from the rooftop restaurant was superb – you could almost reach out and touch it. The food they served was good too, and the four-cup pots of chai for Rs40 were great value. The staff were friendly, and they’d made an effort to make the roof area attractive by placing maybe a hundred plants in pots around the area. One boy had responsibility to water them – a never-ending task that left him looking more wilted that the greenery by the end of the day. Shame he didn’t realise that dragging the pots across the roof made a horrendous racket in the bedrooms beneath.

We met a nice Swiss couple in the restaurant that had come to India after visiting Japan. That country sounds like the total opposite of this, being spotlessly clean with polite inhabitants that wouldn’t dream of ripping you off. It’s never been on my list of countries to visit, but it is now.

Due to the colossal heat (high forties), Chris and I had to pace our sightseeing. We visited the Taj and Agra Fort on our first full day, enjoying both but finding the heat exhausting. We were too tired to walk back from the fort, so got a lift with a 62-year-old cycle rickshaw-wallah. The next day we went to Akbar’s Mausoleum, Itmud-ul-Daulah (often misnamed baby Taj) and took a look at “backside of Taj” from across the river. The rickshaw driver seemed an honest and dependable chap, so we arranged for him to pick us up early the next morning and take us to the station for our 0445 train to Sawai Madhopur, the gateway town to Ranthambore National Park.

The day didn’t look too promising to start with. On the plus side we woke up on time (even before the wake up call from my lovely parents!), and our rickshaw wallah was indeed outside waiting for us. He said he’d been there since half three, as he had promised and didn’t want to let us down, bless! The drive to Agra Fort station was a breeze; cool and traffic free – probably the fastest journey I’ve ever had in a rickshaw. The revolting rotten egg smells wafting up from the open sewers were enough to make us both gag though.

We arrived at the station with half an hour to spare . . . to find that our train was running an hour and a half late – a ridiculously early start for nothing. We piled our bags in a heap and I joined most of the Indians waiting on the platform by lying on the floor. It was filthy, but then so were my trousers; there is really no point in wearing clean clothes for a journey in sleeper class, as they don’t stay that way for long. We took it in turns to fetch chai, and reclined on the floor until the flies woke up and became unbearable. Forty five minutes after we arrived, an announcement informed us that our train was now running two hours and fifteen minutes late . . . even more time that could have been spent sleeping.

Fortunately the train managed to get its act together and there were no further delays – just a platform change before it arrived. Faced with this situation, most Indians take the short cut across the tracks, but we opted for the more tiring but safer trip over the bridge. Once the 9038 Advah Express arrived we located carriage S4 and were shocked by the interior; it was much smaller and older than the other trains we’d travelled on, and we were exceedingly grateful that we had a mere four hour journey. I can’t imagine how we’d have got on had it been an overnighter, as the bunks were very narrow and short – and Chris and I are hardly giants!

Four young Indian men occupied our seats, and their bags took up the luggage space beneath, so we stuffed our packs onto the upper berth, balancing them precariously in the small space. Two of the men moved allowing us to squash uncomfortably into a seat designed for one. It was looking like being a most uncomfortable journey . . . until half an hour later when the wonderful TTE came to our rescue, evicting the interlopers – who should rightly have been travelling in the incredibly cramped and overloaded unreserved carriage. From that point on we had ample space, and I was able to enjoy my precious view from the window. For me, watching the countryside roll by from the window of a sleeper carriage is the thing I enjoy most about India. It ended up being our most enjoyable train journey to date.

We arrived at Sawai Madhopur a little after eleven, and caught a rickshaw to Tiger Safari Resort, which I had booked from the UK. We had asked in our email for fan room, but with the weather being so unseasonably hot we enquired about an AC room. The cost was an extra Rs200 a day (totalling Rs1100 for the room – nearly £20), and the room was larger and in a better location, so we went for it. The manager said he didn’t blame us, “after all, we cannot cope with the heat right now, so how can you?” As our two daily safaris will left us with down time between ten in the morning and three in the afternoon, we were sure that we had made the right decision – bugger the budget.

We were there for five nights, so we unpacked our rucksacks before heading down to enjoy the swimming pool – something we had been looking forward to for ages. It was wonderful to cool off in the water – and as an extra bonus my feet became clean for the first time in weeks! We grabbed a late breakfast before returning to our refreshingly cool room. I washed a few things and hung them out on the balcony area outside the room; they were dry within half an hour – quicker than a tumble drier! The hotel restaurant charged an extortionate Rs20 plus 14% “tax” for water (which has a recommended price of Rs12, and is not normally more than Rs15 tops) so we determined to go into town to find cheaper. Curiously the preferred local brand of water is Fosters, more often known for their lager, and we managed to find two litre bottles a short walk away for Rs25 (as you can see, I’ve not totally changed my penny-pinching ways!)

We had a few other things to pick up, so walked further along the road towards the town. We went about a mile in total, and had to guzzle two litres of water just to keep sane. We soon decided that we liked Sawai Madhopur a lot – at least the relatively quiet Ranthambore Road area. My favourite feature was the predominance of hairy pigs, which outnumbered the dogs, goats and cows. They foraged through the rubbish, chased each other across the road, and wrestled one another with their snouts. The cutest one I saw was sleeping on his side in a muddy puddle. His snout was half submerged, muddy bubbles appearing as he snored; just adorable.

We dropped off the water back at the hotel, then went in search of the Swiss couple we'd met in Agra, who were also visiting Ranthambore. We didn't find them, but we did find a hotel two doors down that served a four-cup pot of chai for Rs35 – it's Rs15 for a small cup in our place, so another great saving . . . and a way for me to satisfy my chai addiction. The sun wasn't far off setting by the time we returned, so we had another dunk in the pool. We stood in the cool water watching the local birdlife, some of whom swooped down for a quick sip of water, or to catch the small flies that began to hover over the pool as the sun went down. A fair-sized lizard jumped off a wall and landed on a bush, surveying curiously us for a while.

It was all very cool – but the best was yet to come. As dusk fell a small bat started swooping over our heads, deftly catching the insects and occasionally skimming the surface of the water. We watched enthralled as another bat appeared, then another, and then larger bats joined in too, moving slightly slower than their smaller cousins did. Chris and I stood with water up to our necks, as all around us bats darted past – some just inches from our head – treating us to the most wonderful aerial display. It's definitely the coolest encounter I've ever had with bats. We'd not even been near the national park yet, but already our visit to Ranthambore had exceeded our expectations.

We were up early the following day for our first safari, having submitted the paperwork the previous evening, and a jeep picked us up outside the hotel around six. An Indian couple with their young daughter were already aboard, and we picked up an Indian guy along the way who had a 500mm lens that made my gear look tiny. He’d obviously been to the park a number of times before, and the guide knew that they were guaranteed a good tip with him, so we were practically ignored; the guide spoke only in Hindi and wasn’t keen to answer any of our questions. We drove round looking for tigers, which did not appear, with little opportunity to view or photograph any other wildlife. It was still enjoyable, but our subsequent safaris have highlighted just how crap this first one was.

The afternoon’s outing was much more enjoyable. The park is split into five separate zones, and we entered zone three, which was very scenic. We drove past a large lake and continued on to a smaller one where crocodiles swam, ignoring the painted storks wading in the water (apparently they eat mainly fish, with the occasional baby deer thrown in for good measure). There is an island in the lake with a small “palace” - an attractive domed building with large windows, where the guide told us the tigers whose territory this is can sometimes be seen sleeping. They borrowed our binoculars (we found it astonishing that they didn't have their own), and scanned the area while we enjoyed the view, watching the park's two types of deer – sambar and spotted – grazing on the grass surrounding the lake. They were joined by wild boar and a variety of birds, including spoonbills, intermediate storks, red-wattled lapwing (known as the "did-ye-do-it bird because of its distinctive call), plovers, plus grey, purple and pond herons.

After a while the guide triumphantly told us he had found the tigress – she was sleeping on her back in front of the palace, only her white belly showing. He passed our binoculars round saying, “Can you see? She looks like a log.” To be honest, none of us could, and we were rather sceptical about this dubious sighting. After some time another jeep turned up that had better binoculars than ours, and we realised that the crew had not been pulling the wool over our eyes – it really was a tiger! They said that the tiger would rest for a maximum of two hours, then walk across the rocks that formed a bridge to the mainland, so we joined a number of other jeeps and canters (larger open-topped vehicles) in waiting. Sure enough, and hour and a half later, she did stir and crossed the rocks disappearing into some long grass on the other side.

We drove round to try and get a view from another angle, waiting for half an hour to see if she would emerge, but to no avail. Still, we’d had a positive tiger sighting, albeit from a distance, and a much better experience than the morning’s safari. On our way out we were lucky enough to see a male tiger, not far from the gate. Unfortunately by then we didn’t have time for more than a 30 second stop and a couple of pictures, as the vehicles have to be out of the park on the dot to stop anyone being in the park after dark when it becomes dangerous – both for humans and animals, as poaching still goes on.

The following morning, not long after we had entered zone two, our guide (a different one to the last two safaris – the guides and the zones are rotated, so customers go to a different area of the park with different staff each trip) halted the jeep. He had heard the langur monkeys making an alarm call, and we waited to see what was about. The park has three species of big cat other than the tiger, namely leopards, caracal and jungle cats, plus other carnivores as well. A short while after we had stopped we heard a load noise, somewhere between a grunt and a snort, which we were told was either a leopard or a tiger. The guide and driver borrowed our binoculars and looked. Whilst they could spot nothing nearby, where the noise was coming from, they did see the outline of a leopard sat up on the mountain ridge. Another positive sighting, but again from afar.

The grunting noise came again, this time from a different position ahead of us – the big cat must have passed us by unseen. We went off for a drive, seeing lots of wildlife along the way, including a couple of owls – and a real coup on our way out, a small snake with a soon-to-be-eaten mouse in its mouth. The snake was one of only four types of venomous snake in the park, and had grabbed the mouse headfirst. He slithered up a tree at the side of the road, holding his meal up high and posed for a few pictures; most accommodating.

That afternoon we were very lucky, as we were out with one of the top guides. Samir has spent eight years working on BBC documentaries, and really knew his stuff. He was one of a two-man crew on a program about Ranthambore’s tigers that we had watched in Ooty. He had a good pair of binoculars, and came equipped with bird books and the like – really the sort of stuff one would have thought was essential for any guide. We were lucky enough to see two tigers with him – first a male reclining in the windows of the palace, near our sighting the previous day. Then from quite a close distance a tigress sat panting in the shade near the lake. She had her back to us, and refused to turn round, but it was still cool to be that close to the majestic creature. Samir told us that this was the daughter of the tiger he’d filmed in the documentary, one of her fifth litter of cubs.

We took the following day off, getting up only slightly later than the five o’clock start required for the safaris. We hired a jeep to take us along the access road that runs through the national park to the car park beneath Ranthambore Fort, the second largest fort in Rajisthan. The fort, with its substantial defensive walls and inner buildings, reminded us in a way of Dover Castle. Parts of it date back to the fifth century, and a number of temples are situated within its walls, the most popular being the Ganesh Temple. The area outside contains a few stalls and snack bars, and we stopped for a chai whilst Chris and an Indian man of a similar age discussed English county cricket players from the 70s. We took it pretty easy for the rest of the day, enjoying a rare chance to relax and take a break from sightseeing.

We had our best tiger encounter on the final day of safaris. The morning wasn’t too exciting – we were back in zone one, our least favourite – although we did visit a cool little waterhole where we saw blue bull antelope, langur monkeys drinking, and numerous species of birds. In the afternoon we entered zone two again, and went straight to Jogi Mahal where we were lucky enough to see a tigress sleeping at the water’s edge. We sat with a number of jeeps and canters and watched the beautiful creature resting, oohing and ahhing as she occasionally rolled over. We happily waited for a couple of hours – we’ve learnt in the past few days that tigers tend to chill in the afternoon, sleeping in a shady or cool spot, until around five or half past, when they wake up and move to a concealed spot waiting for night to fall, when they hunt.

It was a great way to spend the afternoon, and we enjoyed watching the crocodiles sunning themselves on a small island in the lake behind the sleeping tiger. A few brave peacocks wandered surprisingly close to her as she slept – although the deer were noticeably absent, preferring to graze on the opposite side of the lake; quite wise, I think. Sure enough at five twenty she got to her feet, had a big stretch, then started strolling casually away from the water towards the long grass – the perfect hiding place with her stripy pelt – pausing for a pooh on the way! Admittedly it wasn’t as close an encounter as we had hoped for, but it was a very special experience all the same, and a great way to end our time in Ranthambore.

Internet connections are proving to be temperamental, so you’ll have to wait to see the photos, but I’ll let you know once they are online.


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