I have been to my share of national parks in India and other countries. Ranthambore, though close to Delhi is one park that I had not gone to until a month ago. To get basic information on the park I suggest you look it up here.
My trip to Ranthambore, however, was disappointing. Now most national park trips turn out to be disappointing if you don’t get to see the main attraction. Imagine a week at the Masai Mara and not seeing a lion. So Ranthambore without a tiger sighting can be a disappointment to anyone, But I did see a tiger (from far away) and yet I was disappointed by the experience.
So lets start from the beginning. Most national parks in India require a permit and you need to get a booking for your entry into the park. So far I have not found it difficult to obtain entry for any park . But Ranthambore is a different story. The state of Rajasthan (where Ranthambore is) has set up a website where you can book your trip. Ranthambore is divided into several zones (I user the term several because it appears to me that the number of zones keep changing). The web site shows 4 zones. However I saw people being sent to 8 zones this past March. So this is how it is supposed to work. You go to the website pick a zone, date, time, and select between a Gypsy (Suzuki Samurai) or a Canter (A truck) Safari. A Gypsy takes 6 passengers and a Canter takes 24. Also a Gypsy can go more places than a Canter hence the preference for a Gypsy. Right here the problems start:
- All Gypsy safaris are sold out for the main Ranthambore zones (1 through 4). How come? Tour operators seems to be booking them by bribing the state officials. How do I know this? Call a hotel at Ranthambore, reserve a room with them and demand a Gypsy safari. They will get you one for about 3 times the official price.
- Despite paying 3 times the price you may end up going to a not so good zone (5-8).
- Not only do you get to book your entry to the park but the state decides who the driver will be and who the guide will be. So you cannot take your own guide, or if you do then you must pay for your own guide as though they were a visitor to the park (at three times the actual cost).
- They say to increase your chances of a tiger sighting and to truly enjoy the variety of animals at Ranthambore you must do 4 to 6 safaris. Each day you can only do two, one in the morning and one in the evening. So with the state run booking, guide, and safari system you end up getting a different guide and driver each time. So you never get to develop a relationship with your guide where he understands your interests. For example one of the guides I was with just did not understand that in addition to looking for tigers I was interested in photographing birds, insects, etc.
- The park is open for two safaris a day. Morning from 6:30 to 10:30 and afternoon from 2:30 to 6:30 (plus or minus 30 minutes as I do not recall the exact times now). So you would think that the safari vehicle will be at your hotel 30 minutes before the national park gates open so that you enter the park at opening time to maximize your visit time. But on 3 of my 4 safaris the Gypsy came late. On one of them it came an hour late. On each of the safaris the gypsy left the park way before closing time. So lets get this right. You pay three times the official price and get half the safari. Hmmmm!!!!!!!
- Also the state run website is not easy to use and it often crashes. For example you can only book one safari and for 6 people at a time. So if you want to book 6 safaris you need to select the date, time, and vehicle option 6 times. For each time you make a booking you need to enter names, age, ID numbers (passport number etc) for each passenger, then your credit card information and then make the booking. So for 6 travelers wanting 6 safaris you would have to enter their details 36 times. That's if the site actually works.
Given this situation of booking safaris at Ranthambore I feel you are better off going to one of the many other national parks in India or Africa. I found the main attraction at Ranthambore to be tigers and crocodiles. I did not get to see leopards and bears. I did get some nice bird shots and got to see a Savanna Nightjar which is quite tough to spot. In fact I thought it was wood will I noticed the wood had eyes.
Teach your kids to use Binoculars
The one tiger that we did spot was far away and in a cave behind a tree. See below
The tiger was photographed using a 300mm lens. With the naked eye it was impossible to spot. If you have little kids who do not know how to use binoculars then its a good idea to make sure they learn and practice before going on such a trip. I made the mistake of not teaching them and when we found this tiger the children were unable to spot it. Bummer!!!
More pictures from this trip can be seen here.