Discover what you can expect on a Ranthambore tiger safari in India, along with all the practical information you need to organise this once in a lifetime experience.
- 1 The dream – Tigers in India
- 2 An overland adventure
- 3 Organising our Ranthambore Tiger Safari
- 4 A moment of magic
- 5 A Diwali treat
- 6 Why a Ranthambore National Park Safari?
- 7 When to visit Ranthambore National Park
- 8 What do you need for a tiger safari?
- 9 Jeep or Canter?
- 10 Other things to do in Sawai Madhopur
- 11 Where to stay in Sawai Madhopur
- 12 Summary
The dream – Tigers in India
When I knew I would be visiting India in late 2019 my first thought was
“Oo I hope I see tigers!”
Having been lucky enough to do some game drives in South America and Africa, I have seen some of the worlds beautiful big cats such as lions, leopards, cheetahs and ocelots. However, the most beautiful of them all, the majestic tiger had thus far eluded me.
In December 2019 we agreed to run an overland trip through Nepal and India. The trip would be a new one for me, but Nick had run many trips in this area in the past. Before the trip began we joined a trekking trip in Pakistan, which left us with 6 weeks before we had to start our tour in Kathmandu.
With this free time we decided to do what we do best, and travel overland from Pakistan, through northern India to Nepal. This provided the perfect opportunity for us to schedule in an Indian tiger safari.
Travel in India as a foreigner can be challenging at times. Take a look at my Survival Guide to discover practical tips to stay safe and healthy in India.
An overland adventure
As our train chugged into Sawai Madopur station we began to gather our bags and prepare for the frenzy that awaited us on the platform. Our journey to arrive here involved a 4 hour car journey and a 15 hour overnight train.
Our previous destination had been the relatively cool mountain side town of Dharamsala, so the first thing to hit me was the heat. Not travelling light meant I was wearing most of my heavy clothing which included hiking boots, a hoodie and a down jacket. Not items you need for daytime Rajasthan!
Why did I have so much stuff? I was planning a trekking trip around Nepal in Himalayan winter. This involved bringing a big heavy sleeping bag and thick down jackets, along with all the other items required for a trip in India!
Having dragged our bags up and over the tracks we began the usual rickshaw haggling game. Being the only foreigners at the station we attracted quite a crowd as we engaged in our game of back and forth.
One optimistic gentlemen offered us an air conditioned limousine to take us the 2km we needed to go, but his price was rather delusional. Having finally agreed a reasonable rickshaw price we clambered in and were on our way for the last leg of this arduous journey.
Organising our Ranthambore Tiger Safari
As usual we had booked our hotel online and so weren’t too sure what to expect. Photos of rooms in Asia tend to be quite deceiving at times. However, at the Hotel Tiger Haveli we were very pleasantly surprised when the room was everything we hoped it would be.
The owner of the hotel was quick to offer his services in booking our tiger safaris and we were more than happy to accept. Since we had travelled quite a long way to get here we decided to do two safaris and thus improve our chances of a sighting.
We arranged to do one safari that afternoon and then another on the morning we left, leaving us a free day in the middle to explore other options.
Ranthambore tiger safaris are organised into 8 different zones. When you book a jeep safari in Ranthambore National Park you don’t get to chose which zone to visit. They are randomly assigned. We were assigned zone one for our afternoon safari and zone three for our morning.
Did you know? India is home to 80% of the worlds tigers, which are located in 50 different tiger reserves.
A moment of magic
The jeeps would pick us up at 2:15pm we were told. At around 2:45pm our jeep arrived and after collecting the other four guests we were on our way into the park. After checking in at the park head quarters we started our safari into zone one. As we entered the dense woodland I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. My first ever tiger safari!
As we drove along the dirt track we stopped to see some sambar deer and nilgai. Then about ten minutes into the safari we saw another jeep. The driver said something to our guide which we couldn’t understand, and in an instant our driver put his foot down and we sped off deeper into the park.
Our guide turned to us with a big smile on his face and told us a tiger had been spotted further ahead. Did we mind if we drove quite fast in order to get there before it left?!
After ten bumpy minutes spent ducking and dodging fast approaching tree branches, we arrived at the scene. About 200m further along the dirt road lay one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen.
A female Bengal tiger.
I couldn’t believe my luck. Just fifteen minutes into my first ever tiger safari and there was this incredible cat just lazing around in plain sight!
We watched her for around ten minutes and then we were told that we had to move on and leave her in peace. Of course I wanted to stay longer in the hope that she might get up and walk towards us, but of course I respected that we had to allow her her space. So, in what felt like the blink of an eye it was time to turn around and carry on with our safari in Ranthambore.
We continued on through the park spotting wildlife such us treepies, heron, spotted deer and crocodiles. All just a bonus after seeing what we had all hoped for. After finishing the safari our guide informed us that on the morning safari earlier that day there had been no sightings throughout the entire park.
He also said that during this time of year only one tiger sighting a week was quite common. I’m not sure if either of these facts were true but it certainly made us feel even more privileged at our special sighting.
A Diwali treat
On the day of Diwali the alarm woke us ready for our early start. At 6:30am our jeep scooped us up ready to embark on our second tiger safari. We had debated cancelling this second safari given that we had already seen a tiger.
However, for this safari we had been assigned zone three. In this zone there is a large lake and potential for different types of wildlife, so we decided to give it another go.
Our on way to the park we picked up some other guests who were on their fourth safari. They had yet to see a tiger and this was their last chance. I hoped for their sake we might get lucky again.
Binoculars are essential for a tiger safari: Check price on Amazon.
Shortly after entering the park some jeeps gathered around a central point. After some conferring between drivers and guides, we were informed that fresh tiger prints had been spotted leading in this direction. They could also hear warning calls from the spotted deer. This is a call used when a predator ie. a tiger is nearby.
After thirty minutes spent driving between one point and another hoping for a new development, our guide suggested we carry on with the safari and drive deeper into the park.
We drove around in a large circuit and when we returned close to where we had been before, we saw a cluster of jeeps and a canter – a collection of heads all looking in the same direction.
Making sure to stay on the dirt road, as per the park rules, our driver got our jeep close to the action. Our guide said there were two tiger cubs.
At first I couldn’t see anything except long grass. Nick handed me his binoculars so I could get a better look. After a little searching I finally spotted two tigers but said I couldn’t see the cubs, just two adults.
The guide smiled and told me that the tigers I could see were the cubs and they were nine months old. I couldn’t believe how big they were!
For forty minutes we watched these two ‘small tigers’. At first they walked deeper into the forest stopping every now again to play fight or climb a tree. Then they would lie down and take rest as the heat of the day began to take hold.
Finally they wandered out of the forest, across the dirt road in front of us, before strolling off into the denser forest beyond. Out of sight from prying eyes and camera lenses.
What another incredible experience!
Why a Ranthambore National Park Safari?
We considered a few parks when making our decision. Nick had previously had some Ranthambore tiger sightings. However, he had also visited Bandhavgarh tiger reserve where he also saw tigers. Our other option was Corbin National Park, which would be new for Nick. We looked at tiger numbers and viewings but in the end it was a simple matter of logistics.
Rathambore was the easiest to get to from where we were so that is the one we picked. From my research I believe your best chances of seeing a tiger are at Bandhavgarh however, this is not really on the tourist trail around India.
When to visit Ranthambore National Park
The dry winter months of October to April are generally the best times to visit Ranthambore. During monsoon months you will obviously get very wet! The best time for a tiger safari is pre-monsoon, (April/May). During this time water is scarce so tigers are forced to come to watering holes and lakes to drink. Viewings at these water sources are easier than through the thick grass or dense forest.
Time of day
We did our Indian safaris in the afternoon and in the morning and although we saw tigers on both occasions, I would suggest the morning safari is better. There are two reasons for this.
- Wildlife are most active early morning around sunrise and early evening once the sun has set. The afternoon safaris begin around 3pm when it is still too hot for the wildlife. Also, the park closes at 6pm so the jeeps have to be out of the park before this time. I would argue that this is the very time you need to be in the park.
- You have a longer safari in the morning. In the morning we got picked up around 6:30am and dropped off around 10:30am, totalling 4 hours. In the afternoon we got picked up around 2:30pm and dropped off around 5:30pm, totalling 3 hours. Quite a big difference.
This obviously might be affected by the time of year you visit. We visited in October where sunset was after 6pm. You can check safari times by visiting the National Park website.
What do you need for a tiger safari?
Safari hat: To keep the hot sun off and look good at the same time! Everyone on safari needs a safari hat 🙂
Sunscreen and lip balm: This sunscreen is also free of nasty chemicals.
Binoculars: Handy for all other Ranthambore wildlife, not just the tigers. Nikon make some amazing binoculars which are quite affordable.
Jeep or Canter?
This is a no brainer for me – jeep every time!
Yes the jeeps are more expensive but sometimes its worth spending a little extra, in exchange for the quality of the experience. A jeep holds six people whereas a canter holds twenty.
If you are lucky enough to get a tiger spotting, your experience of seeing that tiger will be much better in a jeep that can position itself better, and where you don’t have twenty heads to look around.
Other things to do in Sawai Madhopur
On our spare day in Sawai Madhopur we opted to rent a jeep with a driver and visit Ranthambore Fort. Declared a UNESCO site in 2013 the fort was likely built in the 10th century. The fort is located inside Ranthambore National Park and it is a nice site to wander around.
It includes three Hindu temples, one Jain temple and lots of monkeys. We visited the fort in the late afternoon when it was slightly cooler, exiting the park just before 6pm. At this time, if you get lucky you might also be able to spot some wildlife as you drive through the park.
Tribal Wild Women Craft
On the morning of our spare day we visited Tribal Wild Women Craft. Here, women from the villages that were displaced when Ranthambore National Park became protected, make various items ranging from carpets to blankets to handbags. They make many of the items from recycled saris and clothing. Its nice to visit even if you have no intention of buying anything.
Where to stay in Sawai Madhopur
Hotel Tiger Haveli
There are many resorts around Sawai Madhopur, most of which are based outside the city. Our budget option, The Tiger Haveli, was on the edge of town and I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough. The room was clean and appeared quite new. We had an ensuite which was also clean, with a powerful hot shower.
The hotel has a rooftop restaurant where we ate most of our meals, as the food was delicious. The other great thing about this hotel are the staff. It’s run by a family who couldn’t do more for us. They organised our tiger safaris, made yummy food and invited us to join in on their Diwali celebrations. Top class!
My Ranthambore Tiger Safari was definitely a highlight of my time in India. I know I got lucky with my sightings, but if you plan to be in one of the many tiger reserves in India, such as Ranthambore, at the right time of year I’m sure you too will get the same magical experience that I did.
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