By: Kristin Luna, Fall 2011 Voyage Staff Member
Most Semester at Sea students set off from Chennai in search of the Taj Mahal or Varanasi; however, one group of 24 headed in another direction entirely a¬≠nd made for Ranthambore National Park in northern India. It was my first time in the sprawling, overwhelming country, and my husband and I tagged along for the Ranthambore ride as trip liaisons.
Our meeting time on the first day was at the cruel hour of 3:30am; from the ship, we took a bus to the airport, a plane to Delhi, another bus two hours to the train station and a train six hours north to Sawai Modhopur. It was not the easiest of places to reach, but once there, we enjoyed a lavish dinner spread, settled into a naan-induced stupor in our hotel, the Ranthambore Regency, and rested up before a 5am wake-up call. The next morning was the one we‚Äôd all been waiting for since signing up for the trip months before: It was the day we would attempt to find tigers.
Located in Rajasthan, Ranthambore is one of India‚Äôs most renowned parks due to its former status as the hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Jaipur. It‚Äôs also one of the few places in the world where one can still see tigers in the wild‚Äîand in not just any setting either but a magnificent, lush jungle flanked by an ancient, regal fort and dotted by crumbling colonial structures that gives visitors the distinct feeling they‚Äôre starring in their own version of The Jungle Book or Indiana Jones or a combination of both.
A couple years ago, Ranthambore‚Äôs tiger population had dwindled to 20 due to poaching and fatal human-tiger interactions that resulted from a boom in tourism; thanks to steady conservation efforts by locals and other wildlife activists, the number of tiger residents has risen again to 36. But finding one of the 36 within a heavily wooded area spanning 392 square kilometers still is no easy task. Many friends of mine had visited Ranthambore before and achieved no such victory, but said the park was worth the visit nonetheless‚Äîtiger sighting or not.
During our first early morning drive through Zone 4, we saw a plethora of peacocks, families of cheeky monkeys, a crocodile swimming in a pond, two snakes intertwined, a wild boar with a pair of birds sitting atop its head, an errant mongoose, and a bevy of deer and antelope. But it wasn‚Äôt until the three-hour drive was quickly coming to a close when a four-year-old tigress nonchalantly sauntered out onto the dirt road‚Äîright in front of a safari vehicle of 18 Semester at Sea participants.
Everyone gasped, withdrawing their cameras from their backpacks like knights pulling swords from their sheaths, and held their breaths as the vehicle quietly followed the tiger from a short distance. She ambled out into a field before settling in the high grass and blinking calmly at the excited safari-goers snapping her picture, as if to grant permission to such behavior, then wandered off just as quickly as she arrived. Her appearance may have been fleeting, but the photographs‚Äîand the memory of seeing a tiger out in the open jungle‚Äîaren‚Äôt an experience any of them will forget anytime soon.
Kristin Luna works in the field office on the ship and back in the ‚Äúreal world‚Äù juggles a career of travel writing and blogging. You can read more about her globetrotting adventures on her site Camels & Chocolate.