In February 2004 we took our three children out of school for two months and traveled in India, Cambodia, Thailand, Hong Kong & Tokyo. 38 days, 37 hours on a plane, 23 hours in an airport, 20 time zones, 35 hours of driving, 10 hours of animal riding (specifically camels and elephants), 190 malaria pills (38 each), 360 antibacterial Handi-wipes (15 boxes), 2 bottles of Purell, and 5 cuisines later, we flew to Hawaii for a “vacation”. This post is part of a series on that trip.
I went tiger hunting. For real. With my kids too. And my husband of course, without whom no tiger hunting excursion would be complete. Ok, not with guns, because that would be SO un-pc, but with cameras. It was a while ago, but of all the places we’ve travelled and the things we have done (more on that later) it was by far one of the coolest. And our family is all about The Coolest Experience.
We were staying at Vanyavilas Hotel in Ranthambore National Park in India, which is also THE coolest hotel I have ever stayed at. (I clearly need to consult an online thesaurus for some synonyms for “cool”.) Our beautiful “rooms” were actually luxury tents–complete with full bathrooms, hardwood floors, and four-poster beds. The service was impeccable, and the food was fresh and delicious. The following is an excerpt from my journal about our 4 days of tiger hunting with our three children ages 8, 11, and 14:
“Despite repeated safaris, and rising ever earlier (5:30am) we spotted no tigers. We saw lots of tiger tracks and poop, heard monkeys’ warning calls and tigers roaring, and spoke to people who heard tigers, but did not actually see tigers. We had the best time, though, on our tiger hunts. It was freezing cold in the early mornings when we got in our open-air safari jeep. We would zoom to the Park about 15 minutes away, risking frostbite to our ears, and the local naturalist assigned to us would jump out to the office “to get our route”. We quickly figured out that the best route was to be had in direct proportion to the tip to the guide the day before.
We would then continue at top speed over dirt roads, past romantic misty ruins, under giant banyan trees filled with monkeys, up a mountain and down the other side, to be the first one there at the watering hole. Why this was important I have no idea….were we planning to surprise the tiger at his morning drink? Hardly likely as the jeep sounded like a twin engine plane; any tigers in their right minds within a mile radius would hit the road. Probably explains the number of tiger tracks we saw.
After confirming that tigers had indeed been there recently (my guess is the middle of the night, but the naturalist always thought it was a few minutes ago: “very, very fresh tracks, ma’am”), we would wait a decent amount of time for the tiger to appear, admiring the water birds in the meantime. I have not been on an African safari, but I imagine that these safaris were somewhat similar, except that African guides have walkie talkies and these guys rely solely on word of mouth. So upon leaving the watering hole we would zoom around at top speed–apparently at random–and ask for information from every other jeep we met, resembling a swarm of flies, I’m sure. Occasionally, word would spread that a tiger had actually been seen and jeep after jeep would speed in that direction like something out of a James Bond chase scene. Unless we were the first jeep (never) we would literally eat their dust. And sure enough, by the time we got there, we were at least the 3rd or 4th vehicle on the spot and the elusive tiger was long gone.
Every time we met another jeep it would go like this: The two jeeps would stop and turn off their engines and everyone would relax and listen to forest noises. Then the two naturalists from each jeep would have a conversation in top-speed Hindi, except for the word “tiger” which is always in English. I could always follow the first part:
Then a pause, then more lengthy rapid-fire Hindi which I began to suspect went like this:
“How’s your wife?”
“Fine, and your kids?”
“Deepayan is a little sick, but he’s better now.”
“Are those tourists in the back as stupid as they look?”
“Yeah, I drive around in circles pretending to look for the tiger and every now and then offer them water and pretend I hear the warning calls of the monkey and then they give me a big tip…can you believe it? If I put on a good act today, they will hire me again tomorrow!”
A guide we befriended at dinner one night assured me that the naturalists were actually discussing whether Deepak back there had been lying about seeing the tiger 20 minutes ago at this same spot, in order to persuade the tourists (us) to hire HIM the next day (as he was apparently the only one to actually find a tiger).
We never saw a tiger on that trip, but we never had so much fun looking. Some other guests at the hotel assured us that they had–indeed–caught a glimpse of one during that week. Recently, filmmaker Colin Stafford-Johnson and his guide, Salim Ali, followed and filmed a family of Ranthambore tigers. The story aired on the PBS show, Nature, and (in addition to proving that the tigers do exist) raised questions about the typical dangers the animals face: poachers, loss of habitat, and the desperate need for conservation programs in India. You can view a preview of the show here.