Niet alle trips naar tijgerreservaten zijn zo rijk, dat weet ik. Zelfs bewakers van bossen zien een doding niet vaak in actie - tijgers zijn slechts eenmaal succesvol in 20 pogingen - en op het einde is het geluk. Toen ik een paar dagen later het park verliet, terwijl ik voorbij Rajbag reed, voorbij Jogi Mahal, voorbij Gomukh, voorbij de stijgende rotswand (waar adelaars nestelen en luipaarden verbergen), voorbij de laatste racketstaartige drongo en dhokboom, draaide ik me om op tijd om te zien hoe het oude fort opdoemt als een visie die wordt gedragen door opiaatoverschotten …. Ranthambhore verlaten is als het achterlaten van een vitaal orgaan.Je moet terug komen voor je hart.

Weekend getaway from Delhi: Ranthambhore

Ancient rock crumbled under my grasp and bounced down the side of Ranthambhore Fort into the vast, dusty forest below. I walked into the skeleton of a house hemmed in by the roots of trees, and standing on a carpet of grass, I looked out a thousand-year-old window. Truly, Ranthambhore is pure magic. The place is fraught with romance and intrigue – ancient ruins smothered by roots, herons sharing lakes with holy men and a million myths about Raja Hamir and the glory days of the ‘impregnable’ fort.

The fall of Ranthambhore Fort, along with that of the one at Chittaurgarh, is what is unanimously credited with finally breaking the spirit of the legendary resilient Rajputs and establishing an undisputed Mughal empire in India. The locals still visit a Ganesh temple here, as do their ancestors. And like them, they have to walk through tiger forests to do this.

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Deer at Ranthambore

My pilgrimage was a little longer. Leaving behind the madness, darkness and filth of Mumbai late at night, I arrived the next morning to the bright light, cold air and red brick of Sawai Madhopur station. Once through the main entrance, dust and sand gave way to a canopy and shadow of leaves. My open top gypsy added whiplash wind to the experience and at the counter I was greeted by the omniscient presence of Ranthambhore – a tree full of langurs. Bracing over the remains of pilgrim picnics, screeching for attention, somersaults, flaunting, swinging from the vines, they landed with disturbing thuds on the tops of tourist buses.

Breathe the tiger flight

Ranthambhore is a popular holiday destination and in winter it is often crowded with boisterous tourists on an obsessive hunt for tigers for whom driving through the reserve is like chatting, loudly, while waiting to crowd with The King. It’s hard not to hope for tigers when you’re in Ranthambhore, but there’s something off-putting about tracking them down with walkie-talkies and harassing them with a constant barrage of lurkers. The trick to getting the most out of the park is stepping back from the madding crowd and being content to breathe tiger flight. Suddenly everything becomes exciting because of that.

On my first day in the park, as cormorants watched their wings dry on a bare tree in the middle of Rajbag Lake, someone in the next vehicle swore they had seen a tiger peeking through the window of a ruin far on the other bank. Everything looks like a tiger when you are desperate to see one I said but around the fire in Ranthambhore Bagh (nice tent accommodation) a photographer confirmed that evening that a young tigress was hiding her cubs there. Back in the same spot the next day, with a samba bar foraging in the water, I must admit I had streaks on the brain. About fifteen minutes later, the sambar stumbled out of the lake for no apparent reason, antlered with vegetation, and sped off. The mother tigress had begun her languid walk toward me long before I noticed her. Making her way across a piece of land into the water—literally a walkway across the lake—she stopped a few steps from my parked vehicle, crouched down, and began to drink. Close enough to see her whiskers twitch, the slap of her flat pink tongue against the water was the only sound I heard for what seemed like an eternity.

Finally she crossed the path in front of us and led the way, letting us follow in our vehicle for at least 20 minutes along the road before disappearing into the foliage. Tigers, my guide informed me, like walking on the dirt roads of the Forest Department because they are soft on the paws. What makes for incredible tiger monsters, I found out.

The hunt is on

The hunt for Something is painful, with the six vehicles blocking the path ahead of me the next morning, I was forced to join the fight for their promised tiger (a tip from a ranger). There was no way a wild animal could show up with so many people around, I thought. I was wrong. Not only did the tiger appear, he was on the hunt. He slid quietly into the tall grass and waited. There was no prey as far as anyone could see, but soon there was a wretched cry, instantly thwarted. A few minutes later, the beautiful predator clumsily dragged past a cheetal nearly as tall as himself at the neck. There, right on the road in sight of a few dozen awesome Homo sapiens, he sat down and, half-hidden by the grass, began to feast.

Not all trips to tiger reserves are so rich, I know. Even forest guards don’t often see a kill in action – tigers are only successful once in 20 attempts – and in the end it’s luck. When I left the park a few days later, driving past Rajbag, past Jogi Mahal, past Gomukh, past the soaring cliff face (where eagles nest and leopards hide), past the last racket-tailed drongo and dhok tree, I turned around in time to watch the old fortress loom like a vision carried by opiate surpluses…. Leaving Ranthambhore is like leaving a vital organ behind. You must come back for your heart.

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