Peak of summer in Rajasthan. An angry sun looking down in contempt for the scars human folks had etched on mother earth, letting the temperature soar above 45 degrees. The barren landscape, generally devoid of green, appears more desolate. I was on my annual pilgrimage to Ranthambhore, located near Sawai Madhopur, driving down almost 450 km in these conditions from Delhi. The searing heat will boil the tin box you are travelling into an oven. At times you will barely feel the existence of the air conditioner. One needs to get out of the car to feel that the AC is actually working. I had done this trail for last three years without fail. Every time I did it, I said to myself that this is the last time. But the tigers of Ranthambhore keep bringing me back.
|Emergence : A tigress from zone 7 in Ranthambhore|
Summer is the best time for watching tigers in the wild. More and more people are braving the sun to travel in summers, even to hot places like Ranthambhore. Demand for safari seats have gone up drastically over the years. Booking a safari online in your desired zone is tough, in fact near impossible these days. The controversial online safari booking process has grown in notoriety this year. Supply is as short as just 18 seats as against a train full of crowd clamoring for it. There is sheer madness for booking. Thanks to a friend’s coaching, I could acquire special skill to crack the booking conundrum and manage full days booking for zone 3 and 2. Therefore I am back in Ranthambhore again.
Despite the convenience of trains, I prefer driving down to Ranthambhore. Reason number one is that carrying my heavy camera gear is easier with car. Having a car at disposal also helps you get safari permits released by self or get a chilled beer from shop at half rate than your hotel. Of all the combinations of routes out of Delhi, the Gurgaon-Dharuhera-Bhiwadi-Alwar-Sikandara-Dausa-Sawai Madhopur is the shortest route from Delhi. From my residence close to East Delhi, the distance via this route is about 400km. Most part of this is tolled highway and hence drive is generally pleasant. However hold up is common on NH8. The perpetual road work on NH8 was seen creating long jams on opposite carriageway at two places. Fortunately it was not our carriageway and we were spared with a 15-20 min hold up at Manesar toll both.
As my first safari was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon, I had a Saturday to spare. I decided to utilise it to take a small diversion en-route to Sariska. Besides sparing me the pain of driving down 400 plus km on a single day in this heat, this diversion would also allow me to explore the recently opened Sterling Tiger Heaven Resort. I have a Sterling Holidays membership, and Sariska at 200km is the nearest resort from Delhi. Thus on day 1, I drove around 200km to Sariska via Alwar and then next day, I covered about 250km from Sariska to Ranthambhore (via Sikandara). I had started from Sariska around 8am after breakfast, yet I had reached Sawai Madhpur well on time for my afternoon safari at 2pm. Road condition is mostly excellent, and at worst drivable. The drivable section referred to is the 38 km stretch of Alwar-Sariska road.
My three nights stay at Ranthambhore this year has been my longest till date. Ranthambhore was rocking this time of the year. Baring the first safari on Sunday afternoon, which was actually booked to fill the spare time, we had ‘photographic’ tiger sighting. As a wildlife photographer, and someone who had seen many tigers in wild, a ‘photographic’ sighting is all that matters. Even one photographic sighting out of 4 or 5safaris, which I generally do in a trip, sooths the soul. Here we got super sighting in 5 out of 6 safaris this year.
On the day of my return, I did morning safari that would end around 10am and hence was not expected to check out before 12am. This means that I would be reaching Gurgoan around 6pm and then would be meandering though peak office hour traffic all the way to Ghaziabad. That would be too much taxing after driving 350km for 5-6 hours. The perpetual road work on NH8 and possibility of jams was also a deterrent. So the idea of trying out a different route dawn on me. The alternate route is via Bharatpur-Mathura-Yamuna Expressway-Noida. This would complete the full cycle of Delhi-Sariska-Ranthambhore-Bharatpur-Delhi wildlife circuit. With this route, I would emerge at Noida, close to my residence in East Delhi, thereby avoiding traffic nightmare via Gurgaon.
Keeping the new route in mind, we started from Sawai Madhopur around 12 noon. In any case, we had to travel 150km to Sikandara before taking the call. The attendant at the Sikandara toll both on Jaipur-Agra NH11 estimated the distance to Bharatpur as 60km. I had done 150 already, plus 60 more, and Bharatpur to Delhi via Yamuna Expressway is about 200km. This comes about 410, almost the same as that of Alwar-Gugaon option. Therefore I decided to continue straight to Bharatpur, instead of turning left for Alwar. But the very next road sign I came across announced the distance to Bharatpur as 85km. This added 25km to the journey to make it almost 435km. I was already in a state of no return, and hence only option was to continue driving ahead. However the saving grace was the excellent road condition and very little traffic. Unlike NH8, which is always full of trucks, there were very few trucks on NH11. On reaching outskirt of Bharatpur, we exited NH11 and took the Mathura by-pass to avoid the town. This road is familiar to me as I have been to Bharatpur many times. Passing through Mathura, we reached Yamuna Expressway without any held up. Soon after crossing Jewar toll plaza, we took a break, the only one of the trip, after 5 hours of non-stop driving. Being a weekday, traffic on expressway was also low. We hit Noida almost on the stroke of evening. The drive of almost 400km upto Noida was very pleasant, mainly because of very low traffic en-route.
Finally we got stuck in office hour traffic at the Akshardham junction to NH24. But it was nothing as compared to what I would have to endure via Gurgaon at those hours. Thus the decision to return via Bharatpur turned out to be a prudent one. The extra 35km and additional Rs.120/- toll paid was worth it. In fact, if one is travelling from East Delhi / Ghaziabad / Noida, then I feel that this route should be preferred. Those living around South or West Delhi and Gurgaon, have only one option via Alwar. Total toll via Alwar route was Rs.280/- and via Bharatpur was Rs.400/- (including 240 paid for Expressway use).
With this trip, I had completed the full cycle of Delhi-Sariska-Ranthambhore-Bharatpur-Delhi wildlife circuit. Total distance covered was about 950km. I had now explored all possible routes to Ranthambhore viz. via Jaipur-Dausa, via Alwar-Sikandara-Dausa and via Bharatpur-Dausa. You can explore my blog for my earlier write up on these other route options.