I have done the unthinkable: I snoozed during a wildlife safari, mouth open, dribble and all.
Mortified, I glance at Bobby Bhargawa, my guide at Ranthambore National Park. If he has noticed, he doesn’t give it away. We were waiting in the bushes, listening to a peacock’s alarmed shrieks, squinting to see where it was facing: towards a tiger? There were hints all morning—tantalising fresh pug marks on tracks, grand clues of an animal having been dragged at the spot we had been five minutes ago. So, after 15 minutes of waiting in the bushes, I wondered if this peacock was onto something, or was he just an antsy sort of guy.
Suddenly, the jeep tears through the bushes. Bobby’s signature grin is gone, his rounded face is serious. “Arre bhagao! Us taraf (Hurry, that way)!” he hisses at Ramkishan, the driver. Snap, snap, snap. Bobby clicks his fingers towards a pond near a rock face. There are huge ripples in it. Someone is in there. And we are driving right into its face.
“I am Batman,” says Satish Dhole, who meets me at the entrance of Aman-i-Khas resort, where I will spend two days exploring Ranthambore’s forests. “Your personal, always-on-call butler,” he explains, clearly preferring the former title bestowed on him by the hotel.
Aman-i-Khas seems to have sprung up from the wilderness around it. The luxury camp has 10 beige Mughal-style tents peeking from clearings, dotted amid dense foliage in a way that I barely run into other guests. Each tent is a leviathan; a 1,600-square-foot, air-conditioned space with a lounging area, twin dressing tables, a double bed, and bathroom. If it weren’t for the lure of jungle safaris and meals around bonfires, I’d most certainly stay put in the brown leather deckchairs in my tent’s sun deck. Later, as I walk deeper into the camp, I find more pockets of peace. Slim dirt paths wind among guava and jamun trees, and my ears fill with birdsong. I stumble upon two pairs of tables with cheery umbrellas overlooking a little pond. The only borders Aman-i-Khas really maintains with the jungle are modest mud walls, a few wired sections, and thickets of bushes meant to discourage animals from crossing over. Beyond one such section, a peahen struts without fear.
Satish and I chat as we walk towards the dinner spot—a simple, laltain-lit clearing near the camp’s boundary. The rules of the jungle, he agrees, never change: there are no guarantees in the wild, and the returns can be rewarding or frustrating depending on how you see it; everybody feels they’ll spot ‘The (Striped) One.’ “Yet each story has its own drama… that look on people’s faces when they tell their stories.” Satish loves how sightings are the fulcrum of every conversation in the camp. “It’s always about seeking that one unforgettable encounter in the wild.” I wonder which sighting shaped Satish.
My dinner is a true treat; lamb chops, murg malai and tawa macchi so tender they might crumble off my fork, lal maas and kair sangri, and bajra roti that tastes of the chulha. Just before I sink my spoon into the ghee-bathed badam halwa, Satish freezes mid-serve and nods to my left. A nilgai has joined us, soundlessly. It realises our presence and disappears into another corner of the camp, leaving me with the widest grin. “There goes our rose garden,” says Satish indulgently.
The next evening, I step out with a camel called Tiger (for extra luck), who plods along a dusty, bramble-lined stretch of Sherpur-Khiljipur village. After about 40-minutes of watching the countryside basked in warm yellows, I meet Satish and Ramkishan atop a babool-covered hillock, ringed by 13th-century wall ruins. I can see for miles on end: the dot-like Jain temple and an 800-year-old cemetery add a different sort of sweetness to my evening coffee.
Munching on cookies and honey-chilli potato, Satish ribs Ramkishan about his glorious moustache. “It almost cost me my life last year,” he winks. In February 2017, the duo was on a safari with Bobby in Zone 4. Ramkishan was twirling his moustache in the rear-view mirror, when he noticed the male tiger, T74’s reflection. “Bobby asked Ramkishan to overtake him so we could see his face, but the second we did, he charged at us. Front legs in air, paws clawing the air. His roars froze my insides. I thought it was the end of me.” As Ramkishan grins, Satish adds, “Be careful with what you wish for.”
Bobby signals Ramkishan to slow down as we approach the pond. There they are—not one, but three tigers dipping in the water 10 feet ahead. Bobby coos as if he has seen cute little cats, but on his face I see the incredulity I feel. Three mouths lap at the water, in sync; six ears are simultaneously pricked at the slightest sound we make. I am agape when the two-year-olds begin playing with each other, splashing water all around.
“How long did you watch them for!” a lean, elderly guide in another jeep asks us in Hindi, long after the tigers have left. He looks ashen, hoping that his British guests don’t pick up on our obvious delight.
“About five minutes,” I say confidently.
“No way! We were rooted here for 20 minutes!” laughs Bobby.
“Or,” he shrugs, “you just dozed off again.”
Aman-i-Khas is in Sherpur-Khiljipur village in Sawai Madhopur. It lies 165 km/3 hr from Jaipur airport (www.aman.com; doubles (Indians) Rs1,12,000 two-nights minimum, including all meals and soft beverages).
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.