Sariska Tiger Reserve – #RajasthanDiaries Part 2

Sariska Tiger Reserve

Sariska – The Tiger Safari That Wasn’t !

After the hectic day we had yesterday, getting up in the morning was quite a task in itself. Nevertheless, the day found all of us rising early and we met for breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant at about 0800. As our safari was booked for the afternoon, and we had a long drive ahead to Sariska, we decided to have a hearty breakfast, being unsure whether we would have time enough for lunch on the way. Or whether we would even find a decent place en-route to halt for lunch.

On The Highway

Road Trip To Sariska

We hit the highway at about 0930 and headed towards Jaipur on the highway. After having driven for about an hour or so, the GPS insisted that we had to take a left turn. The only problem was, the turn that it was indicating was not even a proper road. It seemed more like a dirt track. We hesitated, as we did not wish to end up on another village road as was the case on the previous day. We stopped to debate when some more “friendly locals” appeared on a motorcycle, and told us that this was indeed the way to Sariska, and that we would hit a proper road “after a few kilometers”. Going by our past experience, we decided not to follow this so-called road, and searched for alternate routes. Another local, who lived in a village structure just off the road from where we were, had been watching us for a while, and he intervened to tell us that we should not take this road, as it was very narrow in some places and passed through a couple of villages. He also informed us that a few kilometers further down, we would come to a T-point where the road turned left on to the proper highway leading to Alwar. We thanked him for his advice, and moved on.

Now, I have already mentioned here that we are absolute mad-hatters, and while we had stopped to debate on the route to take, we noted that the distance to Sariska from where we were was the same as the distance to Jaipur. For a fleeting moment, we actually debated whether we should skip Sariska and go to Jaipur instead ! One of the arguments in favour of this was that we had already done a safari on the previous day, so we could skip the one at Sariska. However, better sense prevailed, and soon we were on our way again. We soon reached the main Alwar-Sariska highway and made good time.

We passed through some villages and small towns on the way, and even stopped at one place to buy fruits. After this brief halt, we resumed the journey. Soon, we were driving in the middle of the Aravalis and the route was actually quite scenic, despite the fact that some of the hills looked arid and barren, and at some points it was lush green. Before we reached Sariska we saw signs that we were close to the forests – hordes of monkeys sitting by the highway in some places, stray peacocks here and there, and then a herd of Sambar deer by the roadside. Soon, the Sariska palace was in sight. The complex that houses the office of the Sariska Tiger Reserve is located directly opposite the approach road to Sariska palace. Despite our comfortable pace and the couple of halts we made, we had covered the distance from Neemrana to Sariska in less than three hours.

As we had booked online, we were supposed to collect our boarding passes for the safari from the Sariska gate office, and we could see a long queue already formed there – it was a Sunday on a long weekend after all. Close to the gate where we parked, one of the open Gypsy vans that are used for the safari was parked. A guide and the driver were sitting in it. We struck up a conversation with them and asked them the procedure to collect the boarding passes for the safari against our online bookings. They informed us that the window for online booking would open at 1330 – still another 40 minutes to go. They looked at my printouts for online bookings and informed me that the amount that we had paid was only to reserve a seat, and that the balance payment would need to be made at the counter. This did not come as a surprise to us, as having paid for the Alwar safari, we knew that there was some catch in the online price we had paid, and that it could not be so cheap.

Rajasthan Wildlife Booking Website

Now those of you who have never booked the safari online might be interested in knowing how to go about making the booking. Firstly, it is not easy to find the link to the online bookings, as it is not a dedicated site for wildlife bookings. It is part of the main portal of the Rajasthan Government, and it takes some searching to find it. When you get to the Wildlife Bookings section, you are required to register using one of the acceptable identification reference numbers. Once registered, you need to sign in and then select the safari you wish to book. For Sariska, there are two options – one is to take the safari from Sariska Gate, the  other is to take it from Tehla Gate. We had opted for Sariska Gate, and thankfully we were at the right gate – the Tehla Gate is quite some distance away ! Once you select the gate, you have to select from Route 1, 2 or 3. We had selected Route 1. Next, you have to select the Morning session or the Afternoon session, and obviously we had selected the afternoon one. Then you get to select the vehicle type. You have a choice between a Gypsy, or a Canter open truck. We had chosen Gypsy. You can book a maximum of six persons in one go. We had to make multiple log-ins to book all nine of us. The surprising part is that though it is an official website of the Rajasthan Government, it is completely devoid of information and is even lacking in transparency in pricing. Including the online booking fees, we had paid an amount of Rs 127 per person for the Gypsy. The ticket that is generated online does not mention that this is only an advance to protect your seat. All it says is that vehicle rental and guide charges etc MAY BE payable on the spot, IF APPLICABLE. No further explanation is offered. The Gypsy Safari at Sariska actually costs around Rs 3300 per vehicle, and takes a maximum of 6 persons, apart from the driver and guide. This cost is divided among six persons, and the amount paid while booking online is reduced from it, and you end up paying the balance amount on the spot. So if you ever book online, please do not assume that this is the final amount payable. Oh, and did I mention that the website has several glitches, and we ran into several booking errors ? It took a lot of persistent chasing on email and phone calls to their head office in Jaipur before the problem was resolved. I do hope you have better luck than we did !

The ticket window actually for collecting boarding passes for online bookings opened much before the scheduled time of 1330, and it is here that you need to pay the extra amount. On the counter they charge you a sum of Rs 120 for each online ticket, regardless of the number of persons booked in that ticket. Now we did our booking in three separate tickets so we paid Rs 360 on the counter. The balance amount towards guide fees and vehicle rental is to be paid to the guide directly (Rs 2280 per vehicle in cash for 6 seats). We were 9 people and were split into two vehicles 6 in one and balance 3 in another (payment to guide Rs 1140 in cash for 3 seats). I had requested the clerk on the window to give us even the second vehicle privately and that we would be willing to pay for the balance three seats as well, but the request was denied and this vehicle was shared with another family of 3 persons. To my surprise, while we were on the safari, we actually saw several Gypsy vans with just two or three persons, so I am still wondering why our request for a private vehicle was denied. Perhaps they didn’t like my face, although I am sure I asked very politely 🙂 Oh, by the way, just thought I would mention here that the person who was immediately ahead of me in the queue had booked online for Tehla Gate, and not being aware that he was on the wrong gate, he presented his online ticket, only to be told that he would need to drive another 19 kms to reach the Tehla Gate. Now I am sure this can come as a shock to anyone, especially when you do not have that kind of time available. The poor guy requested to be accommodated from this gate itself, and after a few moments of discussing amongst them, the staff finally agreed and gave him the boarding slip from Sariska gate itself. Good for him !

Anyway, coming back to the story. The ticket exchange was done and we had time till 1430 – that’s when the gates open. A couple of hundred yards opposite the ticket window is a cafeteria and a souvenir shop which you can visit to buy Sariska souvenirs like caps with their logo etc. Rani bought herself one and promptly put it on. Right next to the ticket window is a shack selling water bottles and soft drinks. And to keep you on your toes, there are hordes of monkeys everywhere. You need to be careful while eating or drinking anything. For all you know, you just might have it snatched from your hands by an adventurous simian ! And you need to be careful where you sit as well, especially if you sit under a tree, as one of the birds might decide to sit overhead and leave you a blessing 😀

The facilities at the gate are minimal. If you need to answer the call of nature, now is a good time for it, for once you are on the safari, you won’t get the opportunity till you are back, which is about three hours later. Unfortunately, for a place that attracts so many tourists, there isn’t even a proper washroom. There is a makeshift toilet that is so filthy that you can barely use it. One would think that for a place that attracts so many tourists, they would be earning enough to at least provide decent toilets. On the men’s side, there is an open urinal but use it at your own risk, for there are honeybees sitting inside the urinal pot ! Nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, if you need to use the loo, do so before the safari commences, or hold till you are back. You certainly won’t be allowed to alight from the vehicle in the forest.

We got talking to one of the guides, and casually asked him what the chances of spotting a tiger were. He smiled at us condescendingly and pointed to the row of vehicles lined up outside – some 20 odd Canter trucks and an equal number of Gypsy vans. “Once the gates open, all these vehicles will be going inside. There will be some 500 odd persons in all. What do you think are the chances of a tiger coming and saying hello ?” I must admit that he did have a point there !

Outside The Ticket Exchange Office – Waiting For Gates To Open

We got talking to one of the guides, and casually asked him what the chances of spotting a tiger were. He smiled at us condescendingly and pointed to the row of vehicles lined up outside – some 20 odd Canter trucks and an equal number of Gypsy vans. “Once the gates open, all these vehicles will be going inside. There will be some 500 odd persons in all. What do you think are the chances of a tiger coming and saying hello ?” I must admit that he did have a point there !

Finally it was 1430, and we boarded our respective vehicles and drove to the main forest gate, about half a kilometer away. It is here that the guide took our IDs to the check-post for verification. It is mandatory for anyone entering the forest to produce an ID and when you book online the ID details need to be furnished for each person, and the same IDs must be produced here for verification. Each individual entering the park also signs a separate indemnity form stating that the person is taking the safari on his / her own risk, and in case of any untoward incident taking place during the safari, the Sariska Tiger Reserve and its employees, guides and drivers etc will not be held responsible. Comforting thought !

Finally, we drove through the main gate. All the vehicles had lined up outside the main gate, waiting to be let through. These also included private cars. Oh, by the way, you can take your private vehicle through the park by paying an entry fee, but you are only allowed to stick to the main road, and are not allowed to venture in the interior forest tracks. And at no point are you allowed to alight from the vehicle, except at the check-post inside the park, where it is mandatory for all vehicles to report – a brief halt of 10 minutes.

At Sariska Gate – The Safari Begins

All the vehicles entered the park in an almost convoy like formation. There go our chances of sighting a tiger, I thought to myself. As we started, our guide gave us a brief introduction of the park and the flora and fauna we could expect to see there. I won’t go into the details right now – you can read about it on Wikipedia. Let’s get on with the tale.

The “road” was more of a gravel path, but level. However, soon we turned off the main road on to a jungle track on our left. A short drive later, we reached a lake in the middle of the forest. It appeared to be very peaceful, but our guide cautioned us against getting down and pointed to a crocodile sleeping on the side of the lake. It was caked with mud and we did not even spot it till it was pointed out to us. He also pointed out several other crocodiles scattered around the shore at various spots – all of them almost invisible. Also to be seen at the lake were a wide variety of birds, and a lot of migratory Siberian cranes. The guide told us that many migratory cranes that arrived here annually stayed back at the lake and did not return to Siberia, as they preferred the climate here.

The Lake With Crocodiles & Cranes

Moving on, we drove through various tracks, intersecting the main track at various intervals. Unlike the forest at Alwar, which had only the Sambar deer, we could see lots of Spotted deer here. In fact they could be found scattered all over the forest. They would run away as a vehicle approached, only to move slightly further into the vegetation to resume their grazing. The fact that they seemed otherwise relaxed was a sure sign that there was no tiger nearby.

As we criss-crossed through the jungle, the guide would occasionally explain about the area we were passing through, but other than that he remained engrossed in conversation with the driver, or on the phone. Occasionally, we spotted some wild boar. There were peacocks in abundance. We would see them over trees, or just crossing our path. And there were hordes of monkeys.

Sparse Vegetation & Very Few Animals

We did not spot any other wild animals, though the forest is supposed to be home to some tigers, leopards, hyenas, jackals and some very venomous snakes. Not that we wished to encounter them at close quarters, but yes, it would have been nice to spot them, even from a distance. At one point, while crossing a small bridge over a culvert, we saw some tortoises resting in the setting sun. And we saw some rabbits, some of them huge.

All of us were glad that we did not have lunch before the safari. The forest tracks that we were driven on were not exactly conducive for a relaxing drive after a meal. Chances are that we would have thrown up if we had had a meal before the safari. At some points, the tracks led up and down very steep slopes which were also full of rocks, and though we had no doubt that the four-wheeled drive Gypsy vans would have no trouble negotiating these tracks, it was indeed a surprise to see the bulky Canter trucks drive over these slopes effortlessly.

At one point, we passed the carcass of a deer lying by the side of the track – bones scattered around it, picked clean by scavengers. A grim reminder that we were indeed in the forest. At one point, the guide stopped the vehicle and pointed to a tree in the distance. As per the guide, a leopard must have hunted and taken its prey up a tree, and the leg of a deer was hanging from one of the branches. I was wondering whether the guide had an eyesight sharper than all of us put together, as he seemed to know exactly where to spot it. We had with us a set of powerful binoculars, so we zoomed in on the hanging leg. It appeared to be months old, because what we saw was only the skin, probably dry, with a hoof attached to it. I couldn’t help feeling that the whole thing was stage-managed for the benefit of the tourists. Strange that he knew exactly where to stop the vehicle, and where to point.

The guide explained that each tiger had two trackers assigned to it, and normally they would call up the trackers to learn of their whereabouts, but being a holiday on account of Holi, the trackers were not available. I found this a bit hard to digest. Tracking endangered tigers is a full time affair, not dependent on holidays and work rosters, so obviously the guide was making this up. Anyway, we did not argue with him. He told us tales of how some people travelling in different vehicles on the same track would either see a tiger or miss it completely. There had been instances where a tiger would cross in between two vehicles, and the people in the lead vehicle would not see it at all, whereas the people seated in the oncoming vehicle would get a good glimpse of it. Well, we certainly weren’t having any luck spotting one either !

We were then driven to a man-made water pit, full of green algae infested water. A watering place for animals, and a favourite hunting place of one the tigers designated as T3. We parked close to it for a while, engines switched off. Several other Gypsies also came and parked close by. A few minutes of sitting in silence loaded with anticipation. Each one of us craned our eyes in different directions, looking through the foliage surrounding the watering point, hoping to catch a glimpse of the big cat. Nothing. Zilch. Nyet. Nada. Nahin. Nope.

Random Shots In The Forest

No signs of any cat, big or small. And then, almost as if on a premeditated cue, all the Gypsies started their engines and moved on. No wonder the whole thing seemed so stage-managed. Shortly, we were told that it was approaching the closing time, and soon we were headed back. We exited the park shortly after 1800, and were dropped back at the ticket office, where our vehicles were parked. The safari was over without any opportunity to become acquainted with any dangerous wild animal. We could not help feeling that the safari we did on the previous day on the Bala Quila leopard trail was far better. Even the hilly terrain was better and we had enjoyed it far more than the one in Sariska.

On The Road Again

We alighted from the Gypsies and paid the cash amount to the guides. A few minutes to use the makeshift loos and to wash up using the taps provided at a water tank in the parking area, and then we were on our way back to Delhi. The last leg of a crazy trip. This time we took the road leading from Sariska to Bhiwadi via Alwar. We had started at about 1845 and made a brief tea halt on the way. We made good time, the highway, though narrower than the Jaipur highway, did not have much traffic. Shortly after 2200 we crossed the Manesar toll plaza, and 2230, we arrived at Kareem’s in Gurgaon Sector 14 for dinner – the last meal of the trip.

We parted ways here – Sanjay, Laveena and Nikhil heading home to their place in Gurgaon, and six of us once again squeezed into one car and took the Old Gurgaon road back to Delhi. We were back home around midnight. The trip was over. Two crazy, fun-filled days. We were tired, but not tired enough to be deterred from another road trip. The mad hatters are now exploring destination options for the next road trip. Stay tuned !

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