Early in the 20th century, Indian Maharajahs owned hunting lodges on their lands and would invite friends for a vacation of big game shooting (tigers, leopards, deer, etc). Today, those hunting lodges remain but the property is now in the hands of the government of India. Many of them have been turned into Nature preserves, like Ranthambore in the state of Rajasthan. My friends and I traveled there for 3 days in search of the illusive Tiger.
Outside the gates of the preserve, we found a city in disrepair with trash on the ground, people wallowing in mud, wild boar and emaciated cows roaming the streets and alleyways. Sari clad women were working hard carrying enormous piles of sticks on their heads, or tending to small personal crops, while also taking care of children. The men were mostly sitting around on plastic chairs smoking and chatting with each other. Stands with street food vendors were lined up sporadically selling local dal and other Indian dishes. We saw several men urinating on the side of the road.
Then we turned the corner and entered “glamping paradise!” We drove onto the Aman I Khas property which consists of luxury tents. Before entering our tent, we were served piping hot ginger tea, and we met out “Batmen.” Batmen are like Butlers, in that each couple is assigned one Batman to “look after them” during the course of their stay. They differ from Butlers in that they protect the guest from wild animals, get to know you like a friend, and work 24 hours a day! They also do “Butler-type” duties, such as bring you tea or coffee and a sweet in bed (in your tent) when you push a button (OMG…..DIVINE!) They wash and fold your clothes, they serve your meals, they arrange your daily activities, and they bow and say “Namaste” each time. I was speechless. THEN I saw the tent!
My dream safari tent had been the one from “Out of Africa” where Robert Redford and Meryl Streep cohabitated. This one put that one to shame! Scott and I had seperate vanities with sinks and mirrors. We each had a writing desk, complete with stationery. There was a giant bath tub as well as a shower.At the center of the tent sat a huge leather lounging platform for reading, relaxing, dining, etc. The tent had 3 porches…. front, and two side porches … all with various furniture for lying down, reading, etc. And the topper… the tent had forced heating as well as a heating pad UNDER the mattress pad for the cold Indian nights.
Our first safari was in the evening as the Indian air begins to cool and the nocturnal beasts begin to roam. We entered the Rathanbore Nature Reserve with our private naturalist, Banksie, in search of the tiger. What we found instead was even more elusive! We spotted two sloth bears climbing a mountain. Banksie was overjoyed! He says people get to see the Tiger on occasion, but nobody sees the bears! Not bad for day one.
Day two brought sightings of the striped hyienna, deer, monkey, and many birds. The Tiger was still not to be seen. We could tell that Banksie was getting nervous for us, and feeling the pressure to perform. That evening, our Batmen arranged a secret dinner in the forest for us. (What we call a jungle, they call a forest.) Several camp fires were lit, as well as candle lanterns in the trees. The chef was there to explain about his dishes, and how they were cooked with ingredients from his onsite garden. We sampled many new delicacies in the forest while imagining the Tiger calling our names.
Our last safari ride was on a cold frigid morning, and the air was filled with dust. My allergies had been tested prior at the camp, and I decided to take a pass. The diehards carried on. The Batmen provided hot water bottles for the gang to snuggle with to try and keep warm. This time, the safari would be in sector 4…. the most gruelling for passengers. Sector 4 involves driving in the open air jeep up steep inclines over giant boulders, and passengers get the feeling that their innards are falling out. Also, no bathroom breaks for three hours. Scott’s dust mask quickly went from white to brown. Just when the three hours were almost up, Banksie spotted tiger tracks! He told the driver to step on the gas and go!!!!! Through a series of twists and turns that nearly clipped trees and rock piles, Banksie found Layla, a 400 pound lioness carefully spraying her territory. As he followed her in the car, she turned around and jeered at the visitors, as of say “What are YOU looking at?!” Once everyone got their photos, she was quickly on her way, ready to hide from some more eager guests. I had missed the Tiger but hearing their stories and seeing their excitement was a joy for me!
As we left the Aman I Khas, we took with us more than photos and souvenirs. We took with us memories of true kindness the staff and local people showed us. We took with us a need to help protect endangered species and make sure they have land to roam freely. We also took with us a concern for the amount of trash and pollution we saw in the small villages and towns throughout India. I don’t know the answer….. I just know it seemed like something that couldn’t /shouldn’t be continued.