The open, army-green Gypsy looks pretty business-like but I can’t see any rifles, electric prods or blocking shields. In fact, I can’t even see a damn laathi or anything to ward them off if they attack. The driver is called Goldy. In his baseball cap and jacket he looks serious too, like a ‘big-guy’ coach for a T-20 Team from the darkest kaleja of UP/MP/Rajasthan. The other guy is a different story altogether. “Hello, I’m Yadvendra, your naturalist.” He shakes hands firmly. There’s a heavy steel bracelet around his wrist and it says something I can’t make out in Confederate rock ’n’ roll script. His shades do not hide his mischievous eyes and his brigand-grin unfurls from under his bush hat. Yadvendra Singh’s grin and eye contact is mostly with my Bodyguard-cum-Walking-Encyclopaedia, but that is to be expected. I know I just look like the substitute photographer, brought along because the original guy with the big lenses was unavailable. My problem is, despite his crisply sizzling confidence, this 5.30am, YS looks quite slight. I don’t how he and/or Goldy (who’s big, yes, but not that big) will fight off something that’s 10 feet long and weighs 200 kg, and that too without so much as a pepper spray.
“Sir?” Monika, the hotel person, pings me for attention. “For your comfort, we have an ice-box below the seat here, with cold water bottles. Please enjoy your safari!”
As we jerk away from the hotel in the cool morning air I say my last prayers. Today is clearly the day I become one small, Continental breakfast. When we get to the entrance to the Reserve, I receive some slight, temporary relief: in front of the forest department check-post there are several other Gypsys milling about, and Canters loaded with a dozen-plus tourists each: Lakhnawi bureaucrats out en famille on summer Leave Travel Concession, Czechs, Madrasi photographers with lenses even bigger than their paunches; surely all these humans look and smell more edible than me? But we’ve been assigned to Zone 3. What if everybody else is in Zone 4 or 5 and we find ourselves face-to-face with the Hungry One, King of Zone 3?
None of this seems to worry my three companions as we recklessly leave the big dirt road and swing on to a narrower track. YS is immediately in commune with Bodyguard/ Encyclopaedia about the red-billed vultures circling the ramparts of the fort, which is perched high above us on top of a sheer cliff. Goldy is driving his version of Paris-Dakar, which involves craning his neck left and right into the maze of dry brush and almost never looking through the windshield as he stands on the accelerator.
“Look! Pug marks!” says YS, pointing to the dust at the edge of the track. Goldy brings us down to a mere 40kmph. “Kaun, woh waali?” he asks. “Haan,” replies YS, “Shaayad satraah number.”
Now we are down to 20kmph and the forest sounds are suddenly louder: birdcall, cricket-static, not far away what I imagine is a warning cry of a cheetal, langurs messing about in the trees arching overhead. I feel the hairs stand on my arms and the chill of the early morning air begins to cut through my shirt. I try and remember my Jim Corbett, read decades ago; the sound is supposed to stop, the jungle go silent, whenever there’s a Stripe-Don in the vicinity, but here the orchestra is full on. What’s with these monkeys, do they want to commit suicide?
After some reversing and forwarding and bumping on to a new track, YS, now standing up with the windshield as support, signals Goldy to stop. The engine is switched off. Lunatic. YS then looks at Goldy and points into a mess of boulders, trees and bush. Goldy nods. YS stretches straighter and makes a strange, guttural plumbing sound from deep inside his throat. Once, twice, thrice. The birds shut up in mid-chirp. The langur-chatter ceases. I find my eyes fixed on the trees near the boulder even as my brain keeps telling me to maintain a 360-degree scan — they can come at you from any direction. I have left my comfort zone, the safety of Delhi’s homicidal mid-summer traffic, to come 700km south, to this corner of Rajasthan, for the pleasure of being devoured by Queen Seventeen, the young but full-grown tigress that rules Zone 3 of Ranthambhore National Park.
The bait that lured me was ‘luxury’. “Oberoi Vanya- vilas. Best wildlife resort in Asia types!” they said. “But I don’t do wildlife,” I replied, not adding, “mainly because I don’t want wildlife to do me.” “Hey man, it’s supposed to be like the third best hotel in the world. Period. Okay?” Third best world-wide? Okay, this I had to see. So I organised aforementioned back-up and we duly found ourselves in the Oberoi SUV from Jaipur railway station to Sawai Madhopur, guzzling gallons of chilled water while the wagon guzzled its petrol at 7km a litre.
When we reach, the plant itself is quite impressive, faux Rajju palace-type architecture, a long blue pool in front of the entrance into which I can imagine the young of European royalty tearing off their designer clothes and throwing themselves as soon as they arrive, too impatient to get to the swimming pool inside. The Vanyavilas staff showed no such indecorum, all young men and women, all reasonably easy on the eye, all on full alert for our stay. Namastes, refreshing towels and welcoming tikas done, we were shown to the rooms.
Actually there is no such thing as a ‘room’ at V-vilas, there are only 25 ‘tents’, each with a surrounding mud wall and a little private garden filled with nice-smelling flower-type shrubs. The roof of each tent is a pointy-castle made from high-end waterproof canvas, as if somebody had raided the Saudi royal family, kidnapped the tops of their tambus and transplanted them here. When you enter, you almost expect to find some Saudi royals inside, except that the décor is far too tasteful, with not nearly enough gilt and crystal for nouveau-riche sheikhs. The space is divided into half: one part being the bedroom with four-poster bed etc, and the other half being elaborate bathing and wardrobe space including an old-fashioned bathtub, with the usual suspects all present and correct: several mirrors, thick towelry and Oberoi’s own-brand array of unctuous unguents. What is satisfyingly on the button for a luxury resort is the attention to detail: the pillows have just the right firmness, the shower is powerful enough to blast off fat, there are two cupboard-sized air-con units placed like huge stereo speakers behind wooden grills and, when you look up at the soaring tent ceiling you see a pattern of trees and tigers embroidered in muted red and gold thread.
The next morning, when we finally come across Tiger Seventeen, there is nothing decorative about her. We can see her from across a small lake, lolling — there’s no other word for it — at the water’s edge. There is no drama when we find her, a Gypsy and a Canter full of tourists have already spotted her and one of the other guides calls YS on the mobile to tell him to come to the spot. “Doesn’t she have a name?” I ask YS. “Yes, yes, some of these guides give them names, like Albela — now try explaining that to a foreign tourist! Or, one they called Sundari. Why? Aren’t the others equally beautiful? I mean, this is our national animal and if we give them names they should be respectful! Some people call this one Lady of the Lake, which is okay.”
T-17 aka LoL gets up, rolls in the water for a bit and then, as if to underline the need for respect, waddles over to some ruins at the edge of the lake, climbs onto a chhatri and assumes a regal pose, like a young Shobhaa De in a Khatau chiffon. “Why is her stomach bulging? Is she pregnant?” YS gives me his best tigger-grin, “She is pregnant with a whole, huge sambhar deer she killed day before. She has spent two days eating it and now she’s digesting. Slowly.”
I empathise with T-17 completely because I too am digesting slowly. For lunch the previous day I’ve had excellent murgh achari while BG/Encyc has relished a salad of organic leaves, walnuts and kiwi, followed by a fine tomato and basil soup and a perfectly made linguine with carbonara sauce, but sans the pancetta/bacon since BG/E is veggie. At some point between courses is placed before me a brilliant mint and Earl Grey sorbet, serving notice to the alert that there is a very clever and inspired hand working behind the swing doors. For dinner, we’ve both gone Indian and the starter is a nice tongue-in-cheek miniature papdi-chaat but, again, perfectly made. The dal and paneer would please even the Ambanis but my lal maas is so good it almost consoles me for the fact that I’m likely going to be low-end journo-maas for some Tigastronome the next day.
As it happens, T-17/LoL is replete and we drive off to look for the other, hugely ignored treasure of the Ranthambhore reserve. For the next two hours we switch-off the tiger-centric mode and park by a lake spotting things with wings. Listening to the gang and occasionally borrowing the binoculars, I get to know about stilts and stints, godwits and avocets, sandpipers and spoonbills, plovers and thick-knees. On the drive back, the sound of our jeep flushes out flustered pairs of painted spurfowl. Despite their alarmed gait, the boy-fowl still gleam sleekly, with not a coppery chestnut feather out of place. The forest is a grey blur but, every now and then, a brilliant flash of yellow slashes past and BG/E squeals excitedly, “Look, look! Another golden oriole!”
By the time we return to Lux-base V-v, I’m quite elated. I have seen my first tiger in the wild. I am not only uneaten, I feel like a hungry tiger myself. Kitchen doesn’t disappoint. In fact, Kitchen is actually called Chef Deep Arneja and his breads taste fantastic, from the lavash to the brioches and croissants; the preserves are bottled in situ with fruit from the V-v orchard; the scrambled eggs with truffles actually do have proper (and generous) truffles slinking about on top; the caffè is eccelente. After this, plans of lunch are now toast.
Against my better judgement, I’ve agreed to go on yet another ‘safari’ in the afternoon, giving the Baaghettes another shot at turning me into tea-time snack. The forest on a roasting May afternoon is a completely different business from the cool, green morning. We are traversing zones 3, 4 and 5, churning dust on high roads. From our vantage point, vast armies of leafless dhauk trees stretch across the hills with an occasional explosion of yellow amaltas or green tendu. It is a spare, beautiful landscape, completely different from the tourist clichés of abundant green you see in brochures and it challenges you. Lips chapped, eyes squinting, dust caking our hair, we move from water-hole to water-hole, looking for the two tigers reportedly seen in Zone 5 that morning. Sightings in Rantham-bhore are supposed to be much better in summer because the drying up of forest streams forces the fauna to come out to the water-holes but, again, I’m looking forward to missing any close encounters. It’s not to be.
As evening falls, we find ourselves partnering another Gypsy, this one carrying four Gujju photographers spiking several long lenses. We wait in silence near a small dam and I can actually hear the jungle changing sounds. A sambhar barks and YS turns to us, “Now, that is a warning bark.” We watch the hillside above the watercourse but nothing appears. The photographers’ jeep heads off to another water-hole down the road and within minutes YS’s phone is ringing. Goldy, back into rallying mode, tears down the track. Suddenly we spot some orange and black shifting through the net of dry grey-brown branches on our left. Walking slowly and imperiously on a course parallel to the road, she comes into sight briefly before disappearing. “T-5,” says YS, “Recently mother of three cubs.” We lose her in the trees but it seems she is headed straight for the other water-hole. We go and park astern of the Gujjus, about 15 feet from the round manmade paddling pond. After a while, the brush directly in front of us changes colour and she’s there, walking straight at us. Pad, pad, pad, stop. A look, a pause, and then she keeps coming. The little sparrow hawk that’s occupying the pool flaps away and Madame comes and slides in, not giving us the time of day. The photographers’ motor-drives rise in crescendo and I’m afraid this will annoy Madame. Not a bit of it, she’s clearly used to being stalked by paparazzi.
Later that evening, sipping my very nice dry Martini (author, Kikali Zhimomi, V-v’s F&B manager), I try to parse the Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ while taking out the ‘can’t’ and ‘no’ from the “I can’t get no...” bit. Across the next twenty-four hours I will continue to struggle with that. There is the V-v garden, filled with mango trees and yet more perky birds, there is the amazing massage delivered by Yosa and Esther at the small spa that sits just before the mini-roundabout to the tents, there is the young enthusiastic crew, there is the pool and there are beautifully designed tents.
And finally, again, there was Deep Arneja’s cooking. The guy has trained with various top flight international chefs, including Michel Roux at Le Gavroche in London, yet he wears all that very lightly. As we caught the train back to Delhi, the surreal memory of delicate puff pastry with caramelised onions, the simple yet brilliant New Zealand lamb chops and the beautiful mango tart with nutty ice-cream topped with preserved cherries, all played in my head, I’m afraid superseding my hello-how-are-you with the Tigzu ladies. As one of the junior, peripheral staff reminded us proudly, “This hotel is second best in the world as decided by Nasty Condi magazine.” If I questioned that judgement when I arrived, I doubt it a lot less now.