24 October 2013
Wexas Managing Director Steve Allen and his family decided to travel to India and immerse themselves in the sights and experiences they encountered there.
Here he shares his impressions of India over a series of five special blog posts. Having flown into Delhi and enjoyed the sensory overload of this vibrant city, the family travelled to Rajasthan to marvel at the Taj Mahal before continuing south, in search of tigers...
In search of tigers
An hour or so south of Agra we stopped to visit Fatehpur Sikri, the imperial city of the Mughal dynasty in the 1570's and 1580's. This deserted city was built by the Emperor Akbar and is another spectacular glimpse into the rich history of India. If you stay for a few days in Agra, at the Oberoi of course, then this is a good excursion to take as the city is well preserved, with impressive courtyards and buildings, where ambassadors were received and entertainment provided, with discrete places for the women to stay in, all with intricate carvings and decorations.
En route, we passed many thousands of pilgrims walking to a festival 100 kilometres away. Carrying few items, they would find a bed to rest in one of the many makeshift stations set up by enterprising locals along the way, often with food and music provided. The result was a continuous stream of humanity, all with the same goal, and often making full use of the busy road, challenging the many cars, lorries, buses, bikes, bicycles, dogs, and cows.
Journey times are also extended by tricks employed regularly by local traders that partially block the road, ensuring that the crawling traffic can be tempted to buy food and a wide variety of other products. Just think impromptu street markets on a busy UK motorway.
The drive to Ranthambhore takes six hours, but the stop at Fatehpur Sikri, and a pit stop at a café/rest area neatly broke the journey. The drive gave us a chance to snooze though and to absorb a visual cross section of life in India. There's always someone in view. More people than vehicles and there were plenty of those. Smallholdings are everywhere, with villages bustling with their wide array of small shops and workshops. Not a supermarket in sight. The roadside was pretty scruffy but very much alive. Occasionally a vehicle would emerge from a side street with a dozen or more children perched in and on it, smartly and proudly dressed in their uniforms, waving when they saw us; a wave back was instantly met with the broadest of grins and much excitement.
Eventually we arrived in Ranthambhore, pulling off the road into the short driveway that took us to the high walls and the imposing gate of the Oberoi Vanyavilas, offset by the warmest of welcomes. As we passed through the gate, pink petals fell from above, raising eyes and smiles as the inner courtyard was revealed, with its water feature and gardens: a haven of rest; an oasis of calm.
The staff at Vanyavilas were the best yet. Genuinely warm and helpful, the welcome was maintained throughout, making this hotel a particularly special place. There are some 25 tented rooms in a clever design that adds to the sense of this part of India and the reserve: a stylish combination of walled room with a canvas roof decorated with stars and an outer layer to protect you from the elements, although not from the odd pigeon that took advantage of the quality sleeping arrangements on offer. And then there are the lovely little touches that are the Oberoi hallmark. A choice of pillows; earplugs should there be any local noise (there wasn't although given the early start for the safari drives we did sleep deeply!); a bookmark; nuts and nibbles; personal notes from the manager and the cleaners. We felt truly spoilt.
The hotel bar was in the style of a library, an Oberoi touch that meant that we felt even better about spending time there! The staff were attentive throughout, always ready with a supply of snacks to accompany the cocktails and the essential G&T. The restaurant has internal and external sections, and offers a wide choice; the chef is an enthusiastic local lady who is keen to encourage you to try some of the local options, which she'll cook to your preferred level of flavour, and we all enjoyed the opportunity to have a chat with the person who is normally hidden away creating our food.
The hotel has a wonderful snooker room and a lounge to chill out in. On some evenings the local naturalist holds talks here and explains the history of the tiger reserve and shares his insights into the local fauna and flora. In the well-tended gardens is a swimming pool that was a delight after the drives in the reserve.
We were here to see tigers though and so opted for short nights in order to make the most of the early morning opportunities. The Ranthambhore National Park, set amidst rugged hills and forests, was once the hunting ground of the Maharaja of Jaipur. In 1955, it was declared a game sanctuary, and in 1980 it became a National Park. Project Tiger was started in 1972 to protect the species. Today there are some 40 tigers roaming the reserve and, as they're solitary creatures, they can be difficult to find.
About a quarter of the Ranthambhore National Park is open to visitors and capacity is managed along with the routes used each day. Travel is by a jeep that can take six in two rows of three, or in a larger vehicle that accommodates about 25-30 and that looked a bit like a landing craft on high wheels. A ten-minute whiz down the best bit of road for miles around took us to the entrance and the usual round of Indian bureaucracy. Fortunately, we were well looked after by our guide and various drivers (tips are required although if you get to see a tiger you'll be dipping into your pocket with alacrity!). We spotted one tiger, partially immersed in the cooling waters of a pool in a wooded area. Several guests had sightings on each drive. Sadly, one or two didn't see any tigers.
There are plenty of other animals to spot though including deer, boar, monkeys and the odd crocodile. Bird watchers are in for a treat as the park is home to a large number of species, including the national bird, the peacock. Just being in the park is a pleasure; the early morning drive was a particular delight, as the sun rose over the hills and the world that was awakening all around us. This was a total contrast to the city and road life of the last three days.
We stayed for two nights although we'd recommend at least three! We would have really enjoyed an extra day to relax and head into the reserve and make the most of the excellent service. The manager at Vanyavilas, Ratna, was terrific. She led from the front and was always there for her guests. Granted the hotel is more of a boutique style property in size, which meant that the management need is very different to a larger hotel, but she really did live for her guests, and her staff followed her example.