India Holiday – Day 17: Tigers, Trains and Agra

They say that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

It certainly feels insane to me that we – after 3 safaris with no tigers – choose to set the alarm clock for 05:30 on January 1st, in order to try it one last time. When it actually goes off after just 5 hours of sleep, it feels no less insane. Happy New Year.

We are as ready as it’s possible to be at 06:15 and trudge over to the outdoor waiting area to get a cup of coffee and a biscuit before leaving. It’s cold, very cold; perhaps 4C, and very, very hazy. Any tigers that come our way will have to be less than 20 meters away or they’ll be invisible. And our jeep persists in not turning up at 06:30, nor at 06:45, nor at 07:00. What does finally turn up at 7 is a canter – a big 20-seater that we have so far avoided, being favoured with the smaller, nimbler and more comfortable jeep.

We seriously consider going back to bed at this point. We’re tired and cold already, and if it wasn’t for the fact that we are well under way to pick up more passengers when the guide tells us that we’re going to Sector 5 – where nobody saw any tigers yesterday – we are not impressed. He explains that the selection of sector is done by computer, implying that since a computer is involved, the selection is flawless. I am sceptical.

The amount of leg room in the jeep was a problem; it was hard for me to sit comfortably and I ended up sitting behind with my a knee on either side of the driver’s seat. On the canter, the legroom available is if anything worse and the only seat I can use is in the middle seat of the back row. It does not seem to offer any advantages other than legroom, but at least I now fit in the vehicle 🙂

As the canter fills up, it soon becomes clear that I am the only “gora” (white person) onboard – everyone else is Indian. I don’t mind, but I’m fairly certain we are not going to see any tigers and seriously consider ways to get back to my warm, comfortable bed to sleep for a few more hours rather than endure more cold, bumpy roads.

Mamta is no less cold and reminds me it’s worth staying positive so I put on my happy face and hope for the best.

We drive for about 45 minutes into the park, along roads that are familiar from the day before, and see very little other than hazy landscape and more Samber deer. I just wish it would be over soon, frankly.

Then – in a flash – everything changes. A jeep in front of us is stopped and someone says “There!” – and there it is indeed, right next to the road: A Royal Bengal Tiger in all her glory. Everybody rushes to the side of the canter, standing up to take photos, pointing and smiling.

The guide immediately tries to ushers me to a favourable position in front – I guess he knows on which side his bread is buttered – but I am so tall that if I stand up it doesn’t really matter where I am and I don’t want to block everyone else’s view 🙂

The tiger moves along slowly, limping, and clearly has a severe injury on her front left leg or paw. Why she comes so close to the road and us I don’t know, but it offers us a minute or two of time where she is in view, and I snap several photos.

The tiger we see is a fairly recent mum with 3 cubs, and the theory is that she has been fighting a male tiger over one of the cubs – which is male. Male tigers will readily kill any other male tiger to eliminate competition for the females, even their own offspring. It’s a tough world out there.

We spend the rest of the time waiting for the tiger to reappear (she doesn’t) and then on driving slowly back towards the gate following some male tiger marks, but we don’t see any more tigers. One was enough though; our spirits are immeasurably higher now than before.

Apparently, seeing a tiger is good luck, and we choose to take the timing as a sign that 2013 will be a lucky year for the Mertner family 🙂

Having been on four safaris, I can also reveal the pattern they all seem to follow: First, the guide suggests that the safari focuses just on tigers, ignoring smaller game. Then he spots tiger prints or hears a noise or something, and a hectic, lengthy chase follows. And then, if no tiger is seen, the rest of the safari is spent looking at smaller game, without acknowledging that the “tiger focus” is off. Seems to work 🙂

Back at the hotel, we quickly grab breakfast and rush out the door as we need to make sure we don’t miss our train scheduled for a 12:30 departure: We are going to Bharatpur by train where we meet our driver and then drive from there to Agra.

The station is full of interesting people, from the old man chewing something to the “cleaning lady” that ineffectually sweeps the platform and the businessman crossing the tracks between platforms with his briefcase, and of course – this being India – many, many more. As the train turns out to be 25 minutes late, we have plenty of time to observe.

The train is the longest I have ever seen; the platform is 1km long, and the train fills all of it! It stops slowly and stays stationary for just a minute or two, so it’s important to be in the right area before the train arrives if you want to avoid boarding the train after it has started leaving again – something that looks very common. Fortunately, it takes a little while for such a long train to get up to speed!

We are in a 1st class sleeper carriage that is spacious and clean but has seen a lot of heavy use and is clearly not of recent manufacture. Sadly, the windows are filthy, making it impossible to take any photos while on the move – it makes me very happy with the choice of driving everywhere as it’s so interesting to see what is happening along the road.

After the attendant makes the bed for Mamta, she decides to nap, while Iain plays an iPad game and I write the post for yesterday, only just finishing as we arrive in Bharatpur. A pleasant 3-hour train ride – definitely not a bad way to travel, if only the windows were in good shape!

Bharatpur is a major railway junction and the station is incredibly busy, heaving with crowds that have made themselves at home on the platforms, between the tracks and even on the tracks in some cases. We are convinced to take a porter – a good thing as the walk along the platform to the car turns out to be 2km! The porter whizzes our heavy suitcase onto his head and motors away at high speed while talking on his cellphone and navigating the crowds. It’s a mad, mad, crazy country.

Mr Prakash then takes us to Fatehpur Sikri – a huge abandoned palace on the way to Agra. Our guide is frantic with worry as we get there just 2 minutes before they close the gates, but we make it inside and it’s well worth it.

The palace was built by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the late 1500s and was abandoned just 3 years after it was complete, because of a lack of drinking water in the vicinity. It’s very well preserved and has a lot of interesting features – for example, Akbar married 3 wives, one Christian, one Hindu and one Muslim (to keep the peace) and built each of them a palace inside the palace, each more lavish than the other.

It’s 6pm by the time we finish at the palace, the sun has gone down, it’s cold, it’s hazy/smoggy again, and we’re now both tired and hungry – breakfast was a long time ago! Agra is only 35km away though, and our hotel is the swanky Oberoi Amarvilas hotel so we decide to wait until we arrive and then have dinner in style there.

Night driving in India is not my favourite, but it was this evening that I discovered that night parking isn’t great either. One our way to Agra, a gridlock that would impress even Parisians on a bad day held us virtually stationary for more than 2 hours before we finally got through the choke point and could get going.

Agra is extremely foggy as expected but the Oberoi looks fantastic when we finally arrive at around 9:30, and we dive straight into the restaurant to get filled up and then crash into bed, exhausted but happy. What a day.

Tomorrow, it’s time to see the Taj Mahal, and we don’t start until 10am. Bliss.