Sawai Madhopur is a small diversion from the 3 points of India’s golden triangle. It is a tiny town that sits next to the Ranthambore National Park. Why is it so popular? Tigers!
We spent two nights at the Raj Palace Resort, which lay on the road between the town and the national park. It had a variety of rooms and prices, and we had snagged one of the cheap rooms in the back building. It was clean, bright and had a nice view over the garden. I thought it was an excellent value place to stay. The green garden, complete with a swimming pool, was such a welcome break from the dust, dirt and clamour of Delhi and Jaipur.
On the first night, we ate in the restaurant. It was a little more expensive than the backpacker cafes we had been frequenting, but it was still very reasonable. The shahi paneer was mild but aromatic and the dahl was delicious. Full and happy we head to bed.
My only complaint with this hotel isn’t it’s own fault, and possibly afflicts other hotels on the same road. Trucks thundered past all night, blaring their horns. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard an Indian truck horn, they don’t just go beep, or booooop, but play a long, loud tune. I was jolted awake every twenty minutes by these bursts and so I had a terrible night’s sleep.
A Very Early Morning
In an effort to save some money, we decided to get our jeep safari tickets ourselves. All we had to do was go to the ticket window first thing in the morning and pick a couple up.
The alarm went off at a thoroughly unpleasant hour, the sun wasn’t up yet. We pulled on our clothes, leaving hair and makeup for later in the day. Our hotel was a very short walk from the ticket office. We set off early but when we reached the office, we saw that a large crowd was already there. We could see just one other westerner, who stood head and shoulders above the Indian jeep drivers and hotel runners. He looked as exhausted as we felt (and probably looked too). Then the struggle began.
The window wasn’t at the head of an orderly queue but of a scrum. For fifteen minutes we edged slowly forward, as the crowd swelled and jostled. I maintained a slow forward momentum while Karl stood behind protecting me from small gropes and sharpened elbows. When we finally reached the front we thrust our rupees trough the small hole and clutched our tickets victoriously. We cut sideways through the throng and wondered if there was time for a nap before our 07:00 pick up.
The National Park
The wind still held the chill of dawn and so I crossed my arms over my fleece and pulled my scarf tighter. The jeep sped down the road towards the park. We could see a car in front and hear one behind. The jeep was open to the sky and we were thankful for the lack of clouds. We approached a gate and then the jeep decended a worryingly steep slope into the park.
We split off onto a smaller path and immediately lost the other cars. We all craned our necks around as we started to look for the wildlife. We searched in vain for the famous tigers but we spotted lots of other animals on the way. There were lots of toque macaque monkeys. I love these monkeys, they sit in such a human way on the floor.
We also saw a huge desert monitor lizard. He didn’t seem to enjoy the attention and after a quick pause for this photo, he scuttled away into the brush.
There were beautiful sambur deers. They grazed happily on the grass, unaware that they may be munched by a tiger one day.
I loved the spotted deer, their fur was beautiful but they were awfully shy of having their pictures taken and hid their faces in the grass.
Although we never got to see a tiger, we did come across a paw print…just the one. We wondered sceptically whether a man with a paw ended stick came and created the indent every day so there would be something to show the tourists. Looking back, I like to think that it really was a tiger’s foot that did it…the lesser spotted hopping tiger of Ranthambore.
It was a bit disappointing not to see the main attraction but it was still a great way to spend a morning. As the sun heat the park, the animals started to slow down and we hurtled back up the slope and along the road.
Back at the hotel, and with an afternoon to kill, we thought we would try out the pool. It was now a roasting hot day, and so the pool seemed freezing. So cold that nobody even said “It’s fine once you’re in!”. Further around the pool, there were two other people. It was the western guy from the ticket office, and his travel companion. After a suitably British amount of time, we began chatting. We found out that they were called Tom and Sarah, and they were also British. They had suffered at the hands of the 2008 financial crisis and so had decided to pack it all in, and go travelling.
Tom and Sarah were a very friendly and very funny. We made a plan to keep in touch, and we ended up meeting up with them in Mumbai two weeks later.
Whilst booking our trains in Delhi (a long and laborious process that you can read about here) we were reliably informed, by the railway clerk, that we couldn’t catch a train from Sawai Madhopur to Agra. The only option, he said, was to take a bus. However, when we reached Sawai Madhopur, it turned out that the opposite was true. We jumped on a tuk tuk and raced to the train station. There was no “foreigner booking” window in the tiny station and so we queued with everyone else.
When our turn came, we stepped up to the window and explained that we wanted a ticket to Agra. The clerk gave us a curious look, waggled his head and apologised that he couldn’t help us (in Hindi). He stepped aside, and was replaced by a colleague. The colleague gave us a curious look, waggled his head, and apologised that he also couldn’t help us (in Hindi). He too, stepped aside. We worked our way through SIX gentlemen before the roulette wheel brought the original clerk back to the window. We gave up, and wondered how we were going to make a living in our new home of Sawai Madhopur; clearly, we weren’t going anywhere.
We had to find a tuk tuk back to the hotel and we discussed our options in a slightly hysterical frenzy. Happily, the hotel gave us a helping hand and sent a young lad to the train station in our place. He returned after an hour joyfully waving two tickets to Agra, and many rupees richer.
Sawai Madhopur was a welcome holiday within the holiday. Despite a very early morning, it was all relatively relaxing and who would turn down the chance to see a tiger in the wild!? Plus, a swimming pool was an unusual luxury on such a budget trip.
Fancy taking a trip into Ranthambore National Park. here’s what you need to know.
You can now book through the website, which is a very welcome change. You can decide between riding in the large trucks or the smaller jeeps. Most hotels can also organise tickets ahead of time.
What to Bring
- Cold weather layers – For the early morning chill.
- Suntan cream, hat and sunglasses – For when the sun emerges.
- Camera, binoculars – For spotting the wildlife.
- Mosquito repellent – There are still plenty whining around the early morning cool.