I got down to the reception five minutes early, at 6.25am. It was a chilly morning (mornings and evenings are cool until you start heading towards South India). The receptionist bought me a cup of tea, which I was grateful for as the jeep didn't come to pick me until nearly 7.30am. An hour wait wasn't what I needed after my lack of sleep!
I was sharing a jeep with two Australian girls, Samira and Michaela. It was an open-sided jeep and it was cold as we sped our way through quiet streets, despite the fact I was wearing three layers and a blanket over my knees. We entered Ranthambhore National Park and drove down dusty tracks, over a ridge and on to a plain where we saw some deer lazily chewing leaves off a branch. The 4x4 stopped and the tour guide said something in broken English. The sun slowly began to poke above the hills and the temperature dramatically rose as we meandered through the valleys, spotting herds of various animals.
We saw sambar deer with huge reindeer-like antlers, gazelles hopping along in packs and even antelope. The females looked quite drab compared to the males, nicknamed blue bulls due to their appearance. For a while a dog started following our jeep ("to protect itself from cheetah" the guide told us) which was amusing at first but annoying when it chased any animals we slowed down to take a good look at. At one point we saw a jackal, which are vicious little things, and yet it ran for its life when the dog ran its way! So did the antelope, aka blue bull. Yellow-bellied bull more like.
We didn't see any tigers but we saw tiger prints (and sloth bear prints) next to the dust tracks. The guide explained that tigers use the tracks to navigate their way around as it means they can creep up silently on their prey - usually sambar deer - without rustling grass or breaking twigs.
There were plenty of birds in the park, including lots of pea-cocks, something of a national emblem of India. At the halfway point the jeep stopped at a hut, where the girls went to the loo, and a bird with a bright yellow chest landed on the jeep. I managed to get a few good photos before the tour-guide came back. He told me that they are very tame and can be fed by hand, so I picked a biscuit out of my backpack, crunched it up and watched as three of them swooped in and clawed painfully at my hand. I won't be doing that again.
On the way out we stopped next to a tree and it took me at least three minutes to work out what the excitement was... there were three small white owls sitting in a row, like Chinese dolls. The guides have amazing eye-sight to be able to spot wildlife like that.
I got back to my hotel and immediately booked a place on the evening safari, for an another 2000 rupees (20 quid).
While waiting for my next pick-up I booked a train ticket for 5.25am tomorrow morning to my next destination, Chittagarh. I say 'booked', it's an 'unconfirmed' ticket, which means I won't know I've got a place on the sleeper train until I get to the station. However, the guy at my hotel says that even if I don't get a bed (which he thinks is 50/50), I should just board anyway and slip the ticket conductor a few hundred rupees ("money solves everything in India" he told me with a smile).
I also booked hotels in both Chittagarh and Udaipur. It was a productive afternoon and means the next six days are nicely mapped out.
The second safari of the day entered the park from a different side. The track was rockier, the road steeper and the view better as we climbed to the top of a tall hill, overlooking a spectacular valley. We held on tight as the 4x4 surged down steep slopes, the wheels slipping and sliding on the loose rocks. I held on tightly like I was on a roller-coaster. I wondered what would happen if the jeep overturned. Not the best place to be stuck!
We saw most of the same animals as the first trip, including macaque and langur monkeys, the latter running along on all-fours, tail high in the air like a periscope. Often tigers can be found near watering holes (low at this time of year) but none were forthcoming today. Neither were the cheetahs. A few times the jeep stopped and we waited in hushed silence, listening out for the surprisingly high-pitched warning call of the sambar deer, to alert others a tiger was in the vicinity.
Again it was sad to miss out on seeing the tigers but in a strange way it's quite nice to think that they're so elusive. It would have felt a bit easy if we'd have seen five of them on the first safari. But despite not seeing them, I loved today. Only two days ago I was in Delhi - the noisiest place I've ever been - and today at times all I could hear was complete silence. These safaris have been the perfect antidote to the claustrophobia of Delhi.
On the way back to my hotel we drove through a bustling little town, little more than one busy street with a food market on the corner. We passed probably a dozen camels pulling stacked wooden carts, cows on every corner and a group of wild boars with punk rock spiky hair, sniffing around the rubbish. You see wildlife everywhere in India.
An old Indian man with a jumper wrapped over his head has just walked in and asked for the key for room 202. Time for an early night I think.