Wildlife safaris in Ranthambore, India: Where The Jungle Book comes to life

It's not  easy to impress a veteran Indian tiger whisperer but, as we bump and bounce along a dusty track towards the end of the dry season in our open-top Jeep, somewhere deep inside Ranthambore National Park, our guide Salim is amazed at our sudden sighting.

To our right, after all, we've spotted an animal moving at pace and with purpose through a spindly, low-slung forest denuded of vegetation as our vehicle slows sufficiently to keep up with the creature. Eventually it leads us to an exposed waterhole from which it drinks (and drinks) as, transfixed, we each watch from a respectful and safe distance in the vehicle.

Although Ranthambore, named after the 8th century hillside fort that dominates it, represents one of the more reliable parts of India to spot tigers, the creature in our sights is not, despite safari guide Salim's excitement, a big cat.

It's a somewhat less romantic sloth bear, one of the most elusive animals here in Ranthambore located in the north-east of the fabled state of Rajasthan. But, as Salim explains, it's rather rare to come across a sloth bear, let alone be able observe it at such proximity.

Salim should know. A local from this area, his father was the first person to bring a Jeep to Ranthambore and begin taking tourists on African-style game drives in search of the now immensely popular park's then even more elusive tigers.

Despite being associated, thanks to their name, with indolence, the sloth bear can move swiftly when it chooses  as we've just witnessed.  It's also one of the few animals in the jungle able to challenge and even fend off a tiger in a fight.

After several visits to India, and while still awed by any sighting of a tiger, I've grown to appreciate that a sub-continental safari offers much more to those willing to accept that while the tiger may be the king of the jungle, it shares its kingdom with a marvellous menagerie of other creatures.

The Nobel Prize-winning British author Rudyard Kipling recognised such a reality in The Jungle Book, his classic tales of life in an Indian forest penned in 1894.

Shere Khan, the tiger character in The Jungle Book shares the limelight with Baloo, a sloth bear, with Mowgli, the boy or "man-cub", the human protagonists.

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The other characters include Akela, the leader of the wolf pack, Bagheera, an Indian leopard, Kaa, an Indian python and Hathi, the leader of the forest elephant herd, "the true master of the jungle".

Alas, there are no elephants in Ranthambore but the variety of creatures featured in The Jungle Book is encouragement enough for me to not become too fixated with the spotting of the tiger and enjoy the park and our accommodation in its entirety.

Tigers, and likely sloth bears too, were plentiful in Kipling's time so were he to visit Ranthambore today he'd probably be dismayed to learn of the decline of India's most cherished creature.

But Kipling, who for some years worked in Rajasthan as a reporter on the The Pioneer, based in the newspaper's bureau in the Rajasthani city of Allahabad, would probably be entirely at a home in our accommodation at Sujan Sher Bagh.

It's an Africa-like camp comprised of 12 luxurious tents spread out on the fringe of the national park that seeks to recall the safaris of the era of the British Raj, through part of which Kipling lived.

At Sher Bagh tents are made from hand-stitched and, yes, hand-ironed canvas and are festooned with Edwardian-era "campaign-style" furniture of the sort that accompanied Edward VIII – who would eventually abdicate as king in 1936 - on his tour of India in 1921.

Kipling, if he were still around, would no doubt enjoy the wicked indulgence of the pukka, un-tent-like air-conditioning and the hot and cold running water of the attached bathroom.

He'd surely approve of the regulatory porridge, too, served with brandy and honey, from an old-fashioned brazier, the orange light from the flames providing barely the only light in the pre-dawn prior to departing for morning safari at Sher Bagh.

But these Raj-like touches begin even before you check-in to the camp. A few nights before I had arrived  at Sher Bagh after a train journey of just under five hours from New Delhi during which we passing clusters of young men playing multiple impromptu cricket games in the spaces between monumental trackside rubbish mounds.

Our passage included a sudden sand-storm, not long after we shed the outskirts of the capital, which was proceeded by a heavy rain storm that slowed the train. It was a reminder that should you, in any unlikely event, ever suffer a dull moment in India bottle it and cherish it. It's the rarest commodity.

When we arrived at the station at night the sky had cleared and twinkling  stars appeared, the train having outrun those twin storms.  We were greeted by a jungle-green-clad and beret-wearing member of staff  who ushered us from the platform, out of the station and on to the adjoining darkened street.

There we were presented with the choice of an open-top Jeep or an enclosed van (we chose the former) but not before we were served welcome drinks from a candle-lit silver tray held by an orange-turbaned waiter.

Of course, any nostalgia about the days of the Raj is best tempered with some of its less romantic realities, including its part in the near annihilation of the Indian tiger ostensibly through trophy hunting by privileged Britons and Indians.

In 1900, seven years before Kipling won the Nobel, the world's tiger population was estimated to be 100,000. As was the custom of its day, the visit of Edward VIII,  then Prince of Wales, to the subcontinent included tiger hunts.

India's tiger population was estimated to be 2226 when the last "census" was conducted in 2014, up from 1726 in 2010. It's hoped that the population will have increased to 3000, according to the Hindustan Times, when the 2018 count is completed.

Back in the park, on one sweltering afternoon during the hiatus between game drives, we trudge up the steep steps of the fort, a crumbling, crenellated citadel built atop a ridge with its walls rising  as high as 250 metres.

The imposing man-made presence of the fort seems to loom over the entire national park. Once home to palaces, mosques and temples, the fort's now populated by a ubiquitous and mischievous primate population.

One of the characters in The Jungle Book is a large mugger, or marsh, crocodile and, sure enough, from high atop the fort's ramparts we can spot dozens of the aquatic reptiles on the shores and in the waters of Padam Talao, Ranthambore's largest lake far below us. Wisely, herds of native Sambar deer maintain their distance.

After a few hours at the fort, dusk begins to offer its first overtures to the fading day and Salim suggests we depart for the camp. His intuition is also telling him that we may spot something on our way out of the park before its closure for the day.

Sure enough, and much like the sighting of the sloth bear, Salim sights a tiger, utterly unseen to our untrained eyes and one of the 60-odd in Ranthambore, roaming through jungle. It's making for the soon-to-close park's gates, precisely where we ourselves are headed.

We track the tiger for several, thrilling minutes, until it reaches a sealed service road carved through the forest where the animal disconcertingly pauses close to a ranger's hut, the occupant of which, I trust, is safely inside.

It's a suitable moment at which to close the page on our Jungle Book experience here in Ranthambore, but I'm not allowing this magnificent, and magnificently unexpected, tiger sighting to completely upstage that thirsty and surefooted sloth bear.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO AND SEE

MEET THE LOCAL CRAFTSWOMEN

Dastkar Ranthambore is a non-for-profit organisation that produces colourful handicrafts including clothing, toys, napery and soft furnishings all made by local village women.

VISIT A SANCTUARY FOR INDIAN WOLVES

Kela Devi Sanctuary is home to a small number of tigers seeking new territory beyond the main park as well as being a habitat of the elusive Indian wolf.

DINE IN THE FOREST BY CAMPFIRE

At Sher Bagh take an Indian thaali or western-style dinner, outdoors around a roaring fire and with twinkling kerosene lamps dangling strategically from tree branches.

INDULGE IN A JUNGLE SPA

After mornings and afternoons spent on Ranthambore's dirt roads a soothing and popular "pot hole reviver" massage may be in order at  Sher Bagh's spa set under an ancient peepal tree.

GO BIRD-WATCHING

Ranthambore is home to a huge population of birdlife thanks to its abundance of water. The more than 270 species recorded in the park includes hornbills, woodpeckers, owls and eagles.

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Singapore Airlines operates regular daily flights to Delhi, the most typical popular starting point for tours of Rajasthan. See singaporeair.com 

TRAIN

Sujan Sher Bagh, located on the outskirts of Sawai Madhpour close to the Ranthambore National Park, is 357 kilometres from New Delhi. Although it's possible to fly from New Delhi to Ranthambore, the best way to reach it is via the fastest train from the capital taking just under five hours.

TOUR

Sujan Sher Bagh can be booked as part of a tailored package holiday to India through the Sydney-based Classic Safari Company. A stay at Sher Bagh includes luxury tented accommodation, all meals and two daily wilderness game drives. Combine your visit with stays at the Sujan group's other camps and hotels in Jaipur, Jaisalmer and Jawai. See classicsafaricompany.com.au 

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traveller.com.au/india 

Anthony Dennis travelled to India as a guest of the Classic Safari Company and Singapore Airlines

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