Rewind to January 1997. I was 26 years old. My ‘round the world trip ticket ‘had been paid for, I was flying out to Nepal to attempt the Everest Base Camp Trek before flying on to Thailand to start my Padi diving course on the beautiful Island of Koh Samui; after that Lao, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Bali and a working visa in Australia…..................India was not even in the picture….........then an evening with my family watching a wildlife documentary about India changed everything for ever.
We settled down round the wood fire at my parents house in the Lake District and as was usual with the Blanchards, looked for a good wildlife film to watch on the BBC. That was a time when wildlife documentaries actually showed us wildlife and not just another wannabee TV presenter trying to hog the camera and write his autobiography by the time he was 25…......or tell us how tigers and bears are deadly killers and should only be kept in Zoos. God I am getting old and grumpy! Suddenly the sight of another well known GRUMP, Valmik Thapar, crouched in a jeep, shrouded by the morning mist in that most magnifcient of tiger sanctuaries. RANTHAMBHORE - I will say it again, because I love the sound the word makes in my larynx - RANTHAMBHORE. If you have never watched this landmark BBC documentary series called ‘Land of the Tiger’ I urge you to put those modern day internet strengthend fingers into action and locate a download immediately. In my eyes nothing has bettered this insight into the wildlife of India in the following 23 years. It also paid the correct amount of respect to India’s own wildlife guru’s; rather than parachuting in some media friendly western presenters to talk to us like children about wildlife they know little about.
It only took a quick phone call to change my ticket to include India and less than a month later I arrived into that magnificent modern entry point that was Delhi Airport. What I could see of the countries capital through the smog I liked, but with my trusted India Lonley Planet book under my arm, I was soon tracking down the wildlife possibilities this colourful country offered and Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary was first on my list. I had this crazy, naive idea I could just turn up and help wildlife conservation and I am not sure if the park authorities gave me jobs out of pity or amusment; probably both. My first ‘job’ was to clean litter at the bird sanctuary and after getting hopelessly lost and abandoning a bike due to excess mud build up, I decided this was not a position I could make a career in.
After a short train journey overdosing on chai and bananas, I arrived in Ranthambhore and a love affair that was to grow and grow over the next 16 years was initiated. I believe it was a horse drawn rickshaw that took me from the station to the ‘Hotel Anurag’, where I was to spend the next 4 weeks at the pricely sum of 700 rupees/week. I will not discuss at this time all the warm, friendly and generous Indian guests and staff I was to meet here over the next month; one of who, invited me to Sasan Gir to ‘walk with the Lions’ just a few weeks later; which I did. I will say that this is where I met my dear friend, Mr Vipul Jain, who looked after me so generously and showed me a side of Ranthambhore that would inspire and enthrall; my path was chosen and from then and until always, Ranthambhore acted like a giant magnet, pulling be back every year to smell the sweet, sweet earth of the park and pray that after each monsoon we would still have tigers.
So to my first tiger…......................and who was she?...............I am sure Vipul knows (was it the mother of Machli?); although he was not in the jeep that day. There were only a handful of western tourists back in 97 and one of them was staying with me at the Anurag. I didn’t have the money to book my own jeep or go into the park every day, so Vipul and staff at the Anurag would see who was heading into the santuary each day and see if they could fit in one more guest. So I found myself with Mike and an Indian family heading up the now so familiar steep, twisty road hat leads to Ranthambhore Fort and that magnifcient stone gateway. into the park. Under the huge Banyan tree and suddenly the main Padam Talao lake comes into view with a small Chatri just to the right…...................and there she was, a tigress, slowly, purposely, walking from the lake towards the ancient monument. She stopped just in front of it and laid down on the layered rock sediments. My very first safari in Ranthambhore - at a time when seeing 1 tiger in a week was lucky - had resulted in this incredible sighting, which is still vividly etched on my mind all these years later. As I write these words I can feel the sounds and smells of that first India tiger safari rushing back and I feel blessed that fate decided India was the country for me. With Love and Respects to my second home…...................Allan XXXX