Crouching tiger, hidden India: An escorted tour and the adventure of a lifetime
From tigers in Ranthambore to the magic of Mumbai, Jillian Bolger enjoys a once-in-a-lifetime Indian adventure.
The dawn chorus is in fine voice today.
Or, should I say, the jungle telegraph. From the highest branches of the dhok trees, birds tweet and whistle and warble their song to the skies, a raucous warning that a predator's on the prowl. And not just any predator.
Ranthambore is famed for its bird life, but I turn my back on the feathery line-up. For all I know, these may be the supermodels of the avian world, but I'm far more excited by the subject of their warning calls. There's a tiger on the move, and it looks like she's making a beeline for our convoy.
We've already been watching her in the grass on the far side of a lake, strolling, then resting in plain view. After 10 minutes of joyful viewing, our ranger suggests we move on to search for other creatures. We're reminded how lucky we've been to spot the magnificent Bengal tiger on our first game drive. Accounts vary, but it seems fewer than half of all visitors to India's Ranthambore National Park ever lay eyes on these elusive beasts.
Just as we're preparing to set off, the bird chorus kicks it up a notch and we're told the tiger's on the move.
Snaking towards our convoy, she disappears momentarily - only to slink over an embankment and sashay through the trees past our open-topped vehicle. She moves within metres of us in plain view, her golden fur, bold black stripes and startling amber eyes holding us mesmerised.
We sit speechless, with hearts pounding as she marks a nearby tree with her scent and crosses behind us. Tossing a nonchalant glance our way, she swishes her tail and curls up in the undergrowth, back turned to her astonished audience.
Imposing, majestic and magnificent - I wonder if Rudyard Kipling felt this thrill when he first encountered these impressive beasts?
The jungles and wildlife of India inspired his most famous tale and Shere Khan, arguably the world's most famous tiger, was dreamt up in this very land. With two new versions of The Jungle Book and its striped villain returning to cinema screens this year (Disney's) and next (Warner's), I get the sense that Rajasthan is about to top intrepid travellers' must-see lists in the coming months.
Born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1865 to British parents, Kipling was shipped back to England for boarding school, returning to India in 1882 where he worked as a journalist and writer. He was once the poster boy for the British Raj, but sentiment towards the colonial commentator shifted over time, his imperialistic flag-waving making him something of a divisive figure in his Indian homeland.
On the centenary of his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, it was announced that Kipling's birthplace on the campus of the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, where his father had been principal, was to be turned into a museum to celebrate his literary works. A fine plan in theory - yet standing before the abandoned family homestead today, it's clear to see this hasn't happened. A mottled bronze bust and old plaque are the only tributes visible.
Children around the world may have fallen in love with Mowgli, thanks, in no small part to Disney's 1965 movie, but reactions here are cooler to Kipling himself.
Before Mumbai, I travelled through Delhi and Rajasthan - my Insight Vacations itinerary presenting a cleverly curated snapshot of a complex and captivating country. It's not my first visit to India (I got engaged in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan in 2004), but this trip is a far cry from my backpacking adventure. It's an escorted tour with five-star suites and a luxury coach from which to watch the scenery glide by.
Along the way, we've packed in India's largest mosque in Delhi, taken rickshaws through crowded streets, visited the garden where Gandhi was assassinated and lapped up the serenity and splendour of the world's greatest monument to love, the glorious Taj Mahal at Agra. We've travelled by train through the countryside, explored the exquisite Amber Fort and City Palace in Jaipur, and seen inside the opulent world of the Maharajahs.
It's funny being back in Mumbai; the last time I was here we chose my engagement ring from one of the swanky jewellery shops. The urban chaos is a far cry from Victorian Bombay. Beyond the leafy grounds of Kipling's home, a hectic, cosmopolitan city waits to be explored with its dichotomy of shiny sports cars and beat-up buses, Oxford-educated graduates and dabbawallahs delivering lunch boxes by bicycle, gated apartment complexes and grim roadside shacks.
Some things haven't changed as much, and a trip to the city's biggest marketplace, Crawford Market (it's hard to avoid the Raj around here!) allows an inside glimpse of real life in India. Here, exotic vegetables sit next to jars of fragrant spices, melons and mangoes, puppies and pigeons, buckets and blossoms.
As I browse, a woman in an ornate sari hurries past me, a basket of fruit balancing on her head and mobile phone clutched to one ear.
Kipling, or no Kipling, I think to myself, India's story is magical. A modern day fairytale that writes a mesmerising new chapter every day.
What to pack
Insect repellent, antibacterial hand sanitiser and rehydration sachets are the staples of veteran Indian visitors. Modesty is prized, so bare shoulders, skimpy bikinis, short skirts and shorts are best avoided. All visitors require an E-Tourist Visa - apply online at indianvisaonline.gov.in
Before you go
There are no compulsory vaccinations for India, but several - such as for tetanus, hepatitis A and typhoid - are advised. Depending on the area you travel to and the time of year, anti-malarial medication may be recommended. Your GP or the Tropical Medical Bureau (tmb.ie) can advise.
While Bengali Tigers are the jackpot, Ranthambore National Park promises sightings of dozens more creatures, including Sambar deer, langur monkeys, fluro parakeets and kingfishers, snuffling wild boar and armour-plated crocodiles. Pack binoculars - you'll get much more from your experience.
Mumbai like a local
Mumbai is India's most cosmopolitan city, with the best of hotels, restaurants and designer shops. Beneath the bling you'll find plenty of less familiar sights. Stroll with the locals along Chowpatty Beach and visit the architectural masterpiece of Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus).
Jillian travelled with Insight Vacations (insightvacations.com; 1800 98 98 98) on a preview of the new Essence of India with Ranthambore itinerary with a Fascinating Mumbai extension. The nine-night trip costs from €2,290pp based on two sharing, excluding flights. Jillian flew via Dubai with Emirates (emirates.com/ie).
The Insight Vacations trip includes luxury five-star accommodation, all breakfasts, eight meals, sightseeing experiences, travel in business class coaches, an internal flight from Jaipur to Mumbai and the services of a Travelling Concierge throughout.
See incredibleindia.org for more on India.