Long famous for its tigers, India is a brilliant country to invest in a Safari experience like no other. We’ve previously taken safaris in Sri Lanka and South Africa, and the experience we had on our tiger safari in India was right up there with the best of them.
We decided to plan our own tiger safari in India as information online was fairly sparse and the cost of safari hotels and packages seemed extremely expensive and definitely outside our backpacker budget. The park we chose to explore was Ranthambore – known as the location for some amazing documentaries about the tigers who reside there by NatGeo and BBC, and one of the best places to try and spot tigers in their natural habitat.
Why Choose Ranthambore for a Tiger Safari in India?
For a start, Ranthambore is one of the largest national parks in Northern India and is widely considered to be one of the best places to see tigers. It’s accessible from Mumbai, Jaipur and Delhi, making it an easier spot to get to than some other wildlife destinations in the country, and the tourist infrastructure is therefore pretty well established with plenty of hotels etc to choose from.
It’s not just tigers either, you’ll get to see beautiful jungle landscapes as well as having the opportunity to spot all kinds of other wildlife – from bears and leopards to monkeys and wild boars to name just a few of the species that live in the park.
How To Get There & Where To Stay
If you’re trying to DIY a tiger safari in India and you’re on a budget, the best thing to do is to base yourself in the small rural town of Sawai Madhopur. It’s well served by the central railway station with connections to Mumbai, Jodphur and Jaipur all frequent and reliable.
How To Book Your Safari Tour
First thing’s first, if you’re visiting in peak season you’ll need to plan ahead. Tickets for safaris open XX days before the tour date and in high season many people book way in advance. The number of vehicles is limited, as is the time they can spend in the park.
There are three main ways to organise your safari…
Safari Booking Office
This is the cheapest option but also, in our experience, the most stressful. Opening hours seem somewhat sporadic and it’s in an awkward location unless you choose a town centre hotel that’s nearby (otherwise you’ll need to shell out on a rickshaw). It’s also full of touts and people trying to sell you their own Safari tours.
If you hold firm and decide to persevere, ignore everyone outside and get a booking form from the counter. There’s one counter for those with online bookings to pick up their tickets and a larger set of counters for those booking in person. The counters each have numbers, which correspond to the park’s zones and you’ll need to enter your desired zone and type of vehicle on the form before queuing to book. More on how to choose zones and vehicles below.
While you’ll benefit from not paying any additional fees to middlemen if you book here, there is the risk that if they can’t fill the vehicle then you’ll have to pay for any empty seats. I’m not sure how this works or how likely it is, but this kind of put us off as well.
Hotels & Tour Agencies
The second option and the one we chose was to book through our guest house. This is not the cheapest but it’s definitely the most convenient and we didn’t mind paying a small ‘lazy tax’ to get ourselves away from more hassle. Emailing some tour agencies in advance, quoted prices for safaris seem to range between anything from 1700 to 2500IR so do try to bargain as much as you can to pay as little as possible.
Be careful to specify your Zone – some will say they can’t guarantee any zones in particular but we found that by putting our foot down they managed to find spaces in vehicles heading to our desired locations. This was sometimes in canters rather than gipsies but for us this wasn’t an issue in any way.
If you know very specifically what you want from your safari and don’t mind heading to the Safari Booking Centre to pick up tickets, then online booking is probably for you. I had a quick look at the website for booking and dreading another experience like trying to buy tickets on the Indian Rail website promptly gave up. There are many threads on travel forums where people are seeking help and getting advice on how to complete the process.
The site for booking your tiger safari in India online is here.
And these are the Safari prices as of June ’17 as advertised at the booking centre:
Gipsy Or Canter?
A Gipsy is a small 6 seater jeep whilst a Canter is a larger vehicle seating up to 20.
Before our India safari trip the advice I read online suggested that gipsies are the better option by far. In reality this wasn’t so clear cut. The reports I found said that Canter drivers tended to be less bothered about spotting wildlife, driving quickly on their designated route to get the tour over and done with, and that the size and corresponding noise of the vehicle minimises your chances of spotting animals before they run away.
I read that gipsies were more comfortable, more adept at meeting the conditions for animal sightings and generally a better all round option.
We ended up taking both a gipsy and a Canter safari and our Canter experience was by far the better. Whilst the gipsy was a lot more comfortable, we found our driver was half asleep and the guide gave very limited information on the park and the wildlife we saw. It felt like they were rushing through the tour – it ended up a full hour and a half shorter than our afternoon safari – and we even ended up having to wait 15 minutes for a flat tyre to be replaced half way through. Good job we didn’t spot any tigers at that point!
The Canter tour was extremely uncomfortable but the guide was friendly and informative, and we covered far more ground. The only negative for us was that the Canter team were so desperate to give us a tiger sighting that we didn’t stop for any other wildlife or photo opportunities. It paid off though, as it was on our Canter safari that we managed to spot two tigers! Seeing them was incredible and I’m so glad we invested in a second safari tour even though it was a tight squeeze on our budget.
Which Zone To Choose?
The park is split into 10 zones and the well regarded wisdom is that zones 1-3 are where you are most likely to get tiger safaris, zones 4-5 still offer a good chance, and visiting zones 6 and upwards your opportunities are more limited.
Overall, with all wildlife tours, a certain amount of the experience is obviously going to be down to luck. Not only that but the weather conditions and time of year also play a part. For example, rainy weather means animals don’t have as much need to head to watering holes, whilst visiting while the tree foliage is thicker can make sightings harder.
What is true though is that zones 1-5 will take you into more central and deeper areas of the park, and everything we heard on our visit and read beforehand suggested these were by far the best zones to choose. Our own experiences also backed this up with our much anticipated tiger sighting taking place in Zone 4, whilst our Zone 6 expedition was less fruitful.
What To Expect On Your Tiger Safari in India
It kind of depends on what time of year you’ll be visited, and of course, which of the above options you’ve chosen. All in all, based on our two tours, one with a tiger sighting and one without, we thoroughly enjoyed our tiger safari in India and would highly recommend to anyone travelling in this region.
We saw antelope, sambal and spotted deer, more tropical birds than we could count, hundreds of peacocks, a mongoose, hares, monkeys, a giant turtle and even a sloth bear as well as the park’s famous tigers. Not only that, but the landscapes at Ranthambore are incredible. Located in the heart of the Rajasthan desert, you’ll see acres of plains, towering sandstone mountains and some stunning jungle scenery. From harsh and seemingly barren terrain to fertile watering holes, there’s an amazing amount of diversity when it comes to the landscapes as well as the wildlife.
Even though not all of our experience was positive – sleepy drivers, grumpy guides and flat tyres excluded – we had a great time. There’s something about seeing tigers in the wild that is so special, they really are majestic creatures and we were spellbound watching them laze around in the afternoon sunshine.