A little while ago, I took my family of 6 to India for two weeks. My children were 12, 13, 15, and 19 years old at the time. We saw and did a lot, and it was truly an extraordinary trip.
One of the best things we did was our safari in Ranthambore National Park. We spent a few days in a jeep exploring the park trying to find one of the few elusive Bengal tigers that lived there. Eventually we did find one, and it was unbelievable watching this enormous creature walk just steps away from our open air jeep.
As thrilling as that was, it wasn’t even close to one of the craziest and most dangerous experiences of my life. That came several hours later, in the dark of night, with all four of my children mere feet away.
While on our safari, we stayed at Sher Bagh, a small luxury tent resort found just outside Ranthambore National Park.
The hotel was stunning. There were about a dozen large white tents scattered throughout the resort that served as hotel rooms. Inside them, I felt like I had stepped back into colonial times. The rooms were filled with delicate wooden furniture that would have easily been found in any British household in India in the early 20th century. The bathroom was huge and more luxurious than many five star hotels that I have stayed at before. Running hot and cold water, plumbing, air conditioning, and heat were all within arm’s reach in these seemingly magical tents
We had two tents, side by side, for the six of us. We were a little more removed from the other tents, and we felt safe nestled right against the brick wall that separated Ranthambore National Park and the hotel.
We went on two safaris while there. At our hotel, we climbed into an open air jeep with a driver and guide, and drove around 30 minutes to reach the entrance to the National Park.
Each Ranthambore safari is regulated by the Indian government. Only a certain number of permits are issued each day and then, you are assigned a zone within the park that you are allowed to explore. We had around 3 1/2 hours for each of our safaris over two days.
The main goal of a Ranthambore safari is to find a Bengal tiger. Tigers are solitary animals that are very territorial. Ranthambore National Park is around 400 square kilometres and currently, there are only around 60 tigers living there. Each tiger has its own territory. They fiercely guard it and mark its boundaries every couple of months.
On our first safari, we did not spot a tiger. We crossed our fingers that we would be more lucky on our second safari the next day. However, there are many animals, other than tigers, that live in the National Park that we did see which we loved. Those included crocodiles, Blue bull-deers, Languar monkeys, Sambar deers, Chitals, wild boars, Chinkaras, and others.
After our safari, we returned to the hotel, relaxed a bit, and waited for dinner time.
When night fell, the hotel grounds became extraordinarily dark. The paths had some lights but only enough to allow you to see where you were going. You couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. Each tent had flashlights for each of the guests to use, although I forgot mine when we left to go for dinner. Luckily, I had my Iphone to help us find our way
Once it was dark, we went to the campfire for cocktails and dinner. This was located about 100 metres from our tents along different paths. There, elegantly dressed men in uniform offered us hors d’oeuvres and drinks while all the guests sat around the fire and chatted about their safaris. There were lights around the campfire, but everywhere else you looked it was pitch dark.
We could hear monkeys shrieking but could see nothing beyond the campfire.
Our kids ate dinner, and one-by-one they left on their own to go back to the tents. About 30 minutes after the last one left, I was tired. I said goodnight to everyone, including my husband, and left the campfire. I walked alone back to the tent with only my Iphone flashlight to guide the way.
I was around 15 metres away from our tents when I spotted a large grey animal just outside of the tents. I couldn’t really see what it was. All I saw was a large lumpy figure, but it didn’t slow my step.
I mean, cows are everywhere in India. Even though I hadn’t seen one in the resort, I thought it completely reasonable that one had found its way on the property and was now grazing in the darkness. I saw it and I just assumed that it saw and heard me.
However, that was wrong. Amazingly, I was almost close enough to touch it before the creature even realized I was there. Then, it startled and bolted away. I had no idea where.
It was so dark.
But just before it dashed away, I was close enough to realize that I had been looking at the back of a large animal. It wasn’t a cow, though. Instead, it looked like a large deer, a Sambar perhaps, that we had seen on our safari.
I thought how charming – a deer had found its a way out of the National Park and was grazing by my tent. Unperturbed, I didn’t even break my stride.
I was now only a few steps away from my tent and I was ready for bed.
I took about eight more steps and stopped in front of my tent. The zipper on the flap was completely shut, from top to bottom. I was sharing the tent with two of my daughters and had asked them to completely zip the flap closed to stop mosquitos from getting into our tent.
As I reached down to the very bottom of the tent to pull up the zipper, I heard rustling behind me. I stopped and slowly turned around.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as my flashlight scanned the darkness in front of me.
I saw nothing.
Then, I caught some movement above the ground. There, on top of a 6 foot berm (a mud wall), was a creature. As my Iphone flashlight settled on its face, I realized, in horror, that it was a Bengal tiger.
I turned around and screamed at my tent, “Oh my God, there is a freaking tiger out here. Open up!”.
I turned back again towards the tiger and brought up my Iphone flashlight. I zoomed in on the tiger’s face. It blinked a couple of times, but did not move. I turned and screamed again at the tent, “THERE IS A FREAKING TIGER OUT HERE! You need to open up the tent.”
I quickly realized that no one in the tent was going to help me. I didn’t understand why. Where were my daughters?
But, the instinct for survival took over. I kept turning and pointing the Iphone flashlight into the face of the tiger, blinding it and then turning away quickly to reach down to unzip the zipper a little bit at a time – back and forth, back and forth.
Each time I pivoted back to the tiger, I shone the flashlight into its face. It blinked, looked away for a minute, but never even moved.
Eventually, I managed to unzip the flap and jump into the tent. My two girls were there, phew! But, they were completely oblivious to everything. The youngest was happily watching a movie on Netflix with her earphones on. My eldest was grumpily waking up and getting out of bed, informing me that she had been asleep.
Everything was so normal inside the tent that I stood there for a few moments wondering whether I had lost my mind and hallucinated everything.
Thankfully, my eldest did manage to take a few steps to the door flap, unzip it, poke her head out, and say in a borderline bored voice, “Wow, there is a tiger out there.”
My youngest pulled out her headphones, and said, “What? There’s a tiger out there?”.
I didn’t know what to do next. I felt like I had to keep an eye on the tiger, so I stuck my head back out of the tent, flashlight in hand, and the tiger and I actually stared in each other’s eyes for some time. After a few seconds that seemed like forever, the tiger (looking incredibly bored) turned away and sauntered along the berm, eventually disappearing somewhere behind my tent.
Now what? My husband was still at the campfire, the direction in which the tiger was going.
My two boys were alone in the tent next to me and I had no idea what they heard or what they were going to do. There was no phone in my tent to call the front desk and warn anyone. I couldn’t leave my tent – I had no idea where the tiger actually was.
It was a harrowing few moments, feeling helpless and desperately wanting to protect my family.
In each tent, instead of a phone, there was a “butler’s button”. It was connected to the front desk. We were told at check-in to push this button if we needed anything. After a few minutes, not knowing what else to do, I pushed the button. A few minutes later, a small elegantly dressed Indian man in uniform arrived at the door flap of my tent. He politely asked me what he could for me.
I told him immediately, “There was a tiger out there!”
He kind of smirked and calmly replied, “Madam, there was no tiger out there.”
I replied, “I think I know what a tiger looks like and there was definitely a tiger out there!”
He paused politely, looked behind him, and nodded. Then, he turned and left. I felt like I had been immediately placed in the hysterical woman category by this man, and I was infuriated.
I waited. I had no choice.
I busied myself in my tent and listened for every twig snap or footstep outside. However, there was nothing.
What I did hear were monkeys howling all around me. Earlier on our safari, our guide told us that the monkeys in the park holler to warn others when a tiger is lurking nearby. I knew that I had heard the monkeys howling earlier but completely ignored it.
Around 10 minutes later, there was a knock on our door flap. I unzipped the door and standing there were two Indian men. One was small and in uniform like the other one who was there earlier. The other one was in a suit. The one in the suit identified himself as the manager.
I thought, finally!
He said to me, “We found your safety deposit key at the campfire.”
I said, “Thank you”, and he returned the key to me. Then, I waited and looked at him. He smiled and turned to walk away. Incredulously, I realized that the first employee had not reported anything that I had said to him.
I said, “You know that I saw a tiger out there?”.
The manager looked at me intently. I think he was trying to figure out whether I was drunk or crazy (or both) and said, “You saw a tiger?”
I said,”Yes” and pointed behind him where the tiger was standing minutes earlier.
I could tell the manager was grappling with what I had just said. On the one hand, I was a guest and seemed sane (I’m projecting here, but I’d like to think that I was confident and in control of what was going). On the other hand, he was struggling with the unbelievable image of a tiger outside Ranthambore National Park in his luxury resort.
Apparently, that had never happened before!
So, what was the manager’s solution? He said to his uniformed employee, “Go check behind the tent!” The employee looked absolutely terrified.
I was horrified and said, “You can’t send him to look behind the tent. There’s a tiger on the loose!”
The employee reluctantly left and looked behind the tent, came back and reported that there wasn’t a tiger.
I was stunned.
The manager’s answer to this problem was to send a 100 lb man to “check” to see if there was a tiger. The good news was that there wasn’t one and the little Indian man got to live another day. But, what did that prove?
It certainly didn’t prove that there wasn’t one there earlier.
The manager asked if he could do anything else for me, smiled and left. At this point, I wondered if this was going to be the story that no one ever believed.
Another ten minutes passed, another knock on my door flap. This time, it was a very large fellow who was in charge of safaris for the hotel. He had with him yet another small Indian man in uniform.
In a very posh English accent he said, “We saw the tiger prints. We know that there was a tiger. Are you alright? Can I bring you a cup of tea?”
He asked, after I had just survived a meeting with a real-life Bengal tiger, whether I wanted a cup of tea!
I politely declined and said good night. Then, I kicked myself for not asking for a stiff gin and tonic instead.
All became quiet and I tried (unsuccessfully) to get some sleep.
The next morning, I searched for the man in charge of the safaris. I wanted to know the details.
Where did they find the tiger tracks? Where did they lead? Most importantly, what was the resort going to do to keep us safe?
It turns out the tiger was a two year-old female named “Lightning”. She was almost full grown physically, but still considered immature. Apparently, after she terrorized me, she walked behind my tent, then over the berm wall into another walking path where other guests’ tents were located.
A couple, sitting on their little patio in front of their tent, watched unconcerned as the tiger walked by. The lighting was so bad that they, too, thought it was a cow.
The tiger then approached the campfire where we originally were sitting for cocktails and dinner. A few lingering guests were still there, along with waiters and kitchen staff who were in charge of the buffet. The tiger first crept up behind the buffet and growled. Everyone, guests and hotel employees, took off towards the campfire.
They were told to group together, become large, and face outwards. After a few minutes, the tiger simply turned around and left into the darkness. No one saw her again that night.
My husband wasn’t there. At this point, he was walking back to our tents, thankfully (or not so thankfully), oblivious to the danger around him.
All in all, we loved our time in India. Even a close encounter with a Bengal tiger couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for what an incredible country India is. However, I must warn you that India is not an easy country for families with young children to visit.
If you are wondering whether your family is ready for India, I would recommend reading my article – India with Kids: Eight Reasons Not To Go.
However, if you decide that you are ready for the adventure, then buckle your seat belts and hold tight. There are so many amazing things waiting for you.
For example, another highlight from our trip was when we volunteered in the kitchen at the Golden Temple in Amritsar in Northern India.
The Golden Temple is the most important pilgrimage site for Sikhism in the world. Accordingly, there are thousands and thousands of visitors from all over India, and the world, visiting this site on a daily basis.
The kitchen at the Golden Temple offers free meals, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to anyone, without any questions asked. In fact, it makes between 50,000 – 75,000 meals a day, all made and served by volunteers of all ages from any country or religious background.
Our family loved the experience of working in these massive kitchens peeling potatoes, making roti and washing dishes side by side with Indians from all over the world.
These are the kinds of experience that only world travel can deliver. And it is totally worth it, scary moments and all!