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Old 23rd December 2015, 13:10   #1
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Default Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

The Gypsy headed towards the park exit gate. The evening breeze was chilly. It was almost too dark to shoot, and I decided to put away the camera. As I reached towards my bag, I happened to look left. And thought I was dreaming. A sub-adult male tiger lay on a forest wall. He looked at me and silently asked me, "Leaving so soon"?

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Prologue
I was out on a big cat shooting roadtrip. Had driven to Tadoba from Bangalore, and Tadoba didn’t disappoint (http://www.team-bhp.com/forum/travel...ng-tadoba.html (Fortuner Chronicles: Bison goes tiger shooting (Tadoba))). Spent a few days doing morning and afternoon safaris, roughing it out and staying in tents. It was now time to drive north to Ranthambore in Rajasthan for the second leg of my journey.

Out for a walk
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Ranthambore, zone 3. Old hunting lodge in the backdrop, and a serpent eagle in the foreground
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Catwalk
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I used a shortcut from Moharli (Tadoba) to hit the Chandrapur-Nagpur highway, and then took the Nagpur bypass to head towards Pench. I had skipped breakfast, so was feeling hungry. Had a 950 km drive planned, so needed to keep my energy reserves high. I didn’t want to waste too much time eating, so I picked up bananas and oranges for breakfast. Also found a leftover chocolate that I hadn’t finished during the Bangalore-Tadoba drive. Chocolates are great for giving an energy boost.

I love the Pench stretch of NH7. When I drive to Kanha or Satpura National Park, I usually halt at Rukhad MPTDC (in the buffer zone of of Pench) for the night. This time I gave the resort just a passing glance as I kept on driving. Pench has the highest prey density among the national parks in India, but I ave seldom seen animals on the busy highway. This time was no exception. The road – especially the ghat stretch - was better than I had expected. I made good time till Lakhnadon, and turned left on NH26.

The route:
Tadoba - Nagpur – Lakhnadon – Narsinghpur – Sagar – Jhansi – Shivpuri – Kuno Sanctuary - Sheopur – Sawai Madhopur.
Day 1: 968 km

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I knew the roads till Jhansi, but didn’t know what to expect after that. The plan was to stay overnight at Kuno Sanctuary and reach Ranthambore the next morning. But since I started late from Tadoba, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to make it to Kuno-Palpur in time.

Called up Madhya Pradesh Tourism. Yes, they had a room available in their Kuno resort. I always prefer staying in or near a forest, than staying in some city. So Shivpuri was out, and I would try and make it to Kuno.

I made good time till the UP border. Then the number of cows increased by 10x, the number of humans increased by 2x, and my speed reduced by 0.4x. Reached Jhansi around 4.45 pm and took a left towards Shivpuri. The Jhansi – Shivpuri stretch was 4 laned, and I made better time than expected. Google Devi told me to take a certain route through Shivpuri, but I am wary of her sadism – she sometimes recommends 10-feet wide roads passing through the most crowded parts of the city. I took an executive decision and went a few kms extra to reach AH-47 and bypass the town.

Now, the MPTDC resort manager had said something strange: “Yes, we can even arrange food for you”. As if food was a special request. Time to call the manager again and ask a few more questions. He was in Shivpuri, so wouldn’t be at the resort. But he had told the caretaker to arrange roti and vegetables. No, I couldn’t get chicken. If I wanted eggs, I would have to bring them. So be it.

The road had become dark and empty once I passed the Shivpuri outskirts. I slowed down when I passed a couple of hamlets, but I couldn’t see any sign of a chicken shop. Finally I asked a couple of folks when passing through Pohari, and was guided to a dark bus stand. About 100m inside a huge field, there was a light burning. ‘Videshi Sharab Ka Dukaan’. Apparently that shop also sold eggs. I slowly cruised into the huge, empty parking lot. Didn’t want to stop in front of the shop for various reasons (the Fortuner attracts attention, I had KA number plates, quite a few folks were drunk and tottering around in front of the shop), so I parked 50 feet away, locked the car and walked inside the shop like any other local guy. Picked what I wanted - yes, boiled eggs too.

After Pohari the road entered the forest. Now, I had been told not to take the direct forest road through Kuno Palpur, but I am always a sucker for short cuts, and besides I wanted to experience the Kuno forests. I rolled down the windows and reduced speed, hoping to encounter a leopard or two. The road was empty, I could only see the winding black tarmac stretching like a serpent in front. I hadn’t seen a vehicle for 20 minutes, when I noticed two guys standing beside the road. They had a bike with them. They waved at me, asking me to stop. No way. I flashed my lights and drove past. Good that I did so. Later in Sawai Madhopur, a local NGO person told me that there were a couple of dacoit gangs operating in that forest stretch. And I thought that all dacoits in that region had been wiped out (or had become politicians) 15 years back!

Saw a dead fox, a roadkill. Reached Kuno with any more interesting encounters, human or animal. Started driving slowly, looking out for some MPTDC sign. In the dim light of a flickering street lamp, I saw a dilapidated MPTDC signboard with an arrow pointing towards a dark dirt road. There was no human around, and I wasn’t sure whether this was the place. Anyway, no harm done if I waste 5 minutes. So I turned the car and went on that dirt track.

The track went on for 100m. Darkness all around. Then after a turn, I saw this old whitewashed haveli. Straight out of a ghost movie. I was half expecting a beautiful lady wearing white to come out and greet me. I honked. And honked again after 1 minute. A flicker of light on the left, about 100 feet away. I hadn’t noticed that there was a small cottage. A guy came out, saying “I am coming, wait”.

The caretaker was a young chap. He took put a bunch of keys and opened the haveli. There were just two rooms. When he showed me a room, I thought I had gone back a 100 years. High ceiling, heavy drapes, musty smell, tiled bathroom with a washbasin (or shower or heater), anteroom, old furniture, a huge bed. Anyway, there was no other option but to stay here. I would have to risk the insects and snakes and friendly/not so friendly chudails. I took my luggage inside the room and plonked down on an old sofa. I was about to open a bottle of soda, when I saw two heads peering through the drapes. The caretaker’s helpers - seemed to be his cousins – were curious to see which mad guy had come alone in the night, to stay at a place where almost no one stays. Anyway, they were friendly chaps. If I had sensed bad vibes, I would have just walked out of that place on some pretext.

Got hot chapatti and veggies for dinner. The egg adventure was a failure. I had bought boiled eggs from that shop (they looked like normal eggs in the dim light), and they tasted horrible when cooked.

While eating, I asked the caretaker about Kuno Palpur sanctuary. He said that yes, I can take my own vehicle inside the next morning for a safari. I asked him about local wildlife. He said that wolves can be seen from time to time on the riverbank (there was a river 100m from where I had turned towards the tourist lodge). Jackals were common. And one tiger that had strayed from Ranthambore (it migrated to Kuno from Ranthambore), actually hung around the tourist lodge for a few days, before the forest department folks pushed it to the core area of the sanctuary.

I told him that I woud start at 6.15 am for the sanctuary (the gate was 15+ km away), and I wanted one of the guys to accompany me. He seemed excited, and said he would come with me. So that was that. It would be good to let Bison – my 4x4 Fortuner – get some exercise on forest tracks.
We reached the sanctuary entrance gate around 6.45 next morning. A little about Kuno (or Palpur Kuno) Wildlife Sanctuary: this is the place that has been identified for re-establishing lions outside Gir. This sanctuary has also been found suitable for reintroduction of cheetahs. That is why I was so keen to experience this place.

A small digression: Many years back the local maharaja had introduced a few lions in the Kuno area. But one lion vanished, and the remaining were killed by the local tigers. Now the only tigers in Kuno are the ones that have migrated from Ranthambore, so the lions and cheetahs have a better chance of survival. There are also plans to relocate the villages outside the park.

The forest guards were helpful. I had to wait for a couple of minutes while the guy in charge brushed his teeth. Then he washed his hands, and took out the register book. I needed to pay vehicle entry fee and guide fee. He asked for my details, and painstakingly filled out the entry form. All the while I was getting super impatient. For the last 5 minutes I had been hearing the warning call of a langur, which meant that there was some big cat around. I asked the forest guy, he casually said that there was a pair of leopards close by. By the time I was ready to start driving, the alarm calls had stopped

I made my caretaker friend sit at the back, and used the navigator’s seat to keep my camera gear (I carried a pillow from the tourist lodge to support the long lens, otherwise the lens mount would have got stressed if I had kept the camera and lens on the bare seat). After going a few hundred metres we again heard the langur warning calls. I decided to go off the main track (after checking with the caretaker – he was pretty familiar with the guards as well as with the sanctuary roads). Went inside for almost a kilometer through an overgrown trail. The grass on the trail was 3 feet high in places, and I had to drive carefully looking out for big rocks and hidden dips. Waited in multiple places with the engine switched off. Soft sunlight, the dew shining on the grass, the twittering of birds, the wet forest smell, the nip in the air. But the vegetation was doo dense to sight the leopards. Disappointed, I turned the vehicle with some difficulty, and came back to the main trail. Decided to drive to the forest rest house near Kuno River (the guard had said that there was a slim chance that we might see one of the ex-Ranthambore tigers near the river).

A few shots from Kuno, taken with the mobile phone camera

Riverbank
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Old fort beside the river
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Forest track
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Stalking the leopards
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Rock formation
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No tiger. No leopard. But jackals, chinkaras (Indian gazelle), and a species even rarer than the tiger – the red-headed vulture, a critically endangered species. I had driven down to the river bed, and was admiring the view, when I saw a cow kill (probably killed by a leopard) a hundred feet away. Then we noticed a few vultures sitting on trees that line the river bank. Some careful stalking on foot and vehicle helped in coming close for some tight shots.

Day of the jackal
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Jungle cat
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The critically endangered red-headed vulture aka Indian king vulture
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On the way back, I saw a jungle cat. Initially I didn’t pay attention because I thought it was a rabbit playing on the road (it was 200 feet away). BY the time I realized it was a small cat and stopped the vehicle, it vanished into the undergrowth. I did get a couple of shots, but there were intervening leaves. I had to use manual focus to get the photos.

Chinkara (Indian gazelle)
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Shot through undergrowth. A challenging test for camera focus tracking.
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Grey francolins out for a morning walk
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I was getting late for Ranthambore. Went back to the resort, had a quick (and cold!) bath, paid the bill and headed towards the MP-Rajasthan border on the beautiful forest road.

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Last edited by nilanjanray : 23rd December 2015 at 13:11.
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Old 23rd December 2015, 13:52   #2
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Default re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

Another masterpiece in the making. The last picture is a stunner. Would be nice to see the snarl in colour too. Keep pouring in Nilanjan.
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Old 23rd December 2015, 21:59   #3
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Default re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

Wow! That first pensive tiger is so out of the world! Great travelogue, as always, Nilanjan. What photo equipment are you using?
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Old 24th December 2015, 11:17   #4
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Default re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

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Originally Posted by me_sid View Post
Another masterpiece in the making. The last picture is a stunner. Would be nice to see the snarl in colour too. Keep pouring in Nilanjan.
Thanks. It was a low shutter speed, ISO 6400 shot so the fangs are in focus but the upper portion of the face shows movement.

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Originally Posted by Stryker View Post
Wow! That first pensive tiger is so out of the world! Great travelogue, as always, Nilanjan. What photo equipment are you using?
Thanks.

The first tiger shot was taken with the D610 + 200-500mm f/5.6 combo. ISO 6400, 500mm, 1/40s handheld.

Last edited by noopster : 24th December 2015 at 13:25. Reason: As requested
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Old 24th December 2015, 12:07   #5
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Default Re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

Brilliant photos. Its very difficult to focus within grass/plants. The Fortuner is looking great too. Waiting for more photos and writing.
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Old 24th December 2015, 12:33   #6
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The road from Kuno to the Rajasthan-MP border, via Sheopur, was excellent. I had seen a few hills from Kuno, and I later realized that my road went through those hills. After the ghats, I went through lovely straight stretches with open forest on both sides. The Very little traffic on the road, except herds of buffaloes and goats. A silly buffalo almost caused an accident as he decided to emerge from the undergrowth and cross the road when I was cruising at a decent speed.

Sheopur was a biggish town, I was surprised to see ATMs of all major banks. I took a short cut (this time trusting Google Devi), bypassing a major signal. Rajasthan began after the Chambal River bridge. I started seeing camels, and women wearing multi-hued head gear. I like the way people dress up in these dry lands – so many brilliant shades of yellow, orange and red. If I were a ’tourist circuit’ travel photographer like some people I know (the ones that click photos of an old man with 1000 wrinkles, or colourful houses, local kids, woman wearing bangles and carrying a pot of water – Steve McCurry ishhtyle - you get the picture), I would have surely clicked photos of local folks and camels, but I hate asking people to pose, so I just appreciated the change in scenery and drove on.

The road deteriorated after a few kilometres. I needed to reach Sawai Madhopur by 1 PM, so that I could go for the afternoon safari. So I just kept on driving over the potholes and broken roads. Neeeded to stoop to pick up some cash. After trying two ATMs that didn’t have money, I finally hit the jackpot with a secluded ATM in some small town. Jackpot: only Rs. 100 notes. When I finally emerged from the ATM after a few rounds of withdrawing cash, my pockets were bulging. A couple of guys (thankfully no girls) gave me funny glances.

Tree Pie. These birds are so tame that they often alight on a canter or a Gypsy. I have seen photos of a bird sitting on a person's hand.
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Predator in golden grass
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One of the gates in Zone 3. Makes you feel like you are going through a portal to enter Jurassic Park
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Male nilgai going through a grassy meadow
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A few km before SM (Sawai Madhopur), I entered the forest. The road passed through the park. In fact, Gate 6 of the park was right beside the road. I was intrigued by the watch towers on the top of the hills. Later I came to know that these used to be manned by sentries, who would light a fire or signal using mirrors if they saw enemy troops.

The stretch of the highway that passed through the park was horrible. I came to know that t was purposely kept that way, because otherwise vehicles would drive fast, and cause roadkills. Many big cats from Ranthambore zones 6, 7, 8, 9 walk on those roads in the evening and night. In fact, during a safari in zone 6, I saw a cow kill (killed by a tiger the previous evening) 15 feet from the road, just across the dividing fence.

Sawai Madhopur was bigger than I had expected. Too touristy for my taste. Can’t help it I suppose, given the proximity to NCR and the foreigners’ tourist circuit.

I was staying at Ranthambore Bagh, a resort run by one of the best wildlife photographers in India, Aditya Singh. Guru Dutt (RIP) had written about him in his Ranthambore thread. I was connected to Aditya through Face Book, and because of our shared love for tigers. He is a very interesting chap. Many years back, he gave up an IAS career to settle in SM and become a wildlife photographer. Many of the famous wildlife photogs (e.g. Andy Rouse) hang out with him when they visit India for some tiger shooting. IMO, Aditya is perhaps the best tiger photographer in India.

My Ranthambore trip was finalized 2 weeks before I started driving. Ranthambore Gypsy safari tickets get booked 90 days in advance, so for the first few days, I had to be satisfied with a Canter safari. The Canters are not suitable for wildlife photographers. The drivers and guides cater to those folks who have never seen a tiger, and whose aim in life is to see a tiger, say WOW!!!, and take some photos with a point and shoot or with their mobile camera. Anyway, I tried to make the most out of the constraints during the safaris.

Cormorant. Clicked while waiting for a tiger to come to a waterhole
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A huge male sambar deer. Tail is up - he is smelling a hidden tiger.
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Drying time. Vigorous shake to dislodge the water particles.
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Backlit nests of weaver birds just before sunset
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Tigress
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Evenings were spent on the lawn, chatting with the other guests - discussing safaris, missed opportunities (somehow other folks have better luck than me ), photos and all sorts of stuff. Aditya drives a Fortuner, so we had a few shared interests too.

A little about Ranthambore, for folks who are not familiar with the park:
(source: misc web articles, including Wikipedia).

Ranthambore National Park was the former hunting grounds of the Maharajahs of Jaipur until the time of India's Independence. It is a part of the larger Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. The Park terrain "alternates between dry deciduous forests and open grassy meadow" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranthambore_National_Park. (NR comments: I was surprised to see the lovely yellow grass within the park. I had assumed that the park woud be dry and barren, but Ranthambore is green in places, and has pretty open areas)

Ranthambore Fort lies within the Ranthambore National Park. It was started in 944 AD, and completed a few hundred years later. Interesting and bloody history of the fort. Google if you want to know more.

The guides told me that there were about 60 tigers in Ranthambore (numbers changed based on whom I was speaking to).


The thing with Ranthambore: people - guides, canter drivers - behaved as if Ranthambore was the be all and end all regarding tigers. I sensed a little arrogance. Now, I have been to many national parks. Tadoba - apparently - has 50+ tigers inside the park, and an equal number in the buffer zones. But I guess a high profile park (with lots of tourism revenue coming in) is entitled to its attitude :-)

Sloth bear
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Sub-adult male, shot through leaves and twigs. After some gymnastics.
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Chinkara (Indian gazelle). You can see the lovely yellow grassland.
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Darter/ snake bird in Zone 3.
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Last edited by nilanjanray : 24th December 2015 at 12:44.
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Old 24th December 2015, 17:57   #7
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Default Re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

This is a nostalgic thread. We had a school excursion to Ranthambore in the year 2000.
Looks like cities change, human change but Nature doesn't.

Waiting for more pictures.
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Old 24th December 2015, 19:35   #8
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Default Re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

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This is a nostalgic thread. We had a school excursion to Ranthambore in the year 2000.
Looks like cities change, human change but Nature doesn't.

Waiting for more pictures.
Nature and forests do change, For worse - due to development pressures - or for better if there is focus on conservation.

Ranthambore went through a bad time, has bounced back. Another example - forests of Kaladhungi - where Jim Corbett grew up - have regenerated, tigers and elephants can be found there again (I found tiger pug marks and scat when I went for a walk across Boar River).

Ranthambore is a high profile park, and I heard that the state chief minister takes an active interest in wildlife conservation. So there is hope for the future

A few placeholder shots before I type my next post...

Thoughtful
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Twilight
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Sniff. Checking scent marks
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Male sambar deer
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Young tigress
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Old 24th December 2015, 20:57   #9
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Default Re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

wow - the initial description of the haveli and the caretaker is straight out of a Ramsay brother's movie A visit from the churails would have made the saga complete! Combination of wild tigers and wilder churails would have been something
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Old 24th December 2015, 21:34   #10
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Default Re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

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wow - the initial description of the haveli and the caretaker is straight out of a Ramsay brother's movie A visit from the churails would have made the saga complete! Combination of wild tigers and wilder churails would have been something
Lol. The difference between wild tigers and chudails: the tigers pose for me, I am not sure the chudail(s) would oblige given my current camera gear.

AFAIK chudails were not too fond of film cameras. Maybe things have changed in the digital era. I hear that Nikon is launching their flagship camera D5 in Q1. Rumors say that the autofocus is good enough to shoot chudails, including the rare 'Leone' species of 'Chudail' genus.

P.S. I noticed that there are some typos in the initial posts - 'without' had become 'with'. Corrections:

"Reached Kuno without anymore interesting encounters, human or animal". Pity about the missed wolves.

"tiled bathroom without a washbasin (or shower or heater)"...now you know why my hurried bath was cold.

Wild chudail tigress:
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Edit: I have been to a couple of old bungalows in the Himalayas that gave me eerie vibes. But that's for another thread :-)

Last edited by nilanjanray : 24th December 2015 at 21:48.
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Old 25th December 2015, 15:39   #11
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Default Re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

Aah, this thread is reminiscent of the times I've spent at Ranthambore. I've had the distinct opportunity to stay overnight at Jogi Mahal inside the Ranthambore National Park. Miss those memorable times. Here's a shot during one of my stays a few years back :-

Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip-12363236_919812354740721_5311659042335518880_o.jpg
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Old 26th December 2015, 11:33   #12
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Default Re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

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Aah, this thread is reminiscent of the times I've spent at Ranthambore. I've had the distinct opportunity to stay overnight at Jogi Mahal inside the Ranthambore National Park. Miss those memorable times. Here's a shot during one of my stays a few years back :-
Lucky you . I was told that the forest department stopped people from staying in Jogi Mahal from a few years back.
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Old 26th December 2015, 12:58   #13
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Default Re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

Wow!! Totally awesome pics you took here. Well, I must say that luck has been piggybacking on you all this time that you got such great close shots . Love this thread.

P.S. I will eagerly look forward to your thread regarding the sinister bungalows of the Himalayas. I seem to have a penchant for such places
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Old 26th December 2015, 18:26   #14
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Default Re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

Amazing pictures, leave you wanting for more. Eagerly waiting for next episode. On slightly different note, how do you keep yourself motivated during long solo drives.
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Old 28th December 2015, 00:41   #15
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Default Re: Tigers of Ranthambore: A 4,100 km roadtrip

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Originally Posted by nilanjanray View Post
The first tiger shot was taken with the D610 + 200-500mm f/5.6 combo. ISO 6400, 500mm, 1/40s handheld.
1/40s @ 500 mm handheld? Man that's awesome.!!! Rock steady hands. I was always a fan of your photography and now i have one more reason for that.
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