Tiger watching in India
Cool for cats ... a tiger strikes a relaxed pose in Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan. Photo: Getty Images
Promised a close encounter with an Indian maneater, my party of tiger tourists has been on the road from Jaipur since before dawn, playing chicken with lorry drivers and marauding cows, as our driver races to reach the gates of Ranthambore National Park before sunrise.
Our jeep arrives at first light, eases its way past hawkers selling caps and shirts embossed with tigers and enters the national park, which is spread across the arid hills of eastern Rajasthan.
There are no elephants here - they prefer flat, wet grasslands - but Ranthambore is home to hundreds of bird species, all chirping for attention, as our driver Vijay negotiates the potholed roads without disturbing a hair of his immaculately combed Elvis quiff.
There are plenty of antelope, deer and other four-legged species for the park's carnivorous population, including leopards, hyenas, jackals, crocodiles and wild dogs.
Despite this smorgasbord, the tigers of Ranthambore have a liking for domestic animals in nearby villages, particularly donkeys, says our guide, Mukesh. "They're all very friendly," he says. "Only if you torture the tiger will he attack."
But, today, all 35 of Ranthambore's tigers seem determined to stay out of sight - after two hours of examining the ground for paw prints, we are yet to see one. "We are waiting here for the moment of the tiger," Mukesh intones solemnly.
Vijay stops the jeep, cups his hands to his mouth and emits what sounds like a long, muffled burp. "That is the call of the tiger," Mukesh says.
No one buys that. Instead, attention and cameras focus on a stag with impressive antlers. Desperate, Mukesh points at another deer. "Look at the spotted idiot," he says, rather oddly.
The deer is the canary in the coalmine for wildlife further down the food chain, sounding a warning call when a tiger approaches.
However, only the birdsong of parakeets, storks, kingfishers and the ugly-looking dronga can be heard as we bump along potholed tracks. In the distance, serpent eagles and vultures circle ominously as if waiting for us to get lost or bogged.
Banyans, ghost gums and dhak trees, as well as the odd stone archway, line the track as it meanders through the hills, past a lake with a resident crocodile.
On a distant hill lie the ruins of Ranthambore Fort, built by King Sapaldaksha in the 10th century and eyed off by whoever ruled northern India for the next 1000 years, but now occupied by monkeys that scramble along its stone walls.
As we pass other jeep-loads of tourists, the guides hastily ask if they've sighted a tiger. Mukesh is starting to give up hope. "It is a matter of chance," he says. "Daytime is the resting time of the animals."
As we leave the park, a sign poses the 64-rupee question: "Where is the tiger?" We find the answer at the nearby Sawai Madhopur Lodge, a 1930s art deco pile once the maharaja of Jaipur's hunting lodge, now a hotel.
The manager, Narendra Singh, wears a fetching tiger-print cravat, while a tiger head mounted in the dining room casts a long shadow over the breakfast buffet.
Singh offers soothing words about the lack of tigers, telling us the best time to see big cats is during the hot months of May and June, when heat and lack of water force them to leave their cover and roam the park in search of something to drink.
After lunch we return to the park. On our way out we're met only by hawkers, now offering their caps at a quarter of the early-morning price.
Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Delhi, via Singapore (singaporeair.com) with onward domestic flights to Jaipur. Ranthambore National Park is 145 kilometres drive from Jaipur.
The park is open from October to June for tourists, who can visit the park on a morning or afternoon guided safari in a 20-seat "canter" or six-seat jeep.
The maharaja of Jaipur's former hunting lodge, the Sawai Madhopur Lodge, provides opulent accommodation in the 1930s lodge and tents. Rooms start from $345.78 for two nights, not including taxes. ranthamborenationalpark.com.