RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK, India - Raja, our guide, scrutinized the reddish soil of the rutted path cut into the jungle.
The subject of all the fuss was shallow but nevertheless unmistakable: a neat line of pug prints.
Tiger prints! Fresh tiger prints!
The open SUV - packed with guide, driver, husband, son, in-laws and me - raced in the direction the prints suggested and lurched to a stop near a clearing. Raja, in tan safari dress, stood on the seat, peered into the waist-high, yellow grass and listened.
We could hear nothing special, but our guide apparently did. He suddenly spun around and pointed to the jungle:
"Tiger!" Raja announced, eyes wide, as the driver shifted gears and plunged into the lush foliage. It was very Hemingwayesque, albeit with cameras, not rifles, at the ready.
As the jeep hurtled onward, I wondered, Would we really spy this elusive creature?
A week earlier, we had flown nearly 24 hours to Chennai (formerly Madras) to visit family over the December holidays. The trip north to Ranthambore, one of India's most well-known tiger parks, was a bonus arranged by my gracious in-laws.
The park has other animals - sambar deer, nilgai, chital, peacocks and other birds, all by the dozens, and scarcer species, such as jackals, mongoose and leopards.
But the real reason - the only reason, honestly - that most tourists travel here is to see tigers.
Of course, there's never any guarantee with Mother Nature. And at this 500-square-mile park in Rajasthan, the gamble was even riskier because poachers brazenly violate the sanctuary for skins and animal parts sold on the Asian black market. I had read about drastic drops in the tiger census. While the official count put the population at 45, that number was considered a gross overestimate.
The park staff provided different tallies. The best was 30, the worst, a depressing 17.
On top of that, only a handful of jeeps travel the park, an understandable concession in recent years to the preservation of habitat and this beautiful forest, but a fact that made tiger watching a long shot.
Most tourists end up in canters - noisy, open trucks packed tight with as many as 25 passengers that do not travel deep into the jungle - and often do not have guides, or at least ones with much knowledge of animals. The odds of actually spotting the mysterious tiger from these vehicles are as slim as winning the Pick Four.
Thanks to my father-in-law's persistent calls, we were able to reserve a jeep for a full day. That allowed for two treks, the envy of other guests staying at the Sawai Madhopur Lodge, once the quarters for a maharaja and his hunting party.
On our first morning trek, we gathered off the lobby before dawn. The walls had photographs of hunters, looking happy, a dead tiger splayed at their feet. I found the pictures, despite historical value, in poor taste.
At last, it was time to leave. Even though India has the rep of being unbearably hot and humid, that's not the case up north in the winter. The early-morning expedition in the open jeep was frigid, and all of us huddled under scratchy wool blankets as we drove along in the bone-chilling wind.
In three hours, we didn't catch a glimpse, and we returned disappointed. As the jeep took us back to the lodge for lunch, my father-in-law prodded the guide about the afternoon plans - and the best strategy to catch sight of a tiger. He didn't want to disappoint his grandson, he offered.
"I'm doing the best I can," Raja snarled. That silenced any complaints.
Lunch was sullen. The only tiger we had seen was a sad, tattered specimen kept in the lobby, an unfortunate victim of a hunt.
By afternoon, the weather was warmer, and we shed the blankets.
As we dove into the jungle at the guide's command of "Tiger!", my heart raced. The eyes of my 9-year-old son, Rohan, boggled. But everyone else was skeptical. When Raja was prodded as to what led him to suspect tigers nearby, he said, "I heard the growl," all but growling himself.
We hadn't heard anything. And more likely, he had heard the alarm calls of the deer - usually the way guides track the tiger.
Near a drinking hole, the SUV lurched to a stop. Raja consulted with some forest rangers.
And then, we saw something - was it really a tiger? - move among the tangle of tree trunks and thick grass.
"There," whispered my husband, Dilip. A snatch of orange moved into a clearing. The tiger - actually tigress - sauntered toward us, trailed by two adolescents.
I couldn't believe that here was one of the grandest creatures ever born, right before my eyes. Amazingly, the mother and cubs sauntered toward us.
One of the adolescents stopped at a tree, took a leak, rubbed its neck against the bark, and continued its slow stroll, crossing within feet of the jeep, the open jeep.
But we had nothing to fear.
The tigers headed to the banks of the lake and settled down. The mother yawned. And we stared in utter awe, in what proved to be the highlight of our trip.
After several minutes, we angled for a better vantage point, parking closer to the pond.
Finally, it was time to head back to the lodge. The driver took a route that passed near some stone ruins, the remains of yet another maharaja's hunting lodge.
There, we saw a lone tiger climbing the steps and walking through an entryway as though it owned the place.
I found the scene sweet justice for a shameful past and couldn't help but note that the tiger, however tenuously, had outlasted the maharaja.
Land of the Tiger
The nearest airport to Ranthambore National Park is in Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajasthan. American Airlines, Delta and US Airways fly to Jaipur from Philadelphia International Airport with two stops. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $1,521.
We hired a taxi to make the 85-mile drive to the park, which is also accessible by train. We visited in December, but the best time to go to the park is February to April.
Ranthambore National Park
- Lini S. Kadaba
Contact staff writer Lini S. Kadaba at 610-701-7624 or Lkadaba@phillynews.com.