Rickshaws are great, but the tiger's the star
A 10-day tour of India shows the wildlife and culture in a way that even small children appreciate, says Martin Hickman
Sunday 21 November 2010
We'd seen plenty of wildlife in Ranthambore National Park during our bumpy progress by Jeep along the Indian reserve's rocky paths.
"Langur monkeys," said the guide, as we stopped to watch the playful creatures scamper around the dusty ground. "Owl," he gestured, and there, if we strained, we could see one sitting still in the hollow of a tree trunk. "Crocodiles," he ventured, pointing at what could have been driftwood in a lake.
But it looked like we weren't going to catch a glimpse of the one animal we'd really come here to see – the tiger. Then, the radio crackled. One of these big cats had been spotted down by the water.
Most of the 36 tigers in this reserve in Rajasthan have radio tags, which means guides can be alerted to their presence quickly, increasing the chances of tourists seeing the world's most charismatic big cat. We roared down to the water – quickly joined by other Jeeps, until there were 100-plus binocular-wielding, camera-carrying tourists eagerly scanning the horizon.
Then the tiger appeared, out of the trees, slinking through undergrowth before settling into the mud next to the lake, about half a mile away. Excitement ripped through our party of 10 adults and children as we jockeyed for position to get the best long-lens pictures. My children, Finlay and Kate, both aged under seven, took turns to peer through the guide's binoculars.
Ten minutes later, the tiger, its signature stripes obscured by mud, sauntered back into the woods with the nonchalance of a predator that fears no animal. The children were pleased; the parents thrilled. Seeing a tiger in the wild – in however large an audience – is something you never forget, and we had a second opportunity the very next day, when we spotted a tigress sunbathing in the dappled shade of the scrub.
Seeing a couple of India's 1,411 remaining tigers was just one of the highlights of our family tour of northern India. But, as well as the "tiger hunt", we wanted to experience the local culture, and this was also possible thanks to a 10-day trip called "Taj, Tigers & Palaces" with Explore, a company that specialises in adventure trips to far-flung places, some of which are specially tailored to be less demanding for families with young children.
Our tour had a star-rating of four out of five for comfort and just one out of five for exertion, so it promised to be a suitably laid-back trip to take our youngsters on – though there seemed to be barely a moment when we weren't touring palaces, learning about history and culture, or getting up close to exotic animals.
Friends had thought we were, well, "brave" was the word they used, when we announced we were taking our two young children to India. Perhaps they were thinking of the temperatures that often hit 40C, the dust and the crowds, the ever-present threat of a stomach upset. And, of course, the beggars; a sight that can upset young children and lead to awkward questions that are rarely asked during a week in a cottage in the Isle of Wight – the destination of our previous family holiday.
Day One, and we dived straight into Indian life with a rickshaw tour of Old Delhi. As we weaved through its narrow thoroughfares, the rickshaw's battered seats offered a great vantage point from which to enjoy the sights without the hassle (and Finlay could shake the hand of every passing rickshaw passenger). As our driver battled with the onrush of pedestrians, motorbikes and carts, we sat back and took in the glorious chaos, peering into the street-side shacks selling sweets, lentils and beans, costumes, books and oily second-hand car parts, and watching the hawkers tout everything from soft drinks to fans made from peacock feathers.
Next, we travelled more than 100 miles by air-conditioned coach to Amber for a mixture of wildlife and culture – an elephant ride to the Amber Fort. Moving two-by-two up to the ancient palace, the elephants plodded along at their own pace, unmoved by the occasional prods from their mahoots. Once at the top, we dismounted our lumbering steeds and wandered the ramparts taking in the views of the dusty hills of Rajasthan – a desert state fought over for its control of trade routes – and peeping through the gaps in walls which, we explained to the curious kids, were once used for firing on attackers.
At Pushkar we swapped elephants for camels. The children fretted about falling off, but were soon enjoying the bumpy ride, watching their shadows shifting across the sands.
A restored desert fort furnished us with sumptuous lodgings at Pachewar, where we toured the local village in a bullock-drawn cart. As the children dangled their legs over the side, we rolled past sari-clad women busy cooking by wood-fired clay ovens in mud-walled huts and a gaggle of older women drawing water from a well.
At dusk, we sank into comfortable chairs in the courtyard of the fort for entertainment Indian-style – a puppet show in which brightly coloured Rajasthani marionettes danced and fought to traditional music.
For most of the tour, we travelled by coach, but we also made some journeys by train. The children in the group quickly made friends, playing cards and reading books together – in truth, they enjoyed playing with their new mates as much as seeing the sights and the animals.
For the adults, the highlight of our dusty progress around the "Golden Triangle" of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra was a trip to the Taj Mahal. After rising at dawn, we made our way along the shacks selling cola, finely embroidered slippers and papier- mâché monuments, past the hawkers selling postcards, bangles and guide books, and through the army security checks into the Taj Mahal. There we watched the early morning sun glint on the white marble walls and minarets, while the children hopped along the paving stones and around the ornamental ponds.
So our kids might have been a little young to appreciate just what they were being shown, but they were never bored – India was a great adventure. And if they struggle in future to remember the time they saw a tiger and rode an elephant, we have the photos to remind them.
How to get there
Explore (0844 499 0901; explore.com) offers the 10-night Taj, Tigers & Palaces small-group tour from £1,299 and £1,234 for children (minimum age five), including return flights, or from £749 without flights. The price includes accommodation, ground transport, tour leader, driver and guides plus admission to sites, nine nights' B&B, four lunches and one dinner. The next tours depart on 20 December, 17 February, 11 and 14 April. The Hickmans flew with Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com).
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