Monday, February 23, 2015

Into the Wild: On Safari in India and Dreaming of Magnificent Tigers at Sher Bagh Camp

I was in India recently working on a book project—and I took time off to spend four days at Sher Bagh, a very special tiger camp in Rajasthan in Northern India. Did I see tigers? Yes, I am very happy to say. You’ll see the images taken by my guide, Salim Ali with his high-powered professional lenses.

Sher Bagh means ‘tiger garden’ and I went there to see tigers. 

On safari in Ramthanbore tiger preserve, I saw a very beautiful mother tiger with her two 10-month-old frisky cubs. My guide Salim Ali, captured the moment with heart-stoppingly beautiful shots.

Sher Bagh is a tiger safari camp created by the Sujan Luxury company (a member of Relais & Chateaux) with luxurious tents, private swimming pools, superb organic cuisine, and a lovely staff who take care of every detail.

Located southeast of Jaipur, it's in the remote region of Ranthambore, a centuries-old tiger preserve and former home to princes and maharajahs that is a triumph of Indian history and conservation.

Sher Bagh camp is directed by Anjali and Jaisal Singh and the Sujan Luxury company, a superb family operation that has been involved with conservation for many decades. The Singh family also owns The Serai, the chic desert camp in northern Rajasthan I’ve written about here previously.

At Sher Bagh, guest accommodation is in twelve very comfortable tents, hand-made and hand-stitched in the traditional Rajasthan style, with spacious interiors and sheltered outdoor verandas.

Sher Bagh is expertly managed by Hajra Ahmad.

It’s all very authentic, very Kipling, very ‘Jungle Books’. Come with me in my search to meet The Tiger.

On the first morning at Sher Bagh, I rested beside the pool and immersed myself in the lovely natural setting, surrounded by stillness.

In the very mild and still afternoon, we set out to the reserve to find tigers. I was accompanied in the search by Varun Kutty, a naturalist with Sujan, and with the highly-trained and insightful Yusuf Ansari, a noted lecturer on wildlife, and director of guest experiences for Sher Bagh and The Serai, and other Sujan camps. As we drove deeper and deeper into the scrub, Yusuf pointed out owls, sloth bears, a grey crocodile disguised in a sand bank, and identified a doe and her fawn, vivid lime green ringneck parrakeets, and later flocks of yellow-headed parakeets.

We’d sit silently in the Jeep, hidden among trees, listening for tiger roars, attuned to the crackling of leaves, wisps of dust, shadows, the slightest movement. We watched for movement in grass, or listened for animals stirring, signs that a tiger is nearby.

My reserve guide Salim Ali is an expert at finding pug marks (tiger pawprints) along the dusty trail, and we listened as tigers roared in the distance.

We had intelligence that a tigress and her cubs had been sighted near a small island on a lake. We headed over and parked discreetly beneath trees. I pulled out the binocs.

‘Look, there, in the grass,” whspered Salim Ali, as I focused on an area near a copse of trees and a large black rock. It was about … oh, fifty meters away, beyond an inlet of the lake. Suddenly the very large tigress emerged and bounded onto the rock. I followed her gold-and black stripes in sharp focus with the binocs as she turned and reclined along the top of the rock. She flicked her long sinuous striped tail. She turned directly toward us and looked in our direction. We watched silently, as Salim Ali took the shots above with his super-telephoto lens.

The tigress lay there in the shade of he scrub oak trees for about 25 minutes. She occasionally flicked her tail, turned her head. It seemed that time passed in slow motion.

Then she climbed slowly down, stretched on a tree trunk, and joined her two cubs in the grass. Mesmerizing. 

We watched the cubs, got some shots. Then they disappeared into the long grass. We could see blades of grass shimmering as they passed. We breathed again. And then they were gone.

Thrilling. We drove around the lake, and sat silently waiting, scanning the binocs, but the tigers had vanished in the forest.

Shankar brought out the Thermoses and poured chai spiced tea into our camp mugs. We ate housemade butter and lemon cookies and analyzed each movement and detail. Talking about seeing a tiger is almost as fun as seeing the tiger.

By now it was almost 6pm, and Shankar, our handsome driver, headed back along the trail, past the temples and hunting grounds, with sunset casting golden light on the distant hills. 

Here are some other shots of tigers taken by Anjali and Jaisal Singh in Ranthambore. The tigers there, protected, are the noblest creatures. They’re very large-scale, and their feet seem enormous. They roam for miles. They are camouflaged in the flickering shadows of trees, but their markings are distinct and very clearly defined.. They look so healthy and pristine—it’s easy to imagine that at night they might return to a luxury tent where they are brushed and groomed and their teeth are polished, and they’re given their vitamins and a sumptuous deer or two for supper.

Instead, they sleep beneath the stars, rulers of their domain.

Glorious creatures, indeed.

One afternoon, we took a detour on the game drive to visit an ancient temple and a fort that ran along the ridge. We sat on the ramparts and sipped chair spiced tea, and nibbled on ginger snaps and chocolate chip cookies. The reserve stretches out for fifty miles to the north, and we checked for tiger sightings. We saw small water temples near the lake.

Animals roam free. Visitors cannot exit their Jeeps, for safety.

Sher Bagh has twelve luxurious tents, including two luxury tents with outdoor showers, pools, terraces –very classic Raj-y. Each tent has a ‘veranda’ for enjoying the sounds of the forest, for bird watching, or for studying in one of the expert guidebooks provided.

Sher Bagh is a perfect setting for a three or four day visit. Two days could be devoted to game drives (one early morning, one late afternoon when animals come down to the lake and streams to drink), and two to relaxing at the pool, or visiting local handcraft groups.

Tiger sighting is highly addictive. There’s the thrill of seeing all of the wild creatures in their habitat. At first, even the sight of a motionless grey mugger crocodile dozing in the sand, or frisky taupe-colored Sambar deer running in a herd, or spotted deer in camouflage among the trees, is very exciting.

From my perch in the front seat of the old Jeep (no seat belt, very old-school) , I saw peacocks dancing their mating quadrille, as well as yellow-headed woodpeckers perched on the head of docile deer pecking the wax from their pricked-up ears. Nature at its most synergistic.

Late one afternoon we saw a troop of monkeys leaping around on a grassy plain, and later marsh crocodiles slumbering while l sparrows ate the bacteria on their back. We saw aggressive wild boar hot-footing it after deer. But I anticipated a tiger.

During the day, guests are away on game drives, so the camp slumbers in the noonday sun. It’s very peaceful.

At night, butlers place hot water bottles in guests’ beds. Early morning breakfasts for tiger-lovers who depart before 6am to go in search of tigers are a special treat and worth the early wake-up. The breakfast buffet offers a very British splash of brandy with hot oatmeal before heading out, wrapped in hand-woven shawls, in the cool of the early light. The brandy is the perfect kick in the pants.

I spent several mornings and afternoons in the front seat of a classic old Jeep, with Shankar the handsome driver, and a naturalist for expert insight.

Sheer Bagh recently added two new luxurious handcrafted tents, with outdoor showers, spacious bathrooms, terraces, sheltered indoor sitting areas for dining, and a private terrace with a heated swimming pool.

The tents are incredibly comfortable and have the soothing scent of traditional sea-grass matting. Furniture is traditional Anglo-Indian campaign/safari camp style, complete with rosewood desks, teak campaign chairs, and a library stocked with books on Indian birds, and volumes on tigers, northern India, Rajasthan, the Maharajahs, and the wildlife of Ranthambore.

The tents, which are surrounded by traditional Indian clay walls, are totally private and quiet—and the tent canvas creates a tranquil mood. Windows can be opened, and doors and walls are always adjustable depending on day warmth and evening cool.

At night, arboreal lanterns flicker in the trees. Crickets murmur in the darkness.

Beds, after a day on safari, are extremely comfortable and on cool evenings, the butler slips one or two hot water bottles among the sheets for cozy warmth.


Heading out for game drives and tracking tigers is thrilling and surprisingly arduous as the terrain is occasionally dramatic and rough. In three or four hours, we drive many miles, stopping, watching, observing, whispering, laying low, then heading off to a likely spot for viewing birds, Sambar deer, crocs, and we hope, tigers.

We return for lunch around 1pm, and enjoy salads from the garden, fresh fruit, and perhaps a fresh pasta salad or sandwiches. Iced ginger tea is a wonderful counterpoint.

Arriving back at the camp at end of day, everyone is hungry.

Dinner is usually served around a campfire and the atmosphere is very ‘Out of Africa’ with red-turbaned waiters in white tunics, very Raj-y.

In the morning, the butler may bring a wake-up tray of tea and toast. Later, breakfast of fresh fruit and perhaps an omelet or French toast can be served beside the pool. One morning I enjoyed brioche toast with chunky house-made orange marmalade as well as wild honey. Birds chirped in the trees, waiting for crumbs.

At 7pm, after a day spent in the open Jeep charging over rocks and up steep inclines, guests return to the silent camp, lit by lanterns.

It’s very romantic and quiet.

We dressed in casual chic eveningwear, and headed through the trees to sit around a rousing fire, sipping cocktails and reminiscing. Listening to the adventures of friends is almost as good as seeing the tiger or the mugger crocodile.

Dinner is served around the campfire and we linger long into the night, discussing wildlife stories, telling tiger tails, with the great company of Yusuf and Varun, and watching fire sparks rise into the the bright, starry sky.

I was sad to leave the next morning. Sher Bagh has a compelling, individual culture. But I had a date further west in Rajasthan, and headed out at 9am.

I was very sorry to leave. It had been an exciting few days, with golden hours in the wild and evenings sipping dazzling tall lemongrass cocktails dreamed up by Varun.

Ranthambore — The Tiger's Realm

One of the many reasons I loved Sher Bagh is that from the start, fifteen years ago and even before, the owners worked to protect the habitat. In the summer, when temperatures are too hot, the camps are simply folded up, with canvas tents taken to be cleaned and refreshed.

The Singh family is also highly involved in the local communities, providing medical facilities, and offering veterinarian services for local cattle, and medical aid for village tribes. The camp offers specialized training to staff, many recruited from the region.

The Park takes its name from the crenellated fortress of Ranthambhore, a UNESCO world heritage site, which sits atop a hill surrounded by the forest is one of India’s largest and oldest forts.

Tiger Safaris: What you need to know

Although there is a growing population of tigers in Ranthambhore, sightings are not always guaranteed as the Park is divided in different zones that cover the territories of different tigers. As the animals are constantly patrolling their territories over many miles, tracking them can be a daunting task. Sher Bagh’s staff collective knowledge of the park for over forty years has allowed them to hone tracking skills with some of the best trackers, drivers and guides working in the region.


Fly from Delhi or Mumbai to Jaipur, and then drive to Sher Bagh, which is approximately a four-hour drive. 

There is also an airfield in Sawai Madhopur at a distance of 14 kilometres and a helipad four kilometres away from Camp.

There are regular trains from New Delhi and Mumbai to Sawai Madhopur Railway Station, which is a 20-minute drive from camp. Many guests take the opportunity to see the countryside and watch birds from the train window. The train also continues on to Udaipur.


Photography of Sher Bagh and tigers courtesy Anjali and Jaisal Singh, Jawai Luxury, Delhi.

Tiger images—tigress and her cubs—were photographed exclusively by Salim Ali, Naturalist,Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Email:

Images used with express permission.


The camp is open from October 1 to May 15. Sher Bagh is a member of the Relais & Chateaux group.


Ellen Thompson said...

I so enjoy your posts, and get so excited every time one of your travel ones appears in the email. This is the only way I will ever see these places you dare to go, and it is a rare feast. This one made me feel as though I was right there.

peggybraswell said...

love tigers + your story was fascinating

The Swan said...

As Coco and Yves both said when asked if they traveled to the exotic countries that had inspired their collections ...' I TRAVEL WORLDWIDE IN THE COMFORT OF MY CHAIR AT HOME, THRU THE BOOKS I READ '.
Why travel when the author brings the vision to life!
All your travel essays enlighten, especially to one as I who is likely never to journey to those far flung elegant destination Camps, Hotels and Ships down rivers surrounded by Temples, Tigers and Tales.
This one IS so very Out of Africa, that I can hear the John Barry soundtrack...elegant campaign furnishings, tandoori delights...and can almost sip that cool Lemongrass cocktail served up by Varun.
'Will the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me' - This is what your story made me ponder...

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends...

Peggy, thank you as always. You are one of my longest involved readers.

THE very lovely and poetic are your words. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this safari...which did not involve guns and did involve all the senses. IIt was surmising also because many not not know that India does tiger safaris so we'll...and has such a tradition, which Sher Bagh continues...thank you so much...wonderful comment. DIANE

Karena Albert said...

Dear Diane,
What a glorious experience. You always find the best of the best! I cannot wait for your new book to come out!

The Arts by Karena

Paris breakfasts said...

Mon deux!
What an extraordinary experience Diane!
Oh to be in yr shoes...
Was the jeep completely open? A bit scary no?
I've only been to the camel and horse market. Very tame by comparison.
Just Fabulous.