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Taj, Trains & Tigers

and a bit of cricket thrown in

Claire Gill took her family on the trip they have all been waiting for.

india clairey

India had been on the cards for our ‘first family adventure’ from the word go. We had been waiting for the time when our three boys were old enough, and had constitutions strong enough, to appreciate it in full. At 13, 11 and 8 we felt we had got there. But where to go? And when? And how?

Great friends with four boys of similar ages had done heaps of research so we tagged on to their plans and arranged to join them for the two weeks before Easter. We enlisted the invaluable help of Audley Travel and mixed our friends’ more off-the-beaten track recommendations with the Audley tried-and-tested favourites to come up with a pretty good itinerary. We chose Rajasthan for four reasons: The Taj; A long train journey; Tigers; and The Rajasthan Royals, home ground of Jaipur.

The anticipation kept us going for months. The planning, the reading, the discussion made the excitement almost unbearable when the day of departure arrived. We had warned the children what might greet them on arrival in Delhi, a clogged-up mass of humanity that would amaze and maybe upset them. The reality was entirely different. Coffee shops, a cleaner car park than Heathrow and an air-conditioned private bus with our very own fridge and sweets.

It wasn’t until we got to Agra that the ‘Indian-ness’ of India really hit home. Getting off the train at Agra station was the eye-opener we had been expecting. Hordes of people and the children’s eyes on stalks. Our air-con bus was definitely a welcome screen from ‘real life’ outside. The drive through the dusty back lanes of Agra was thrilling, craning for tantalising glimpses of the big white dome, dodging tuk tuks and children. We stayed at the family-run Coral Tree Homestay, which was perfect.

taj mahal boys india

Agra Fort was breathtaking and our guide was an essential extra. Monkeys and chipmunks everywhere, we were led from mosaiced room to mosaiced room with glimpses across the city to the Taj. Top tip for your morning excursion to see the Taj: go as early as you can bear. We thought our 6am start was energetic but our friends were there bravely at 5 and were almost entirely alone. The children were blown away by it – the symmetry, the craziness of the story and the sheer fact that we were actually there. We should have left it at that but had foolishly planned another stop off. Fatehpur Sikri was undertaken in a blur of almost unbearable heat and then we were on to Bharatphur Station to Ranthambore and the tigers.

tigers india den

On arrival at Ranthambore we were too hot and too tired to pay much attention to our surroundings on our way to Tiger Den Lodge and too anxious about whether or not we would see these elusive creatures. The Tiger Den was further than we thought and it was dark when we arrived. But by 5.30am the next morning, everything felt different. Birds outside our cabins, tea ready and the sun beginning to rise. Our hopes were high.

We entered the park when the sun was only starting to wake up and spent the next four hours delighting in a whole host of creatures. Langur monkeys sat chattering in groups of 20 or 30, picking at each other’s nits and clambering close to the jeep to see whether we had anything worth stealing.

There were deer everywhere. Baby bambis – ‘tiger chocolate’ the guide said. Scruffy-looking stags with fine antlers, Indian impala with elegant horns like feathers. Hundreds of peacocks, a scuttle in the brush and a mongoose, on the hunt for some breakfast, emerald green parakeets, green bee-eaters, black kingfishers, little owls wisely safe in the tree, lapwings darting through the heat in search of water and Indian magpies. A sleepy-looking sloth bear clambered up a hill with a baby on its back; all the animals in fact that anyone could wish to see bar one, the big one. The Tiger.

Reluctantly, we accepted that we would have to give up on him for the morning and were heading back, resolved to return in the evening. Suddenly our driver stopped and pointed towards a stock-still antelope in the brush. Ears pricked. He was looking at something. Could it be? We charged back the way we had come, bumping madly through the dust, round the corner, to a water hole and there they were, cool as you like. Mum and one big male cub, lying in the muddy brown water, totally unaware of the extraordinary thrill their presence was giving us.

We were in awe of their majesty, amazed that we could get so close to them and (me) overwhelmingly relieved at seeing them at all. That wasn’t all, another cub appeared from the scrub. They wandered around a bit, their bellies full from a recent kill. Mum rose up from the water, gave us a look as if to say, ‘happy now?’ and wandered off with her cubs behind her.

tiger india

From that moment on NOTHING could go wrong. Our guides were over the moon, Tiger Den Lodge became the best place to stay in the whole of Ranthambore, the staff (of which there were about 500) our greatest friends. We went out again for an afternoon safari but there were many more jeeps and it was unbearably hot so we headed back rather smugly to our pool, having had enough adventure in the morning.

Raju, our faithful driver, was there to meet us the next morning and on we went for the long journey to Jaipur and the Rajasthan Royals. It was a lengthy trip but it was bliss to sit back and watch the world go by from the comfort of Raju’s bus. The cows have the overall run of this country. They wander at random through the villages, roads and highways with an air of knowing superiority.

Shapura House was a lovely old palace in the centre of Jaipur; we were spoilt by charming turbaned staff waiting on our every whim. Delicious breakfast and a small but lovely pool. [Note to parents: the fabulous guide book ‘Love Jaipur’ has everything you need to know if it’s shopping you are after. Our boys, however, were not remotely interested. It was all about cricket for them.]

Rajasthan Royals vs Chenai Super Kings, in every way, lived up to the enormous weight of expectation hanging over it. We all bought bright pink Royals cricket shirts, cheered and sang and yelled with the 30,000 strong crowd. It was brilliant.

cricket tops india

Next stop Jodphur. The blue city, with the Mehrangarh towering majestically over it, was a highlight of the trip. Drinks at the beautiful Raas Hotel in the shade and then lunch in a charming café (the cauliflower fritters still make my mouth water), overlooking an ancient step well where local men and children jumped from enormous heights into the water below. Endlessly. A truly mesmerising spectator sport.

The shopping here is a bit gentler than Jaipur and at Via Jodphur there is an exquisite array of goodies, not to mention the mass of lanes and markets in the heart of the city. We could have spent weeks there. Ratan Villas got our fave hotel award too. An old palace with a French feel, delicious Indian food, a beautiful pool with bats dipping into the water as night fell and staff where nothing was too much trouble. I wanted to bottle the sweet-smelling blossom of the Neem trees by the pool. 

We didn’t give Jodphur nearly enough time, one night was far too short. But it was a delightful stop-off. The hotel was bliss, the blue city glimmered at us tantalisingly, the markets offered endless treats, the Fort like a jewel overlooking its kingdom. We vowed to return.

Next stop Rawla Narlai, a favourite hunting lodge of the Jodphur royal family. This was our ‘treat’ option, where we planned to sleep, read and walk a bit. We met up with our friends and much cricket was played; along with walking, eating and taking it easy for three days. A lovely welcome peace from the frantic city pace.

Our next stop was Udaipur, the white city in ‘Octopussy’ with its Palace in the middle of the Lake. Rajat Niwas is in an ideal spot on the edge of the lake. Very reasonable and super-comfortable, with delicious coffee and delicious Masala omelettes. The City Palace is a must see. A fortress with endless ornately-painted and decorated shimmering rooms looking out across the lakes and hills of Udaipur.

view india archway india clairey

We had a crazy storm one night which cleared the sky for our final day. Spirits were high as we decided against Kamal Khan’s Monsoon Palace and instead took a trip round the lake in the hotel’s boat. The ghats were in full working order with ladies washing their hair, bodies and clothes. Groups of boys and men jumped in and swam in amongst the heaps of rubbish. We chugged slowly past the City Palace, the Lake Palace and the gardens of the smart hotels which have taken a hold on the banks of the Lake.

train to Delhi boys bunk train to delhi india

And that was it, packing up with our much heavier bags to catch the overnight train to Delhi. Audley had advised we might be more comfortable if we flew back to Delhi, but we had insisted on a regular class, sleeper berth and were ready for an adventure. The bunks were basic but came with a blanket and a pillow and a little curtain to shut out the hubbub inside the train. Chai wallers came up and down throughout the night, food of every variety was being offered but extraordinarily we all went straight to sleep to arrive at 06.33 the following morning. We felt suitably travel-weary and the pool at The Claridges was a delight.

We walked up to India Gate later that evening as the fruit bats nested in the trees, waving the tuk tuk drivers away with what we thought was an impressive travel-seasoned authority. We had had a whistle-stop taster of the country, but even in 14 days a definite sense of the essence of the place had rubbed off on us all.

We endlessly talk about India and pour over the album remembering the enormous naan bread, or an extraordinary old man sitting cross-legged on the side of the road. It was a wonderful and very important reminder that there is a whole lot of life out there so very different from our own and so extraordinarily exciting. We can’t wait for the next adventure.

Claire Gill and family travelled with Audley Travel. India: 12 day Golden Triangle & Tigers trip from £2,770pp. 

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