Sunday, April 29, 2012

Wild, Wild West - Gir National Park

Early morning, and the jungle was completely silent. A cool breeze was blowing and everything seemed very tranquil. But every creature around seemed to be on edge, as if something was just about to erupt. And suddenly, it did. The silence was shattered by a volley of alarm calls and the spotted deer scattered at top speed.

A few seconds later, out of the bushes emerged a beautiful lioness, all tawny and glowing. She came up nonchalantly, gave us the leonine equivalent of a snort and walked off, nose in the air. Now if that’s not royalty, I don’t know what is.

Lioness with her nose up in the air

We walked with her for a bit, saw that she was heading towards a male lion, lying in the bush. We nipped ahead of her, got to the male first and got a few pictures of the lazy ‘King of Beasts’. He just opened his eyes, looked at us and went back to sleep. And the lioness came within 50 feet of him, saw him sleeping, gave him a glare and turned away, as if in a huff. Women!!!

This was our first morning in Gir National Park in Gujarat, the last home of the Asiatic Lion, which once roamed forests from Greece to India. Now, there are only about 400 wild lions left in the world. And they’re all in and around Gir; a beautiful 1412 sq km forest, which is a mix of bush, open grassland and thick forest. With the spectacular Kamleshwar Dam in the middle of the forest.

Kamleshwar Dam
So seeing two of these beautiful cats on our first safari was extra satisfying and really whetted our appetite for more sightings. Now, what I really wanted to see next was a pride, with cubs. No greed there!

We didn’t get either of the ‘pride’ routes that evening, in fact the route seemed to have no lions, but as we neared the end of the safari, we saw a couple of trackers and a couple of jeeps at a spot next to the road. There was a male lion, somewhere on the other side of a little bushy bump off the road and the trackers were giving each jeep a couple of minutes to go off road and see the lion.

So when our turn came, I was expecting a fleeing glimpse of the lion inside thick bush. But to our right, less than ten feet away, fully in the open, head upright, sat a huge male lion. And when I first saw him, my heart skipped a beat! So much so that it took me half a minute to pick up my camera! He was a handsome fellow, but sulking a bit, probably having come second best in a fight with his brother. We saw the brother licking his wounds at the same place a couple of days later so the score was probably even for the week! 

Male Lion with a bloodied nose

The next morning, we hit pay dirt. We got route 2, which had frequent sightings of a pride and we went in all excited and hopeful. We saw some beautiful birds straight up, a majestic Crested Serpent Eagle (standing on one leg) and beautiful Kingfisher right by the road. And as we went further down, we met a bunch of jeeps and they told us that a pride of seven lions had been on the road and we’d missed them by a few minutes. Bummer!

Crested Serpent Eagle, standing on one leg
They said though that the lions had walked into the bush and were probably headed backwards on the same route, so there was a chance that they might come out again on the road. Now, Gir has a strange rule that you can’t turn your jeep around on your route, you have to keep facing the same way you entered. So the lions were headed behind us and we couldn’t turn around. What to do?

Our driver then worked out an ingenious yet (technically) legal solution. He backed the jeep for a kilometer or so, at more than pedestrian speed. On a winding, bumpy forest road, with only side mirrors for rear vision, it was amazing skill.

We waited half an hour near a water hole, but no lions. Then, out of nothing, our guide whispered – ‘Lion on Road’. And there they were, having appeared out of nothing. The dominant lioness came first and parked herself just off the road. Then two mother-cub pairs walked onto the road and sat right in front of us. And one lioness sat in the bushes and snoozed. One youngster and his mum played the gallery to the hilt. They posed for pictures, rolled over on the road and generally seemed to be in a very good mood that morning.

Then, once we’d had our fill they left just as suddenly as they came. One by one they headed into the bush with the dominant lioness waiting till the end to ensure her brood was safely out of the road. My first ‘pride’ sighting was an experience I will never ever forget.

We saw more lions on our next few trips, including a couple of lionesses just beside the road, with one of them seemingly keen on a kill. But, laziness won over hunger and they just sat, yawned and never really got beyond a few keen looks at passing spotted deer.

On our last morning, thanks to Suleimanbhai (one of Gir’s legendary trackers) we saw two sub-adult siblings sitting together in comfortable mid-morning peace. They very graciously posed for our pictures and then walked gracefully away into the shade. And on our way out, our guide pointed out one of nature’s most amazingly camouflaged birds – The Nightjar sitting on a tree. Believe me, if you didn’t know it was there you would never ever be able to spot it.

So that was Gir. Lion sightings galore, including my first ‘pride’ sighting. An amazing trip and a superb start to my Wildlife Wander. Somewhere, giving the Lion pride of place in a tiger-obsessed country seemed the least that this superb, but less glamorous and hence unsung cat deserves.

Gir Trip Guide

Getting there 
We took the early morning Jet Airways flight to Rajkot (150 kms away) Rajkot has very good rail connectivity with all major cities, but air connectivity is best via Mumbai.

From Rajkot we drove on the excellent Rajkot-Junagadh highway via Gondal, and then onwards to Sasan, the base for Gir National Park. We had an excellent Innova driven by Prakashbhai (+91 95581 27727)

En route tips
A good pit stop at Rajkot is the Imperial Palace Hotel (Dr. Yagnik Road) is close to both the station and the airport, so it’s a great place to stop over for a cuppa or a meal and definitely for a loo break.

Stop at the Khodiyar Hotel at Gondal on the Junagadh highway for the most outstanding gathia breakfast, with a cup of hot tea. To be eaten with flavoured green chillies and raw onions. And jalebis – but you have to get there at 6 am to get them really hot. It’s a roadside dhaba and a very popular one with locals, so expect crowds but no service.

We stayed at the Gir Birding Lodge (Pradeep Kumar, Manager - +91 97239 71842), which shares its boundary wall with the forest. Lovely property, with nice, comfortable cottages (all names after birds) set in a beautiful mango orchard. The food was quite average (regular cook supposedly out on a family emergency) and there was quite some chaos with our safari bookings as well.

Other good stay options in Gir include the Taj Gateway, The Fern and Sinh Sadan, the forest guest house complex. There is also a Club Mahindra property near Sasan.

Most of your meals will be at your hotel, but if you have the time, have a meal at the Rajwada Kathiawadi Restaurant on the main road at Sasan. The Thali is excellent– try the sev tamatar ki subzi with kathiawadi dal and bhakri with mustard flavoured chilli pickle and cold chaas (Gujarati Beer) to cool things down.

Thanks to Amitabh Bachchan and his campaign for Gujarat Tourism, safaris in Gir are no longer a breeze like they used to be. When we went, it was Holi weekend, and it was unbelievably crowded.  So much so that we didn’t get permits for 2 safaris.

The Forest Department allows 30 gypsies (50 on peak days/ weekends) per safari of which half can be booked in advance and the rest on the day. We had our own issues with the hotel on advance bookings and hence we waited hours in the current booking queue. My advice – please ensure that your hotel gives you some kind of confirmation of advance booking, especially on busy weekends or peak periods.

The safaris are in 3 different time slots – early morning, late morning and evening. The late morning safaris (9:30 am start in March) are the least preferred, because animal movements are highest early morning and late evening.

Routes – while we visited routes 2,5 and 6 were the hottest for lion sightings. Check with your hotel in advance and try and wangle the ones with the best sightings.

The Forest Department also run an interpretation centre at Devaliya (7 kms from Gir) with Bus Safaris in a fenced off area where they have a lion pride. This is a virtual guarantee for lion sightings, so plan for a trip here, especially if you’re with kids. This is even more crowded though and no advance bookings, so budget for long queues on weekends and holidays.

Unique to Gir

The Maldharis
Don’t be surprised if in the middle of your jungle safari, you suddenly see a little village or people grazing livestock. The Maldhari people live with their cattle in thorn-fenced villages called ‘Nesses’ all over the buffer area. And as they graze their cattle in the nearby jungle, the lions are not averse to grabbing a cow or two from time to time.

Thorn-fenced Maldhari Ness
The Siddi villages
Neither should you be surprised to see people of African origin speaking fluent Gujarati. The Siddis (as they are known) are believed to have been brought from Africa by the Portuguese as gifts for the Nawab of Junagadh, who stayed on and settled in the forests of Gir. The village of Sirwan on the way to Deva-dungar is one such settlement.

People who make a difference

Mayurbhai – One of Gir’s oldest guides, with 20+ years of experience. He claims to have walked every square km of the 1412 sq km of Gir national park and has literally seen the park flower. He was our guide on our last trip 10 years ago, where he would lead us down a nallah or up a jungle path and see lions up close. Rules no longer allow tourists to get off jeeps, but those memories of Mayurbhai will always stay with me.

Suleimanbhai – a legendary tracker, he has been with the forest department for nerly 25 years now, this genial gent is originally from the Siddi village near Talala (a few kms from Sasan) It’s incredible how close he can get to those lions, he knows their behavior patterns and mannerisms and knows just when to leave them alone. He’s always game to help tourists get a sighting if he can help it.
Suleimanbhai - Tracker Extraordinaire

Guides – The best of the guys we got were Bhavesh K, Jitu and Vijay amongst the younger lot and Razzakbhai, Ibubhai and of course Mayurbhai from the seniors.

Gypsy hire/driver – Atul (+ 91 99093 11644) is resourceful, a very good driver and knows the jungle and its residents very well. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

What? Where? When? How?

Where to go? What all to see? How long is enough in each place? The idea of a pan-Indian, non-stop wildlife wander seemed incredibly romantic, and the detailed planning was eventually surprisingly enjoyable, but narrowing down to the final list of destinations was anything but easy. The problem is simple  – our country has so many things to see across so many places, that it will probably take a lifetime to see it all, and I only had a few months at best.

Finally, it boiled down to what all I really wanted to see and apart from the tiger, and in no order of preference, it was the Leopard, Elephant, Lion, Rhino, Wild Dog, Asiatic Wild Ass, Blackbuck, Wolf, Hyena, Desert Cat, Kashmiri Hangul and the Nilgiri tahr. Just chasing the last three would imply three different parts of India, the Wild Ass in the West, Hangul up north in Kashmir and Tahr in the Southern Hills. Add in the tiger forests of Central India and some serious geography lessons were needed!

Also, we had just around three months for all of this. March through May was the only available window – I couldn’t do before March and most parks start shutting down for the monsoon in June.

So the planning had to be pretty meticulous to ensure that we gave ourselves a fair shot at seeing all these species, make sure the travel was seamless to avoid wasted days and ensure that we did all this in a pretty aggressive budget. I have to say that putting this together was one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done.

Starting from a list of nearly 30 National Parks and Sanctuaries, the list finally narrowed down to 17, across West, North and South India. The only regret was not going to the East, especially the North-East, but it didn’t really work out for time and timing reasons. But I will go there sooner rather than later. There’s always a next time!

Where to start? Honestly, this gave me headaches for a good two weeks, as I juggled with possibilities and combinations. And not knowing where to start gave me no joy with the rest of the planning. After these two weeks I asked the wife for help. And Surbhi settled that dilemma straight up when she said she was joining the first leg and she wanted to see Lions. And there is only one place in India where we could see Lions – Gir National Park in Gujarat. So the West it was.

The rest of the plan sorted itself out pretty easily, as destinations just dovetailed each other in a pretty convenient sequence. Starting from Gir, the whole trip was finally planned in three phases (with family time breaks in between) of around three weeks each, with around 5-6 destinations in each bucket. And the sequences were planned to ensure no wasted days, with minimum travel and transit time.

So March was West and North India – Gir, Velavadar, Little Rann of Kutch, Ranthambhore, Dudhwa, Corbett and Dachigam. All as different from each other as can be, both in terms of the kind of forest as well as the inhabitants.

April was reserved for the beautiful Southern forests  – Bhadra, Anamalais, BRT Hills, Bandipur and Kabini. All loosely part of the Western Ghats/Nilgiri Biosphere. With some animals endemic only to this part of the world.

May would be Tiger heartland  – Tadoba, Nagzira, Pench, Kanha and Bandhavgarh. the forests of Central India, Kipling ‘Jungle Book’ country. With Ranthambhore thrown in again, as a personal favourite.

And the idea was to travel by road or train as much as possible. I have always felt that air travel is almost always antiseptic and more a convenience than a real experience. What I really wanted was to travel the real way, soak in the countryside, meet the people, stop by the wayside and have chai, get off at the railway stations and absorb life as it passes me by, at the true Indian speed - 8 kmph not 80!

So over the next few weeks, I will detail out my experiences in each of these wonderful parks, with some photos thrown in for good measure. Hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Genesis of the Wander

I’m living my dream. Travelling through wild India, experiencing spectacular new forests, seeing species I had never seen before, rediscovering my love for all things tiger and last but certainly not the least, meeting some truly wonderful people in all these places. And while I am only a small way through this journey and seen only a fraction of what this country has on offer, it has been one of the most amazing few weeks of my life.

In turn, I’ve felt energized, delirious, humbled, awed and struck dumb, at times by glimpses of India’s amazing natural world and at other times by people who live around these forests; simple, regular folk who often lead difficult lives, but whose openness, charm, optimism and most of all, their sense of harmony and responsibility towards Mother Nature really made me feel very humble. And inspired by others from within India and visitors from far-away lands, whose company, experience and perspective are adding immeasurably to my own.

But the over-riding feeling was that of incredible, deep-rooted joy. A feeling that is impossible to explain in words. How can you describe what goes through your mind when you feel the wind blowing through your hair as you drive through the open desolateness of the Rann of Kutch, or watch 15 thousand Demoiselle cranes take off and blot out the sun, suddenly see a male lion less than 6 feet away, spend an hour lying outside a den watching fox cubs gamboling about 6 feet away from you, see a big male tiger affectionately nuzzle his little cub or a herd of blackbuck sprint across open grassland?

 Try as I might, via flowery prose or captured pose, I really cannot capture the real intensity of these feelings. Because I believe it has to be experienced and not described. Lived through and not merely heard or seen. Because you can never live it through my eyes, or even my lens. You have to be there.

And that is what I will try and do here. Talk about where I’ve been, what I’ve seen and who I enjoyed meeting. Try and bring these places closer to a few more people. Infect those who know me with this incredible virus. Try and get more people to visit these amazing places, meet the same wonderful people I met, see what India’s wild wonders really have to offer, test their luck with the sightings and hope that they too, in turn can infect several others.  Till it becomes a full blown epidemic.

And there’s a purely selfish interest in getting more people to the jungles. We have serious conservation challenges in this country and I believe we can’t save our wildernesses unless millions of people want it and will it. And we can’t conserve what what we don’t care for, and we can’t really care for something we don’t love and it’s tough to love something we’ve never experienced, right?

So please visit, experience, love, share, care and infect. And most importantly, respect!

Before I sign off, there is a lot I have to be thankful for, or else this dream would have remained exactly that. I want to dedicate this trip to my wife Surbhi, who pushed me to go while she manages everything by herself. Who believed in my dream and pushed me forward when I was going through the jitters, my little Navya for being such a star and letting me be away for so long, My brother Sridhar, my original wildlife ‘infector’, guru and and travel companion, some people who influenced me, helped me and made me love, admire and respect India’s incredible wildlife – Bittu Sahgal and Anish Andheria from Sanctuary, my friends Ramki and Swarna for all their help, Hemraj Meena, Naturalist Extraordinaire at Ranthambhore and all the amazing people I’ve met on my travels.