Monday, May 28, 2012

Velavadar - Gujarat's little savannah

The grass was a combination of gold and reddish brown. And it stretched as far as the eye could see, with just the odd tree to provide some shade. But for the blackbuck (and not impala) grazing ahead, one could easily imagine that they were in the Masai Mara, and not in coastal Gujarat.

Blackbuck in Velavadar
Velavadar (pronounced Veill-aa-va-dar) is home to the Blackbuck National Park, a small 35 sq km grassland paradise, one of the few remaining protected grasslands in this vast country ever-thirsting for new land for cultivation. But thankfully in Velavadar, the grass grows unhindered, the blackbuck are thriving, and so are the wolves, hyenas, nilgai and harriers who also make this their home.

Nilgai Female
Velavadar sits 50 kms from the seaside town of Bhavnagar on the Gulf of Khambat. We drove there from Gir, passing through the heart of Gujarat and it was really interesting (and impressive) to see the progress this state has made; evidenced by the quality of the roads, villages with pukka cement houses and the ubiquity of mobile phones. The latest indicator of this development is the presence of DTH dishes, even in the smallest of homes, be it cemented or thatch-roofed.

After a 6 hour drive from Gir, we reached Kaliyar Bhavan (the Forest Rest House at the Blackbuck National Park) in zero visibility - pitch darkness barring the thousands of visible stars in the sky. Over (an excellent, if simple) dinner, we asked the manager Mr. Chandresh Dave if it was easy to see blackbuck. He laughed and said they would visit our rooms with the morning cup of tea. We took that with a huge spoonful of Gujarati salt and retired to our basic, yet comfortable rooms.

Salt quickly turned to humble pie the next morning when we stepped out of our room (with our tea-cups) and saw that the grassland was less than 20 metres from our doorstep and on the edge, grazing peacefully in the early morning light, stood a huge herd of blackbuck, with a large male keeping a watchful eye on his harem!

We quickly got into our jeep and drove in, with Ayub, one of two guides there. (The other, his uncle Ramzan, was assisting a BBC film crew) Ayub, barely 19, guided us with astonishing levels of skill and confidence that belied his teenage years. And as we drove along the road that skirts the grassland, we passed herds of blackbuck and several Nilgai, but then Ayub pointed to one of the most elusive animals in India – the striped hyena. A shy, normally nocturnal creature, I had seen a fleeting glimpse just once, but here was one, lolling about in the open grassland.

It was too early for any good pictures, so we let him melt away into the grass and carried on – to spot more blackbuck, with young males sparring with each other while the females watched with (I could have sworn) smug amusement. Other males sprinted about in the savannah like Usain Bolt on speed. Still others stuck to jaw exercises, chomping grass non-stop. All in all, a belly full of blackbuck activity.

Ayub then led us to the other side of the park (Velavadar is cut in half by a state highway) which, in addition to more grassland also had large swathes of wetlands, home to another of India’s most elusive wild canines, the Indian Wolf. Shy and extremely secretive, these beautiful creatures have been thoughtlessly hunted as vermin, depleting their numbers severely. There are a few families that survive in the wetlands of Velavadar, and we (Ayub to be precise) saw one at a distance almost as soon as we got there.

Indian Wolf - not a great picture by any means, more a record shot
The wolf saw us first, I would safely assume and stayed really far, but yet refused to move away. Ayub then deduced that it needed to cross the road, so we left the car and headed on foot. Crouched low at the side of the road, we slowly advanced, till Ayub started running, still crouched low and hurrying me on. A 19-year old, fit young boy impatiently leading a portly 39 year old – you get the picture, right? I’d never run that hard in a long time, so by the time we got into the road and into position for the wolf, I was winded!!  And he came up really fast, crossed in front of us and melted into the grass! And I was still panting!!

The indictment on my fitness apart, it was a fabulous morning, with superb sightings of two of my target species – Wolf and Hyena. Breakfast seemed to taste a lot better and we retired with high hopes for the afternoon. Ayub was called off on a last minute forest department errand, so the brothers Sarathy confidently set out to put our decade of forest experience to track hyena and wolf. After all, how difficult could it be on open grassland? 


And we saw squat. Except for a few harriers (Velavadar claims to be the world’s largest communal harrier roosting site) who kindly deigned to sit next to the road, we tracked nothing! Leaving our (slightly bruised) egos aside, we settled down for some blackbuck photography. And they very kindly obliged. The setting was fantastic and in hindsight, we were glad for the lack of carnivore, as it helped us focus exclusively on one of the most beautiful animals on the planet.

The next morning, Ayub was back and so was the hyena. He first saw a wolf from a distance and much to our puzzlement and slight annoyance, he asked the driver to move away. We quickly saw why - he had spotted a hyena trotting through the grass and wisely decided that it was an easier target. Not to mention and unbelievable sighting. We followed the hyena for more than half an hour as ran through the grass, crossed the road and back again, stalked some blackbuck for a bit and generally gave us the sighting of a lifetime.  Almost as if he know it was our final safari. And before he disappeared into the grass, he gave us one final look, as if to make sure we were happy. Gujarati hospitality, anyone?

Hyena attempting to stalk blackbuck
And so we left Velavadar with superb memories and incredible sightings of three species on my ‘must see’ list. With a promise to definitely go back. ‘Aavjo’ Velavadar!!

Velavadar Trip Guide

Getting there 
Bhavnagar, barely 50 km away is the easiest head and is well connected by road and rail. Ahmedabad (150 kms) is the nearest metro and major airport. Probably easiest to get to Ahmedabad and drive.

Kaliyar Bhavan, the Forest Guest House is an excellent option if you don’t mind basic. Clean rooms and loo, comfortable beds, and excellent, homemade Gujarati food. At Rs. 500 per night (food extra) it was a steal. They have only 4 rooms, so it is best to plan in advance.

Kaliyar Bhavan - The Forest Rest House Complex, just adjoining the grassland 

To book, you need to call the Forest Office at Bhavnagar (0278- 2426425) and reserve rooms. Bear in mind that they will only confirm when you send a draft in advance. 

The second, more luxurious option is the Blackbuck Lodge, a short distance from the Park Gate. From the outside it looked really good, with its own little grassland. On our way out, we wanted to get in and check the place out, but at the gate a young gent with a walkie talkie walked up and told us that we couldn’t go in unless we had a booking, not even to check the place out. Not very friendly, we felt.

Food and Service
The staff at Kaliyar Bhavan is very friendly and extremely helpful, with great service, a surprise for a government facility. Mr. Dave the manager, Bupabhai, the steward were both excellent and Laxmanbhai the cook deserves special mention for his outstanding Poha (for breakfast) and superb subzi and dal for lunch and dinner.

The excellent staff at Velavadar - From left to right - Davebhai (manager), Bupabhai (steward) and Laxmanbhai (Cook)

There are no real safaris at Velavadar, you take your own vehicle, take a guide and drive. So when you get there, please make sure you have a good set of wheels – a bigger, taller vehicle like the Innova, Scorpio or Tavera helps with maneuvering when you’re taking pictures.

We hired our car from Junagadh since we came from Gir, but Ahmedabad or Bhavnagar should have plenty of car hire options

Ramzan and Ayub are the only two guides at Velavadar and they’re both excellent. You can reach Ayub on +91 89808 27737

Guides par excellence -Ramzan and Ayub