Leaving the cacophony that was Junagadh behind, we headed to Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. We had been undecided as to whether to visit this park, as in our experience such places are generally not what we think of as national parks and the wildlife far from protected, but when we were at Devpur Homestay both our host, Krutarth, and the motorcycling man from Bangalore insisted that we could not miss it.
They also told us that we had to book the park passes well ahead as visitors are limited each day. It was necessary to book online, on a government site that did not accept foreign credit cards so Krutarth kindly booked for us and we paid him in cash. We then had to plan the next phase of our trip as we were limited as to where we could go by the passes we could get.
I booked us 3 nights in the Gateway Hotel, a former Indian Government rest house now run by the Taj group. Indian rest houses in the past usually had good locations but were horribly badly run and maintained with staff that frankly discouraged people from staying as they did not want the work of making up rooms and feeding guests. After all, that was why they were government employees in the first place. When we were here before, these places were resorted to only in desperation.
Gujarat and some other states have since given up the running of these places to private operators. The Taj group is famous in India for their luxury hotels and excellent service and most are far beyond our budget, lax as it is these days. This one, though not in the luxury category and still a simple guesthouse in style, was completely renovated and immaculately maintained, and the staff were fabulous. Excellent food and all mod cons in working order. The location was wonderful, on the edge of the park, very secluded and overlooking a river bank, no tuk tuk, motorcycle, truck, bus, etc etc noise, just blissful peace.
We were so ready for a “too much India” day, and I took in the view and the peace from the balcony, then fell on the comfortable bed, and passed out for an hour. In a complete reversal of roles (usually it is Doug who sleeps and I amuse myself) Doug went out onto the river bank with his camera and wandered for the hour, shooting photos of birds, monkeys, spotted deer, herds of goats, women washing clothes in the river, and men bringing the buffalo home for the evening. When he came back I told him I was not moving except to go on the safari next afternoon and for meals in the dining room!
If you are set on seeing lions the guide books suggest booking 2 or 3 safaris, but we decided to just take our chances on one. The passes are quite expensive for foreigners, $50 each compared to $10 for Indians, and adding jeep rental and mandatory park guide (a deal at $3) we decided that one would have to be enough. Our time was 3 to 6 in the afternoon, as the most popular time, 6 am to 9 was completely booked out for 3 weeks. In the end that turned out to be a good thing as it is still extremely cool at that time of the morning and it did not seem that those who went on the early safari saw any more lions than anyone else. One American woman did see a leopard though, a very unusual sighting and only possible in the early dawn since they are nocturnal. She was on her third safari though when she saw her lion.
Our hotel provided a jeep for us, otherwise you had to rent one from the park office, we picked up our guide Apu and registered with our passports and our online permits at the park entry. We were randomly assigned one of 10 possible routes, unlike in Kenya when we went on safari, the jeeps have to stay to the tracks and cannot drive on any other route than the one assigned. So that too makes luck a factor.
Apu was bound and determined that we were to see a lion even though we told him we were also interested in birds, and the other smaller animals residing in the park. But he was insistent because, as he said, the domestic tourists would have more chances but we had come so far we might never get to Gir again. He spoke good English, self taught, and told us a lot of interesting things about the park management, the protection of the lions, the local villages that are within the park, and conservation efforts. Now that the lion population has gone from nearly non-existent with18 remaining when the park was established in about 1900, to more than 500 now, and with lions leaving the area as the territory is too small, there have been suggestions that the Gujarati government share a few with Madyha Pradesh, the neighbouring state where Asiatic lions were once resident. I asked Apu what he thought of that.. “Nonsensical idea,” he said (as I knew he would, all Gujaratis feel the same according to the Times of India, Gujarat editionn) — “Those people have let all their tigers get poached how would they look after our lions…”
The park employs “trackers”, labelled as such on their jackets, who go around on motorbikes and check on the animals’ locations, with the emphasis being on the cats of course. One of them came by and told Apu that two lions had killed a buffalo (according to Apu the villagers are delighted to share their buffalo with the lions?!) and so we might see them if they left the kill to drink at the river. When we came to the spot the tracker drove slowly and quietly off on his bike to see if they were there, and then returned to say that he would call another tracker and they would see if they could encourage the two lionesses to come for their drink earlier rather than later. I wasn’t sure that was entirely sporting, but Doug assured me that all the best big game hunters had employed trackers and beaters so it would be fine.
After a fairly lengthy wait, during which Apu described how “very risky” this activity was to the trackers, and tried to insist that two other jeeps crammed to the gunwales with Indian families should be quiet for a bit — didn’t work — he excitedly pointed to movement in the bush. Since the dry teak forest is exactly the same colour as the lions, they were amazingly hard to see at first, despite their huge size. They both emerged from between the tree trunks, moving in an elegant and unhurried fashion towards the water. The younger one stopped when she saw us, had a good look and decided to lie down and think about things, but the older one whose face was heavily scarred and whose jaws were still gory from her lunch, stalked superciliously by and down the bank to the water’s edge. They are really glorious looking animals, like all big cats, rippling with power, and imperious in bearing. Asiatic lions differ from African ones in that they do not eat carrion, so Apu said they would work on the buffalo for a day or two then abandon it to the hyenas, jackals, and raptors to finish it off.
We saw lots of spotted deer, though none of the other types of antelope that reside there, lots of beautiful langur monkeys, which because they are never fed or coaxed to come near are not the horrendous nuisances they are in most places in India, lots of bird species including some remarkably well camouflaged small owls, horrendously ugly wild boars not that different looking from the feral pigs in the Junagadh Fort though the boars had tusks, and a very laid back jackal, somewhat like a coyote but far less nervous. Since we had waited a while for the lions to emerge, we had to drive like mad over the bumpy track to reach the end of our route before sundown — Apu said he would get into a lot of trouble if we didn’t make it — but they still stopped if we came to an interesting animal or bird. All in all a very satisfying expedition, and I was glad we hadn’t booked two.
We so enjoyed the relaxing ambience of the hotel, reading on our balcony and going for little walks. A very pleasant break for us and we feel re-energized for the last lap of our Gujarat journey.