Asia | India | Gujarat – Wild Gujarat
Violent communal riots and devastating earthquakes bring the state of Gujurat to the front pages of newspapers around the world. Increasingly, what brings the world to Gujurat is it’s diverse landscapes and two particular species of wildlife – the Asiatic lion found in the forests of Gir, and the Khurs, or wild asses of Little Rann in Kutch. There’s more wildlife, and more than a dozen places to see it in Gujurat.
After flying into the capital of Ahmedabad, I head out to the vast wetland sanctuary of Nel Sarovar. Betrayed by a local source into believing that the sanctuary was a one-hour trip by auto-rickshaw, I’m off at about five o’clock in the cool morning darkness. The trip end up being closer to two and a half hours, with the rickshaw driver whinging about the distance and time on arrival. The boatmen refuse to take me in a boat unless I charter one for 1000 rupees, and refuse to let me join another party and pay the posted price of 20 rupees per person per hour. Ah India! Finally, a local family hosting their American nephew, make an arrangement and we push off across the marshes observing thousands of birds ranging from egrets and black ducks, to herons and less flamingoes. As the boatman punts through the water, it is once again, the quiet India.
A day later after traveling south to Bhavinagar on a luxury bus, I hire a taxi to go to the Verevadar National Park, home to numerous Nilgii(Blue Bulls), and several thousand Black Buck antelope. Some spring through the air as they decide our Ambassador taxi has come a little too close for comfort. The “guide compulsory” is less than articulate in English, pointing out numerous species of bird with the explanation: “bird!” It seems that every Black Buck, and there are hundreds along our drive, is announced as “Black Bluck”. So much for the guide compulsory. Eventually I’m back at the Apollo hotel where the service is extremely good value for the 450 rupees per night.
My bus the next morning is of the classic old India variety – that means that every seat on the bus is broken and the entire structure is one very loud bucket of jangling bolts lurching and roaring it?Çs way down the highway. I’m headed for the seaside town of Diu, a place where you can actually have a beer here in the dry state of Gujurat.
Diu is a bit of a disappointment. I find out on arrival that the beaches are too rough and rocky for swimming, except for the two that are located many kilometers away on the far side of the island. The closer of the two, which I do go to, has more than thirty tour busses parked along the edge of the road, waiting for crowds of domestic tourists to complete the wall to wall strolls along the water’s edge. After a tandoori seafood dinner, it was time for the main event – the forests of Sasan Gir and the king of the jungle.
It’s India, so the “two hour” journey to Sasan Gir is more like five and a half hours. Sasan Gir, a town of 3000, is located on the edge of the Sasan Gir National Park, and within the much larger Gir Forest Reserve Lands. Living within the Gir are over 40,000 Chittal Deer, several thousand Blue Bull antelope and Sambar Deer, 280 leopards, and at current count, 327 Asiatic Lions. There are also 6,000 tribal herdsmen who make their living raising water buffalo and cattle to make ghee from the milk. Ghee is a kind of cooking oil from what I can understand. Teak, Gum, and Banyan trees predominate in the forest, the latter of which is a favorite resting place for leopards.
The jeep safari starts with breakfast at 6, registration and sign in at the park office at 6:30. The foreigner rate is $5 plus $5 for camera plus jeep entry fee, plus jeep fee, plus guide fee, plus driver entry fee. If you want to stay at the park lodge, rates for foreigners start at $30. There are also special prices for food and beverages for foreigners and an exorbitant video fee of $200 – both are things that irk me. I don’t mind paying higher entrance admissions, but why should a cup of tea cost an Indian 7 rupees, and a foreigner almost 50? Is the tea that much sweeter, that much richer? This is not a western style cup of tea. It’s like a quarter of a cup of tea. Ah India!
Our jeep crosses the gate following route five, passing deer, sambar, wild boar, and many birds before our rest stop about an hour later. At the stop, we learn that one of the other jeeps has seen a lion just a few minutes down the road, so we aim in that direction, eyes piercing the forest looking for it?Çs king. He’s there in the bush by the side of the road as we come over a ridge. Pulling up closer, we stop. Unfortunately, a Canadian woman and one of the Indian tourists jump out of the jeep almost immediately, and the lion quickly moves away. They’re quickly told to get back in the vehicle, but it’s too late. The lion is gone.
The next day, I share a jeep with a young Austrian couple. Again, we do not spot a lion before our rest stop. There we are told that there are some lionesses nearby. Going down the road, we are stopped by a roadblock of jeeps and a herd of buffalo. Much conversation is going on amongst the drivers and guides, before a group of people set off walking in the forest accompanied by a ranger. We are told that he is a V.I.P. and they have killed a baby buffalo so he can have a close up view of the lions eating.
Pushing on, we eventually see the two lionesses stalking for food through the forest. Silently, they make their way across the forest floor that is covered with large dry leaves. We are able to observe them for a few moments before they go deeper into the forest. Smooth, sleek, and powerful, they are larger than I think they will be. No growls or snarls, just a steady, silent prowl. Beautiful.
From Sasan Gir, it’s a three bus, nine-hour journey (reported as two, maybe three hours) to Dranghadar on the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch. I join a fellow Canadian for a day’s drive out in the barren dry land of the khurs, or wild asses of Kutch. We spot all kinds of other wildlife, including a group of Indian Gazelles running at high speed across the open lands, Blue Bulls, flamingoes, and pelicans, and small groups of wild asses. The desert mirage is an amazing thing. Isolated bushes and huts for the salt harvesting really do seem to float above the horizon. The wild asses run like the wind and our guide, who is also a published wildlife photographer, seems to know exactly where to take us. It?Çs an excellent trip and a nice way to finish my time in India.
Okay, it doesn?Çt end quite as nicely as this. There’s a lengthy bus trip back to the capital. There’s still a four-hour delay of my flight, which then turns into a cancellation, with every other flight being full, then finally a seat opening on a jet, which is delayed, making for a tight connection with my flight from Mumbai. Then there?Çs the attempted rip-off by the auto-rickshaw driver in Mumbai who I hire to take me to the other airport through rush hour traffic, another delayed plane, and another delayed plane.
Ah India. Ah India!