Winding off from Junagad,earlier than planned, I decided to visit Gir and try my luck to see the Lion. Many buses pass through Sasan Gir from the state bus stop of Junagad.The place is just 60 km by road and the route passes obviously through forests.The road being not so great , the distance takes about 2.5 hrs to cover by bus. I boarded the almost empty noon bus and set out for the unknown.
The route to Gir, gives one a fair insight into the vegetation and character of the Saurashtra landscape. Predominantly flat stretches of land with dry arid landscape, with more shades of sandy and dusty browns greet you as you go this way.Most of the route is sparsely populated ,with hardly any vehicles zooming around this stretch. Little villages and resort signs start popping up as you reach closer to Gir .There are ample resorts around the area, albeit most are tucked away into little village pockets and you would rarely see any gates opening bang on the route.Although I would have loved to pamper myself at one of the jungle resorts, I figured for reasons of convenience I rather stay closer to the Safari entrance.Anxiety seeped into me as I neared my stop, Sinh Sadan, I had no stay bookings but did not have any Safari bookings as well. The website for safari bookings had not allowed me bookings for the morning safari. With anxious thoughts I got off and went to Sinh Sadan to talk to the person there. Sinh Sadan is the only huge establishment in the area in Sasan.And as usually the cases with Wild life destinations, the entire street outside it has developed on secondary activities which majorly were result of the safari destination. Sinh Sadan, the facilitation center, houses the main office, a dormitory , cottages, rooms , exhibition space , safari booking center, souvenir shop and an amphitheater. I walked up anxiously to the person at the counter and inquired for the safaris.As feared, I was in for a neat surprise. The Gujarat government has recently made entire 100% bookings online,and a minimum of 3 days in advance.One needs to register the member names and get individual permits basis each vehicle assigned online. Each vehicle takes in 6 persons, driver and a compulsory guide .The staff unapologetically informed me I cannot be in a safari, my best option was to witness the Lion at Devalia safari park.
The Devalia Safari park,which lies about 20mins from the Sinh Sadan is a small cordoned forest of 16 sqkm. It offers a bus ride through this jungle park where one is sure to see the lions and other wildlife by taking a nominal ticket of 150/- only .It can be a decent thing to do , if one wishes to just see the Lion,but I was more interested in witnessing the forests,than the beast.Hugely let down with this information, I decided to assemble in the morning at Sinh Sadan gate and try my luck again.Being on my own without any vehicle at disposal, I decided to stay in proximity of the Facilitation center to make it convenient for the next morning.
Annapurna Lodge, is right there, opposite the center, a small innocent looking place, with no frills, clean basic rooms and Hot water.For 500/- I dumped my little camera sack, had a shower and got down to walk around the place. The owner a God fearing Gujarati old man,chatted affectionately with me as I narrated my safari problem to him. At the end of my cribbing, he advised me to simply go to Devalia park and take the cheap safari than spend thousands trying to bribe around for the safari. Through my conversation with him and my friend over the phone, I learnt the Safari booking was little tricky and had ample agents , middle men to help fix the little trip inside. Guides and safari drivers act as agent and promise you sight of a Lion for an amount .To put a stop to such practices , the people had demanded 100% online booking and so it was complied with. Phew, so much for a safari. Tired from my day, I decided to just enjoy the sights around and leave the rest to the morning.
The Street outside Sihn Sadan is alive till pretty late hours,innocuous little stalls sell Gujarati delicacies, a lot of Fhadhda , Chaat , pav bhaj , juices and tea stalls dot the street late till night.There is another peculiar thing about Gir, you would find yourself looking at dark skinned African looking faces with their tight afro curls speaking fluid Gujarati. The Siddhis of Gujarat are pretty known and are settled in Jambur village at a little distance from Gir center.If one has a vehicle , one can pay down a visit to this settlement,and have a little conversation to the tribe settled here since 5 generations now. I felt joy chatting with the tiny Siddhi tot , who had come to get ice cream with his dad. Such cuteness in that face. I have a stroll along the street, visiting the close by crocodile center and the railway station.There isn’t much one can explore on foot here.At 7.00pm I visited the Sinh Sadan again to witness the film on the Gir Forest and Asiatic Lion ,an hour long film that’s screened for free at the amphitheater.
Next day my morning I was ont he street at 4.30 am, wanting to try my best in pleading for the safari I waited earnestly in the dark hours of dawn for the gates of the Sinh Sadan to open. Slowly as the dawn came up I saw the scene change , first the tea makers set shop, then the guides slowly assembled in their uniform, the safari gypsies with their drivers lined outside and finally at 5.30 am the gates opened. I walked down to the window and explained my situation again,unfortunately the same staff had resumed in the morning.Apparently without registration one cannot avail the safari.Dejected I sat at the waiting area watching families arrive with their booking slips and lining up outside the window to pay for the vehicle / guide charges.I had just started to accept my fate, when suddenly the Senior office, who had witnessed my plight and the puppy face I was sitting with, called for me.As I reached closer, he simply told me some VIPs were being assigned a vehicle and they are willing to accommodate me, and I can dutch with them whatever charges happen. Wow!!! the day suddenly looked much happier.Profusely thanking him, I introduced myself to a group of four doctors from Punjab, travel and safari enthusiasts.I gave my name and waited quietly , watching the cacophony of the tourists around. The first safari starts at 6.30 am and lasts for 3 hours, the vehicles are assigned specific routes, from the 8 routes existing through the jungle. Route number 8 and 4 are preferred , since they pass via a dam and have higher chances of spotting the Lion.Nevertheless we were assigned route 6, a camera charge of 200/- for each cam, guide and safari changes and off we were. What I didn’t know was the next 3 hrs with these doctors were going to be a laughing riot all the way .
There are about 4 entry gates to the forests, we were to enter from gate no 2. As we reached the entry post, we saw about 8-10 vehicles lined up for the entry . The route starts together and then splits inside along the way to separate trails. Every trail had about 3-4 vehicles following the trail together.As we started along the trail, the Guide and the driver started giving facts about the forest and the Lions.The Gir jungles are dry deciduous forests and quite different in character to the forests of western ghats which I was more familiar with or Grasslands of Kenya where I had previously witnessed the Lions.
As the skies lit up slowly, the forests became visible and the wilderness started growing inside me. When adequately sunlit, I could see the woods were distinctly different than any I had witnessed before. The Gir forests are a treasure cove for teak wood and are heavily guarded against the teak smugglers. The forests are not dense in terms of foliage, on contrary you will find yourself looking through a jungle of thin, wiry tree trunks. The trunks are quite thin, with their branches dancing out in all directions, forming a maze of graphics against the skies. I was amazed by the color tone of the surroundings, it all felt like snapping a picture in sepia mode. A medley of browns,in the sandy soils, tree trunks, dried parched leaves,and the Lion itself.
The forest in its last census,carried out in 2015 had about 535 lions, the census is done every 5 yrs, and people who wish to participate can do so by inquiring and submitting their voluntary forms before it starts. The counting lasts for a week or so and the volunteers are trained beforehand, their accommodation and food taken care of by the Forest dpt of Gujarat. besides the Lions, the forest is home to Nilgiri thars, leopards, hyenas , porcupines, deers, and hundreds of species of reptiles and birds.
As we lapped up all the info, the company is my jeep was busy joking and clicking selfies.The group were an adventurous lot and had driven down from Chandigarh in their Honda City, covering many places in between.Half hour into the route, we witnessed the first encounter. A Lioness was walking calmly between the vehicles standing before us.I gasped at how huge she was. Unperturbed by the entourage she calmly walked across the road , making her way between the jeeps and to the other side. And then we saw them all, she was a part of a group of 5 lions, 3 females and 2 cubs of 5 months. I was thrilled at witnessing this.Changing the lens I tried a few clicks, as my companions went berserk clicking selfies with them.The Gir landscape is very apt for the Lions. They can camouflage themselves easily,blending in the sandy colors of the forests, so much so , one wouldn’t notice them sitting right beside the tree trunk.
Lions in Gir are quite used to the people around. Infact the jungle is inhabited inside by a few small settlements. These people have been living inside the forests for generations and refuse to move out. They live their lives around the animals and exist at harmony with them. Their cattle graze on the jungle grasses and milk supply is their source of livelihood. We passed couple of settlements on our way through route 6.
Gir is the only place which is home to the Asiatic Lion. In the era of the Kings, the beasts used to be hunted for trophies and the population had declined to an alarming few.The protection programs undertaken by then Prince of Junagad and the Gujarat Government, steadily helped increasing the Lion population and the last census showed a marked increase of 27%. The People of Gir consider the animal as their treasure and support the Government in the program. I felt heartened to hear this success story. Infact the population of Lions has increased a lot for the size of this small jungle,which admeasures about 1500sq km.
The rest of the route, got me in awe of the peculiar dry forest,a couple of more lioness encounters,few Nilgiri thars,monkeys,some bird sightings and a wonderful drive with the funny company. We prayed for luck to shine more for spotting a gorgeous Male Lion or a leopard, but no such sightings happened.The guide informed us the Lion has not been spotted for 3-4 days now.Once at the end of the core area we halted at a spot to attend to nature’s call and continued to our exit route just as the Sun started warming up in Gir.
As we returned to Sinh Sadan I thanked the group for accommodating me and making me trip memorable.I paid my share to the bunch and happily parted after taking a selfie with the guide.
Having seen the safari, which I had almost missed out, I was totally satiated and decided not to spend more time exploring Devalia Safari park.I quickly packed up to catch the train ,which was just to arrive at 10.15am to leave for my next stop, the gorgeous Diu.
For any one visiting Gir, there would be just be a small piece of advice, ensure you book your safari ahead of the visit, weekends can be crowded so in case one wishes a good resort,book ahead of time.