Gir, Tryst With Royalty (2010)

Gir, Tryst With Royalty (2010)

This is one wild life safari that begins long before you reach the jungle, all the more thrilling because you never expected it! Provided you travel at the right time of the year – between October and December. As you drive from Dwaraka to Somnath, you are delightfully surprised by a parade of avian visitors darkening the skies with their sheer numbers and rending the silence of the marshes with their raucous chatter.  Copenhagen seems distant and climate change concerns, a trifle exaggerated as these migratory birds keep their annual tryst with a primordial cycle – of  flying thousands of miles to mate, lay eggs, hatch fledglings, raise them to adulthood and take them all the way back to where they came from. In one of nature’s miracles, the journey, the route and the purpose get embedded in the memory of these hatchlings that they will return to the same spot year after year when it is their turn to lay eggs and raise their young. Surely, their mnemonic abilities must be the envy of Motorola and Intel, the memory chip makers!

The marshes on either side of the road provide fertile feeding ground for these birds whose diet consists primarily of fish and insects.  But I suppose they would not be averse to peck at grains if they can lay their beaks on them, since I see farmers shooing them away with long poles. They must consider these birds pestilential and I don’t blame them. An emerald square ripe with grain could be wiped out in a few hours when these long-legged fauna land on it.

Sexy Saurus Cranes

I spot several species – majestic Saurus cranes, sexy, long-legged blue herons, shiny black cormorants, the ubiquitous egrets, pink-tinged flamingoes and a whole host of teals and mallards, which I presume are not exactly migratory birds.  The visitors fly in various formations, sometimes in a squadron led by a single, presumably experienced bird, but more often in a long wavy line half way across the horizon. With their legs stretched out behind them, they are a picture of grace and tranquility. Trying to capture them on lens from a moving vehicle proves to be a bit tricky.

Actually, for me, this is a journey that might never have been. Our destination is Gir, the last refuge of Asiatic lions in Sasan in Gujarat. This national park can be reached directly from Dwaraka.  Yet, we were seduced by the legendary magic of a gorgeous temple perched on the seashore and decided to make the detour to Somnath. While the temple besieged by Mohammed Ghazni as many as 17 times does live upto one’s expectations in terms of its grandeur and location, the town itself is so congested with latticework of narrow alleyways and open drains so much so we make a hasty exit.

The 3-hour drive from Somnath to Gir is pleasant enough with mango orchards on both sides of the road and a few villages here and there.  Surprise, surprise, even at this time of the yea  there are fruits on the boughs. Could it be climate change? After a couple of hours on the road, we enter the forest, dense and hush with the promise of game. This is not your typical tropical jungle. The terrain is undulating and there are frequent streams criss-crossing your path.  The ecosystem is specific to saline soil.

Even as our eyes feast on the verdant jungle, our ears are cocked for that singular sound – the majestic roar of the king, but all we hear is the hum of our car engine. Occasionally there is the sound of a twig cracking. Spotted deer, the most ubiquitous of all deer species move with remarkable stealth and grace. A Neelgai takes a break from feeding to gaze at us with utter boredom. Warblers alight and take off with a mere swish of their wings, hardly audible.

Right of Way

Naturally, residents have right of way and our driver is careful not to disturb any game tame or otherwise. Overhead, birds of prey cruise in circles, indicating the remains of a recent kill on which they feast.  But still no sign of the king. The forest department brochure brags that Gir houses 359 Asiatic lions, 311 leopards and more than 3000 wild boar. Where are they hiding? Could they be lurking behind that thicket? Sensing our disappointment, our driver pops an existential question. Do you want guaranteed sighting of lions or do you want to just explore the jungle? We’re perplexed. Of course we want to sight the king, we respond in chorus. He suggests we go to Devaliya first.

At Devaliaya, 12 kilometers from Sasan, there is a Gir Interpretation Zone, whatever that means. We join the queue for a ticket and board a bus with reinforced glass windows and an African-looking driver who sports a radio receiver. I wonder if he is a Siddi, descendant of the Bantu tribes of West Africa who put roots in India. They came as merchants and sailors, slaves and indentured servants, even mercenaries from Southeast Africa.

Soon enough, we’re in the vicinity of a couple of mature lions, a male sprawled and snoozing, his mane askew and a female relaxing by his side. Then there are a few more, all unconcerned with the bus and its gawking occupants. Just a couple of hundred yards away, I spot an open truck and a driver lounging around nearby, with nary a care for the big beasts on the loose. Our guide explains somewhat sheepishly that the lions must be well-fed in which case they don’t attack humans. I suspect the animals are also radio-collared. Otherwise how would our driver drive straight into them in a corralled enclosure of over four square kilometers?

We’re eager for some real adventure. So we drive to the main Gir Sanctuary and National Park, and take an open jeep ride through real jungle, not a corralled enclosure.  Our guide, barely out of his teens tells us in no uncertain terms that there is no guarantee of spotting lions, but he would try his best. We drive through mud tracks in utter silence. Gnarled tree trunks sport parakeet nests and we spot an occasional owl or two. On the banks of a lake we see a crocodile sunning itself. But even after an hour and a half of this ride, we spot no lions. We have a train to catch later that night and perhaps luck is not on our side. Our guide points to barking deer and wild boar but we sulk and refuse to look.

A Pair of Big Cats

Then suddenly he perks up. The silence is rent by frantic alarm calls of langurs. A deer darts in terror and disappears into the foliage. Our guide cranes his neck and signals the driver to stop. We reverse our jeep and wait with bated breath in a spot close to a clearing. And then we see them, two young lions, obviously well-fed, their lustrous coats advertising their youth and excellent health.

My lens is at its maximum zoom, waiting for them to emerge from the thicket into the clearing so that we can get a full view. Eventually they do emerge, their faces turned away from us. Their pace is brisk and their countenance, attentive, as though they are sniffing the air for possible prey. My fingers freeze and I can’t take my eyes off them, and just about manage to click a couple of pictures before they vanish from my frame into the forest.  Tantalizing as it was, the glimpse of this majestic creature in its natural habitat is indeed a most reassuring sight.

(Published in Indian Express on March 13, 2010)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *