Early this year, we hightailed it through the Indian state of Gujarat in a car. A 2500 kilometre long journey packed into a tight 4 days. They say the best journeys are the ones that are planned the least. This mad drive into Gujarat was exactly that. One crappy car and four drivers can do a lot more than one might assume.
Gir and Gujarat
Our biker friend, Pankaj Goyal, was getting married deep inside Gujarat and we had to be there to bid our boy goodbye. We drove endlessly and under the cover of darkness in mid January. Swapping driving and navigation responsibilities at every rest stop, we saw the sunrise. While we were still on the road and now only about 50 kilometers from our destination, our minds started wandering.
500 miles from home, it was imperative that we make the most of our journey. But, time was short. We met our friend and his lovely fiance, stayed and shot the wedding (our first wedding shoot evaar!) and then darted out into the vastness that is Gujarat.
The Gir national park and wildlife sanctuary is very popular amongst tourists and hardcore photographers. To be true, all our wildlife gear was sitting pretty back at base! Our photography, cameras and lenses were optimized to shoot a wedding, not the wild!
Thus began our trip to Gir, the final stronghold of the Asiatic Lion.
This was the first time any of us were visiting this part of the country. Yet again, we started our drive in the night. Gujarat, in India, is synonymous with ‘development’ or so we thought. We drove into the interiors and were taken by surprise, the roads in this part of the country were abysmal. To make matters slightly more challenging, the gates into Gir National Park did not open till 8am.
We snoozed in our car till a shabbily dressed, half asleep forest guard let us in. At 8 am and on the outer boundary, things got worse. As one drives into the sanctuary, roads virtually disappear. This was bad news for our overloaded car. Our speed was less than an average of 25 km/h.
Nothing but nature
They say everything happens for a reason and after 2 hours the slow, irritating and bumpy early morning drive bore fruit.
We saw her, as she walked protectively behind her two cubs. Protective but not concerned, we were on her turf. The four of us suddenly froze, as if in a daze. She was aware of our presence, we shut off the engine of our car. Just for a second, she turned to look at us.
I see you
That was the moment when the photographer in us took over. Before she could look away, we had our shot. That little moment felt much longer when we were in it. In her gaze, she sized our vehicle up. We were no threat.
Just as soon as we had clicked a couple of photos, she turned and walked away. As if she knew she had given us what we wanted, our first sighting. Before even entering the safari zone, where people go weeks without a single sighting, we had met the Lioness.
Luck and a Lioness
It was clear, luck was on our side.
We reached our campsite cum hotel a little after noon. All four of us were eager to try our luck at catching a glimpse of another Lion. We just had to go on safari. A completely modified SUV, optimized for carrying up to 6 people arrived to take us around the forest.
Our group of four was allotted one of the longest safari routes through the main forest. Our driver and spotter (Forest department registered) were adept at telling us about every aspect of the flora and fauna here. Albeit in a routine and practiced manner.
Dust, grime and a whole lot of fun!
One hour into the safari and having seen just a few hundred deer and buffaloes our spotter got news of a Lion sighting over the radio. We reached the spot with about 25 other jeeps already waiting at a distance.
A safari at Gir is rather amusing. There are unsaid practices here which make sure the paying tourists get their shots.
Sightings at Gir are actually enabled by people called ‘Trekkers/trackers’. These Trackers are local villagers hired by the forest department to patrol a designated piece of land. Their job is to relay the presence of Lions in their sector to the higher ups.
There were a lot of tourists at this sanctuary, the kind who come for the heck of it and not for the value forests of such nature hold. There were mammoth lens toting photographers too, who maybe didn’t care about the way they got their shot, as long as they got it.
And then there was us. Four confused guys, on a safari in India for the first time. We didn’t have our lenses but our conscience was alive. Sort of.
Here’s the truth about Gir. Everybody wants a sighting but not everybody gets one. It is sort of possible to ‘arrange’ for one to get a proper sighting. If a Lion has been sighted, drivers and forest guides act as if their vehicle has broken down. Then, once everyone else has left the spot, one ‘pays’ the tracker and gets the shot one wants. The moment guides/drivers learn that you’re interested in taking pictures, the offers come up.
We were gifted with another sighting. A slumbering male Lion, snoozing in the afternoon shade, lying on a carpet of dry grass.
The Lion was lying flat on the ground. Looking at us photographers the tracker walked to a bush and shook the branches, which alerted the King. It looked up to see what the commotion was about. We all got our shot.
It is at this point that I realized the sorry state of the wild here. Yes this was a forest and yes the Lions were free to roam the boundaries of Gir, but there was something missing. That thrill of the chase, the chance of getting lost. And the sheer convenience of looking at these Lions had made this a very mediocre wildlife experience.
The only issue we had to deal with was dust. Which, had we been prepared, would not have caused us any discomfort.
My land exists but my wild is lost.
Gir is simply not what it is cracked up to be.
We had our share of fun. Buttered paranthas in the biting cold, under the stars and around the bonfire, licking pickles of unimaginable potency with me carefully keeping my distance from the sweet Gujarati Daal.
We had to be heading home, people among us had work to get done. But the disease of travel is such that it never leaves you cured. We took the long route out, stopping over at Somnath to check out what the temple holds.
Somnath, the forbidden temple.
It was a lackluster trip once we left the wedding but as any good road trip is incomplete without its share of mishaps, ours was yet to give us the final challenge.
On our way back, doing three digit speeds, we lost our brakes. Yes. The game was still on!
At a remote dhaba, we waited for 5 hours as a mechanic charged us a bomb and got us new brake pads. Then, we drove for a thousand kilometers and reached home. Safe.
This land holds secrets, too many to count on ten fingers. Gujarat.