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Tuesday, March 26 2013 @ 03:12 PM EDT

Gir - The Land Where Lions Roar


I am just back from a weeklong visit to the Gir National Park in the western part of India,  more popularly known as the land of lions. We were a team of 4 - Dev Anand Paul, Vaithiya Nathan, Sanjivani Vaze and me. This trip was one hell of a roller-coaster – right from the planning to the safaris. The planning began in July 2012, between Dev and me, who till then were only Facebook friends, knowing each other through a common friend. The plan was to visit Bera, a place in the north-western part of India, to see leopards, as I am yet to see a leopard after 15 years of wildlife trips. However, after a lot of info gathering and talking to people, we decided to drop it for reasons we were not comfortable with.

What then? At that time the Indian Supreme Court had banned all tiger safaris, citing poor implementation of laws by the government. These related to ensuring tourism did not harm the wild cats. Nobody knew when the safaris would start, if at all. November first week is too early for birding trips as well ... where can we go then?  I was speaking to some friends for suggestions and somebody said Gir. Dev jumped at the suggestion and bingo, we were on the Indian Railways website. Only 4 seats available!!!! Hell with it we thought, lets block our tickets and we can then ask others if anyone wants to join. Later, Vaithi (Dev's friend) and Sanjivani (a co-birder from Mumbai) agreed to join, but both had to travel in the non-AC coaches for one way of the journey.

Lion Yawning

Next started the hunt for lodging, boarding and safari bookings. Some friends helped and passed on contact details of the forest rest house 'Sinh Sadan', supposedly the best place to stay if you want to be sure you don't miss the safaris. Yes, only 30 vehicles are let in for a safari at Gir and the ones who stay at Sinh Sadan stand a better chance. Called up Sinh Sadan - 'Madam, we take bookings only 15 days in advance. If you want to come on 5th Nov, call up after 20th Oct'. We didn't do anything in Aug, Sept and until 12th Oct. I called up on 12th, to be given more and more phone numbers and after 10 calls to various numbers, I was told that no bookings will be accepted till 25th Dec due to elections!!!! How we finally managed an economical hotel booking is another long story in itself which I will skip here.

The day arrived.....3rd Nov. Dev and Vaithi flew in from Chennai and we started our journey from Mumbai together. The journey ensured we got very familiar and comfortable with each other's company. 4th noon we arrived, very skeptical of how the hotel would be. We were lucky, it turned out to be good. 6 pm in the evening we were informed that we didn't get lucky with the advance bookings and one of us has to spend the night in the queue to get the morning safari bookings. At Gir, the tourist himself has to go for the current bookings. It was decided that someone from the hotel would stand at night and Dev and Vaithi would go at 4.30 am to replace him and we would rotate turns between the 4 of us for the remaining bookings on all days. Not a good omen to begin with.....nevertheless.... Suddenly at 8 pm we were told, the bookings for day one had been done. What, where, how we don't know and we were all raring to go.

Male Lion

1st safari : 6.30 am, 5th Nov: We were all under the impression that lion sightings are much easier than tiger sightings, more-so as we have been reading for yrs that Gir is overpopulated with lions. Its cold and we set out, all excited. Soon we see the elusive jungle cat which stays in front of us for a good 2-3 mins. The excitement further builds and we are convinced lady luck is on our side.We drive on and after sometime come upon a tracker who is informing the gypsies about a lioness lying close by. Vow....the first adrenalin rush. We too go in, only to see the belly. I don't even make the effort of picking up my camera, but we are amused to see people in other gypsies falling over each other to click a pic, some even with their ipads!!! We decide to back out immediately. The tracker then tells us, there is a lion too some metres away and we are up again. Alas, again just a belly. He then raises his head to give us a glimpse for a second and the action is over. Nothing more during the safari. The guide tells us we should take a 9.30 rather than 6.30 safari next day for better sightings and we decide to give it a try. We are then told we could do some birding for the noon at the river side. Not knowing the spot we are dependent on the driver and the guide and we agree for a pre-decided amount, only to realize our folly later, on reaching the spot. Anyway, we console ourselves saying we have become wiser now and won't fall into the trap again.

Jungle Cat

2nd safari: 3.30 pm 5th Nov: A new pair of driver and guide.This fellow seemed to be far better and we were more hopeful. Nothing till 5 pm :( and we are casting dejected glances at each other, Dev trying to cheer us up by 'opening the bar' as he would call it - the chocolate bar. At 5 pm we see the guide tell us reassuringly that we will see a lion and in 5 mins we do!!!! But only the back is visible. No good. Then the lion turns its head and we manage our first few shots of the lion, against a green background. Vaithi says, 'Ah at least we have got the passing marks now'. By now it is loud and clear to us that sighting a lion is in fact more difficult than a tiger sighting. At least a tiger does not sleep for 18 hrs a day and you might chance upon it walking about in the forest. Not so with the lions.

River Terapin

3rd safari: 9.30 am 6th Nov: Nothing to write about. Forget lions, we did not see anything. There were loud alarm calls very close by indicating a leopard was around us. We waited for a few mins and then the driver and guide decided it was not worth waiting, for reasons known to them. For the rest of the safari, neither they both spoke nor we. By 11 am we were looking forward to the safari getting over. But we decided one thing for sure. No more 9.30 am safaris, 6.30 am it would be.

4th safari: 3.30 pm 6th Nov : Another new pair of driver and guide. The driver looked to be a very motivated chap and something about him told us he was the man we needed. He told us just one thing.....have patience and trust me. We had no choices anyways. It was 5.30 pm, we had just 30 mins before we had to start back and we thought another safari lost. Then he said, 'now I will show you what I promised'. In 10 mins we were upon a lioness. Click, click, click, click. This man knew the movements of the animals and kept himself well informed we realized.  And then she got up and walked towards us. She then came and sat barely a few feet from us. I sat down on the floor of the gypsy to make eye contact with her :). She sat about 5 m from me. I wanted to jump out of the gypsy and hug her as my eyes locked with hers. The tigress proved lucky for us and we saw another female and male some metres ahead. That evening we came back on cloud nine and Vaithi said, ' from pass class we have moved to B+ grade'. We told the driver, u r our lucky man. Can't u join us for the remaining 5? He said 'Madam, you try talking in the booking office but they don't easily accept it'. I tried doing that, but they said 'we can give u the same guide but not the same driver. We will try'. Fair enough, lets wait and watch.

Common Kingfisher

5th safari : 6.30 am 7th Nov. Just a drive. Only saw a few peacocks.

6th safari: 3.30 pm 7th Nov: Once again, nothing to write.

7th safari:6.30 am, 8th Nov. We only clicked some bulbuls and bee-eaters. We were at the restaurant having lunch when our favorite driver walked in to ask how it has been going. We said ' forget lions, even birds and other animals have forsaken us after the safari with you'. He said ' how many more to go?' . '2 we said'. Ok he said, let me use my good offices to see if I can join u again.

8th safari: 3.30 pm 8th Nov We step out of the hotel to see our driver waiting with the gypsy. Suddenly we are all gleeful. 'Madam, now the Gir pride is at stake. I will not let u all go back dejected like this. My promise.I have seen a lioness with 4 cubs in the morning. I know the territory and I think I know where she will move in the evening. But once again, patience and leave the rest to me' . 5 pm, he starts driving with single minded focus and we are holding onto the edges of the gypsy. He stops and we see a pride of 6 lions/lionesses.Click, click,click ,click for 30 mins. Apparently, one female of the pride had 4 tiny cubs too. We waited, but by then the news of this pride of 6 had spread and there were gypsies lined up. No chance the cubs would b brought out. And then one of the pride came a little forward. Again, I was squatting on the floor of the gypsy, for that eye level shot And then news came of a male lion on the road, a few kms ahead. Quietly and without showing any visible excitement, we moved away from the pride, to be the first ones to reach the spot. We did!!! And there he was. Once again I was on the floor of the gypsy. Checked the distance reading on my lens....7 metres. Vow!!!! This close..... I waited for him to look at me. And then it came.....the moment, as our eyes locked. Time was running out and this was my last image. 8 safaris done, one more to go. We convinced our driver to join us again next morning for our final safari. Vaithi now promoted us to A+ grade.

final safari: 6.30 am, 9th Nov: The lion was still there where we left him last night.  He then walked  for a good 15-20 min. Then he vanished into the forest. We completed our route and were returning when he was found again, at a different spot, in beautiful light and giving some stunning poses and expressions. The hair looked liked threads of gold. And the moment we soooo wanted to capture. The giant yawn...... Thus ended our roller-coaster trip to Gir.

You can see more than a dozen photographs from this trip in the album "Gir - The Land Where Lions Roar" or in my Google+ album.

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