Monday, February 28, 2011

jeeping for Lions in Gir forest!

It was a long awaited trip. I have been dreaming of going to the mystical forest of lions called “Gir” since I was old enough to read about them. Call it 40 years. The name “Gir” so close to “Grrrrrowl” conjures up amazing imagery in a child’s mind and when I finally got there I re-lived all those times I had dreamed of being right where I was… at Gir…. With a camera to boot.

A note to all the intrepid travelers who wish to come to “Grrrrowl” I mean Gir; get to Ahmedabad somehow and then take a bus that goes either to Somnath or Veraval. This is far better than the train which goes till Junagadh and then you have to make your own way at some God forsaken hour of the morning and cover 60 km to Gir. If you are like me, and not a morning person, you will probably lose something on the way and when you do actually wake up (around 9.30) it will have ruined your whole day. The bus on the other hand, very decently, I might add, drops you right smack in front of the place where you book your safari, which is inside the best place to stay for budget travellers like moi meme, called Sinh Sadan (roughly translates to “Place of the Lion”).

So I get dropped at Gir and then find myself looking at a whopping huge bird on top of the tree right by the road inside Sinh Sadan. It was huge and intent on hogging the banyan tree fruit/berries whatever. The place is full of trees and trees full of birds, I mean talk about a welcome. Turned out it was a black ibis. New bird for me! All in the first minute. Then the misleading began.

I was led by a chap in a camo outfit who said he was a guide (he was) to reject Sinh Sadan on account of its exorbitant cost (false info) and was led instead to a hotel, smack outside Sinh Sadan. Decent clean room. 400rs. Clean bathroom. No TV yaay! Hot water. Balcony overlooking the trees full of birds. Landing for the tripod. Ledge for the bean bag. I mean perfect. Misguides notwithstanding.

More misleading. The guide said I could book a jeep and go off right away. So I charged up 2 floors got my camera gear and raced down before you could say Grrrrowl. This was not happening. There are specific timings and they are to be followed. The safari system is pretty organized as far as price goes. It’s queuing that’s the problem. Also guides who misguide you. I filled out a form and asked the guy at the window to arrange some people to share my jeep or I would have to cough up 1300rs by myself. ‘Ahem… I would rather not do that’ I told him.

Anyway I found I had about an hour and a half to kill as it were so pushed off for a leisurely bath and breakfast and in the meantime the sun came up properly. Lovely weather I was fortunate to have. Sun was out, no clouds, temperature at 22-24C in the sun. Sweet! My kind of weather.

I turned up at the counter with my misguide and found that nobody had joined me. Ooops! And just when I was forking over the money, a family turned up with 5 members and they wanted one more to hook up with. Glad I did and again I don’t know. We got a guide who looked like he belonged in middle school. Turned out he was a new (sic) guide, “only 6 months Sir” he chirped like a sunbird, as he manfully tried to look manful in his 100lb frame and his camo outfit. It seems camo outfits are all the rage here, with guides and misguides alike.

The first safari with very sweet well-meaning Oriya people, full of hospitality and just out for the ride. Our little guide was very enthusiastic as he pointed out black birds and brown birds as they flew by. Er…. Names of the birds if you please. But they were not forthcoming. Not that anyone else cared. They were thrilled to see multi colours of birds. I was getting a little cheesed off if I may say so.

About 2 km into the forest we had a flat on the rickety gypsy we were in and I rather lost it. The driver called in the owner who came in on a bike to change the flat and send us off for a 20km drive without a spare. ‘Really smart this, in lion infested forest to have no stepney’, I said and he tried to be really smarmy about it. Upshot was I raised cain and he replaced the vehicle, though not the guide. More’s the pity.

The drive is actually quite beautiful and though the forest is drying up there are trees at this time in leaf and some in flower which really make the drive pleasant. Driving along slowly through the rather thick forest on a dirt path scanning the undergrowth for any sign of lion (411 at last count), leopard (320 at last count) and other animals is really exciting to say the least. Each turn I expected to see a lion coming towards us! Birds were out in force and I was hoping for a slaty headed parakeet, and changeable hawk eagle. We saw the nest of the hawk eagle but no slaty headed parakeet. Got a new bird though and RWe on Indiamike id’ed it to be a Rufous tailed shrike. Also got a few other birds, really handsome Tickells blue Flycatcher and red breasted fly catcher. The family in the jeep was not really into birds especially not little ones half a furlong away that I was shooting and often I totally missed a shot cuz the head of the family would tell the driver to take off.

One really amazing thing they have here is a team of lion trackers on bikes. The bike is green and the guy is in camo and the petrol tank reads “tracker”, so its official. These guys are for real and when you see one you know he has a lion nearby. We bumped into one of these blokes at the edge of a river and he took us to where the lioness was lying up.

He cool as a cucumber walks up a little lane in the forest and points and there 20 yards away is a lioness. I mean, dude, this guy was walking around like Sunday picnic, while we caught our breath at the first sight of the Asiatic lion in the wild. I cant express how I felt. It was a really amazing feeling. Felt so in awe of the animal. She just sat there and looked at us like she owned the place and we were the poor relations. Another jeep was there and the tracker had them move away so we got a better look. Again just walking around sorting out traffic 15 yards from the lion!!

The thing with Gir is the undergrowth. The auto focus is useless unless you know how to fiddle with it so it works a certain way and then the next bit of undergrowth is again different so it goes all off again. (you probably figured that I don’t know how to fiddle with it.. right? Yeah ok) Anyway so I put the camera on manual and worked the lens. Got a few shots before she decided she had put up with enough, and coolly got up and walked off around a bend in the river bank behind dense bushes and was lost from sight.

Just recovering from that amazing sight of this huge lion just meters away. I mean it was a long time coming and came with a bang. The dream and the anticipation and the expectation and the actual sight coming together made a deep impact on me. I literally could not speak for a while. How I envied that tracker his job. Gosh!

The rest of the drive was uneventful, my companions stopped to see peacocks and spotted deer and oohed and aahed appropriately while I was dozing after my night-long bus ride before we got back.

The afternoon safari was more of the same and though I had fun company we had got the same tour route and saw the same lioness again. This time asleep or trying to sleep in the racket. That night back at the hotel the owner said he had a jeep and he was anxious to have me use it, and so bring him some money. I was fed up with misguides and kid guides and so spoke a little roughly about kid guides, wet behind the ears with coloured birds on the brain and as I said this someone piped up and said “oh yes we know exactly what you mean. That is why we go just the two of us”. Turned around to find a couple from Pune who said they were photgraphers and I said “ oh so am I” lets share a jeep tomo. They bought the con and sure enough we hooked up the next day at 6 am. What a drive that was!

We had gotten news that there were leopard sightings at route 3 and so got that route for our morning trip and went off all excited. No disappointment here. About 15 minute into the drive while it was still not fully daylight and the trees were all in shadow, there was Mr Spots walking along among the trees. In the uncertain light we were initially not sure it was leopard but then it clearly showed spots and all three of us had our first leopard sighting. They had been to a lot of parks and obviously were really well traveled so I was obviously more fortunate than they.

In the next 5 minutes we came up behind a huge male lion walking down the road. Just like that, ahead of us. We were like following this guy for about an hour. He was the Richard Gere of lions. He would walk a while, get off the road and sit a while then get up and take a crap and then rub himself on the trees and roar then walk again, then sit and pose again. I mean this guy was a movie star. After we had shot our cameras to the point of not wanting to take any more pix we just sat and stared at this lion. Such a handsome guy, I mean really. He finally figured that he needed to carry on and we were through with the shoot so he pushed off through the bushes perpendicular to the track and let us go on.

We were all in shock and awe struck by what we had just seen. Really it is not a simple thing to experience. The King of beasts is rightly named.

The rest of the track was a beautiful drive through lush forest with the sun trickling in through the tree-tops giving the track a patchwork of gold light among the shadows. As we drove on we came to a huge lake. I forget the name but it was really quite big. An island in the middle yielded a croc and a purple heron and a river tern. Apparently an old lion was found dead here last year according to the guide, (a good one this time). The drive back was again filled with spotted deer and peafowl and surprisingly no other vehicles. That was a mercy. We were all talking and discussing the other drives and parks we had been on, when guess what…. We bumped into the same lion on his rounds again. He seemed cool to see us but did not stop and pose this time he was evidently heading somewhere. We drove along behind him and when he spotted people ahead of him he got off the track and we got ahead of him. He would not follow us but stayed behind us off the track. Was just so much fun watching him prowl through the forest. Amazing. And what camo. Talk about camo, this guy could sit down and you could not see him hardly at all. Well we finally left him to go back to our safari and calibrated time schedules, when lo and behold we bumped into a tracker. Sure enough he had a lion around. A handsome young lion as against Big Daddy we had been hanging out with. The hassle was that we had gotten so much great stuff with Big Daddy that we were spoiled and we did not spend much time with the little fella. Not that he was little, he looked pretty tough to me and itching to prove his point.

That brought us home and all razzed for the afternoon. I pushed my luck for one more and as we left I said “ok I want a leopard like clearly and a pride of lions and a sun bird and a slaty headed parakeet. That is the order for this trip mr driver and mr guide so snap to it”. It became a standing joke for the three of us. I really wanted those pix and Mani and Priyanka have some mean gear and he knows his Nikon lenses and stuff, and she is a killer on the HD video cam. So with me along as dead weight they did not really mind too much, we were gonna get those shots all right. We got our leopard crossing the track 100yards ahead of us. For a second he stopped right in the middle and looked at us and then took off for the forest. The driver raced to the spot and as we pointed the cameras to where he might have been he upped and ran hell for leather to the brush and we had no chance at all. We saw him, a big cat really big. I thought leopards were smaller but he has been eating his deer like his mama taught him, it appears, cuz he was big. I was just thrilled to see him run. I mean he took off like you have no idea. We read about speed and all that in wildlife books and so on. Seeing him cover the ground like lightning was a whole different ball game. If he was coming for you, you’d have no chance at all.

So thrilled we were to have seen a leopard in clear light and so sad no camera worked on him but still thrilled at the sighting we talked and talked about how it had been for us. Then there we were at the end of the track and our guide (another good one) got off to look around he said. He came back all smiles, ‘there are three lions right there’ he said ‘but we gotta go off track and its not allowed but maybe we squeeze under this tree and try’.
This is risky cuz they would get in trouble if someone saw them but soon enough a tracker found us. ‘ did you see the lions’ he asked When he heard we had not seen them yet he said bring the jeep here and took us 50 -70 mtrs off road to about 20 yards from 3 lions. There he was again traipsing around the forest with 3 lions, 2 cubs and mommy right there 15 yards off. The two cubs backed off behind a tree when we showed up and the mother followed suit. She had a limp and had hurt herself last hunt it seemed. We sat there and looked at these far out creatures and realized that we needed to come back for more. The forest deep and dark behind them, their golden coats tinged with the setting sun, the innocent look in the eyes of these cats, the classic rich-kid bored expressions, and the koel calling in the background is something that is stamped now indelibly on my mind. The lions in Gir.

There is no way this feeling can be replaced. It is something that you have to do again and again. The thrill of a lion. Grrrowl!


  1. Really amazing! You did it! Incredible to think that the Asiatic lion once had a range extending from northern India to the East through modern Iran, south throughout Arabian peninsula, and west towards modern Greece and Italy. Lion fossils have been discovered throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Siberia, Alaska, and much of Europe going as far north as Scotland.
    The big predator's main problem is habitat, space to be a lion or a tiger and all that it entails. Unlike stray dogs and cattle, rats, snakes and many bird species, the big cats cannot share space with humans. Many tigers die as a result of poaching, but to believe that poaching is the sum of the problem would be naive. It's the tigers that were never born which are our challenge more than the ones who die.