Tuesday, 8 January 2013

A Little Run of Gujarat (Part 1)

A Little Run of Gujarat

It started with a casual call from Renjith one lazy afternoon last November – “How about a Nature trip to Gujarat? Just 4 of us – Nahar, Ganesh, you and me”

Saying yes was instantaneous; booking ticket was immaterial; but the task was to fix the dates for the trip. It was a major balancing act. We wanted to cover maximum places and maximise experiences with a clear focus on Nature. But at the same time want least possible pinch to the wallet, least possible days away from home (to limit question marks from wife) and take least possible leaves at office (to limit question marks from boss). What resulted was a tight-budgeted, thick-packed, well-timed itinerary covering the best of Nature Gujarat: Over 1100 kms of criss-crossing Gujarat, morning & evening Safaris at Gir, 6 hours of quality time in Little Rann of Kutch, early morning safari at Velavadar black buck sanctuary, understanding Lothal, a slice of Ahmedabad, a peaceful evening at Sabarmati and a bit of catching up with old friends – all in 3 days flat! Even more delightful – we could manage the cost to about ~Rs.6000 per head, excluding flight.

Foursome: Nahar, Ajith, Renjith and Ganesh (at Velavadar)

We decided on 23-25th Dec 2013 which means only 1 day of leave. To and fro air tickets were immediately booked at the cheapest possible rates. It was time to put our heads together on the itinerary. Nature was what we wanted and Gir was our pivot. Gujarat is a large state with a variety of biospheres. We brainstormed on lots of locations before pinning in for Gir (dry deciduous forest), Little Rann of Kutch (salt-marsh; dessert lands) and Velavadar (savanna grasslands). Lothal (Indus valley civilization) was enroute and thought of covering Nal Sarovar and Thol for bird watching if possible. A bit of Ahmedabad and a taste of Gandhi was also decided. Shoolpaneswar (sloth bear) and Marine National Park in Gulf of Kutch, were dropped with heart burn. Nevertheless, the itinerary promised us an exciting range of experience.

PART 1 – Gir: imbroglio & more

The plan was to tie up Gir safaris first so that other things can be planned around it. True to the typical Govt way of functioning, Gir safari booking is an unadulterated bureaucratic affair. It is run by the forest department, with daily passes limited to 150 vehicles equally divided between 3 trips a day (6.30 am, 9.30 am, 3.30 pm). Further, we were told safaris are not allowed for a few months every year. It is good that the passes are issued under strict monitoring and no external influences are known to work. While these restrictions are fair enough, the processes kills. On the face of it there is advance booking facility; but getting it is equally or even more difficult than cracking Civil Service exams. Since the department still lives in a hard-bound-Register world, there is no online booking or anything similar. No where any information is available on how to make advance booking. Determined, we called a few hotels nearby to understand how the booking is done and to check our luck whether we can get this done through them. Everyone said the same thing: There are NO advance passes available for Gir safaris! What we could gather is as follows: Since no one knew how advance booking is done, most of the passes are available on the spot. One needs to stand in queue to get the pass. Only a small glitch, the queue for 6.30 am starts at 10 pm the day before!! Further, locals are not allowed to stand in queue (weird!)! Even to get a chance for the safari, one needs to keep aside 2 days. We wanted to do the 6.30 am safari to get the best possibilities of sightings; now having one safari itself is a question mark!

In a nutshell: India Govt’s passport issuance process is simpler than issuance of Gir safari passes.

We discussed amongst us and Nahar suggested giving a try. He is already a known birding expert with some exciting works under his belt and he is functioning as an external consultant to Gujarat tourism department. After much effort, we understood the Govt ways – tourism department is tourism department and forest department is forest department. Then he cautiously suggested giving a try to his old acquaintance near Gir – panchayat member Imran Bhai. As soon as he heard out our requirement, Imran Bhai readily agreed and confirmed us: “nothing to worry, no advance booking is required; you just pack and come to Gir, rest I will take care!”. Imran Bhai has become our guardian angel in Gir.

All set for Gir, we worked our ways on the other items in the itinerary, which was fairly easy. On Dec 22nd, we spoke to Imran Bhai just to say, “hello, we’ll meet you the day after”. Our jaws dropped; he said – rules have changed, forest officials have changed, there is big rush, it seems difficult, let me still try… It is clear – we do not have passes for Gir safari.

All the excitement gave way to utter dilemma. We can’t even cancel our trip (cheap air ticket also means non-cancellable). Following the air timings (to reach Ahmedabad by 8 pm on Dec 23rd) we had already booked train tickets to Junagad (closest rail head to Gir; Ahmedabad 10 pm – Junagad 4.30 am next day) and from there to Viramgam (for Little Rann) next day. Spending 2 days in Gir with no surety of safari pass will jeopardize our whole schedule.

Dec 23rd 2012, 4pm (on our way to airport): As a last valiant attempt to do something about the Gir safari we kept calling all the phone numbers of Gir forest department office we could gather from Google. Finally we could get connected to someone who speaks only Gujarati, he gave another number to contact. After a chain of 6 calls, we stumbled on Ramesh Bhai. He simply said – “Being a Sunday of X’mas week, to get pass for safari any time tomorrow, you need to be in queue today”. We pleaded him as if our lives are depended on this. Did I hear Renjith saying that he is a chronic heart patient and it is his last wish to have an early morning Gir safari?? I’m sure he said something very similar! After Renjith’s conversation with him, he said “let me try”. We wanted to take it as a ray of hope. But we knew for sure that he wanted to escape from our pleading. But we could somehow manage to get his mobile number.

Flight was on time. Our connection train from Ahmendabad was on time. We reached Junagad as per schedule and reached Gir at 6 am to see a loooong queue as expected. We could easily count more than 150 in the queue so it was almost sure, we have to return from Gir empty. Nothing to lose, we called Ramesh Bhai in his mobile. What happened next was dream – a short middle-aged man came out of the forest office, straight to us, introduced himself as Ramesh Bhai and handed over pass for the safari, not just one but for 6.30 am and 3.30 pm safaris. We knew God has incarnated as Ramesh Bhai. He said he has never done this before and took just the sufficient enough money for the tickets. Even now, we don’t know why should someone do this. Renjith’s conversation might have worked!

Gir is huge with about 1500 sq km; the open safari jeeps are allotted one of the 7 routes. It is 8.30 am, about 2 hours into the safari and just half an hour left. Forget lions, we didn’t see any animals other than a couple of spotted deer, which we get to see in umpteen even outside Bannerghatta, back in Bangalore. Where are all those animals gone? Is it that our luck got over by getting the safari pass? We have counted about 15-20 jeeps crossing us all with gloomy faced travelers like us. Our naturalist (one each will be with each jeep, else we can easily get lost in the forest), Raju looked very restless and somehow seemed determined to show us lions. He has already got impressed with all our photography gears. Serious photographers earn respect and there are a couple with us in Ganesh and Nahar. Raju was seen talking to forest guards (many of them posted inside the forest) at length in local Gujarati slang and some code language. At 8.45 am he took us to a particular water hole and switched off the jeep. We could see so many jeeps rushing past us, returning as the safari time was about to get over. After 5 minutes, we heard a loud roar!! Very close!! Renjith’s telescopic lens fell from his hands.

From behind the thick green growth, entered a beautiful lioness into the golden rays of morning sun, as if a heroine introduced in a bollywood flick. She was promptly followed by His Majesty. He was massive, elegant and was in his elements. Our pain and wait has been for this moment. I could hear only clicks around me; just then I saw a mesmerized Ganesh, trying to figure out how to click a photo. Otherwise, one who uses only manual mode and manual focusing, he has to resort to auto mode! The impact of those dreamy images of the beasts has been such profound, he forgot his trade!

Lady beauty

His Highness

Private moments...

Man in making – an adolescent male cub of 2 years
We have already overshot our time by half an hour. On our return, we heard a sudden alarm call from the spotted deer herd just by our right hand side. Just in front of us – on the left – was a leopard eloping from a tree. It disappeared in the bushes even before we could gather ourselves, let alone clicking pictures. We were back at 10 am, almost 1 hour late and promptly got the flakes from the forest officials for the delay.

In our evening safari, we got to see a lioness with her 3 adolescent kids, one male and 2 female. It was a satisfying day with sightings of so many lions, 1 leopard, a variety of birds, sambars, nilgais, langoors, etc. Gir has excellent birding opportunities, which we have made use between the safaris, thanks to Nahar and Ganesh.

Interestingly, Sasan Gir has a few negro villages near by where an African-origin community called Siddis live. They are believed to be descendents of African slaves brought by Arab traders during the time of Nawab of Junagadh. They now follow Islam and have completely adopted local cultural. They eat, dress and speak Gujarati. A few of them like Iqbal are working as guides in Gir national park.

Iqbal is a guide in Sasan Gir park

Day 1, 9 pm: We had a much needed sumptuous Gujarati thali from Geeta Lodge at Junagad. We had to catch the 9.30 pm train to Viramgam.

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