King's breakfast at Gir

King's breakfast at Gir

A wild experience

King's breakfast at Gir

Travelling to Gujarat to sight the Asiatic lions in their natural habitat, we arrived at the entrance of the The Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary located at Sasan village.

Our first safari began at 3 pm. The safari office allotted us an open jeep for a jungle trail of 40 km through tall grass, teak trees and a rocky terrain — a perfect camouflage for lions. Gir is the largest dry deciduous forest in Western India.

The Sanctuary was set up in 1965 and spans an area of 1,412.1 sq km. The core area of 259 sq km was declared a national park in 1975. The hunting expeditions of the British caused the count of lions in 1913 to plummet to 20. Thanks to the timely efforts of conservation initiated by the then Nawab of Junagadh, these beautiful creatures were saved from extinction. The 2015 lion census puts the count at 523.

The dense forest is home to several species of trees: acacia, ber, jamun, babul, zizyphus, tendu and dhak. In the arid landscape, the flowering kesu tree (flame of the forest) grabbed attention with its profusion of red flowers. On either side of the trail, safety fires had blackened the forest floor. Our eyes scanned the forest. Where were the leopards, foxes, wild boar, golden jackals, striped hyenas, wild cats, palm civets, honey badgers and lions? The yellow-brown-black landscape proved to be a perfect cover for these creatures. The gentle herbivores: chitals (spotted deer), nilgais (blue-bull), chausinghas (four-horned antelope), sambars (large deer) and chinkaras (gazelle) were everywhere, twitching their ears and short tails, grazing peacefully. Some antelopes were busy settling old scores, head butting, whipping their massive antlers.

We stopped at the Kamleshwar Dam on River Hiran and saw a marsh crocodile impersonating a log on the river bank. We had a sweeping view of the lion kingdom from a watch-tower. The bird population also makes this a popular stop. There are 300 species of birds in Gir. Renowned ornithologist Salim Ali had once commented that if it wasn’t for the lions, Sasan-Gir would have been the most fascinating bird sanctuary in India. Peacocks with their brilliant blue-green plumage moved about like restless dancers waiting for their turn to perform, while timid chicks followed their drab mothers. The safari ended at 6 pm. No lion in sight.

Next day, we visited the Gir Interpretation Zone at Devaliya. This is about 13 km from Sasan-Gir. Within the confines of 412 hectares we can see Gir in a nutshell. Buses ferry tourists through the park. We spotted deer and leopards. Two lionesses and three cubs were sprawled under the shade of a tree.

We had another permit for the early morning safari at 6 am at the national park. We set off hopefully. We were allotted a guide. Our enthusiastic guide pointed out the ghostly-white gum tree, changeable hawk eagle, and green pigeons. We saw a ness (settlement) of maldharis — the tribal herdsmen — living in Gir for the past 125 years. They often lose cattle to the predators but don’t kill or hunt animals in the jungle. The guide informed us that on route 1 there was a settlement of Siddis, an African tribe said to have been brought here from East Africa by the Portuguese 300 years ago. 

It was 8.45 am, when our guide lifted his hand up and the jeep slowed to a halt. We curbed the desire to shriek with joy. At last, a glimpse of the king of the jungle! A 10-year-old male walked towards our jeep, his coat a beautiful biscuit-brown with streaks of black in his flowing mane. He didn’t acknowledge our presence and walked fearlessly, his strong muscles rippling. He marked his territory by urinating against a tree. The jungle’s respectful silence was punctured by short warning barks of alert deer. ‘Our’ lion loped down to the stream where he pulled out his naturally refrigerated breakfast of a huge sambar.

A double treat awaited us. Another lion was heading towards us. He went down to the stream to share the breakfast with his brother. The odour of the carcass wafted up to us. We had shared breathing space with the royal beasts for a few moments in their kingdom, but their fearless golden eyes burned into our memories forever. We were happy and hungry and deserved a good breakfast.

Getting there

By road: Gir National Park is around 55 km from Junagadh — the most common base for making a visit, 348 km from Ahmedabad and 156 km from Rajkot.

By rail: One can take a train to Junagadh from Ahmedabad or Rajkot and then make a road trip to Sasan-Gir, or can take local trains from Junagadh city.

By air: Fly up to Rajkot or Ahmedabad and then taxi to Gir.

Timings

Gir National Park has three safaris per day, all days of the week, from 6 am to 9 am, 9 am to 12 noon and 3 pm  to 6 pm.

Forest tours are closed from 16th June to 15th Oct every year. Since 50% of the bookings are issued online, it is better to book the safari on www.girlion.in

The Devaliya Lion Interpretation zone is closed on Wednesdays. On other days, it runs two trips — from 8 am to 11 am and 3 pm to 5 pm.

Best season

December to March is the best season of the year to visit Gir. April-May is also a good time to sight lions.

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