The tires screeched and mud flew into the air at the rear of the jeep. Through the rising dust, our forest guide Satya looked into his binoculars. As a gypsy looks into her crystal ball, trying to see the future, Satya was looking through his binocular lens, for the elusive lion.
We had spotted fresh pug marks which indicated that a lion had passed by shortly. Fairly easy to spot…today, they had retreated into the dry bushes and elephant grass. Nada, it was a false alarm.
A variety of plants, animals and birds call Gir their home. Located in the state of Gujarat, the Asiatic lion is the king of Gir. It is only place in Asia where the lion is found in its natural habitat.
Following the call of the jungle fowl in the early dawn, our group of wildlife fanatics had set out on a jungle safari, with only one objective – to get a glimpse of the lions in the forest.
Our silence was shattered by a loud squeal, the forest reverberated with “peahoo peahoo”. Anticipating a photo op we drove towards the sound. A peacock was regally perched on a branch, oblivious to the attention it was receiving from us. We clicked away, hoping for it to spread its wings and dance; however, it could not be bothered.
Nimesh our driver, pointed upwards, towards his right. Satya asked us all to be silent. An old dead tree had perfectly symmetrical holes in it. A colorful head peeked out, anxiously. It looked left and right searching for predators before swiftly taking off. The coppersmith barbet prefers a solitary existence explained Chirag our wildlife expert who had organized this travel to Gir.
We drove on, passing through ghost trees which spooked us. The summer flowers carpeted the dusty roads with hues of orange and yellow. Birds serenaded us with their songs.
The forest was filled with sounds and silence…mostly silence, as it takes a special kind of listening and looking to know the presence of an animal or bird. The forest was alive yet hidden beneath a veil.
Our jeep swerved a sharp right, going deeper in the forest, towards a watering hole. Would we see the lions here? Our expectations rose and fell even faster, like a broken lift. The glistening waters were waiting for some company just as we were.
Where was them lions?
But all was not lost. Two doves were spotted near the water’s edge. They seemed to be on a date and did not appreciate their privacy being invaded. Satya pointed to another dove perched on a tree nearby, watching the two or maybe stalking them. It seems this dove was friendzoned. Maybe the two met on tinder and swiped right.
Aah…me and my vivid imaginations 😊
We continued to kick dust and cover ground, till we came across a huge tree. The bare branches spread out, it arms ready to embrace anyone wanting a hug. I could clearly see who needed that. There were several owls resting on that tree, but the one that caught my eye was hiding inside a hole.
It was an encounter with the wise one with a lotta attitude. We were mere mortals in the presence of Yoda. Harry Potter’s pet, Hedwig, would have been more friendly.
As we continued to drive in circles, a rider on a motorcycle came by and stopped us. Subash was the forest guard and lookout. He mentioned that today the lions preferred to go incognito so we may not see any. Now this was a bummer!
As we saw him riding into the dense foliage, our hearts sinking in disappointment, we heard a rumbling of a vehicle coming from a distance.
“It is the Maldharis”… Chirag mentioned excitedly.
The fearless Maldhari tribe live deep in the Gir forest. It is a way of life for them to coexist with nature and wild life. These tribal herdsmen, rear livestock which is their main source of livelihood. They allow the lions to feed on the cattle and they, in turn roam freely around the forest. There is no fear of attacks as there is an understanding of the balance of life and death between the lions and the Maldharis.
It was around 8am, as we drove towards their settlement. They had finished milking the cows and were on their way to deliver milk to the collection point. We could only observe them from a distance as we are not allowed to disembark from the jeep.
While we encountered the Maldhari’s easily, we were not so lucky with the lions today. There were several other jeeps too, circling the forest in search for the feisty felines.
It was almost time for us to exit the forest. No lions today, but we hoped tomorrow would be better.
In the early evening Chirag had a surprise for us. He wanted to make up for the morning’s disappointment and arranged for a safari inside the Devalia National Park aka Gir Interpretation Zone.
The national park, was created to distribute visitor footfall between the Gir Forest and the national park. This eases the pressure of too many visitors in the forest. Some visitors prefer to only visit the national park as wildlife are easily spotted in their natural surroundings.
We had a 530pm slot and the bus promptly arrived near the ticket office. The drive inside the park looked similar to the forest, the only difference is that there were a few enclosures spread across.
After a few minutes of entering the park, our driver pointed to the left and let out an exclamation. Resting as a king would after downing a heavy meal, sat the royal beast. He instantly reminded me of Alex from the movie Madagascar. Perhaps Alex too would have yawned and rolled over in a similar way.
We had finally met the Asiatic lion! Well, he was not as wowed as we were, and continued yawing and rolling in the cool mud, gloriously ignoring our presence.
Moving further into the park, the bus stopped near an enclosure and Chirag asked us to look towards the trees.
Now, we were not prepared for this sight. The setting sun created a perfect backdrop for our encounter with the leopards. I counted atleast eight of them, all in different moods and expressions.
The one on the tree just looked at us and maybe wondered what the fuss was all about. Capturing this elegant creature on my camera was a well-deserved indulgence after a day of no sightings.
Day 2, began with long queues at the jeep safari office. It was 530am and we were having tea outside. A few minutes later Chirag announced that we were assigned another zone which had a higher chance of sighting the lions.
With fingers crossed we got into the jeep. This time we had Ramesh as our guide and Surya as our driver. As we drove into the forest, the cool air caressed our faces. Dawn was on its way. The forest was still asleep.
Leaves crunched under the wheels, and thorny dry brush lined on either side, welcoming us. The trees were bare and thirsty. Summer was at its peak.
As the low light was beginning to improve we saw a cluster of jeeps parked in an open space. The air was buzzing with loud whispers and subdued shouts. Ramesh signaled us to be silent and pointed towards a thorny barricade of bushes.
The brush was thick and there were many dead branches forming a natural barrier. Everyone was talking in hushed tones and pointing ahead. I tried to see what they were seeing, but could not focus due to the brush blocking my view. I decided to look through my camera lens and zoomed away.
I can only describe this as a scene from paradise. There were two baby cubs cuddling and playing together. The mother lioness was standing ahead of them watching us, watching them.
They were born a few weeks ago. She would be very protective of them and we dared not make any noise to disturb the scene.
I almost waited for Rafiki the baboon, to come and present Simba to the animal kingdom. Where was Mufasa? The making of another Lion King movie was right here in progress!
It was time to leave the forest. On our way out, we made a brief stop at a guggal tree. Ramesh explained, that this tree gives out a fragrant resin used for making incense and also has medicinal properties. Unfortunately, due to overharvesting this tree type has become endangered. He stressed that while animal conservation is widely known, we also need to be aware about trees that are on the verge of extinction.
The thrill of finding the lions was an adventure on its own. However it does not write off, the other encounters that we had while searching for the elusive cats…
….and so many more lovely creatures that made our journey interesting and enriching. It is because of them, that we could savor the discovery of the lioness and her cubs.
The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not destination – Don Wiliam Jr.
The Gir Jungle Safari is open to visitors from March to June and October to Feburary
The forest is divided into zones. These are assigned before the safari.
The Devalia Safari can be done via bus or jeep.
Refer the Gir Safari webesite for charges, permits and other information – https://girlion.gujarat.gov.in/
I traveled to Gir with Rural Pleasure. It was a unique and well planned travel and I recommend that you plan your journey with them.
PS – The events mentioned in this post are real, however some names are fictitious.