In the early morning haze, just before it becomes completely light, everything is dramatic. The vehicle navigates the bumpy mud road, kicking up dust in its wake, adding to the excitement. On either side, there is thick foliage, like a curtain one cannot see beyond. It is also bitingly cold. But the darkness is short-lived; soon the sun’s first rays filter through the dense leaves, cutting through the haze and bathing everything in a golden glow. This is also the cue for forest creatures to rise and shine. Another day has dawned on Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, the only home of the majestic Asiatic lion.
The muddy, rutted path (one of eight safari routes crisscrossing the park) takes me deeper into the forest. Located in the districts of Amreli and Junagadh in south-west Gujarat, Gir was once the hunting ground of the Junagadh royals. The lion was hunted as a trophy until just a dozen or so remained by the end of the 19th century in Saurashtra, and none outside it. That is when the Nawab of Junagadh provided protection and put rigid hunting controls in place. But it was after 1965, when 1,154 sq km of Gir forests were declared as a wildlife sanctuary that the Asiatic lions were brought back from the brink of extinction. Their current number stands at over 500. Subsequently, about 260 sqkm of the sanctuary was declared a national park.
As my vehicle winds its way through the forest, the route showcases the diversity of the park. The terrain is undulating with rugged hills, valleys and plateaus. The hills are volcanic in origin and mostly made of sandstone or limestone. The main source of sustenance for the forests are the seven perennial rivers that flow through Gir including the Hiran and Saraswati, and the four dams. Though Gir is a predominantly dry and deciduous forest, I am surrounded by lush green teak trees at the moment. Their density is such that it masks the park’s surprising diversity of flora — more than 500 plant species including 232 varieties of herbs, 64 climbers and 26 kinds of grasses.
Along the way, I see several animals, such as herds of spotted deer, langur swinging from the treetops, colourful but shy peacocks which dart into the undergrowth as we approach, mynahs, bulbuls and drongos. Though the Asiatic lion is the star of Gir, the park’s unique ecosystem is home to 38 species of mammals, around 300 birds, 37 kinds of reptiles and more than 2,000 species of insects.
In addition to the lion, one can also spot leopards, hyenas, civets and mongoose. Among herbivores, the chital, nilgai and sambar can be easily spotted while pangolins and sloth bears are rare. The forest also abounds in snakes, marsh crocodiles, monitor lizards and star tortoises. Gir is a birdwatcher’s paradise and it is easy to spot the Indian vulture, crested serpent eagle, changeable hawk eagle, Asian paradise flycatcher, woodpeckers, mottled wood owl and black-naped monarch flycatcher among others.
But, by far, the lion rules the roost and when the vehicle rounds a bend in the path and suddenly comes face to face with two glorious specimens, it makes for a breathtaking moment. Golden brown, lithe with rippling muscles and majestic gait, swishing tails, piercing eyes – the duo had me spellbound. After a few minutes of walking around, the pair disappears behind the thickets. It seems all too ephemeral but even those few moments are entirely gratifying.
The park is open from mid-October to mid-June; the best time to visit is December to April. The park sees many seasons.
October – November: When the park opens in October it is lush and green in the aftermath of the monsoon rains.
December – early March: The park is cold in the mornings but as the vegetation begins to dry, sightings are easy. These are also the most crowded months.
Late March – June: The summer sets in and the park dries up. It gets hot and humid, but likelihood of spotting animals is greater.
SAFARI COSTS & TIMINGS
The park is open from October 15 to June 15; closed for monsoons from June 16 to October 15 each year.
Safaris are allowed three times a day — 6 am, 8.30 am and 3 pm; each is a three-hour circuit. Timings differ by 30 minutes during winter.
A safari permit costs Rs 800 (Rs 1,000 on weekends and holidays) for Indians and Rs 5,600 (Rs 7,000 on weekends and holidays) for foreigners and allows a maximum of six people in the vehicle.
A single child (between 3-12 years) is allowed in the vehicle at an extra charge of Rs 100 (Rs 125 on weekends and holidays) for Indians and Rs 1400 (Rs 1750 on weekends and holidays) for foreigners.
Gypsies can be rented at the Reception Centre at Rs 1,700 and guide has to be engage at Rs 400 for the trip. Safari permits can be booked online at https://girlion.gujarat.gov.in/GirJungleTrailBooking.aspx
Gir is located in Gujarat’s Junagadh district.
Air: The nearest airport is at Diu (110 km/2 hours) thought the Rajkot (165 km/ 3hours) has more connectivity.
Rail: The nearest railhead is at Junagadh (65 km/90 minutes) which is well connected by trains from Ahmedabad, Rajkot and other cities in the region.
Woods at Sasan — Woods at Sasan is a luxury eco resort with spa that is laid within an 8-acre mango orchard built with indigenous materials and skill of local craftsmen. Guests can feast on brick fire oven pizzas and try their hand at property’s vegetable farm and pottery wheel during the stay. Doubles from Rs 10,500 inclusive of all meals.
The Gateway Hotel — The hotel stands at the edge of the forest near the Hiran river and has spacious rooms interlaced with the hospitality of the Taj brand. Opt for river view rooms to make the most of your stay. Doubles from Rs 5,000 inclusive of all meals.
Maneland Jungle Lodge — Maneland Jungle Lodge in Sasan Gir is beautifully located against hills and is a sprawling property spread over five acres of lush greenery. It is built using local materials and techniques. Doubles from Rs 4,800 for deluxe rooms and Rs 9,600 for AC villas, inclusive of all meals.
Sinh Sadan Guest House — Sinh Sadan Guest House, located near the entrance of the park, is run by the Gujarat Forest Department and offers clean but basic budget accommodation. Doubles from Rs 3,000 for AC room, from Rs 1,800 for non-AC; meals not included.
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