Gir National Park: Lions in the wild

Gir National Park is situated in Gujarat, India. It is famous for its population of endangered Asiatic lions, which are native to India. During our safari, we spotted two adult lions. The wildlife sanctuary can support a maximum of 300 lions but in recent times, their numbers have depleted due to in-fighting.

Although it is called the ‘home of the lion’, not everyone who goes to Gir is lucky enough to see one. And that probably explains the magical excitement we felt when we saw not one; but two of these serene, majestic beings.

Asiatic lioness and cubs at Gir
Asiatic lioness and cubs at Gir

Strangely though, the lions were not the highlight of the trip for us. What we really took away from our trip to Gir (via Junagadh) was the rustic simplicity, warmth, and silence.

That little village, nestled amidst the forests, often resonant with distant echoes of regal roars and rumbles, charmed us completely with its modified bike-rickshaws and roadside dhabas serving home-made Saurashtran fare.

Table of Contents
1. Mumbai to Gir via Junagadh
2. A Poem on The Villagers
3. Modified ‘Bike-Rickshaws’
4. Exploring Gir on Foot
5. Safari at Devaliya National Park
6. A Dance Performance by the Siddi Tribe
7. Food in Junagadh
8. Conclusion: Things To Do in Gir

Mumbai to Gir via Junagadh

The best way to reach Gir National Park is via Junagadh. The train journey lasts for around 14 hours. From Junagadh, you can get a bus to Gir, which will take about three hours.

At Virpur station, we felt suddenly a deep yearning for the uncomplicated simplicity of the villagers. We remember thinking: may God bless those sweet, simple folk and their sun-burnt, guileless faces. The pastoral sun invigorated our city-weary bones somewhat.

A village in Gujarat
A village in Gujarat

We hoped selfishly – that this slice of India would always remain as it was – untarnished by the cold hands of ‘development’. Just when we thought that monsoon had long since bid farewell to that dusty land, the breeze ruffling our clothes turned cooler; and the skies greyer. She was still there – the goddess of all that is born in the earth.

The thing about travelling in India: every state has its own flavour and a different local tongue. Visiting a new state feels almost like going to another country! And it was our first foray into Gujarat.

A Poem on The Villagers

Dusty cool breeze
And gentle hum of rickety rickshaws
Time will freeze
Like the grins on these rural faces.

A land untouched 
By the useless questioning of so-called intellectuals
A people who live
By rules that are cast in stone.

Endless patches of flowerless grass
Cast waving shadows on overhead beams
Cause dancing ripples of happy peace
To leave merry footprints on my overused mind.

A little girl plays on a wayside track
On her wrists – bangles the same shade of the grass
People stand and stare like Wordsworth said
From the sorrows of anxiety, these people have never bled.

An alien state, an alien language
Yet so familiar, I feel I’m home
Home after all, is this sense of contentment
That sometimes eludes even when I’m ‘really’ home.

Painted pink and yellow pots
Ride on an old man’s cartwheel
Their shiny, new countenances
Presently unmarred by the all-pervading dust –

A magical dust, that is made of
Pure joy, serenity, and faith.

Modified ‘Bike-Rickshaws’

On Thursday evening, we boarded the train from Bombay to Junagadh. By Friday afternoon, we had reached the Gujarati town. We found a bus headed for Sasan Gir, but it did not drop us right till Club Mahindra Gir, the resort we had booked.

A modified bike-rickshaw
A modified bike-rickshaw

We had to get a ‘modified bike-rickshaw’ to take us to the hotel. So what exactly are these things? They are the only kind of ‘rickshaws’ you’ll find in these parts. They are noisy yet utterly charming and colourful contraptions consisting of a cart fixed behind a motorbike.

You sit on top of the cart, or inside it, and enjoy the 360 degree view while the driver rumbles down the lane. Pros: the view, the feeling of riding at the back of a truck, and the cost (100 rupees for a longish ride). Cons: The noise but who cares when you’re doing something so unique!

Exploring Gir on Foot

By the time we checked in and settled into our room, it was evening. We were told that walking around the jungle was not safe after sundown, but it added a touch of mystery to our meanderings.

Somehow, we ended up another resort in the area. But this one was deserted, and seemed to be straight out of a horror film with wayward trees and crackling twigs! Luckily, it did not invade our nightly dreams.

A silly picture of us during the nature trail
A silly picture of us during the nature trail

We arose early on Saturday to participate in an early-morning nature trail to a hillock from where we had a pretty view of the villages around. We were also told about herbs with healing properties (I cut myself on a thorny leaf and used one called Shatavari for relief). We also heard a lion roar from 1.5 km away, and joked about being breakfast for it.

Seeing a lion from inside of a jeep/bus is one thing – hearing it while on foot is quite another.

My eyes are half shut due to the bright sunlight
My eyes are half shut due to the bright sunlight

We don’t have great pictures of this trip because back then, we weren’t even travel blogging! Later, we relaxed at a roadside dhaba in the village and sipped on the local tea – a little milkier and flavoured with nutmeg.

Safari at Devaliya National Park

We decided to go on a safari trip in Devaliya Safari Park or Gir Interpretation Zone, since Gir sanctuary is shut doing the monsoon months. It was a group safari in a crowded bus with glass windows; not the best of safari experiences but we didn’t really have a choice.

Blackbuck at Gir
Blackbuck at Gir

During the half hour-long drive through the jungle, we saw different types of deer (including sambhar and chital), black bucks with curved horns that looked too beautiful to be true and various birds.

Finally, we spotted the creature we’d all been waiting for – the king of the jungle.

Lionesses at Gir
Photo by Vaidyarupal on Flickr, for illustration purposes only. We saw two lions – these are lionesses at Gir. Alas, we couldn’t get a good picture.

Two lions lay beneath the shade of a tree, quite oblivious to our staring eyes. Or perhaps, they were plain bored. I wish I could have seen their royal stride but that itself was miraculous – to see them in their natural habitat rather than behind the bars of a sorry zoo enclosure.

All too soon, the safari ended. Be prepared for longish crowds as only one or two buses appeared to be operating.

A Dance Performance by the Siddi Tribe

In the night, we were treated to an electrifying tribal-style dance performance by Siddis with painted faces that still bore signs of their African descent. They cackled, jumped and shimmied to the primitive beats of the drum and the bonfire and the surrounding darkness of the forest heightened the feral nature of the experience.

Posing with the Siddi dancers
Posing with the Siddi dancers

Gujarat is home to many ethnic groups; one of whom are the Siddis, originally descended from Bantu peoples from Southeast Africa that were brought to the Indian subcontinent as slaves by Arab and Portuguese merchants.

According to Wikipedia, Gujarati Siddis have integrated quite well into the local community. However, they retain some aspects of their African forefathers, including Goma dance and music, which is also known as ‘Dhamaal’. Goma is more than just entertainment; it is also a spiritual endeavour and dancers may turn into conduits for erstwhile Siddi saints at the dance’s climax.

The Siddi dancers
The Siddi dancers

Another prominent tribe in Gir are the Maldharis, who owe their survival to a co-dependent relationship with lions. For more on Gir’s lions and ethnic communities, you may want to watch the BBC documentary The Last Lions of India.

Food in Junagadh

On Sunday morning, we checked out of the resort and boarded the bus back to Junagadh, where we had a sumptuous lunch. Food in Gujarat is tasty and inexpensive (predominantly vegetarian), although we’re sure non-vegetarians might find attractive fare as well, thanks to the sizeable Muslim population. InGujarat has a mouth-watering list of the top 10 Gujarati Food Dishes.

Conclusion: Things To Do in Gir

So, if you’re planning to visit Gir National Park in Gujarat, here’s what you need to know:

  • The main park is shut during the monsoon months (June to September). At that time, you can go on a safari at Devaliya Safari Park or Gir Interpretation Zone.
  • Nature trails and walks are highly recommended in the early mornings.
  • In the surrounding area of Gir National Park, where the resorts are located, there isn’t much to do. But you can enjoy chai and small snacks at little stalls or village homes, and explore the village settlements.
  • Make sure you also go for a ride on those bike-rickshaws!
  • You can combine your visit to Gir with a little sightseeing in Junagadh. Check out Lonely Planet’s guide to the top things to do in Junagadh.

For us, the trip to Gir National Park was a wonderful weekend getaway from Mumbai. Working folks have to make the best of short trips, wouldn’t you agree?

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