Take a leap of faith

Go on an early morning safari to come face to face with a pride of lions. Jump off a cliff into a waterfall. Sasan Gir urges you to let go of your inhibitions, finds Phorum Dalal

I feel a sense of relief when the bright lights, the shoulder-to-shoulder houses and congested traffic slowly grow smaller as our aircraft takes off from Mumbai airport. An hour later when it lands in Rajkot in Gujarat, the vast open spaces and empty stretches of land are a distinct contrast from the city I have left behind. I already feel energised for the trip up ahead, to India’s only forest that is home to Asiatic lions.

Gir, a deciduous forest filled with acacia and teak wood, is spread across 1,412 sq km and is home to around 410 lions, apart from 38 mammals such as sambar, nilgai, deers, monkey and 300 species of birds. (Right) A lionness roars to its cubs

Spread across 1,412 sq km, the Gir forest in Sasan is a three-hour-ride from Rajkot. But we are a large group of friends and the journey is over even before we realise it. As we close in on the final stretch past Junagad and into Veraval, thick teakwood forests surround us. There is something about driving through a forest, a nonchalant coolness, an anticipation of seeing an animal or a bird perhaps, camouflaged behind those trees.

We reach Gir around lunch, and the temperature at Chaitanya Farms (where we are staying) is a pleasant 14°C. A Gujarati version of the baingan bharta with bajra roti — called ola rotla — prepared on charcoal bhattis makes us forget the processed food we are so used to eating in the city. We set out to explore the farm, which ayurvedic herbs, mangoes, chickoos and even a lotus pond.

An energetic lion cub enjoys a sunny afternoon in the periphery section of the forest. Pics courtesy/ Ankit Tank

Day two is D-Day for us. The idea of waking up at 5 am on a holiday is painful but the thought that we might see a lion (or two) obviously works wonders because by 5.15 am almost everyone is ready, covered in woolens from head to toe. It’s 8°C outside, but the stiff early morning breeze and riding a semi-open rickshaw makes our bones rattle. Permits in place, we move into an open jeep, and along with a driver and a guide and make our way to the entry point of the forest.

Unlike tigers and leopards, lions are ‘friendlier’. Not only are they not averse to sun bathe in the open (so the chances of spotting them are higher than other big cats), but they also apparently give a warning roar before attacking, allowing a potential victim a chance to ‘back off’. Gir, is home to 410 lions, apart from 38 other animal species and over 300 varieties of local and migratory birds.

The writer chances upon this perennial waterfall from Banej, on the way to Sasan. And yes, a plunge is certainly called for

Our driver stops at regular intervals and the guide-cum-tracker points at pug marks of lions and lionesses, trying to gauge their possible location. An hour into the safari, we have our first ‘ooh!’ moment, when we spot a Spotted Owlet. Deer, nilgai, peacocks and a Little Banded Goshawk (or shikra) follow in quick succession.

But where is Lion King? We are getting impatient. But we dare not tell our guide as much. As the sun rises, birds and smaller animals begin their morning chatter. A monkey shrieks and for a moment we have hope. Lions do come for a morning drink near water bodies on the periphery of the jungle. But many jeeps converge and all the guides shake their head. No lion.

The writer chances upon this perennial waterfall from Banej, on the way to Sasan. And yes, a plunge is certainly called for

“If you lose hope, you will not spot a single lion,” the guide tells us, his alert eyes scanning the dry savannah-like jungle, his ears straining to hear warning calls.

Another hour and my eyes begin to ache, and the neck muscles tire from being in a taut position. Then another jeep passes us, and their driver yells, “near Girnar”. Suddenly, our jeep picks up speed. There is excitement, the stomach tingles with eagerness and cameras and binoculars are kept handy.

Then it happens. A lioness makes a grand entry on the road, and walks towards our jeep. For a second there is deathly silence. The driver points to my right, and lazing on the dried grass is a big male, oblivious to our presence. Behind him, another lion walks slowly, followed by two mischievous cubs, who climb onto his back and quarrel among themselves.

Suddenly on the left, we notice the lioness circling our jeep. She stops, not more than six feet away from us. Shutterbugs have their moment, and she looks into the cameras as if challenging us, but keeping enough distance.

Banej is frequented by few tourists. It is ideal for a secluded picnic amidst greenery, a river habited by alligators, snakes and fish. The bank is spotted with peacocks and pond herons. Above, a peachick strikes a pose

The cubs cross our path and walk down for a drink from a watering hole. The lioness keeps a steady watch, and to our delight, lets out a loud roar, which is returned by a tiny cub-roar.

As I focus my binoculars on a male, he get up and faces me, his golden yellow eyes glistening in the sun. My mind is a complete blank as our eyes meet through the looking glass. In a who-blinks-first challenge, I lower my binoculars and give in. The forest is his domain and I am overwhelmed with what the lion family has just shared with us — a few minutes of their morning routine.

A forest department official urges the jeep to move on, clearly a sign that the meeting between man and beast is over for the morning. We return to our hotel, bringing back an irreplaceable memory.

The Veraval Port
While spotting lions is the main attraction in Sasan Gir, there are many other places that are worth visiting. Early one morning, we drive down to the Veraval fishing port, which exports most of its catch, including the baga or Stingray, reef cod and red snapper. These exotic varieties go all the way to Indonesia, Hong Kong and the US.

We cross a shipbuilding yard, where the giant vessels have been wheeled in for repair and new ones are being put together.

Surprisingly, I cannot smell fish when we enter the port. “Fresh catch doesn’t smell,” our driver explains. We jump from one trawler to another, and finally, enter the one, which is going to take us into the sea on a fishing expedition. Grey pond herons, egrets, sea gulls, common and black-and-white kingfishers, darters and cormorants are seen perched on masts, while some are circling the boats in search of fish. A little after we venture out into the sea, the ship owner points towards the northeast. “If we continue in that direction for 14 hours, we would enter Pakistan waters,” he tells us. In Gujarat, people are hospitable wherever you go. And, it isn’t any different on this trawler ride. A fisherman cooks us a baga fry, with just salt, turmeric and red chilli powder — while we are still onboard. As our ride comes to an end, it is interesting to see the sailor swerve the trawler without
touching any of the other boats and that too, without the help of rear-view mirrors.

The following day, we plan an impromptu picnic. We pack a dry lunch of aloo mutter, thepla, chutney, pickles and cucumber and set out to Banej, a two-hour drive from Sasan through the forest. Our destination is a quaint place, with a river that is home to crocodiles, fish, turtles and water snakes. You can hear pin drop here, and watch peacocks and grey pond herons on the banks. We have no agenda and spend the day lazing on the banks of the lake, feeding the fish and the peacocks as we watch the sun go down. I decide to take a power nap in a nearby temple, and when I wake up, I feel fresh, rejuvenated and calm.

After a full meal, we decide to head home, stopping at a jaggery farm on the way. As we near home, our local friend-guide mentions a perennial waterfall, and we decide to take a look.

As I stand on the edge of the cliff, the deafening noise of the falls shuts out any other external sound. Our hearts beating fast, we decide to take a plunge. One by one, five of my friends let out a shriek and I can hear them hit the water, as they swim to the nearest rock for support. It’s my turn and I am scared.

I jump.
It’s a matter of a few seconds and I resurface again but those moments between the jump, when I hit the water, and finally fight my way back up to resurface is one I am unlikely to forget in a hurry. Tomorrow can wait.

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