I’ve never been on a safari or stayed in a jungle area before, so this trip to Sasan Gir National Park is special to me. Sasan Gir is the home of Asiatic Lions, the only one in Asia, and I hoped to spot at least one – fingers and toes crossed!
Again, just like we had trouble getting in to Diu, getting out of it also posed to be a problem. I guess if we had a car, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But apart from State Transport buses that go just about anywhere and everywhere, there are not many private options available. There were a few private travel agencies within the GSRTC (Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation) bus stand at Diu but only one of them offered bus services to Veraval, which is a fishing town about 100km to the west of Diu; none of them went directly to Sasan Gir. We were told that we would get many buses from Veraval. Having no other choice, we boarded a 12:30pm mini-bus to Veraval. It should have been a 2 and 1/2 hour ride but we didn’t get there until 4pm, mainly because the bus started late and then we had to change buses mid-way – Lord knows why! At Veraval we found an enterprising auto-rickshaw guy who offered to drive us to Sasan Gir, about 48km away, for Rs.300. After having sat in a crowded bus for that long, Madhu and I were more than happy to get some fresh air.
We had read that Veraval was a stinky place because of the fishing industry but we were totally unprepared for the sight and smell of it. The bus passed thru some of the filthiest streets I’ve ever seen in my life. Having lived in Bombay for most of my life, trust me, I’ve seen quite a few filthy places but this beats them all. There was tons of garbage strewn on both sides of the streets. The whole place had such a bad stink in the air that it was hard to breathe. When the bus dropped us off near the town’s railway station, we were afraid to get off the bus. The bus station was about a kilometer away – we were dreading the thought of spending time in the town hunting for a bus or some ride out to Sasan. So when the auto guy offered to drive us there, we didn’t think twice.
Thankfully, the road out of Veraval and towards Sasan was absolutely beautiful. The auto ride, though a little tough on the butt, was fun and we were relieved to get some fresh country air. Madhu had called Maneland Jungle Lodge in advance and had booked us for 2 nights. It was beyond the village of Sasan on the road to Junagadh (our next destination) and a little hard to find as it was set a little off the main road, into the jungle. Fortunately we got there well before it got dark, around 5:30pm. This was important to the auto driver as well, as the road into Sasan from Veraval is closed to all traffic at 7pm. This is because the village of Sasan falls within the Gir forest area and wildlife starts to move around after dark.
We checked into the hotel and realized that we were in for a true jungle experience; there was no TV in the room. The hotel rooms are set in small cottage-style structures, which surround a small courtyard in the center. There were several khatiyas (cots) and swings for guests to relax in. Madhu and I spent our evening sitting here and enjoyed the absolute stillness of the place – it was the most content we’ve ever felt!
Today morning we left for our very first safari. It was at 6:30am. The hotel manager, Bharat bhai, arranged for the jeep to pick us up at 6:15. Apparently all jeep safaris are managed and operated by the state govt – it seemed pretty well-organized as well. There are 3 time-slots per day for safaris – 6:30am, 9:30am and 3:30pm. 30 jeep safaris are allowed during each time-slot and a forest guide accompanies each safari. There are 6 routes within the forest and each jeep is assigned a particular route – this is to ensure that all the jeeps do not crowd any one particular area of the forest.
The driver of our jeep took us to the Gir forest office from where Madhu obtained a permit for the safari (Rs.400), day permit for the camera (Rs.100), paid for the jeep ride, including pickup/drop off from/to the hotel (Rs.800) and the forest guide (Rs.50) – a total of Rs.1,350. The jeep can accommodate 6 passengers so it would have been more cost-effective for us to share it with a few others. Bharat bhai had said that we may find some people at the permit office who might be interested in a shared ride, but we didn’t find anybody. So we took off on our own. At that time of the morning, the air was quite cool and crisp. The gates to the park were opened just before 7am and each jeep was let in one at a time with a space of a few minutes between them. Our guide explained that the previous evening there were a few sightings of lions on route# 5 and since we had been assigned #5 as well, we had a good chance of spotting them. The ride thru the park was absolutely magical! Since it was still a little dark, the landscape looked quite stark with dried grass and bare trees.
There are said to be thousands of spotted deer (Chital) in the forest so they were the first we saw. Some of the males had huge antlers that looked velvety in texture. The guide said that this is because it’s newly grown in winters. The deer shed their antlers every summer, by which time they look more wooden. We also spotted Sambars, huge, spotless, brown deer, which look quite regal. Then there were the black-faced, gray-haired Langoors (monkeys) who seemed to accompany the deer everywhere. We also spotted plenty of birds – peacocks, herons, egrets and cormorants. In fact, we spotted plenty of all of these, except a lion . Our guide called a few other guides and found that the safaris on route#6 had spotted a lioness with 2 cubs and a couple of male lions as well. We were so envious! The driver and guide considered cutting across to route#6 but this, of course, would have caused them trouble with the authorities. Moreover, since the lions were on the move there’s no guarantee that they would still be in the same spot when we get there. So it wasn’t worth the risk. Dejected, they dropped us off back at the resort by 9:30am. They suggested that we should go for the 3:30pm safari again and opt for route#6 as there could be a good chance of spotting them somewhere along that route. Apparently, lions sleep during the day so there’s no point in going for the 9:30am tour – mornings and late evenings are the best time.
We asked Bharat bhai to arrange another jeep to pick us up at 3pm for a safari at 3:30pm and then relaxed the rest of the morning away. At 3pm we met Tina and Mona – two British-Indian girls who were on a 5-day trip in Gujarat. They had just checked into Maneland Resort and were also interested in going for the 3:30pm safari. Since they were open to going on a shared safari, the 4 of us decided to go on the same jeep and split the costs. The jeep was scheduled to arrive at 3pm so that we would have enough time to get to the permit office and request a permit for route#6 specifically. However, it didn’t turn up until 3:40pm and we noticed that a guide was already in the jeep with the driver. They informed us that they had already bought the permit and had been assigned route#2. We were a bit upset but they assured us that route#2 is quite close to route#6 and that we would have as good a chance to spot lions on this route. Since we had no options, we went along with them.
When we entered the park, it was still sunny and warm. The guide said that lions do not come out in to the open until it starts to get a little dark so we would have to be a little patient. To kill some time, they parked the jeep in a shaded area next to a small stream for a few minutes. There we spotted quite a few birds and enjoyed the whole atmosphere. Tina and Mona were super-friendly and it was easy to have a conversation with them – we were happy to have some company. As the evening wore on, we saw the usual crowd – deer, langoors, peacocks and even some wild boars. But no lions . The sun had begun to set and we were starting to get a little dejected.
And then suddenly we spotted him – a lone, male Asiatic Lion sitting regally beside the road in a grassy patch. I’ve never felt such excitement in my life before! The lion looked at us benignly as we excitedly took pictures and kept thanking the Lord for our good fortune. The driver made a few guttural sounds to get the lion to move – not something we wanted him to do but the lion did stand up abruptly, walked a few feet away from us (his gait was sooo graceful!) and settled down again. It reminded me of Shayna – man, do i miss her! …… Oh well, back to the lion – our jeep got as close to him as possible (probably less than 15 feet away) and it didn’t seem to bother him too much. At one point I saw him blink because of the glare from Madhu’s camera’s flash. He eventually got up and walked across the road to the other side and climbed a small rocky ledge to sit down again. This time when our jeep tried to follow him, he let out a low growl but nothing too menacing – probably just a warning. As the light had lessened and we didn’t want to bother the lion too much (not that we hadn’t already), we finally stopped gaping at it and reluctantly pulled away.
All safaris are expected to leave the park by 6pm but we knew we would never make it out before then; we had lost track of time when we had spotted the lion. So the driver now drove at break-neck speed across the tough terrain to get out as soon as possible – he didn’t want trouble from the authorities. I felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie – it was absolutely thrilling; a complete adventure! We got out of the park around 6:15pm. The guide stepped out of the jeep to show our permit to the guard at the check-post – I’m sure he must have got an earful but, thankfully, we never got to know.
Our stay in Sasan Gir has been phenomenal in every sense! The hotel accommodation was good, food was great, found instant camaraderie with Tina and Mona and had fantastic safari rides – an enriching experience overall!