Tuesday, 30 July 2013

A summer at Gir

You know how each trip has certain memories associated with it - some expected and some strange ones? If you look into my Gir pensieve, this is what you will see:  the excited beginning of a friend's 6-week long 'Big-cat trail', long drives from and to Ahmedabad on Gujarat's silken-smooth roads, three lions and three stories, trackers with sticks in their hands, local tribes living in the forest, a dusty brown patina over everything, a surprise leopard sighting, endless cups of tea in sizzling-hot weather, fun and laughter with friends at the end of a tiring day, pigging out on Gujarati food, and finally, a manic, bollywood-style chase to the airport. The ending was probably a hint that if you want to see the king of the jungle, it ought to take a bit of trouble; he doesn't give audience that easily. But, let's start at the beginning.

The handsome, young male
Raju, un-scarred by fights or age, reclined under a solitary tree. In the morning light, his mane looked aflame. He displayed all the insouciance that comes with being young. Unafraid and confident, he basked in the open, only moving to stretch to dismiss languour from his limbs. His penchant for displaying 'his family jewels' elicited silent laughter from all the jeeps present. A few years later, Raju will probably head a pride. Will the cares of managing a pride wear him down and change his demeanour? Or, will he remain as carefree? Only time will tell.

The battle-worn elder
The two brothers were asleep when we came across them in the late evening light, with trackers around them, almost guarding their sleep. This is something unique to Gir - the king of the jungle has human bodyguards. We watched in silence for a while until the tracker said it was time to wake them up as the sun was setting. One of the brothers groggily ambled away. The other stayed behind to scrutinise us. Almost nine years old, this lion's face was a map of each year of his life. That scar was probably from when he and his friend playfully sparred. That other scar from when he fought for a lioness. That mark there could have been the lioness's gift, during the often-aggressive mating. A misaligned jaw, probably from having defended his territory. 

He soon made his way back into the denser forest and we tailed him in our jeep. Along the way, he paused to sharpen his claws. Smelt a few trees. And then, marked his territory. All this with the quiet confidence that comes with age. When he disappeared behind the bushes, he left behind a sighing jeepful, craving for more.

The mother and daughter
Seated in the open, in the harsh afternoon sun, panting profusely - one look at them told us all was not right. We presumed it was the heat. Eyes closed to almost slits, they seemed united in some discomfort. Soon, trackers arrived to tell us that the lioness's other cub, a male, had gone missing that morning, probably carried away by a lion. The mother and daughter were disturbed, not having a clue to his whereabouts. A team of trackers and medical professionals was combing the forest for the young lion, even as we waited. Lions often kill young cubs, both theirs and those fathered by other lions. As we left, I sent up a silent prayer for the young cub. And, the two lionesses.

These three encounters with the rulers of the jungle, and many more sightings of other mammals and birds were part of my first ever visit to Gir, thanks to having joined my friend Sumeet at the beginning of his 'Big-cat trail'. As Gir cooled down in the evenings, our group gathered outside the tents for some learning, laughter and discussions. Sometimes, bored with the 'resort' food, we walked to a home nearby, where a couple cooked fresh local food upon request.  As we headed out of the brown dust-bowl after four days, our guide told us to return post-monsoon. “The forest is different”, he said. I could imagine a green carpet laid out in the currently-threadbare forest. Lions may not be spotted as often as in summer, but, it definitely promises to be a feast for the eyes.

I’ll end by cutting to the chase. The ingredients of the story - a driver who had never driven outside Gir, us tutoring him in highway driving protocol, the driver not knowing the route to the airport too, me guiding him correctly to the ring road to the airport, a policeman misguiding us by telling us that the route through the city is the quickest, the car getting stuck in crowded weekend markets in narrow alleys in the city route, the driver being unable to drive through the crowd as he is not used to it, hubby taking over the wheel and driving like a maniac because we are late, people incorrectly guiding us out of the mess due to which we get more lost and finally, getting caught for being in an ‘auto only’ road which had no signs to tell us so.

After begging the policemen to let us go and paying the fine, they guided us out of the maze. We reached the airport ten minutes before take-off and ran in to plead with the staff. Luckily, take-off had been delayed due to a technical snag and we were hurried through; the last to board. Gir turned out to be a wild trip in more ways than one!