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Tuesday, 26 February 2013

King of the Gir Forest

Written by  David Camp

GirForest_1PlanetHop! loves the unexpected in all its many forms. One of the most amazing and addictive things about travel is the fact that you never know exactly what each new day holds in store for you. This is why the very idea of a game drive for lions – outside of Africa – is so fascinating. Most of you out there probably didn't even know that there is an entirely distinct species of lions that dwell in the remote Gir Forest in north western India. It's here that you will find the last of the Asiatic Lions, whose habitat once spread across virtually all of Asia. Today, a trip to the Gir Forest National Park will make you question whether you have been miraculously transported to one of the big game parks of East Africa. If the thought of a game drive of a very unique sort sounds appealing read on...

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Some of the coolest travel experiences you will ever have will be due to the fact that they are simply unexpected. As a wise man once said, there's nothing like a good surprise. This is exactly what I got when I visited the Gir National Forest in Gujarat, India. This is a relatively-isolated peninsula in North Western India, adjoining the touristy Rajasthan region and south-eastern Pakistan. It is also the sole remaining home of the Asiatic Lion, whose natural habitat once spanned across the breadth of Asia.

Just getting to the forest is an adventure in itself. Up to this point all of my travels throughout India had been via the classic Indian Railway. However, now I had to leave the rails and get onto the Indian highways.

GirForest_2 For anyone not familiar with India, this can be a truly frightening prospect, as road rules seem to be a very vague concept. But all I could do was trust in the 'skills' of the bus driver and pray. To say that I was relieved when I finally arrived at the park would be an understatement.

The first impression I got as I made my way to the park lodge, was of a place that time had forgotten. Everything seemed to be in a state of disrepair, from the general state of the buildings to the layers of dust covering the photos on the walls. It was almost as if at one point people simply stopped caring for the place. It was strange, because while India isn't the cleanest of places by any stretch, it definitely has a lived in feel. The hotel didn't have that feel. In a strange way, it actually felt as if it had been abandoned to its own devices – almost like a ghost town.

My friend Wayne and I, who I was traveling around India with, took bunks in the hotel dormitory. Other than a middle-aged German guy, we were the only guests at the lodge. Like I said, it was like the place had been forgotten. Our German dorm-mate didn't offer much in the way of friendly conversation, but did offer to split the cost of a safari with us for the following morning. We agreed, happy to split the US$60 cost for the 4-hr trip through the park.

GirForest_3The rest of the day was spent wandering around the lodge grounds. Some of the photos around the building were amazing, showing pictures of some of the lions that inhabited the park. But perhaps even more amazing were the Indian rangers who up until fairly recently used to traverse the park on foot, armed with colonial-style rifles. Although from what we could determine these were rarely needed, as a strange affinity existed between the forest's apex predator and the men who had dedicated their lives to protect them.s

That evening we had a basic meal at the lodge and then sat to watch two documentaries. The first was a general one about Lions of the Serengeti, but the second was specifically about the Gir Forest. It was interesting to learn some of the history of the Asian Lion. I must admit that up until arriving in India, I hadn't even known that there were any lions in Asia. I'd guess that this is probably the case with most people.

The Gir Forest Sanctuary had first been established in 1965 to protect the last 170 or so remaining Asiatic Lions, whose habitat used to span from India to Greece. It's administered by the Forest Department of Gujarat, who runs a breeding program to ensure the continuation of the species. The success of the program has been amazing, considering the fact that the initial population of approximately 170 has grown to around 320 at the time of my visit. For the first time in many years, these last remaining 'Kings of the Jungle' now appeared to have the chance at a future.

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In the morning we set off on safari, with out surly German companion, in an open-top jeep. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect as we set off, having recently come from Africa, where game viewing has evolved into something of a fine art. However, it didn't take long to realize that things were amazing similar. Actually, if you didn't know better, you probably would have assumed that you were in Africa. At least if you ignored the fact that you were driving through a tropical forest instead of the open savannah. Oh, and the Indian dude behind the wheel, of course!

It couldn't have been more than about 15 minutes into the safari before we came across a Danish film crew filming a documentary on the Gir Forest. The guide was very excited about the prospect of having a new film to show tourists at the lodge. In all honesty, I couldn't blame him as the one we had witnessed the night before was circa 1970 and starting to show its age.

Luckily, the film crew acted as our 'spotter' as they were in the process of filming a young male lion, lounging under a large teak tree. It didn't seem to be the least bit phazed by the presence of the film crew or our jeep. This drove home just how much of a smaller scale things were here. There was no giant African savannah that spread as far as the eye could see. Searching for lions was a much simpler affair here in the Gir Forest, as the lions obviously had their favorite spots and didn't care who knew it.

The second encounter of the day was of a much more interesting nature. Our guide was cheerfully chattering away, telling us about his experiences over the past 25 years that he had been working at the park -- when two lions ran across the road in front of the jeep! While we didn't exactly come close to hitting them, it surprised the driver enough for him to slam on the brakes. When we ground to a halt we had a front row seat to a true wildlife encounter, one that I definitely had never witnessed in Africa.


Male lion with proud mane!

The lion doing the chasing was a large male with a black mane. His quarry was a smaller female and, when he caught her, he slashed his paw across the top of her head with one of his mammoth paws, leaving a wicked gash. While I'm far from an expert on lions, the Gir lions seemed amazingly similar to their African cousins. The difference between African and Asian Elephants is very significant with the Asian ones being much smaller and less majestic. The same definitely can't be said for the Asian Lions. They are every bit as majestic as their African counterparts.

The female lion whirled around and delivered a return swipe with her razor sharp claws that seemed to catch the larger male off guard. He stopped in his tracks and roared, but did not approach to renew his attack. They stood about 3 metres apart for several long moments, during which time our guide warned us to remain still. Before long the male slowly took himself off to the shade of a nearby tree to lie down. The female likewise retreated and hunkered down not far from our jeep, giving us a good chance to take photos. We stayed for a few moments before our guide said that it was probably best to move on before we facilitated any more aggression from the big male.


Battle of the sexes

The remainder of the safari produced several more encounters, although nothing quite as dramatic. By the time we returned to the lodge, all of us felt that we had more than gotten our money's worth. Without a doubt there is something very special about the Gir Forest. Foremost is the fact that it is the last remaining habitat of one of the world's most noble creatures. But perhaps the thing that sticks most in my mind, even to this day, is the Forest itself. It offers a very unique home for these special lions. It doesn't feel so much small as it does intimate. In my opinion, it is a far better place to see lions in the wild than the gigantic game reserves of Africa, which to be what I think of first whenever the topic of lions comes up.

In closing, I would recommend to anyone who plans a visit to India to try and make it to the Gir Forest. It will be out of your way and you will have to go through some discomfort to get here; but the reward will be something far, far greater than you can possibly imagine!


Last of the breed



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Forget the Taj Mahal and Goa, there's much more to the spectacular Indian subcontinent than even PlanetHop! ever imagined. The Gir Forest is something that anyone who has visited the big game parks of Africa (or even those who have only dreamt about it) absolutely must add to their own personal "Bucket lists"!

Wayne Palmer is one of those people who it would be fair to say has been around the block (more than few times). Born in New Zealand and now residing in Australia, he has visited virtually every nook and cranny that this amazing planet of ours has to offer.

Who (will enjoy)

Perfect for adults who don't mind traveling "off the beaten track". However, think very carefully about bringing your children here, unless you're certain they will be able to adapt to India's unique and challenging environment.

What (to do)View big game (lions in particular) in a way that easily compares to any of the big game parks of Africa.
When (should I visit)

The best time to visit is between November and June, when overall conditions for spotting wildlife are optimum.

Where (to stay)

There are a variety of lodges in close vicinity to the Gir Forest, including the Lion Safari Camp, Maneland Jungle Lodge, and the Gir Jungle Lodge. All of these offer a variety of room types ranging from US$75/night twin share, although some deluxe suites will cost you significantly more.

How (much will it cost)

All visitors to Sasan Gir require a permit at Rs 30 for Indians and US$5 for foreigners. A camera is an additional US$5 for foreigners and Rs 50 for Indians. A video camera is Rs 2500 for Indians and US$200 for foreigners. To hire a jeep (for up to 6 passengers) will cost you Rs 400 for 3 hours.

Wildlife of India, Part IV: Sasan - Gir National Park
David Camp

David Camp

Dave is President and Co-Founder of PlanetHop! and has spent much of the past 15 years traveling the world for business and pleasure. His longest journey was a two year romp around the world!