I manage to sleep rather well in this forest resort at Sasan. Probably, because of the remoteness, it is very quiet here, except for the noises of the Jungle. I wake up early, absolutely fresh, for my appointment with the king of the Jungle. The safari vehicles turn up around 6-30 AM. Each Gypsy (The open safari vehicles) is provided with 2 benches of sufficient height so that, up to 6 passengers can easily sit comfortably and can watch the jungle from above the drivers cabin, as well as on sides. It is quite cold outside and sitting on the top of an open Gypsy, with a biting cold wind hitting my face, is far from being comfortable. Yet I feel nothing as excitement of a jungle safari is overshadowing all such physical discomfiture. As we start, I can see a rabbit running ahead of us on the road, perhaps scared because of the vehicle. I take it as an extremely good omen and hope that we would have a sighting of the Asiatic Lion.
Our vehicle now stops near the entrance gate of the Gir Lion sanctuary, which I am told, opens only around 7 AM. ID check again and then we are let in. As we enter the sanctuary, there is a feeling within me that I am entering an alien world. This is not a world, where we humans can survive without aid. In this world, I have to stay in the confines of the vehicle carrying me because I am in someone else’ territory. This world belongs to Lions, Leopards, Hyenas and crocodiles. They have their own rules and regulations.
Gir forest area is about 1400 Sq. Km, out of which, the national park covers only 258 sq. Km. Area. There are 8 fixed routes of about 35 to 40 Km each, over which visitors are taken around by Gypsy vehicles, and if one particular vehicle makes a lion sighting, it does not mean that all the visitors in the park at that time, would be able to see the same. It is still your own luck.
It is still dark when we enter the park and immediately cross a small rivulet, over which, a small bridge has been built. I spot a painted stork standing in the water and patiently waiting to catch some early morning fish. The Gir forest appears to have a wide variety of flora in it. There are deciduous trees, which shred their leaves once every year as well as some broad leafed ever green trees. I am not much of a botanist, but can identify few trees like teak, which appear to be there in plenty. I also identify Banyan and Khair trees easily here. From my limited view point from the vehicle, I am able to see that the forest has a variety of landscapes, which probably is one of the main attraction for the animals. It has forested valleys, wide grassland plateaus, and isolated hilltops. I can also see some areas which have open scrub and savannah-type grasslands loved by Lions.
As we move on, we see a ‘Chital’ (Axis axis)or a spotted deer. Since this is my first animal sighting in the park, I am happy. But this lone deer is followed by number of herds of ‘Chitals’ containing many animals. Our guide tells me that there are as many as 50000 of these spotted deer in the park. We then sight, couple of wild boars (Sus scrofa), a favourite pray for the lions. Our guide says that there are as many as 400 (plus) lions in the park and about 300 leopards. I then sight on my right, a big animal behind the foliage. Driver stops the vehicle. This animal is a ‘Sambar’ deer (Rusa unicolo). These deers are large animals easily weighing between 300 to 500 Kg. They are supposed to be reclusive and are supposed to be very dependent on water and are always found near a water source.
We continue along, the king still eludes us. Suddenly, our driver stops the vehicle and points out to the side of the road that has lots of loose earth. He says that there are pug marks of a fully grown up lion.
I look carefully and can see the huge foot prints left by a beast. This means that a lion has walked along this road in the night before. We move again but slowly and looking around with great expectations. We again sight a ‘chital’, directly looking at us. Driver stops the vehicle and points out to a deciduous tree that has lost all its leaves. Almost on the top, an eagle is sitting on the branch. Our driver says that it is a crested serpent eagle. Frankly, I have never seen before, an eagle in freedom and I cherish the sight.
We move on, there is still no trace of a lion. Suddenly our driver slows the jeep and quietly cuts off the engine and halts the vehicle. He points out to my right about 20 to 25 feet to some high ground under shed of few shrubs. I can see a huge, fully grown beast, sleeping there.
We wait silently for the beast to make any movement. Mean while, 2 more Gypsy vehicles reach the spot along with some forest rangers. Forest rangers get down and can see that the beast has had a sumptuous meal, not more than few hours before and is enjoying his siesta. They point out to a nearby tree, where many crows have collected, indicating that a partially eaten carcass is lying there. A ranger checks with his binocular and informs us that it belongs to a wild boar. The rangers, knowing that the beast, with his stomach full, would be very tame and timid, throw few twigs at him.
Woken up with the disturbance, the beast turns his head slowly and looks at us humans and without least bother, sleeps off again. Forest rangers again try to wake him up. This time he sits up and then bingo! Gives a classic pose with his head turned towards us. This one is a fully grown male lion with a beautiful golden yellow mane. For next few minutes, we keep staring at the royal glory of this majestic beast, who is not even shy or afraid of a crowd of 15/20 humans watching him from a close distance. I had hoped that I would be able to sight a lion or lioness at the most, walking at some distance. This sighting is simply unbelievable. A sight, I know, I am going to cherish for rest of my life.
The time is running out and we move on. On our left, we can see some beautiful peacocks with long bluish green feathers and later a wild camel, calmly munching some twigs. The camel has much more fur on him. Some more spotted deer follow. The driver stops the vehicle again and shows more pug marks- of a Lion family, a male, a female and a cub. But the traces disappear after a while, indicating that they have turned towards deeper parts of the forest.
I look at my watch, it is already past 9 o’ clock in morning. This means that we have spent more than 2 hours in the jungle. It is time to go back to the resort. I decide to take it easy and relax for the day. I need the rest after almost a week of continuous travel.
Tomorrow, I plan to visit former princely state of Junagadh.
(To be concluded)