Monday, June 25, 2012

India’s pride

India's pride
Iol travel By Vivien Creegor

The Lion Safari Camp of Sasan Gir in Gujarat's Gir National Park.

To tell the truth, I didn't know there were lions in India, and if it hadn't been for the animal-loving Nawab of Junagadh, they would have died out. In Gujarat more than a century ago, he was invited to hunt the last remaining few, but he had a brainstorm, said "hang on a mo" (or something similar) and suggested preserving these marvellous beasts.

Determined to see them for myself, I travelled with my friend Ange to Mumbai via Dubai. This was followed by another flight to the tiny airport of Rajkot, way up the coast of north-west India, before we took a three-hour drive to the Lion Safari Camp of Sasan Gir in Gujarat's Gir National Park.

This is where the last lions of India can be found.

We were put up in large tents, which had perfectly adequate bathrooms attached. Each tent also had a wooden veranda where you could enjoy your evening non-alcoholic drink (alcohol is forbidden in Gujarat) while soaking up the weird and wonderful sounds of nature around you.

That first night we were treated to a troupe performing an impressive fire dance before dinner. These people were Siddis, a tribe who arrived from Africa centuries ago.

The food – traditional Indian with a Mughal influence – was good and plentiful. For our first dinner we sampled lemon coriander soup, paneer dopiaza (twice-cooked onions in cottage cheese), mixed dhal, steamed rice and fried fish.

We were also served salad, which we surreptitiously washed at the table with bottled water. Although one waiter saw us doing it, we didn't attempt to explain our fear of "Delhi belly".

After temperatures of about 35°C the previous afternoon, there was a chill in the air the next morning when we set out for our first game drive. We bumped along in our Jeep with our excellent guide pointing out a never-ending parade of wildlife – mongoose, honey buzzards, sambar (an Indian deer the size of a small horse) storks, woodpeckers, wild boar, snakes and buffalo.

The sanctuary admits the lions are elusive "but you will see at least one". And one was indeed the sum total for us – but what a magnificent specimen he was.

He meandered along the track for a good 20 minutes and ignored us, intent instead on spraying every tree he came across to mark out his territory. It was wonderful to watch an animal behaving in a "real" way despite our presence.

Because the lion was padding along slowly, our guide was able to point out the differences compared with an African lion – a mane that grows only halfway round his head, and much paler fur.

As ever with wildlife-spotting, there's serious one-upmanship among the guests. Back at the camp, a doctor from New York told us she had seen a "cheetah". We were impressed until we realised there are no cheetahs in Sasan Gir and that she'd actually seen a chital – a deer of which there are 46 000 in the forest, providing breakfast, lunch and dinner for the 300 or so lions.

In the afternoon we were driven to Kamleshwar Lake to see how many of its estimated 400 marsh crocodiles we could spot lurking just beneath the surface (quite a few).

Sightseeing before leaving Gujarat, we were driven to the Somnath Temple near Veraval in Saurashtra, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva.It was slightly disappointing to discover it was built only in 1947 because six previous temples had been, er, destroyed.

Further along the coast, we walked around the magnificent Diu Fort, built by the Portuguese in the mid-16th century after endless spats with the Sultan of Gujarat. The Portuguese have apparently voted it one of their seven wonders of the world.

From the north-west coast of India, we flew across the country to Guwahati in Assam, on the east coast, where the highlight would be visiting Kaziranga National Park, famous for its one-horned rhinos.

After a five-hour drive from the airport, we reached Wild Grass Lodge, near the park and our destination for the next three nights. We received a warm welcome from staff and in particular our allotted guide, Paulus. We asked to stay in a cottage in the grounds rather than the main guest building, and this turned out to be the better option.

The cottage was comfortable and the bathroom basic. We also had our own resident goat who appeared outside our door the next day, evidently aware that our early-morning coffee came with biscuits.

After breakfast, Paulus came to get us and we went to Kaziranga. The first difference we noticed compared with Sasan Gir was that this park is covered in 3m-high elephant grass and has lush, forest-like areas.

With an estimated 1 600 rhino, you're guaranteed to see one or two, though on our first trip it was only from a distance. Why? Because you don't mess with a one-horned rhino and her baby. We also saw wild boar, kestrels and elephants.

Enthusiastic about everything we saw, Paulus went into overdrive when he spotted a startlingly coloured hornbill in a tree.

In the evening, we were urged to gather in the grounds at Wild Grass Lodge for a dancing display by local children. They were all very sweet and wore gorgeous costumes.

After dinner we went to bed early because we knew we had a treat in store the next day – an elephant safari.

We gathered at 5.30am as the mist began to rise and waited to be assigned our animal. Ange and I met our mahoot and struck out on a huge male elephant.

Without a noisy Jeep to startle them, the rhinos were very accessible, grazing metres from us. Only once did a huge male make a mock charge and the mahoot knew it was time to retreat.

The next day's drive to the Brahmaputra River was lovely. We travelled through a fascinating village built on stilts, then saw the forests of Kaziranga, which eventually gave way to sand dunes.

The following day we bade farewell to the Wild Grass Lodge and flew to Calcutta for one night, eating the most sublime Bengali food in the Aaheli restaurant at our hotel, the Peerless Inn. Before heading home, we took a short stroll in the blistering heat to a market where we spent our remaining rupees on earrings, bangles, silk and cashmere.

It was my third visit to India in as many years. I'm hooked. – Daily Mail

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