Sunday, June 10, 2012

The last lions: Rare big cats, baby rhinos and wild wonders aplenty in awesome India

The last lions: Rare big cats, baby rhinos and wild wonders aplenty in awesome India
Mail Online

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.

Yawn to be wild: Asiatic lions have smaller manes and paler fur than their African cousins

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 dal, 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 95F the previous afternoon, there was a chill in the air the following 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 itself admits that 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 to 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). From here we also had a splendid view of both the Gir forest and a fiery sunset from a specially built watchtower.

The first leg of our short stay was over but we had time for some sightseeing before leaving Gujarat.

First of all we were driven to the Somnath Temple near Veraval in Saurashtra, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva. According to locals, the temple has 'withstood the shocks of time and survived the attacks of destroyers'. So it was slightly disappointing to discover it was built only in 1947 because six previous temples had been, er, destroyed.

We were then driven a little further along the coast to Diu where we walked around the truly magnificent Diu Fort, built by the Portuguese in the mid-16th Century after endless spats with the Sultan of Gujarat.

It looked awesome in daylight, so it must be sensational at night when it's lit up. The Portuguese have apparently voted it one of their seven wonders of the world.

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

After a five-hour drive from the airport, we reached Wild Grass Lodge, close to the park and our destination for the next three nights. We received a warm welcome from staff, and in particular from 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 but good enough. We also had our own resident goat who appeared outside our door the next day, evidently aware that our early-morning coffee also came with biscuits. He polished these off, looked at me expectantly for more and, after I showed him my empty palms, seemed to understand, slipping away without a glance.

After breakfast, Paulus came to get us and off we went to Kaziranga. The first difference we noticed compared with Sasan Gir was that this park is covered in 10ft-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.

Taken to tusk: Viv sets out to explore via elephant

Paulus was enthusiastic about everything we saw but he 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 a dinner of spicy vegetable soup, Bombay potato, spiced green beans, chicken curry, fish curry, pilau rice (and, hurrah, alcohol was served!), we went to bed early because we knew we had a treat in store the following day - an elephant safari.
We gathered at 5.30am as the mist began to rise, and there was a real air of excitement as we all waited to be assigned our animal. Ange and I met our mahoot and struck out on a huge male elephant who was able to multitask - walking and eating at the
same time, tugging with his trunk at the lush vegetation without a pause.

Without a noisy Jeep to startle them, the rhinos were very accessible, grazing just a couple of yards away from us. We got some angry snorts and glares from a few, but only once did a huge male make a mock charge and the mahoot knew it was time to retreat.

To get so close to rhino in the wild was a startling experience, especially with the early-morning noises and calls of other animals nearby, while the dawn mist gave the whole scene a slightly surreal look.

Paulus then blotted his copybook somewhat by insisting on taking us on a boat trip to search for river dolphins. We paid to hire a vessel (belonging to a 'friend' of Paulus) but there wasn't so much as a fin to be seen.

However, we weren't really angry with him as the drive to the Brahmaputra River was lovely. We travelled through a fascinating village built on stilts and then the forests of Kaziranga, which eventually gave way to sand dunes. Along the sand there were fresh tiger tracks but, alas, not the animal itself. It wasn't our afternoon for wildlife, clearly.

The next 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 happily spent our remaining rupees on earrings, bangles, silk and cashmere.

It was my third visit to India in as many years - I'm totally hooked.

Travel Facts
Reef & Rainforest Tours (01803 866 965, offers a nine-night holiday to see the lions of India from £2,315 per person.

This includes return flights from Britain with Emirates, domestic flights, two nights in Mumbai, three nights at Sasan Gir in Gujarat, three nights at Wild Grass Lodge near Kaziranga National Park in Assam, and one night at the Peerless Inn in Calcutta, most meals and excursions.

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