Wild Gujarat

The only wildlife I had experienced on previous trips to Gujarat were the ones meandering around Ahmedabad’s crowded streets: bulls and cows, goats, packs of stray dogs. But our Saurashtra itinerary included visits to two national wildlife parks, Velavadar National Park, outside of Bhavnagar, and Gir National Park in the southern part of the state. We’re not talking the abundance of the Serengeti here. But each park is home to a number of mammal and bird species native to India. I’m glad that Gujarat has designated land for national parks and ostensibly funding preservation.

The star of Sasan Gir is the endangered Asiatic lion. Unlike its African cousin, the Asian lion does help the lioness and hunts for food. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any on our official safari. The next day we went to the Sasan Gir Interpretation Zone, which is sort of a mini-safari park, where the lions, along with other species, are kept in a combination of large fenced-in and open-space areas. That’s where we caught our glimpse of the big cats.

Both parks need some improvement on the customer-facing aspects of their experience. At Velavadar, a guide couldn’t be bothered to take us around, so we drove ourself through the park. This worked out fine for us, setting aside that this approach means no informed commentary on the wildlife. But what about if some less scrupulous visitors decided to drive off-road and into the animals’ habitat? Sasan Gir was more organized in that at least guides and drivers were made available. Their process is a little cumbersome. For some reason, the park eliminated reservations for the limited number of Jeep places available for each day. So, we had to get in line three hours in advance. Dad and I were the last two to get a place and many of our fellow line-waiters ended up waiting for nothing. I have to think some enterprising Indian software programmer could do a public service and design reservation software for Sasan Gir.

It’s interesting to read on the Gujarat Tourism’s website on Sasan Gir the candid comments by the Forestry Department on what it feels are its challenges to maintaining the preserve. Farmers from the 97 villages that surround the park often graze their livestock within the protected forest while tourists who visit the park as an “afterthought” exert pressure on the infrastructure and do little of benefit to the park or the lions. That’s an interesting assertion. I’d love to know what sort of support park officials would like from visitors.

The website also brings up a very Indian challenge. “The presence of several temples inside the park also puts strain on the ecosystem, as visitors to them also demand accommodation and infrastructure that often conflicts with the park’s conservation goals, leading to great controversy and political tension between park management and temple management.” Unfortunately, given the mounds of trash so carelessly thrown out onto the streets every day, I sadly see how difficult it must be to have these temple-goers in the park. I’m not saying that all devotees are leaving a trail of trash behind them, but I think it’s true that Indians generally have yet to behave responsibly when it comes to the environment.

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Saurashtra road trip

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Two days after Dad landed here, we set off on a road trip. Our plan was to explore Saurashtra, or land of “100 kingdoms,” which before Indian independence was a region made up of many princely states. From Ahmedabad, we headed south and hugged the Gujarat coastline – except for an excursion inland to Junagadh – all the way to Dwarka, the state’s most western point.

DSC_9371The tour company I hired had put together an itinerary for us for nine days of travel, (see map above,) but it was the sight-seeing in between that was no less note-worthy. Along this route there were none of the New India’s multi-lane, modern toll roads. We traversed the state largely along state highways, the surfaces of which varied from fairly decent asphalt to jaw-jarring gravel.

Along the way, we encountered humans using every kind of transport method available: walking,  bullock and camel cart, bicycle, scooter, chhakada, trucks, in addition to passenger vehicles like our own. This being India, the rules of the road are flexible. You overtake from which ever position is the safest and if you need to, driving in the opposite lane is acceptable as long as you are beeping your horn as warning to oncoming traffic.

DSC_9390Driving India’s roads is not for the faint of heart; it’s all about reflexes, knowing how and when to react even when you don’t have time to think about it beforehand.  I have to get on the record that our driver, Gopal, was great. He knew the roads we were on and the ones we were headed to, even though it had been four years or so since he had last driven tourists to these towns. And he also was an active participant in our tour, offering suggestions of places to see that were not on the itinerary and interesting commentary on the castes and customs of the people who lived in the various places.

Seeing my cameras our first day out, he suggested we stop at a village on the way to Bhavnagar to meet with some of its residents. At that time of the morning they were engaged in their usual routine, fetching water, washing clothes, but were friendly, waving and smiling for my pictures. Only the grandfather, below, seemed to be a bit more suspicious.

Our drive illustrated the bounty of Gujarat’s natural resources. We drove by innumerable acres of fields of winter wheat, onion, jeeru, cotton and other crops. The coastline is also home to natural salt farms, mounds of salt like baby icebergs rising up from the ground. (All this abundance is under threat, however. Overmining of limestone and other industrial activities, not to mention a severe drought, has meant rising levels of salinity and other toxic minerals, which makes the water undrinkable and the soil no good for farming.)

Just outside the city limits of Bhavnagar, we saw a roadside stall around which were piles of red chilies lay drying in the sun. The aroma of mirchi grabbed our noses as soon as we opened the car doors; my eyes almost watered.  A few women were preparing the raw chilies for the powdering process, while their children  played alongside. One of the items on the shopping list my mom sent to India with dad was chili powder, so we bought a kilogram. I liked the idea that we were directly supporting this business and, hey, it was half the price for chili powder you find in the market in Ahmedabad.