It was still dark outside at 6 am and extremely chilly in the open jeep when we drove into the depths of the Gir Forest National Park, famous for its Asiatic lion, which we hoped to catch a glimpse of. Under the misty, low light of the early morning, pre-dawn moments, the forest appeared mysterious and quiet.
We had been told not to get our hopes up because not everyone is lucky enough to spot the king of the jungle. Despite that, the human mind works in its own ways because as dawn broke onto the surface of the flora and bathed it in its first light of the day, the shades of brown that stained this forest began to play tricks with our mind. Every shadow and every tree seemed to hold a lion’s head behind it. It felt like a grand adventure to me, with or without the actual spotting of the lion.
Apparently, getting a permit to enter the forest is a real headache. Some of the larger resorts have a system of pre-booking but we had made our plans 24 hours before leaving and the pre-booking is done fifteen days in advance.
The only other option?
For a 7am safari, the queues start to form at 2 am. Locals have made a business out of this by inserting the classic middleman. He will stand in the line from 2 to 4 am, which is when you have to turn up and he forfeits his position to you. There is no bullying and no monopoly here because they have devised a system of who goes in the line on which day of the week and they continue thus in a weekly rotation basis.
But you can’t get the permit if you don’t pay up to the middlemen.
The two other safaris of the day are at 9am and 3pm. The 9am safari would probably not give you a glimpse of the lion because when its hot, the lion sleeps. But in the evening the lioness goes out to hunt.
The spotted deer
There were plenty of those, grazing in seeming nonchalance, but when your vehicle would pass by they would raise their heads and become alert immediately. A deer can never let its guard down. Pre-knowledge is its greatest weapon because the element of surprise on part of its predator can make all the difference between life and death. And so the deer is always on its guard, and it can smell death and warn its friends. Most deers we saw were grazing in groups, moving in groups, a sort of rearguard standing on the edges to blow the trumpet in case of danger. A shrill, high-pitched sound is the deer warning its herd of the presence of a nearby leopard or lion.
The lion and his lioness
Suddenly the man driving our vehicle stopped and pointed at lion’s footprints on the tracks.
‘He’s close by’, he said ominously and I felt goosebumps on my arm. As we went forward still, we stopped to look at a Sambar and click photos.
The guide said,’ Shh… can you hear it?’
We strained our ears and heard it. A lion’s roar.
The driver began to back the jeep until we reached a watering hole we had passed a minute ago. The jeep coming behind us had caught up in the meantime and it stopped too. Soon, there were five jeeps waiting and watching on the track.
And then, after fifteen to twenty minutes of anticipation, of camera being switched on and off, of children getting restless and of all this, interspersed with the occasional roaring and panting of a lion nearby, while pehens shouted warning signals, the lion emerged along this dirt track on one side.
He was followed by a man, a tracker we were told, he wasn’t herding the lion out, we were told; this wasn’t staged and the driver of our vehicle seemingly feigned injury at the mere suggestion that it could be.
So our lion walked out amidst us and then we spotted his lioness further away within the trees, she was shy, it seemed and wouldn’t come out, choosing instead, to drink at the watering hole further in. The lion walked out proudly, its belly swinging majestically underneath. It crossed the path where all the jeeps were parked, it even posed for the camera and then took a swig from its water source. Then it chose a long-winding path back to his lioness, having circled around us. The lion and lioness stayed near the trees a little ways away from us and seemed to engage in a little playful banter before retreating.
What I hadn’t realised in the very beginning when it was still dark and the jungle had seemed still and thrilling, was how the years of constantly streaming tourist safaris had domesticated and tamed the lions who lived around here. This lion we saw wasn’t scared of humans and he wasn’t threatened by them. In fact, he seemed to feel like a celebrity walking down the red carpet or a model on the ramp, proud in the knowledge that all eyes and cameras were on it.
The real thrill of our trip came later, when we cut through a forest road on our way to Diu that same day. We didn’t expect to see a wild lion sitting in the trees, right on the side of the road. A police car stopped next to us and some locals began to provoke the lion. It got agitated. This one wasn’t human-friendly because it lived beyond the safari-frequented zones. It came out in a mock-attack, baring its trees and growling before getting bored of the scene and retreating. We left soon afterwards but did get some shots of this untamed beast before leaving.
Nevertheless it was thrilling to imagine what it would have been like if he had decided to test the strength of our car’s glass.
PS: ALL photos here were taken from our camera.