Monday, January 11, 2010
Running wild 2010
While we wait at Bandra terminus, we are already happy and thankful for confirmed tickets to Rajkot.
Reached Rajkot early morning and walked hungry and dirty, towards the Bus stop. We book our tickets to Junagarh in a local bus and stuff ourselves silly with fried green chillies, Dhoklas and deep-friend Pakodas.
Early morning bus ride from Rajkot to Junagarh. Leaving the comfort of our air conditioned train, we are now being shaken and stirred as we try hard to get used to the absence of leg-room in the bus. Apart from the diverse landscape outside, we are distracted by the glares of diverse people inside the bus. A family of three, is particularly fascinating. The mother and son look like Africans and the father, clearly a Gujrati. They too seem to find us amusing and unusual and reciprocate by staring back.
After a while, the bus attendant alerts us about our stop. We get off with our bags at an IndianOil petrol pump from where we walk about a kilometer towards the Maneland jungle lodge.
As we enter inside, the rooms with stone walls and the spacious-unkempt surroundings seem welcoming. I feel like a traveler lost in a desert, happy to find an oasis. I was just plain thirsty and needed to go to a clean restroom.
Pleased with our room, we throw our bags and take turns to shower.
For lunch, there’s Gujju food. And for that moment in the heat of dry Gujrat, our excitement about gulping cold Chaas was at par with spotting Lions. We wash down our oily food and call for a Chagda (what used to be a motor-bike but now runs as the local rick) to head out for the safari permit.
Dressed in sun glasses, Colourful jackets and sneakers the locals have sharp eyes to spot us as clueless outsiders and we are easily duped into paying 100 rs for a 2 KM ride. We wait in line for our permit. First, patiently. Then annoyed by the rowdy men cutting in the line. Finally, after a mini-brawl with the man-behind-the-counter we get a safari permit for a route where it is just as impossible to spot Lions as it is to see a Penguin do the tango.
We were now inside the dry, deep and under-explored Gir forest. Only 20% into the trail, I was smitten. The initial oo’s and aa’s started to diminish as we kept seeing many Deers on our way. Now, there’s one thing I learnt about them. They’re friendly and are probably breeding like bunnies inside the forest because they are plenty in number. And that they hang out with Pigeons.
The landscape is dry and when the sun starts to dip, you will thank god for the things he has made. The bare trees, stand there quietly, their branches stretching skyward as though reaching out to touch the sky. I stood there fascinated and overwhelmed as I pictured the trees as people raising their hands towards the mighty power in heaven, praising him.
The same night at the lodge there was something unusual planned for the guests- a tribal dance performed by Gujrati speaking Negros settled there for years (rechristened by us as Nejjus). We were subjected to a bunch of silly half clad men with painted faces, dancing too close for comfort. It was getting monotonous and even their somersaults to pick up thrown 10 rupee notes weren’t amusing us. And then, this one very lanky guy came right near us and swiftly picked up a very horrified/blush faced/ shocked Nasar only to parade him around as Shikha and me laughed as though Mr. Chaplin gave us a private performance. Soon after, it was time to hide inside the cocoon. So off we went and retired as a preparation for the early (very early) morning.
Day 3- 3rd Jan
At 5 AM what our incessant cell-phone alarm couldn’t do, Shikha managed with professional ease. We sprung out of bed with a deadly breeze. It was time to wrap oneself in jackets, mufflers, quilts. And head out to greet our friends in the wild.
Our very efficient driver (who was already our friend by now) had taken a ‘good’ route and something said that it is the right day to be optimistic.
We left a dusty trail behind as we forayed into the chilled, quaint and deserted jungle. Ahead we saw a Neel Gai, Sambar and Leopard. A Leopard! Now let me take time to tell you why it’s a really big deal. Since Leopards are faster than Schumacer on a good day in his Ferrari, they are rare to spot. And no, they are just too prude to loosen up and pose while you go camera happy. So to see one clearly, is a good enough reason to open a bubbly (except, Gujrat is a dry state. I will enunciate on that later).
So, by now we were already confirmed as lucky travelers. And then to reinforce it, God heard my secret prayer and we saw a Lion, right after a kill. Nevermind that it was from a million miles away. Nevermind that we personally couldn’t click a picture of its bulging tummy (inside which was a very sorry Buffalo). We could hear its roar. And honestly, if I try and think about it, I can still hear it inside my head.
Well, unlike that Lion that was lying there lazy, enjoying life after a big meal, we weren’t so satisfied. We wanted an upper closer experience.
So, as soon as this safari was done with and we were back to our lodge, over some really deep fried vegetables and sweet curries, we contemplated another safari right after. The thought of a quick round three was not equally exciting to all three. So Nasar stayed back to nurse his back and read while Shikha and me hopped like eager Beavers towards the jungle. As we made our way into a new unexplored trail, I had just about to start feeling like Mr Jim Corbett himself. What’s that- A green footed yellow Pigeon. And look- a heard of wild bores. Woah, 2 Leopards together.
Our open Jeep vroomed ahead as the leaning tree branches seemed to part and make way only to engulf us into the belly of the forest. The guides in Gir (luckily) have spent time together networking over chai and that means that if one of them spots a rare sight, chances are, he’ll be happy to share the link with his friend. So it didn’t hurt when our guide was over friendly. We were informed that ahead there is a content Lion, undeterred and unmovable. And there it was. Hair streaked black, lazing beside a river unaware of the effect it had over its many spectators, closely observing every breathing movement made by it, through their guarded Binoculars. Excitedly we scurried inside the little space our parked jeep allowed us to find the best angle to scrutinize the Lion. Our breathing was silent, words were whispered and eyes were unblinking as though we'd spot an ET. At such moments a digital camera can be rendered dysfunctional. For it does not have the capability to capture the silence in the air, sense the tension of the animals and gauge the awe of the tourists around the beast.
We gathered ourselves and picked up or jaws and drove ahead. At this point our Guide felt that he’s done his duty to show us the marvelous sight and that now we could happily just stroll around and leave from there. But by now we had picked up a trait from the blood thirsty animals. Once you taste blood, you’ve got to have it. So we pierced our amateur eyes inside the camouflaged foliage of the jungle to see if we could find what we were looking for.
What we saw was a local Maldhari man attending to his heard of Buffaloes. And while he was talking to our guide who was trying to squeeze out information regarding his fresh discoveries, we noticed that the cattle started to go in a different direction.
This was not because they wanted to take a de tour and stop over to say hello to the Deers grazing nearby, but because they had sensed danger. A classic case of animal instinct right in front of our eyes!
As our driver sped the car wildly through the forest, a by-stander would’ve surely thought we’re escaping from untamed forest fire. We clung on to our seats and showed our co-operation towards rushing at the spot where the so called Lions were. And then everything faded into oblivion as we fixed our eyes and nailed them on to the two Lionesses’ with 5 Lions cubs (of which I could only see 3). The cubs (which weren’t tiny at all) were playing just like little kids would. Their mothers sat there yawning and turning to look at us as though we have interrupted their conversation. It was awesome. I was sure that God put them there so we’ll go back knowing the wonders he’s created to inhabit the beautiful forest.
That moment made me picture young people sitting around in some park, in a residential colony in the crowded city of Bombay in search of freedom and space, whiling away their hours (just as we would if we were there), looking at nothing substantial in particular. It made me like these efforts we had taken to start this year. It made me a tad bit wise to value my time while on a trip.
The topsy-turvy ride, the chill, the layer of dust settled on our bodies, the empty stomach- everything became meaningful and bearable.
And with that knowledge, we ended our safari. Quietly we headed out saying bye to the beasts inside, the fossilized leaves strewn all over, the golden Rubber trees and the bare dark one with branches raised high.
What followed was a verbal essay of the best safari so far. I could almost sense Nasar go ‘Tch’ inside his head so for his sake, we changed the topic.
The night before, we had slept with a half-certain plan to leave for Diu and then head to Rajkot. The cheap water sports were our main attraction there. The next day we drove to Diu and as soon as we got there, did a quick round of the motor boat. I went on the water ski, twice and the water scooter. These sports were cheap but not as thrilling as imagined they’d be. After all, from the limit to where we’d go to the speed at which we’d go, everything was controlled by the instructor. He refused to hear my request for a longer ride. I was disappointed but then again; it made me more interested in another trip with the same agenda.
It was now time for lunch and we welcomed Koliwada prawns (after three days of vegetarian Gujrati meals), chicken curry and rice. And beer. Right after we finished chomping, it was time to head toward Rajkot. Being opportunistic, I took a beer can to go. Now, this was the biggest blunder of all times. You don’t carry back even a teeny weeny can of beer especially in a dry state that has undercover bootleggers all around. Of course I should’ve taken a tip or two from the swaggering local men I encountered in the state of Gujrat. They were doing things the right way. My inexperience caused me to shell out a WHOLE 1000 rs. at the check-post. I secretly pledged to not return to Gujrat (at least not for a long time).
Delayed by the asinine, corrupt government official at the check-post, we were now racing with time to make it on time for our 5:40PM train. And (phew!) we did.
With happy smiles we ate the last of Theplas for dinner and slept with a promise to travel more in 2010.