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Sunday, 01 January 2017

Gir Lions, India

Written by Richard Taylor
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By age ten, my paleontology phase mothballed by fears that all the Jurassic skeletons would be exhumed with no bones left for the adult me, zoology became the new discipline and lions were my thing.  As I scoured the nature and science books studying lifespan and habitat and how the great felines did better in zoos – an acceptable line to take back then – it was a given that King Lion lorded over an African realm.  But there was always that curious addendum:

There are a few hundred surviving Asian lions, in the Gir Forest of India. 

This seemed bizarre to me.  I came to regard these freak lions as a lesser, more milquetoast creature, like those stunted Indian elephants whose shell-like ears were no match for the great fans of their African cousins.  There was also that strange habitat.  What self-respecting lion, apart from Bert Lahr, lived in a forest?  Cold countries had forests, hot countries had jungles, and lions lived on grassy plains in any case.  If there were a few hundred left, well that was their problem.  They obviously couldn’t cut it.  It was only years later that I discovered their noble pedigree – celebrated in classical and biblical texts when the Asian lion roamed as far as the Middle East.

 

All this led me to Junagadh in India’s Gujarat State.  This was a city of Jain Temples, ancient Buddhist caves and the venerable Uperkot Fort, dating back twenty-four centuries.  It was a town of history and color – in other words, a place with a lot going for it.  But I was dispensing with that.

 

I was here for cats.

 

The Before Lodging and After Lodging cycles are particularly acute in India and I felt them keenly this day as our bus rolled alongside the old city walls and dropped me inside Sardar Patel Darvaja – the Big Tower Gate, where I wrestled my baggage through a miasma of honking, screaming, flaming heat, exhaust fumes, cows and human traffic, all the while dodging the other traffic – the scooters and three-wheel cabs through broken streets.  Narrow streets.  Streets that went nowhere.

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So this was Junagadh.  ‘Old Fort’ it meant.  Alright then.  I grumbled and growled and snapped along, one old fort to another.  No time to pause.  No time for a cleansing ten count – I’d be knocked flat before I reached five.

 

An hour later I found Sardar Para Road.  Here it was quiet and a small group of tent dwellers had laid out trinkets for sale on blankets.  The little children pointed at me and laughed excitedly and waved hello.  I waved back, exited the north gate of Manjavadi and followed Route 31, the way we’d come, flattening myself against the city walls as the drivers whizzed by.  The road widened and beyond the next curve was a modern hotel, bright, shiny and metallic blue.

 

I was settled in, riding the tiny hotel elevators that played a sub-continental twist of the X-Files theme and returned downtown to change money, luxuriating in the After Lodging bubble.  Where two hours before I had to heave and struggle against the city, I could now coolly assess it.  As usual, I found the people welcoming, effusively so.


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A vendor hailed me by his sugar cane press.  These were bright red and dotted the neighborhoods.  He asked “What country sir?” as they all did and pressed the cane through the wheel, poured the liquid into a cup and added a touch of ginger.  It was delicious. Lemony for some reason.

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The currency office at the bank had a charming Dickensian mustiness, with its wooden desks and counters.  As my dollars were transmuted to rupees, the staff offered me a cup of ice cream with nuts.

 

The bank joined a ring of buildings near the town summit – the ‘Old Fort’ sloped downward to its city gates.  I hailed a motor rickshaw driver whose aged and feeble frame hid nerves of steel.  He cut the motor of his three-wheeler and we careened down a narrow lane of kiosks and donkey wagons and rat-faced dogs.  I gripped the sides of the cab.  It was a hairy business.  But we made it.

 

That evening I tried the hotel’s excellent tomato-corn soup and the next morning made arrangements at the hotel desk for a safari to Sasan Gir, the national park where the deer and the antelope and the lions played.  This followed a hotel breakfast buffet spread over two tables, one offering local fare, the other Western.  The Indian dishes included pilau, bowls of spicy vegetables and stacks of naan.  I’d grown very partial to naan – Indian flat breads are one of civilization’s great triumphs.  The Western table featured corn flakes with hot milk (a local adaptation), juice, plain bread and jam.  The waiter would spread the jam of course.  At my last hotel they habitually buttered my toast, which took some getting used to.  This morning I tried the jam on naan, a fusion that amused the young breakfast staff.

 

Keen to explore Junagadh’s old quarter, I asked directions from a tea klatch of local men.  They greeted me boisterously and pointed down Sardar Para Road, the way I’d come yesterday, braced with magnificent buildings that I’d missed in my angry fog, among them the vintage mosques of Mohabbat Maqbara, built over the tomb of Nawab Mohabbat Khan II, with fabulous curly-cue minarets and the beautiful Jammi Masjid, with its glass and French windows.

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As for the city fauna, besides the ubiquitous cows, I’ve seen goats, the occasional donkey and one camel – one of those double humped Bactrian monsters that pulled wagons and things, so much more intimidating than the demure single humped Arabian dromedaries.

 

Point for India then.

 

Packs of those rat-faced dogs were nosing about the street corners.

 

Of course, I was here for the cats.


My cabbie picked me up at six the next morning and we proceeded to the safari camp.  It was a handsome layout but the tour didn’t start for another two hours and was prohibitively expensive with extra fees for camera, jeep and guide.  I glowered and grumbled and walked in circles.

 

“Let’s go,” I said to the cabbie, who obviously couldn’t believe his ears.  But I had lapsed into Stubborn Stupid Mode and now, heading back to Junagadh, there was the deepening shame that I’d come here for nothing.  We drove off in silence.

 

“There is a second place,” said the cabbie.

 

I looked at him.

 

“Okay.” I said.

 

He turned left down a bumpier side road.  The ‘second place’ was not so grand but clean and reasonable priced, with nothing extra for camera, jeep and guide. No jeep or guide at all actually.  Visitors were filing through the gate and filling up the bus.  A bus safari.  No jeep.  Sniff.  Snort.  How inauthentic.  The bus rolled off and stopped at a series of cages, where leopards and other critters were prowling their pens.

 

“A bus safari to see a zoo,” I thought.  Sniff.  Snort.

 

But then we were out in open country and the bus pulled up for a spotted deer.  Cameras flashed.  We carried on.  I felt deflated.

 

A whoop of excitement rippled through the bus – two male lions were roaming hither and yon and the camp jeeps circled and flushed them in our direction.  Nothing milquetoast about these creatures.  They looked formidable beasts, with a formidable history. Foes for Samson.  Foes for Hercules.  Reduced to entertaining the gawkers.  Our cameras snapped in chorus.   The bus moved off.  There was another antelope or three.  Were they on the menu?  I’d been told the Asian lion was strictly predatory, unlike those shiftless African lions that would dine on carrion when they found it.

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In an hour, we’d returned to base.  The tour was done.  Another bus was prepping to leave.  A monkey in a tree watched me get into the cab.  We drove off.

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Back in Junagadh I shook my driver’s hand and tipped him two hundred rupees for saving the day.

 

That evening, after a long walk to a dustier part of town, where the crowds were thin, I crossed Jayshree Road to the banks of Narsin Mehta, Junagadh’s lovely little lake.  I stared at the water.  A stork flew by and landed on a bit of log that lanced the surface.

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Now there was closure.  I’d seen the Gir lions.  What other childhood mysteries remained on the bucket list?  There was that voracious, slobbery devil creature for one; that nasty critter that spun like a dervish, somewhere in Tasmania.

 

 

(c)Richard Taylor

 

Last modified on Friday, 30 December 2016