Aderrière, naked and tantalising; a lithe torso, also bare: skin show in its primeval form. Hips undulating, she moves in, close, closer…Our gazes lock. “Wanna play?” she seems to ask. Breath suspended, I’m both hot and cold. “Look at her size!” My friend’s whisper — worlds away. “Medem, Medem!” Altaf’s voice. Shh, I mime. “Arre, hand me your camera, ne!” our guide demands. The point-and-shoot gadget is, however, useless for night-time photography. “You can’t see a thing!” His tone is huffy. I’m beyond speech. Or I would assure him it doesn’t matter; no camera can freeze this magical moment, my very first sighting of a lioness in the wild. A miracle, given my abysmal track record with big cats of any denomination. And miracles have a virginal purity about them…that tempts fate.
A bellow, cannonball-like, splinters the silence of the forest at dawn, shooting out from the open-top safari jeep at the rear of our convoy of five: “Oye! Move on, morons! I need a close-up!”
I fantasise about beating the man senseless. The queen of the jungle, all regal dignity, remains unfazed. My Cinderella moment, though, is over. Concerned about the sanctuary’s peace being further disturbed, the lead jeep’s driver is moving ahead. The rest of us follow. Our glimpse of Eden vanishes into the realm of never-ever-again as we branch off to our assigned routes, the frustration of an aborted experience surrendering momentarily to the exhilaration that it happened at all. Sighting a lion in Gujarat’s Gir National Park is not an everyday occurrence.
Our previous safari here had proved it. As had the news from Imtiaz, that afternoon’s guide, that even VIP guest Amitabh Bachchan had managed a sighting only on his third consecutive try. No wonder, I mutter, pondering our fellow tourist’s antics today. But there’s more to it than that, Altaf now reveals. Every dominant male among the sanctuary’s 400 odd Asiatic lions apparently appropriates nearly 540 sq km of territory for the exclusive use of his pride; trespassers are shooed off. With the reserve thus carved up into ‘fiefdoms’, spotting a big cat in Gir would have to be predestined.
Inevitably, safaris survive on hope and chance. One of the reasons, perhaps, why the sanctuary staff go all out, if not to ensure a sighting, at least to present their excursions as entertainment. Hence Imitiaz’s high-octave account of a full-maned lion charging out of the forest during a safari and roaring, it seems, with enough ferocity to frighten a tourist into a ‘bathroom accident’, as he calls it. Meanwhile, Altaf is bent on stage-managing a sighting this morning. A chital’s alarm call — “Pok-pok-pok!” — prompts him to needle the driver, “Hey, Babu, hang on a sec, ne! Can’t you hear the chap calling?” Not a single herbivore or peacock is in sight — a clear indication that a predator is on the prowl. But as the minutes tick by with infuriat-ing lethargy and the sky pales into morning, it becomes increasingly clear that the ‘chap’ is a prankster and not worth the wait.
Gir’s rich biodiversity seems no big deal, as our jeep heads towards the Kamleshwar Dam — our safari’s avowed highlight. Cutting through miles of unprepossessing, dusty terrain, dotted with termite hills and shadowed with shrub, it is clear that Gir lacks both the lushness of Bandipur down south and the aura of Corbett to the north. Nothing can recreate my one shining moment — neither the fragile, week-old fawn, sheltering between its mother’s legs, nor the cocky jackal cub refusing to give us right of way. But it is here that luck has visited us — and fled. I’m inconsolable, until the waters of the dam appear on the horizon — endless, shimmering, soul-soothing…Not so the pairs of watchful, hooded eyes visible above the tranquil surface. Salt-water crocodiles, we’re told, a reminder of the dangers lurking everywhere.
Yet it is in the shadow of peril that an entire workforce operates with efficiency. Manmade, concrete-lined reservoirs, visible from the road and regularly filled by tankers, ensure that the animals never run out of water sources at the height of summer when their natural waterholes — hollows and nullahs within the forest — dry up. Teams of forest rangers patrol the area, track down ailing or injured animals and transport them for treatment to the Gir Interpretation Zone at Devalia , a restricted, fenced-off area within the sanctuary, where the cats are treated and allowed to recuperate. It’s heartening, too, that most of the sanctuary staff, like Imitiaz and Altaf, are nature’s children, Sidi Muslims, whose forefathers were brought here by the Nawab of Junagadh from faraway Africa — the original kingdom of the wild. Yet despite their affinity for the forest, their daily vigilance, poaching continues unabated. The threat to sanctuary staff from man and beast is real.
As if reading my thoughts, Altaf murmurs, “If you let a lion be, Medem, he won’t harm you. But tourists sometimes tease resting lions. What if the animals react?”
Imtiaz’s story, the image of the charging lion, comes instantly to mind. He had told it well and I can hear the roar still, a dynamite-blast of sound exploding in my ears. But it isn’t all in the mind. Babu has brought the jeep to a halt. Altaf has his ear cocked. Menacing guttural grunts tail off into an equally menacing silence…
“That,” stage-whispers Altaf, “is a male, Medem, warning another, ‘This is my territory. Get lost!’”
The monarch of the jungle remains backstage. But as we head for the sanctuary’s exit gates later, I can’t help wondering if this message isn’t really for us.
Fly to Ahmedabad (about Rs 7,000 for a round trip from Delhi); Gir is a 7-hour drive from the airport.
Where to stay
Gateway Hotel Gir Forest (from Rs 6,500; 02877-285551; thegatewayhotels.com). Lion Safari Camp (from Rs 12,000; 02877-296507; campsofindia.com).
When to go
The best time to sight lions is in Mar, Apr and in winter, except mid-Dec–Jan. Closed: Jun 16–Oct 15.
The 6am safari is recommended. Travel agents/ hotels can organise everything for about `3,500 per safari; camera charges extra. Online booking available for 50 per cent of issued permits (girlion.in). Valid ID required.