A bunch of photography enthusiasts had a four-letter word on their mind and a hunger to learn. Could Skippers Giri Cavale and Phillip Ross make the Tour a roaring success?
As many as six black-shouldered kites punctuated the pleasurable journey interrupted only by a maiden tea-break over three hours on well-paved roads from Rajkot to the sole remaining haunt of a very special creature. The group had reached the Gir National Park, the sole wild abode of the Asiatic Lion.
The camp, situated amidst a mango grove just outside the park with a stream running at its front, is a great place for birds as well as mammals, with the four-horned antelope – chowsingha – and even leopards, often haunting its vicinity. Clearly, it’s a ‘luxury tented camp’ with more than one luxury.
The rest of the group soon arrived at this picturesque location from Ahmedabad, and what little ice remained was broken during an informal introduction over dinner.
After an interactive session with the Skippers, which demystified some basic technical mumbo-jumbo and touched upon the ideal camera settings for the next morning’s photography, the gravity of the situation sunk in in right earnest – the opportunity to see and photograph a most regal cat lay just a few hours away, as the group put head to bed with tawny-coloured dreams replaying on their shut eyes.
Night broke, dawn cracked and on a nippy morning, with hearts throbbing to the excitement of stepping into cat country on the first ride of a trip, an orchestra of alarm calls welcomed the visitors into a forest of dry vegetation without undue ado.
Even as Phillip envisaged a leopard behind the broadcasts of dread, the pugmarks on the ground ahead confirmed his surmise. The group strode on only to hit pay-dirt barely fifteen minutes into the ride.
Strolling regally on the road straight towards them were two big male lions.
They walked with pizzazz and panache, and with great regal splendour, allowing the group to make some beautiful images of Gir’s flagship species marvellously early on the Tour.
A photographic excursion into the Land of the Lion couldn’t have begun on a more auspicious note.
For the remainder of the ride, the group’s appetite for the sight of a cat thus having been whetted meant some birding could be enjoyed.
An ever-attractive changeable hawk eagle obliged for photographs, while a black redstart, some grey francolin, more than some peafowl, a smattering of small minivets, black ibis and common iora rounded off a productive excursion.
Post-lunch, an enlightening session by the young maestro, Phillip, offered participants the perfect launchpad to capitalize on the opportunities still ahead on the Tour.
Sure enough, opportunities were aplenty the same day.
An hour into the afternoon drive, the group encountered a male lion drinking by the road. Allowing photographs at every conceivable focal length, he drank for an incredible 20 minutes to satiate his king-sized thirst. Then, he walked straight towards Giri’s vehicle and then parallel to the road.
While several other vehicles lingered, drawing on his experience and intimate knowledge of Gir, Giri knew this area was home to two more prides, so he instructed the driver to move on. As they drove, a piercing alarm call stopped them in their tracks. The driver killed the engine and they waited.
A lion walked straight towards them and sat down, offering, for the next twenty minutes, an exclusive shoot as reward for Giri’s enterprise.
Then it got better. A young cub appeared, climbed on a nearby bund, and ended up on the road. Lying on its back, it rolled in complete comfort. It was soon joined by a few more and they all started walking on the road like a cavalry on a beat. Finally, they veered off into the bush, while one cub continued to sit by the roadside.
On the return, a stray Jackal was encountered on the road.
Meanwhile Phillip took his bunch to Kamaleshwar Dam hoping to bag some lion time but got mugger crocodiles and a beautiful sunset instead – not bad for a relaxing evening!
As the group set out for a royal ride on the third day of the expedition, little did they know that it was to be claimed by the protagonist’s lesser cousin.
As Giri was staring keenly at a quintessentially camouflaged nightjar, he happened to spot another master of camouflage resting nearby. Just then, so did the langurs, who commenced issuing their cough of alarm, triggering the leopard to march up the hill and disappear out of sight.
Phillip, meanwhile, went back to his favourite site, Kamaleshwar Dam, and saw nothing but the dam.
In the evening, Aunt Serendipity traded hands. While Giri contented himself and his company with such birds as redstart, chestnut-shouldered petronia and yellow-throated sparrow, Phillip’s group spotted the spotted.
After having started with some great birding, his ever-acute hearing caught plenty of alarm calls but a sight of the predator behind the chorus proved elusive. But, fifteen minutes before the park exit time, they hit upon not one but two leopards basking on a rock just off the road at a handsome height, yielding some handsome photographs.
In the Land of the Lion, it was the day of the leopard.
Cat country is famed for providing spectacular climaxes and in true tradition, Gir had stored the best for the penultimate day, with all the three Toehold vehicles enjoying a fabulous encounter.
A lioness and her cubs walked towards the vehicles and joined the rest of the pride of a total strength of 18 to feed on a kill. Asiatic Lions are known to live in much smaller prides unlike their African counterparts, so this was an unusual and special sighting. Over the next one hour, they saw the male of the pride angrily chasing off every other lion that showed the audacity to approach him.
Once, a growl by him prompted a few lions to take flight and run towards our vehicles, where Tour participants lapped up the exciting experience in their quaking seats. Soon, they were surrounded by lions from every direction in what they were to later describe as an “utterly electrifying” experience.
Finally, the male walked right up to the vehicle and sat down in front of them for the rest of the safari, affording royal views of his desirable form. While returning to the camp, to end what was a sensational safari, a jackal was encountered feeding on a kill.
In the afternoon, Phillip started with a young male sitting very close. After the group had spent fifteen minutes making portraits, more vehicles gathered, so they moved on to the area where the pride of 18 had been seen in the morning, and found them in the same locality, lazing in the hot afternoon, preening, and occasionally gambolling.
After photographing them to their heart’s content, the group got back for some more birding and later waited at a waterhole hoping for a leopard to take a drink.
Meanwhile Giri’s vehicle dealt with the little matter of two males walking on the road before exiting the Park.
That night, a troupe of Siddis performed a traditional tribal dance to round up the entertainment for the participants beyond safari hours. There is nothing better than soaking in a bit of local culture along with the obvious wildlife attractions of a Tour, so this part of the programme was appreciated by all.
Then came the seventh safari, and as soon as our vehicles entered the park, which were the first ones to do so, a sole lion cub was seen close to the right side of the vehicle track, walking nonchalantly. Then the mother emerged and the duo came onto the road. The cub thought it a good time to press itself into play mode, biting momma’s leg and causing her to publicly grimace in pain.
Then, the most magical thing happened. More cubs arrived, and the mother lay down and let them suckle from her. Being able to watch this was articulated by many participants as the greatest privilege on the Tour.
Then, as dusk approached, the lions rose and became mobile. A lioness unsuccessfully tried to hunt a sambhar.
The group turned around and left the park for the last time on the Tour, fully conscious that as they drive back to Rajkot to board their flights, a four-letter word constantly playing on their lips all the way would unofficially pronounce the Tour a roaring success.