A few months ago I developed a mild obsession, I don’t know where it came from, it was certainly out of the blue, but it wouldn’t go away, it just kept niggling away at me. Then, one day, I received an invite. Do you believe in synchronicity? The bestower of the invite, without me prompting, promised he could fulfil my dream and leave me satisfied. There was one thing in his favour, at no point did he say, ‘Trust me,’ we all know I never trust a man who says that. It persuaded me further. I made a plan and made it for my upcoming significant birthday, my usual cynicism took a short break, after all I am always happy to be proved wrong and a promise of satisfaction for a mile stone birthday was worth the risk. I was so excited that it didn’t even matter that it meant traveling to Gujarat, a dry state. I was even prepared to do without Old Monk for this experience. Yes, I was going in sober.
Now Gujarat is a state I know very little about, I can probably count the number of enquiries I’ve had for it in the last 20 odd years, on one hand. I’d been previously, once. So what was it that was going to make me not only revisit, but revisit on my birthday and a significant one at that and give up on enjoying an Old Monk?
Well, the mention of a National Park helps, an invite to luxury lodge in a national park usually tends to jolly things along. Throw in a great naturalist or two, a new camera to try out, an open-top Jeep, an early morning start and the scene is set! Yes, am a sucker for wildlife and there was one species in particular I’d come to see. You see, even thought this was Gujarat, famed and only home of the Asiatic Lion, that would be too obvious, we all know I like to ‘Discover India Differently,’ and so I’d come to Gujarat in search of wolves, Indian Grey Wolves. Most people, when they think of wildlife in India would scream tiger, of course they would. We have the largest wild tiger population on earth, a few others would think of elephants, some may think of leopards, those in the know, when it comes to wildlife in Gujarat would say Asiatic Lion, and quite rightly so. But I had developed an obsession with seeing wolves and I’d heard that the Blackbuck National Park was one place you stood a pretty good chance of doing just that.
The Blackbuck National Park at Velavadar is not only one of India’s smallest National parks at a mere 34.8kms, it is one of India’s last few remaining protected savannah’s or grasslands. Yet this, one might say, miniscule park has great claims of conservation. It was initially the private reserve of the Maharaja of Bhavnagar, where he would hunt blackbucks with his famous hunting cheetahs and then became a reserve to protect them. A mission that it has achieved rather successfully given that numbers are up from around 1000 to 10,000. However it has also become known for its conservation of the endangered Lesser Florican and the Indian Grey Wolf whose numbers in the park are reportedly up to twenty four, a couple of which I was hoping to see.
What the Blackbuck savannah lacks in size in comparison to Africa, it certainly makes up for in style with the Blackbuck Lodge. The brainchild of Mickey Desai who had a vision to being a world class lodge to this little-known national park, and he has succeeded, spectacularly. From the moment one arrives one feels as though they have arrived, if you know what I mean? The reception area, smart, welcoming and above all, saying, safari! The tented lounge area replete with comfortable sofas, and tables scattered with coffee table books overlooks a waterbody where nilgai and blackbuck venture in their numbers to drink. The restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor dining, fabulous food and attention to detailing in the signature crockery and signature dishes that the chef conjures up. The rooms are spacious, comfortable and incredibly well designed, each with a verandah overlooking the savannah at the back and where one can idle away time between safaris, brilliantly ignoring a good book as the blackbuck and nilgai delicately pick their way past, and the birds go about their daily chores, swooping and chattering as they do.
One feel that one doesn’t really need to head out on safari, but of course, I did. This was no small deal, this was my 50th, I’d obsessed about seeing wolves on this milestone moment, I’d been promised wolves and wolves I was determined to see.
Another thing that this national park has in its favour is the civilised safari time, no dragging ones sleepy frame out of bed at 0430, it was a 0630 start, chai and snacks served in the restaurant, an immaculate, custom made safari vehicle waiting at the door and enthused guides ready to lead the way.
The Blackbuck National Park is unlike any other park I’ve been to in India or will ever go to in India, small, savannah grasslands and yet the wildlife was extraordinary. We know that of late I’ve had the luck of the devil with me on safaris. Was I disappointed this time? No way. We watched a pair of sub adult hyenas playing with a bone, saw countless Blackbuck spread across the beautiful landscape, had a 10 minute Jungle Cat sighting and a Desert Fox, a little too far away to capture but just basking in the sun and then, it happened.
A lone wolf appeared in the distance. It took its time, sniffing its way around as it gradually made its way towards us, sat down for a few obliging moments so that we could take some photos and then came closer still, passing behind the jeep, past a herd of wary Blackbuck, skirted us, moved around to the front of our jeep and turned looked at us as if to say, ‘Come on then,’ as it trotted on ahead. This wasn’t the glimpse I thought I might have, it was an incredible 25 minute sighting and it was magical. It was what I had come for, it was what I had been promised and it is a birthday I will never forget.
Click here for more on Blackbuck Lodge.
Tel: +91 9099912375 & 9978979728
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Travel arrangements (and header image) courtesy of Soar Excursions