We had heard there was a murder and were invited to investigate. Anyone who has watched any crime drama wants to get involved right? In this instance a murder could mean a double murder because for there to be a murder chances are that there had been a death that could have been a murder in its own right. Confused? It will all become clear. Following the tip off, Jeetendra, the lead detective, consulted with me and we decided to give chase, as fast as the conditions would allow for. But wait, it couldn’t be all plain sailing, a decoy had been sent to distract us and it did its job brilliantly, we screeched to a halt. It was the first one he had seen in over two years. It was in fact a leopard – in lion territory.
Think of Lions and one automatically conjures up pictures of Africa where they roam the great savannas. But I had come to see the lions of India, the Asiatic Lion which once roamed from Turkey, across the Middle East and throughout Asia and northern India but have now dwindled down to this one small pocket in a national park (no bigger than London) in Gujarat in the west of India. In spite of that last statement, the situation is not as woeful as it sounds and the remaining population is actually the result of a successful conservation project, all the more reason for me to venture out to seek them out. In 1913 it was estimated that there were only 20 Asiatic Lions left and it was the Nawab of Junagarh who was protecting them from the local hunters, within his own private hunting reserve. As we know, the wheels in India can often move slowly but by 1965 Sasan Gir was declared a wildlife sanctuary in order offer them official protection and, according to a census in 2015, numbers had risen to 523.
As can often happen given the day job, I was on a more rushed visit through Gujarat than I’d have liked. Just two nights in each destination, where as, when it comes to wildlife destinations in particular, the minimum I would suggest is three. This meant that safaris were limited. I had to be lucky. I was off to a good start, a private jeep (such a spoilt madam that I am) and Jeetendra as my brilliant wildlife guide. He was a former electrician turned naturalist and he had three of the key qualities I look for in any guide; passionate, knowledgeable and personable. He also wasn’t just focussed on the lion. It happens time and time again, there are always key predators that people on safari in India want to spot, usually the tiger and in the case of Gir, the lion and they are rarely interested in anything else, but his eyes lit up as soon as I started spotting birds, a Crested Serpent Eagle here, an Indian Eagle Owl there, a glimpse of a mongoose, we were having fun. But then the tip off came, he looked at me, we knew I only had two safaris, we made the call, the predator it had to be.
We set of at speed, it was 8kms away on rough terrain and hours allowed in the park are limited but soon we were held up by a traffic jam. Not the type of traffic jam we would expect, or the size of which can happen in other parks, but two jeeps had stopped on the road in front of us. We slowed, adhering to the hand signals of the other naturalists and crept forward. There, not 10 feet away, sitting by the wall was a magnificent leopard. I think it’s safe to say that Jeetendra was more excited than I was, it was only his second sighting in three years. We sat and watched in awe. Sadly, like an idiot, I hadn’t figured out the settings on my new camera – what an amateur – and only have one decent photo to show for it, but as I bleat on about to others, it’s the memory that counts, not the Instagram ego. So, there we were, three jeeps and one leopard, and it didn’t make any attempts to move away. It had spied its quarry, a tasty breakfast of what appeared to be cattle amidst the trees on the far side of the wall. Several minutes later, stealth like, it crept up onto the wall for a better view, disregarding us and stayed there for several minutes more.
Another call had to be made. We’d had one incredible sighting but time was against us, we opted not to wait for the kill, which would be a less than perfect view and carried on with our mission to find the lion. We both looked at our watches and then back at each other, nodded in silent agreement and moved on.
We arrived at a small clearing surrounded by trees on the far side of which was playing host to a double murder. The crows had been attracted by the opportunity to scavenge on a freshly killed buffalo and were being terribly undignified by the fact that they were being forced to wait. First dibs was being enjoyed with much tearing and crunching by a large male lion, enjoying the profits of his morning’s work. There was one other Jeep on the scene which soon moved away. By now I’d figured out my camera but the lens was insufficient for any Instagram shot. We manoeuvred into the best position and sat back and watched, Jitendra filling me in on eating habits, other scavengers and nuggets of wisdom, as we did so. Other jeeps came and went and we moved out of their way accordingly and then back again until time dictated that we were forced to leave to ensure that we would make it out of the park in time. But what an incredible morning.
I knew that it would be futile to head out on another safari, nothing would beat the sightings we had already had. Having been on the road for four weeks already my body was beginning to feel the effects. I decided that I would benefit more from a more relaxing time and enjoying some of the other experiences the hotel had to offer. You see, Woods at Sasan is more than a wildlife lodge, so much more. Yes, the nature and the wildlife is key, but they also have a strong focus is on lifestyle and well-being, offering a host of other activities which allow you to choose your own path to relaxation and rejuvenation. I chose an afternoon massage, unusual for me, but I’d been consulting in Nepal pre India which had meant a lot of time on bad roads, followed by a wildlife trip through MP and into Gujarat, more bouncing about in Jeeps. I’ve reached a certain age and my back was verging on never forgiving me, ever again.
In the evening, having complained that I was simply stuffed with hotel food (another hazard of my profession) and dreading another marathon meal, I was treated to a Sattvik* dinner, my first in 22 years in India. I sat in the transformed, candle lit, open-sided yoga shala, a flute player not too far away, as each course was brought and explained. Several small courses, enough to be appreciated, not enough to leave one feeling unpleasantly full. It was tasty, light and perfect for what my body needed.
The following morning, I chose a nature walk, to learn more about the indigenous trees (Woods is located in a mango plantation), plants and micro fauna and the organic farm before being treated to a light and healthy breakfast in a private dining area in the orchard.
My time was running out and I had to move on to pastures new, but not before visiting the local artisans who make the nail and thread art for which the area is also known. Their art work is a key aspect in the design of the property and of course, I wanted to know more.
Then it was time to move on, The Little Rann was calling. But that’s another story for another day.
* A sattvic diet is a regimen that places emphasis on seasonal foods, fruits if one has no sugar problems, dairy products if the cow is fed and milked in the right conditions, nuts, seeds, oils, ripe vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and non-meat based proteins.
Sasan Talala Road, Gir Forest Sasan, Gujarat, India 362135
T: +91 2877 – 281000
My journey was arranged courtesy of Soar Excursions.