Gujarat, India: Traveling to Gir National Park in a Skoda Yeti
By Mridula Dwivedi
Even in my wildest dreams I never thought I would get involved with a car launch! In December, while driving to work I heard on the FM station Radio Mirchi about the National Geographic Skoda Yeti Right of Way Expedition contest.
For a lark, I entered and was so pleasantly surprised that I was one of the first three winners. I got to travel with the National Geographic and Skoda Yeti team to Gir National Park.
Gir, in the state of Gujarat, is the sole place where you can see the pure Asiatic Lions. But given my track record of zero lion/tiger sightings in the past four trips in India, I went with almost no hope. But before that there were press conferences to attend.
Press Conferences at Mumbai and Ahmadabad
Skoda launched its mystically named SUV ‘Yeti’ in December 2010 in India, and I was invited to speak at both the Mumbai and Ahmadabad flag offs. I was quite nervous as these were my first press conferences. But as a teacher, I am used to speaking to people and I decided to use that as a comfort factor.
In reality, I think I did fine. The fun part was the launch ride in which I got to be in the same car as the celebrity driver, Luke Kenny. He is an amazingly easy person to talk to! Later the entire team had lunch together. I got to share the dishes with Luke as we were the only two vegetarians at the table. I told Luke that I would let him order so that I could go and tell people about my celebrity lunch!
Later in the evening we visited the Gateway of India and also saw and photographed the Hotel Taj Mahal Palace and Towers at Mumbai. By dinner I was quite ready to crash as we had an early morning flight to Ahmadabad.
The Drive to Gir
At the Ahmadabad Skoda dealership I used their Wifi to connect to the internet and I am grateful to them for it. Soon, the second press conference was also over and we were heading to the Gir National Park in two Skoda Yetis and three more hired vehicles.
We stopped for tea and lunch at Dhabas (small roadside eating joints) on the highway and were making good time. And then it happened, one wrong turn and we went about 50 kms ahead before realizing that the road was not going to Gir.
An owl taking a peek
But then travel is so much fun when you do get lost (at least when you look back on it); we were after all safe, in nice vehicles and still in areas where people would set us on the right course!
The Jungle Safaris
We were staying at the Gir Birding Lodge and, true to its name, it is home to many birds. I did not get the time to click everything but I saw a Coppersmith Barbet, Rose Ringed Parakeets and Bulbuls along with many others that I couldn’t identify. The lodge is also right at the entrance gate of the Gir forest.
Jungle safaris mean 5:00 am wake-up calls, and I wake up like dead fish at that hour, more so because I would go to sleep reluctantly after 11.00 pm. So, on the first day of the safaris I was standing outside at the gate all bleary-eyed, when I noticed a smashing car. I was wondering who was using it? It was only after a while I realized it was our own Skoda Yeti and I was going to use it to get inside the park!
The highlight of these safaris is obviously the lion sightings. In all my outings before, I had never seen anything but pug marks of the big cats. So imagine my surprise when, on the very first ride, I got to see a distant lion, just an outline, but a lion nonetheless.
Some people do not understand my enthusiasm for it, but all I can say is I too do not understand their attitude, thinking that a lion/tiger would be waiting for them at the park gate! I am actually quite happy just to be inside the jungle.
A peacock at Gir National Forest
The sightings just kept on becoming better and better. On the evening safari I had Mr. Ramesh as my guide. His quick question to us was “Sher dekhna hai ya Chidiya?” (You want to see the lion or the birds?) When we said Sher, he promptly replied, “Fir sirf sher hi dikhaunga, chidiya nahin!” (Then I will show you only the lions, no birds).
True to his words he found out a sleeping lion for us, better than an outline but quite out of the reach of my zoom (a puny 70-300mm) to get a decent picture.
I still returned to hot pakoras (deep fried batter with vegetables) and tea a very happy person. Before tea, however, I ran to the roof of the lodge to catch the twilight.
We also met the National Geographic team before dinner. They were briefing us for the next day’s shoot. I am comfortable behind the camera but put me in front of it and I completely freeze! However, the kind lady from the Nat Geo team after the shoot said that was not really true.
The Lion Sightings
The next day started again with what else, but a 5:00 am wake-up call and much needed tea. I had a later start as I was in the second Yeti. There was a lot of action around the Yetis with the Nat Geo team shooting, while our trackers managed to find us two sleeping lions within my camera range!
A sleeping lion
We were given very little time next to the spot as there were other vehicles in the queue, but I managed to click non-stop!
And then our Yeti went its way! About half an hour later, just like that we met two cubs and a lioness on the side tracks. The lioness disappeared before I could gather my wits but the cubs remained in the view for quite some time.
The real photographers (read Nayan Khanolkar and the Nat Geo team) were not even shooting still, the light was so low, but I went on click click for quite some time. That, ladies and gentleman, has been my bestest (I am reading the Lord of the Rings again these days) sighting to this date.
The Nat Geo team would of course have a great footage of the event I guess. Later I also saw the pictures of lions taken by Mr. Sagar (a forest department employee) with his point-and-shoot camera and they are awesome! People who live in that environment obviously get to take the best shots.
The evening safari was a pleasant winding up tour for me. I desired nothing after the sightings I had in the morning. We went around the Kamleshwar Dam area and had sightings of peacocks and Egrets, so lots of Chidiya but no Sher!
The Siddis and their Dance
I am poor at researching places before I visit them so Siddis came as a surprise to me. They are people of African descent, but they speak the local Gujarati language and follow the local traditions. We witnessed a dance performance by them that night and it was quite amazing.
We were asked to join in but then I just can’t dance. So I went in and stood with a Siddi dancer who held my hand for a while. I have to say he was a thorough gentleman; as soon as I stared fidgeting, he let go of my hand. I also saw fire breathing during the dance for the first time in my life.
At a Siddi Dance, picture by Mrinalini
Meeting Nayan Khanolkar
The next day we were heading back to Ahmedabad and I had a 3:30 am wakeup call! But that did not deter me from interacting with Nayan Khanolkar at dinner; he was the official Skoda photographer on this trip.
Even though he is an ace wildlife photographer, he is quite approachable, always with a smile and very generous with his knowledge and time. When I showed him my pictures of the lion sightings from the morning, he called them record keeping shots!
He had a wealth of stories about the jungle and I would quietly join his table when he started telling one. Interacting with him, I realized that you do not wear black in the jungle because animals charge at it!
He also told me you don’t run or get down out of a vehicle if you get charged by a big animal because they chase whatever is running and leave alone things that stand still. This is one theory I am in no hurry to put to test.
The next day I was up at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am and was quite surprised to find Mrinalini (the Skoda team manager) also awake to see us off. I cannot thank her and her team enough but still, thank you Mrinalini, Karl, Sweta, Dr. Adwet, Sangram, Ankit, Soumik, Apeksha, Suhas, Mahadev and everyone else who worked for making this trip memorable.
They really pampered me, but I too, towards the end, started saying that I am not moving up any queues and they should stop spoiling me like that! My flight from Ahmadabad to Delhi went by in a flash just reminiscing about the trip. It has been a complete privilege for me to be associated with the Skoda Yeti National Geographic trip.
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