Saturday, April 13, 2013

Birds of Gir - Drive from Hyderabad to Gir National Park

BIRDS OF GIR - ROAD TRIP TO GIR NATIONAL PARK 















































































































It took me quite some time to figure out what exactly should I name the title of this trip. I will come back to the reason why I named it as I did. By far, the most memorable trip I had, this was really special in more than one ways.  Let me first summarize a few key points worth mentioning. 

Total kms driven: 3302 km from door to door 

Route taken: Hyderabad – Solapur – Pune – Mumbai – Surat – Vadodara – Ahmedabad – Rajkot – Junagarh – Sasan Gir (And the same route back) 
Route Map Click Here 
Car: Ford Fiesta Petrol (2006) 
Passengers: 2 (Me and my wife Supriya) 
Conditions: Extremely hot weather with car AC on for the entire length of the trip 
Average Mileage: 13+ km/lit 
Total Fuel Consumed: 252 litres 
Total Cost of Fuel: Approx Rs. 17500 (The price of petrol is much less in Maharashtra and Gujarat as compared to Hyderabad – In Hyd it is close to 75, in Mah and Guj it was close to 71 or 72) 
Total Toll: Rs. 2010 (Both ways) 
Driving Objective: Safe and Secure (no genuine rush with proper pit-stops for fueling, breakfast and lunch) 
Maximum Driving Speed: 170 km/hr (occasionally on expressways when the roads were too inviting) 


Before the Trip – THE PREPARATION 

It was in the month of January 2013 that we decided to go to Gir National Park. And after a lot of discussion between me and Supriya, we finally decided to drive all the way. A lot of things had to be pondered before even actually starting the preparation. The car was now 7 years old, will it be able to sustain the rigors of such a long journey? Am I young enough to pull out the longest drive of my life? All these and many more questions were to be thought-off before making the plunge. Went through my long drive checklist one-by-one and arranged everything for the trip. 
·                     Got our Hotel booking confirmed in The Taj Gateway Hotel, Gir through Expedia (Got good discounts as well – for 5 nights 4 days it was 27K – only accommodation
·                     Got our safari bookings confirmed for all 4 days (1 safari everyday – 4K for each safari) 
·                     Changed my 60,000 km run totally bald tyres with 5 new set of MRF ZV2K Tubeless (Rs. 19.5K – 3.9K each) 
·                     Servicing of car along with wheel balancing and alignment 
·                     Bought polarized sunglasses for both of us 
·                     Confectionery, soft drinks, apparel, caps, etc. shopping 
·                     Got a new set of 400X neutral density filter for my lens, also ND filter adapter for my lenses alongwith graduated neutral density frames 
·                     Bought Kenko Binocular (10x50) for Supriya 
·                     Bought The Book of Indian Birds by Dr. Salim Ali 
·                     Got an Ice Box with Artificial Ice 
·                     Prepared and saved the entire route map on the Garmin GPS 

Day 0: April 5th (Friday) – THE NIGHT BEFORE 

Before office dropped my Dog EINS to the kennel. This time we were cautious and gave him all necessary anti tick shots. Also gave him an anti fleas collar to prevent the fleas from attacking him during his stay at the kennel. After office went to my usual Shell outlet to get the fueling done. Got the tyre pressure checked and headed home. Finalized all the packing, had dinner and went off for an early sleep. Although the dreaded night before, as always is the killer. The excitement of the drive next morning was too heavy to get a good sleep. And as always this time also I couldn't manage to sleep well. 

Day 1: April 6th (Saturday) – GET SET GO – HYDERABAD TO MUMBAI 


Got up early morning at 4 AM, felt as if I was awake all through. Not at all fresh because of the lack of sleep, but the excitement to drive gave the leverage. Left Hyderabad around 5 AM. Had to go a long way. Last time I went through this leg, it was only till Pune, this time it’s a touch more till Mumbai. Initially I planned and thought of making this drive of 720 km in 12 hours, but I entered Mumbai at my brother’s residence exactly at 6 PM. So, door-to-door it was 13 hours. On the way, the GPS took us straight into the Solapur city which took some of our time. We should have taken the below route to exit solapur comfortably.

The roads exiting from Hyderabad towards Solapur were in a pathetic state - the worst I have seen in entire Andhra. Last time it wasn't so bad. The entire stretch was only 2 lane without dividers and it was like STOP-READY-GO to overtake those slow moving trucks on the way. It is really tiring to be driving in 5th gear then come down to 3rd to overtake the trucks then again go back to 4th and 5th and by the time you reach the 5th gear again apply brakes and come down to 3rd. All this continued till Solapur and I was wondering I wish I had an Automatic SUV. Hope the 4 laning completes soon and hope to own an Automatic SUV sometime in the future. Stopped for usual fueling, breakfast, lunch and R&R breaks and kept on driving in that sultry weather. People warned about bypassing Pune as there wasn't any good bypass road available and it's difficult to avoid the city traffic. So I did a lot of google research and found a road which took me all across pune without even bothering about the city traffic. The only drawback in my identified bypass was that there was absolutely no bitumen road for 2 kms stretch. But I was absolutely okay with the fact that atleast I could successfully avoid the entire city traffic. The route map attached here (Click Here)

Once you bypass pune and enter expressway, then the destination seems very near. After that horrible stretch of road till solapur, Pune Mumbai expressway seemed heaven. Before entering the expressway I really felt my comfort level of driving has finished. That moment I felt, after 500 kms  whatever I’m going to drive, is actually a stretch on myself. But luckily the expressway didn't let me feel it like a stretch and I really enjoyed driving through that beautiful road, once again. It was still exactly the same as I saw it last time in March 2010, beautifully maintained. Both of us were thrilled with the Tunnels on the expressway. Surprisingly, Indians still have to learn a lot regarding how to drive. In the tunnels of expressway, more than 99% of the cars switch on their hazard lights. I just couldn't believe that all vehicles on the road were having hazardous trouble. Who makes these stupid rules? And why we Indians keep on following other like herds of idiots? Why don’t people use their brains and question the actual use of hazard lights? Driving through a tunnel is not a hazard. Come’on grow up people. You only need to switch on your rear lights so that the car coming from behind knows that you are driving ahead. That’s it. NO NEED FOR HAZARD LIGHTS, PLEASE. And it is not even that those are blind tunnels. They do have proper lighting just enough to see the road. Just switch on your headlights and rear lights and cruise ahead, SIMPLE! But anyway, you can’t expect much from Indians, people still didn't learn the concept of lane driving, not honking, not using high beam in front of oncoming traffic, how can you teach them about hazard lights. Forget it. If I have so many complains, I should better go abroad and settle there, instead of staying here and cribbing. When we were entering Mumbai, our only concern was the office traffic. Luckily though, we were just ahead of it by a fraction. By 6 PM we were inside pomy’s apartment. Once again thanks to the GPS for guiding us inside Mumbai. I was dead tired by the end of the 1st day. 720 km was a bit too much for single hand driving in a single day (and not to forget I didn't sleep well the entire last night compounded by the stop-ready-go driving on the highway all through). I was wondering what will I be doing tomorrow, as tomorrow is going to be really big (200 km more than what I did today). At one point I really wished that Supriya could drive. Had our dinner and I slept like a baby that night. 

Day 2: April 7th (Sunday) – THE BIG ONE – MUMBAI TO GIR 


Wonderful sleep the previous night and here I was again ready for the real stuff – the big one – 900 km Mumbai to Gir National Forest – single hand driving in a single day. Tried to get up early but by the time we left it was already 6 AM. It was a luxury to get a wonderful homely night stay in Mumbai. I left Mumbai thinking  I might be able to reach Gir in 12 hours so that would be 900 km by 6 PM. Highly optimistic as per Indian standards and I did my research about the road condition well in advance so I really believed I could do it. 


Exit Mumbai was a memorable experience in itself. People who have exited Mumbai through the Western Expressway towards Gujrat would agree with me. That amazing terrain, beautiful landscape, foggy condition and the sun rising midst that was a thrill to watch. And all this in the month of April was extremely rejuvenating. I even rolled down my windows to smell that fresh fog. Everything was nice about Mumbai exit that morning, except that for the first 75 km one really needs to maneuver through the Trucks plying on that 6 lane road (3 lane each side). All the 3 lanes are mostly occupied with these snails and tortoises playing their racing games. Somehow you need to squeeze through them till the Maharashtra Gujarat border. After that it’s cool. 


Once you enter Gujarat, you will actually feel it. believe me or not, it’s a different country all together. That’s not India. After every 20 odd kilometers you will find a proper eatery just beside the fuel station. So you can easily have you breakfast, lunch, whatever time and even get your fueling done at the same place. The eateries are well maintained, clean, Air conditioned, with all available facilities. Rest of India should really take some lesson out of the book of Gujarat. That 6 lane road till surat was beautiful and without any trouble we zipped past surat in no time, we even stopped for breakfast in one of those eateries. The Ankleshwar Bharuch Narmada Bridge is a pain and I was prepared for that, but I was lucky that there wasn't any traffic jam on our onward journey and we crossed narmada without any concern.  


In a zippy reached Vadodara and immediately took the Ahmedabad Expressway. And that expressway was really fast indeed. My 7 year old Ford Fiesta didn't mind 170 km/hr on that stretch. And before we could realize we already reached Ahmedabad. It was about lunch time and I had taken the sardar patel ring road from the expressway which directly led me into the ahmedabad – Rajkot highway. So these bypasses and ring roads are so nice in Gujarat that I didn't realize passing-by any of these cities at all. Crossed Surat, Vadodara, Ahmedabad and now heading towards Rajkot. All this without any significant effort. Although there are many alternative routes to reach Gir. But I preferred to choose the longer one with 4 lane rather than the shorter one with 2 lane. The shorter route breaks from karjan before vadodara and takes you through borsad towards Rajkot. My route was much longer but it was all 4 lane so I preferred it more than the other one. And I would still recommend this route for all people going to Gir unless they are on a budget mode. 


Had our lunch on the ahmedabad Rajkot highway. Started at 3 PM after a nice lunch and headed straight for Gir deciding not to stop any more. Till lunch time I already covered 600 kms and another 300 still left with a plenty of time in hand. Now, that’s what a good road can do for you. you don’t even feel the distance. It’s smooth as silk. Reached Rajkot, conveniently took the ring road to junagarh and I was surprised to see that the entire road from Mumbai to junagarh was either 4 lane or 6 lane. KUDOS to Gujarat. Only the last stretch of 75 kms from junagarh to Sasan Gir was not 4 lane. 


Junagarh – a city worth mentioning here. It has such neat and clean roads and walkways, I was thrilled to see a city like that in India. One would have to see it to believe. GPS took a few wrong turns inside the city and we slightly lost our way. However after asking the locals they nicely guided us onto the Mahendra bypass and towards Sasan. It was not a big problem but a new road which wasn't updated in my GPS map. Hence the confusion. The last stretch was through hilly terrain and single road with stupid people putting on their high beams and not even caring about oncoming traffic. Again reminded me that you can change the cities and the infrastructure but what about the people. We Indians still don’t know simple things about driving. So facing the high beams was really painful in that last 1 hour after sunset. 


We finally reached Taj at 8 PM. So 14 hours it took us for the 900 kms. Obviously that includes the breakfast, lunch and refueling breaks. Also the time we lost inside junagarh city. The same journey while returning took only 13 hours. That was because we could avoid the city traffic of junagarh while returning. 


WHAT AN AMAZING FEELING IT IS! A feeling of happiness, satisfaction, contentment, pride, joy and so much more excited to successfully complete this onward journey. A feeling beyond words, a feeling that cannot be described and can only be experienced by oneself. A feeling that is limited to a few souls who prefer to drive on their own, covering the distances not covered by anyone before, single-handedly in a  single day and whose love for driving is so undeniably profound that they just don’t get tired. That’s what my love for driving is all about. And I think I will surely go again and again on many more trips till the day I’m alive. Not to mention, a short hall of fame that I entered into when people at the hotel got surprised to hear that I had driven all the way from Hyderabad to Gir. 


Day 3: April 8 (Monday) - AMAZING TAJ AMAZING GIR 

The Taj Gateway Hotel where we checked in last night is undoubtedly the best in entire Sasan Gir. The most obvious reason is because it’s Taj and if one can afford, then there shouldn't be a second thought about staying there while visiting Gir. Besides the most obvious reasons, I will list down the ones that make Taj the best place to stay in Gir.

·         The Hotel is located on the banks of river Hiran – it is so conveniently placed that we even preferred to sit on the river side all day long instead of in our AC rooms
·         This location advantage is so beautiful that you can spot atleast 30 different varieties of birds just sitting beside that river side (pics attached below)
·         For people like us who are more of bird enthusiast rather than lion / tiger enthusiasts – there cannot be a better location to stay
·         The river provides an amazingly romantic setup for sunset (pics attached below)
·         A stroll beside the river side is rejuvenating at any hour of the day
·         They are super smart with safari bookings and leave no room for complains – obviously you have to give them advance notice about it. They even do current bookings but that’s painful because the driver has to stay awake all night and stand in the queue to get the permit. That’s inhumane. So, it’s always good to give them one month advance notice about the safaris.
·         The staff is very courteous and helpful, even for personalized request as well (will elaborate later)

Initially Taj was offering us a room with the swimming pool view on the 1st floor, but when we insisted to have a river facing room they moved us to 2nd floor with river facing view immediately. Last night when we checked in, we had no idea what that view was until we woke up this morning and saw the beautiful river with the gorgeous birds in it. The moment I got up I immediately reached for my camera and started clicking the birds from my balcony, since I was not sure how long will I find them there. Since it was our first morning and we were tired with all the driving stuff for last 2 days, so we decided to take the evening safari. In the morning we had already booked the hotel SPA  to get out of that driving sprint and get back fresh for the exciting days ahead. After breakfast, we went to the river side for the first time and who would have known that the river side will be our life for the coming 4 days. We saw a raft of ducks emerged from somewhere and just splashed into the river. Thereafter the varied species of birds kept us occupied all day long. Had a beautiful full body massage with steam bath, and it was just so refreshing, a must have after 2 days of driving for 1650 kms.

We had our safari timing as 3-30 till 6 for today. Before leaving from Hyderabad, our prime objective to go to Gir was to spot the King of the Jungle. All our previous visits to other National Parks were sans spotting the tiger. This time we gave full chance to ourselves so that we could spot the lion. So we stayed for 4 days in Gir and every day we planned a safari in a different time – only to increase our chances. In retrospect, I don’t know if it was luck or sheer coincidence, but this first safari was a self revelation of its kind. It opened up a new segment of my life, a  new desire and a new enthusiasm. We did spot the lion from just 50 feet away, but it was not the lion but the birds of Gir which took our heart away.

Quoting the great Dr. Salim Ali, “if it was not for the lions, Sasan Gir would have been the best bird sanctuary of India.” Rightly so, by the time the safari ended, we lost all interest in lions and had fallen completely for the birds. For the first time I realized what I missed in Jim Corbett last year. We kept running after the tiger and forfeited the chance to spot some of the best Himalayan birds.

Coming back to lions, I believe this time of the year is the best to visit Gir, but only for people who are real wildlife enthusiasts. It seems somebody has switched on the sepia mode in that forest. It’s a dry  deciduous forest and looked completely stripped down. My first impression was not good since I was thinking a forest should be dense and green. Later realized how important it is for a forest not to be green. The forest camouflages the lions beautifully. The leaves are all dried up to facilitate the ease to spot the animals and birds across long distances. Gir is however closed from June till September and reopens in October – because of monsoons. Most of the foreigners come around Dec Jan when the season is better suited to them. However I insist that April is the best time if one really loves wildlife and not so bothered about the sultry weather condition. The safari inside Gir forest operates in 8 different routes, out of which route 2 and 6 are exactly the same, just the entry and exit is interchanged. Route 3 and 7 is also same, route 8 takes only to kamleshwar dam and back. If anybody has any specific preferences just ask the hotel authorities to arrange the permit for that specific route. In this matter Taj people are awesome. We never had to bother about our safari timings or bookings or permits or routes, etc. it was all taken care of by them, hence I don’t mind paying the premium. Taj charges Rs. 4000 for each jeep safari. Outside you may even get it for Rs. 1000. But without any guarantee and a lot of hassles. Taj is superb in this matter.

Taj also has a magnificent Celestron Telescope. Visitors can enjoy the clear night sky through that masterpiece. However one really needs to know how to operate a telescope before handling that delicate instrument. I know about cameras and binoculars, but telescope was out of my repertoire. The night we reached there was a moonless night hence enhancing the details of the sky even more. There’s hardly any light diffusion from the village beneath and no-moon means it’s clearer than ever. No pollution in the environment just multiplied the stars and as you find the phenomenon in any other jungle, the entire sky looked studded with diamonds. In cities, one hardly finds so many stars on the sky. A kind of experience that can only be found in a jungle. One of the guest helped us out in assembling the telescope, she even helped in identifying a Nebula. Well, for me it was the first experience of using a telescope and it would not have been so exciting if we didn't spot the nebula, because stars look one and the same even through a telescope. I wanted to do some astro photography of star trails etc, I did try some but with no significant success. Probably will give it a try next time I go outside the city.  

Some of the pics I clicked during the safari

Day 4: April 9 (Tuesday) – THE BIRDING PARADISE – SELF REVELATION 

Today’s safari was the early morning one. (From 6 AM till 9 AM) The timing and the schedule of the safari was given by us to the hotel authorities 2 months in advance. The timings can be altered on the day before but the permit has to be taken well in advance to avoid any last minute hassles and inhuman treatment to the hotel people trying to arrange the current booking. So today we never had an iota of doubt as to what we are going after. We were there for the birds and we asked our driver to get us a guide who is good in bird knowledge. Forget the lion, it’s the birds that rule Gir. So our driver arranged a good knowledgeable guide who really knew the birds very well. Although their pronunciation was difficult to comprehend and we did our own secondary research to identify the species, still it was atleast helpful in getting a direction towards identifying them.

The guides also had such similar names, dharmesh, jignesh, ramesh, etc. these guides were not hotel employees but the drivers and jeeps were owned by the hotel authorities. The guides are primarily local people who work as guides part time. Initially we didn’t have the idea that we had to tip the driver and the guide after the safari. We started doing it from now onwards. It seems they are happy with a tip of Rs. 100 each. But that’s good enough since they really take a lot of pain in helping you spot the birds and animals. We spotted a lot of birds and again lucky to spot the lion also.

Remaining day was all about the river side. Be it the birds or the beautiful landscape and the breathtaking sunset, it had all the ingredients of a perfect holiday. The hotel staff was so nice, they even gave us some rare books about wildlife to read. Taj even has a good collection of wildlife books in their lobby. It proved very helpful for us in identifying the birds we spotted.

Some of the pics I clicked during the safari and later in the day



Day 5: April 10 (Wednesday) – KAMLESHWAR DAM


Today’s safari was the first that took us till the Kamleshwar Dam which is inside the Gir Forest Area. The water body has dried up still we could spot a few nice water birds. The distance from the watch tower to the dam is quite a lot and my 250 mm Canon lens couldn’t do much about it. I really wish I had a 500 mm atleast. A 250 mm is actually not that great for bird photography. On the other hand supriya’s binoculars were just awesome. For the first time I realized that binoculars can be so effective. The image clarity is astounding and the magnification and brightness is unparalleled - A must have for bird watchers. 10x magnification is the best for bird watching, anything more than that will be difficult to hand hold and will require a tripod. 50 mm diameter for the object lens is a good number for relative image brightness. So I would say 10x50 is the best for bird watching. In 10x50 more the angle of vision you get, better it is. Kenko give 6.3 degrees. It was a good decision to purchase that one before the trip.

Some of the pics we clicked during the safari and later


Day 6: April 11 (Thursday) – LAST DAY AT GIR

Today also we requested for the morning safari. It was the last day of our stay in Gir and I was hoping to do as much photography as I could. After breakfast, took my camera gears and headed straight for the river side for the last time. Every day I spend in Taj, I feel mesmerized with the variety of birds I can spot. Today was also a very fruitful day in terms of bird watching. I could spot many new species which I had never seen before. All in all 57 different species of birds I could capture and many more I could spot but couldn’t click. One of the biggest disappointments was the Asian Paradise Flycatcher. It was just too shy to give me a pose. Let’s see if I can spot it some other time, some other place. Today also we were lucky and got some memorable shots, we also spotted the lion with relative ease. I think spotting lions in Gir is easier than spotting tigers in other national parks. Precisely because there are govt. trackers who keep following the lions on a regular basis and help the drivers and guides to locate them conveniently. Not the case in tigers. These govt. trackers who follow the lions regularly, inform the authorities if any lion falls sick. Then the officials bring the lion for treatment and leave it back once its healthy. An easy way to maintain the lion population from dwindling - Great conservation practice.

In the evening we took our car out to do the refueling. There’s a petrol station in sasan just 2 kms from the Hotel, where we did the refueling. We didn’t wait for the refueling for tomorrow since it would be too early in the morning when we leave so it might not be open that time.

A few pics I clicked on the last day of our stay at Taj river side and also at the safari.


Day 7: April 12 (Friday) – RETURN JOURNEY FROM GIR


We asked the hotel chef last night to arrange some sandwiches that we could carry for our return journey. They really help you out like anything. Got up early in the morning and checked out from the hotel at around 5 AM. Reached brother’s home in Mumbai exactly at 6 PM. Return journey only took 13 hours, probably because we could avoid the junagarh city traffic in the morning hours. 900 kms in all in 13 hours with proper stops for breakfast, lunch and refueling is too good as per Indian standards. I was even eyeing at 12 hours this time. Probably I could have managed that if we didn’t get stuck in Bharuch Narmada bridge for 30 minutes and another fatal accident for another 30 minutes. Anyway, it doesn’t matter much since I could hit Mumbai in 13 hours which was anyway better than the onward journey.

Day 8: April 13 (Saturday) – BACK TO HYDERABAD

Left Mumbai around 6 PM and was very certain that it will take 13 hours to reach Hyderabad, but I wasn’t bothered since I knew I won’t be entering the Hyderabad traffic rather I will take the Nehru Outer Ring Road to reach home. When finally we were nearing Hyderabad we saw we had good time on our hand and before sunset we could hit the ORR. We immediately decided that we will straight go to the Kennel and pick up Eins from there. We could not bear the fact of him sleeping one more night in that mess and we relaxing in our home. So finally picked him up and reached home at 8 PM. The day didn’t end though and we had to give Eins a shower immediately as he was so stinking. Finally went to bed after having a simple dinner. The journey was relatively smooth except before entering Solapur we again lost about 20 odd minutes because all the trucks were lined up on the highway with no lane to move ahead.

At last! I was more than just happy to complete this 3300 kms successfully. The contentment and the joy of the trip, undoubtedly made this trip the most memorable till date. Probably the best of all my trips. Now coming to the first question of why I was confused about the title of this post? After 7 years of my driving experience I did my longest trip, so definitely a matter of pride. And this trip was a self revelation that I was more into bird watching than lion / tiger watching. Birds gave me more happiness than the lions or the tigers. And hence I name this post as BIRDS OF GIR and the drive come secondary.

WHAT NEXT!

This is something that always haunts me but I think I’m pretty clear in my mind. Whatever be it, it’s going to be about BIRDS.