India is much more than slums: Gujarat is one of my fav spots

Chaos, slums, beggars, pollution and poverty: India is so much more than this and I recommend you put one of the least visited states, Gujarat, onto your must-see bucket list.

Birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, a long coastline, this largely vegetarian area is astonishingly varied with huge cities, national parks, bird sanctuaries, majestic monuments, and temples – as well as locals who are extremely welcoming to travellers.

 

Ahmedabad (founded in 1411) is the largest city and has some of India’s finest Hindu and Jain temples along with Islamic monuments. The guided heritage tour of the ancient walled city is a necessity to appreciate the old ethnic diversity of the area. Up and down narrow streets we walk, into even narrower lanes and through secret passages these few hours flew by – some of us repeated the tour days later we loved it so much. The volunteers who are the guides are charming and informative – but keep your eye on where they are – turn the wrong corner and you will be lost! When your expedition is over, stay in Manek Chowk to explore the market and taste the food – then jump on a tuk-tuk and leave him to find the way back to your accommodation or next sightseeing destination and adventure.

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This huge bustling city is a good base for day trips to explore nearby temples, step-wells and even birding areas: Gujarat has some 40% of India’s bird species and with large numbers of migratory birds also, it’s an excellent venue for bird watchers.

Known for their slow but steady success in protecting the last surviving Asiatic Lions in the wild, Gir National Park is a popular destination. There are some 350 lions now compared to the 20 when the park, their only home, created 100 years ago, and with a reliable water supply, it is also home to many other creatures – this is worth more than one days worth!

Interestingly, the Sasan Gir area, in the south of the state, is also home to village of African migrants who have lived there for generations. As well as living alongside, and in harmony with, the lions and leopards of Gir, they perform wonderfully energetic, traditional dances. People come from all over India to offer their prayers to the Peer (priest) who I understand is contacted through the gymnastic-like Dhamal dance.

 

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One of my favourite areas was a corner of the 5-thousand square km area known as the Little Rann of Kutch, home to the beautiful and endangered Indian Wild Ass (Ghudkhur) of which there are only some 2000. Few other animals can survive this harsh environment, although, as these desert salt flats flood to a depth of a metre every monsoon, it’s also home for over 350 species of birds, and where I saw the rare, and shy, McQueen’s Bustard.

Also endangered, in different ways, are the families who live in this arid setting, eking a subsistence living from harvesting salt for eight-months each year. My small donation for their hospitality seemed meagre despite being told it was appropriate, and enough for a ‘big bag of dhal” according to my guide. Next time I will take a gift of jandals (flip-flops) and milk too. I visited two families on different safaris and was charmed by their friendliness, and their willingness to share stories of generations of being salt-workers. (Agariyas)

The salt is produced by pumping, with small pumps, the underground brine up about 14 metres: it then takes four months to crystallise, a harvesting technique unchanged in centuries.

In their shack, right beside the pump, lives an inter-generational family who serve me tea in the old Indian way, on a saucer.

“Because we work in the saltpans, our feet become septic and they absorb the salt. Nobody lives more than 50 or 60 years,” a grandfather tells me – through my guide.

Locked into a religious and cast system that seems impossible to move out of, he sees no way for his family to escape the cycle of poverty and poor health. Despite the low wages and appalling conditions, they will continue to leave the villages on the edge of the desert to labour all day for eight-months each year.

women of the salt plains gujarat

The history of Gujarat goes back to the times of the Indus Valley Civilisation in 2500BC and the culture, architecture, food and history have amalgamated to create an exciting region.

India is a land of contrasts and colour, of culture, festivals and seductive cuisine and Gujarat has it all: I recommend making a list of places or types of things you want to see, contact a local tour company and ask them to create an itinerary from that list, or make recommendations, and for ease of travel, supply a car and driver for much of your trip.

A must-do is the free walking tour of Ahmedabad and see my posts – search Gujarat on right 

NOTE: For my Gujarat travel arrangements I used J.N.Rao Tours, Ahmedabad.

Tip – to say Ahmedabad – sound it out like this “arm dar bad”

Recommended places for bird watchers

  • Khijadiya
  • Porbander Bird Sanctuary
  • Thol Sanctuary
  • Little Rann of Kutch
  • Sasan Gir

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  • Friday, photo of the day: lion at Orana Park

    A lion wants food . Orana Wildlife Park. Christchurch New Zealand
    A lion wants food . Orana Wildlife Park. Christchurch New Zealand

    Feeding the lions from a cage trailer is a great bucket list item. See more photos and story here 

    Feeding the lions!

    When I arrive at Christchurch International Airport my favourite car rental company  (Rental Cars New Zealand) has a car ready for me and I immediately  head to Orana Wildlife Park to feed the lions!

    I recall my father being very dubious about a brother giving a little money to support the idea of a wildlife park and now, how surprised he would be to see what a successful place it has become. My kids have always loved a day at the park and especially driving into the lion enclosure, always hoping a lion would rub against our vehicle. This has since stopped because of stupid people who could not follow directions about keeping windows up – endangering not only themselves but also the lions and Orana staff.

    I don’t have to worry about windows on this safari! I’ll be in a cage and the big cats will be fed through the wire with the big chunks, hair and bone included, down a chute.

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    Planes fly overhead and memories of previous trips waft through the air, along with the smell of exotic pines and eucalyptus mixing with our native trees and the hot dusty Christchurch summer breeze. Families, young couples, the Christchurch Star’s Christmas party group, mingle with groups of tourists – all enjoying the day and its surrounds.

    I have my ticket and a stamp on my arm, which guarantees my entrance into the lion’s den and arrive early at the gate in anticipation: it’s a hard day at the office – NOT!  I have two cameras and a backup battery primed for the lion encounter, an well-worth extra on the entrance fee.

    Before long our guide arrives, we’re given a safety briefing then are led to the vehicle. We, about 20 of us, are chattering excitedly. Being up close to the King of the Jungle, Leo, the symbol for my birth month is thrilling.

    We leave our bags at the entrance and go into the wire-caged truck back and before we push through the gates are again reminded to keep our fingers inside the vehicle. We are not to attempt to touch the lions – they’re cats but not as we know them!

    It’s a wonderful experience, and my only regret is it doesn’t last long enough … that we didn’t stay still for a few minutes after the last food has been given to them, so we could just watch them.

    However I’ll let the pictures tell part of the story … for best results, have a lion encounter yourself!

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    To get to Orana Park see here … including taking a shuttle from the city and here is their Facebook page

    Interestingly, most of the endangered animals at the Park do not belong to Orana Wildlife Trust but to the relevant international breeding programme which makes decisions about which females are best bred with which males to make sure the most diverse gene pool possible in the captive populations. From time to time animals are moved between various zoos and parks to enhance the genetic diversity of their particular species. See here for more of their conservation activities

    More stories from my Orana Wildlife Park visit to follow … also other Christchurch stories including about the lovely Eliza’s Manor House where I stayed.

     

    Sason Gir: home to the Asiatic lions

    Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary (Gujarat) is one of the finest wildlife sanctuaries of India. It’s also the only known home of the world-famous Asiatic Lions in Asia.

    It covers some 1,412 sq km, and in November 2010 I had the privilege of being hosted by Gujarat Tourism  to their first International Bird Convention,  (search for ‘Gujarat’ to see other blogs I’ve  and written about this fabulous State) and after that, thanks to RAO Tours I explored parts of Gujarat I hadn’t seen such as the Sasan Gir

    Mainly made up of dry deciduous forests with short and gnarled teak trees, thorn bushes and grassland, it’s obviously a perfect home to its (approx.) 360 lions.

    During the jeep tour, my guide tells me there are some 450 plant species, 32 mammals, 310 birds, 24 reptiles and over 2,000 species of insects. It also has nearly 300 Leopards , 30,000 Spotted Deer, Antelopes, Striped Hyenas, Jackals, Nilgai, Sambar, Wild Boar, Ruddy Mongoose, Jungle Cats, Indian Porcupine, Gazelles and Crocodiles to name a few. Most of these provide the meals for the carnivores!

    The birders in the group were thrilled with the bird population, (see Alan McBride ‘s diary) and even I, a non-birder could tick off a number in my book of lists!

    The jeep safari’s almost guarantees a lion sighting – although, as I was in the last jeep, I was upset not to get good lion photos. However, like many missed photos, the image of the original remains firm in my memory.

    I stayed at the Vanvaso Resortand loved it so can well recommend them: it has been built with care and attention to detail – combining nature with luxury accommodation . I loved my bedroom and the bathroom was a combo  of indulgence and the jungle ambiance.

    I also visited the Lion Safari Camp where I had a tasty BBQ meal and was fascinated with the Siddis who trace their ancestry to Africa. They are believed to have come to India as mercenaries, slaves and labour. Here in Gir, there are villages of the Siddis, who are well-known for their dances and ability to live with the lions.

    Ranjit Sinh Parmer ( CEO Palaces of India) joins us on the jeep

    Enjoy this slide show of some of my photos from the area: as always, copyright to all my photos are owned by me

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