Gujarat – The land of legends and lions is an underrated tourist destination. We are Gujratis, living in Mumbai and I have been only to Sabarmati Ashram and Kutch until now. We had to explore our home state deeper than that, so we headed out on a road trip to Saurashtra – Gujarat. We wanted to cover the beaches as well as wildlife sanctuaries – both in abundance in Gujarat.
From Mumbai, we took the NH8 Highway to Ahmedabad. Navsari was our first stop on the way. We had relatives there, and I wanted to visit the famous Dandi beach. The roads in Gujarat are a real charm, and as soon as one leaves Maharashtra, the highways turn into huge 6 lane roads that are a pleasure to drive on. Toll booths on the way, though, are a real pain and one keeps encountering them nearly every 30 minutes. Nonetheless, we covered the distance of nearly 225 Kms in under 4 hours with breaks on the way.
Navsari is a city located in the south-eastern part of Gujarat, along the coastal lowlands of Purna River. Just on the outskirts of the city, sits the Agriculture university campus which stretches on a sprawling farmland of 400 hectares. Navsari has extensive Sugarcane, mango & chikoo fields, and is known for its floriculture and sugar business. In the recent past, with Navsari’s proximity to the coastal lowlands, and with a boost in a demand for Prawns, “Jhinga” or Shrimp farming has gained popularity.
Since we reached Navsari before 10 in the morning, we decided to head out to the famous Dandi beach in the morning. Dandi shot to fame in 1930, when Gandhiji decided to march from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to the Dandi village, a walk of about 400 Kms, in protest against the salt tax imposed by the Britishers, and in the process launched the civil disobedience movement. Today, the beach is largely forgotten outside of Gujarat, and its place is largely in history textbooks. The government has built a museum and a giant statue on the site where Gandhiji plucked a handful of saline mud and sea water, producing salt, in protest against the British monopoly on Salt production.
Next day, we drove to Saurashtra. Our first destination was the Velavadar Blackbuck National Park. It is a tiny wildlife reserve that extends across only 34.08 km². To put that in perspective, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai covers roughly 104 km². It is non-existent on the tourist map, and we found it because we were searching a stop-over destination on our way to Diu from Navsari. The national park sits in close proximity to Bhavnagar. We were looking for budget accommodation at the reserve and found Kaliyar Bhavan Forest Lodge – A government guest house inside the Velavadar reserve.
Velavadar wildlife reserve, former hunting grounds for the Maharaja of Bhavnagar, is a typical Savannah type grassland ecosystem, and perhaps the only tropical grassland in India to be deemed a National Reserve. Large herds of blackbucks roam freely in the park, but they are not the only attraction. The reserve is home to many mammals including the Indian wolf – an endangered species, Jungle cats, Nilgai and wild boars. In addition, the wetlands deemed important by the Birdlife International, are a bird-watchers paradise. It hosts world’s largest harrier – Montagu Harrier, Pallid Harrier, and Marsh Harrier along with the lesser Floricans, pelicans, storks, ducks, and herons. There are many varieties of eagles including, Tawny Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Crested Goshawk and many endangered species of Vultures can easily be spotted in the National reserve.
The primary way to roam around the reserve is in your own car, for which a permit is required from the forest department. In addition, the forest lodge is deep inside the reserve, so one can take long walks while watching the antelopes play around in the grasslands at very close proximity. We stayed at the forest lodge for two nights. At night the forest becomes active. The lodge has a terrace, which serves as a blackbuck viewing area during the day, and a fantastic place to spot the many stars that dot the sky in the night. The food at the lodge is simple Kathiawadi thali, and the kitchen crew needs to be notified earlier in the day if one plans to have dinner there. They were also happy to cook and serve Maggi and soup that we carried along free of cost. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the Blackbuck National park, much more so because we didn’t know what to expect before we arrived.
The next day, early morning we proceeded towards Diu. We took the National Highway NH51, that passes via Bhavnagar. Along the way, we passed through Talaja hill famed for its rock-cut cave monasteries that have Boddhisatva carvings. On top of the hill stands a Jain temple that is visible from far away as you approach Talaja. The Hindu temple of Khodiyar Mata is also located on the same hill, thus making the site holy for 3 religions.We reached Diu in the afternoon and checked in at Sugati Hotel that stood at the entrance of Diu behind the Goghla check-point, overlooking the beach.
Diu town, an island measuring 40 km² , is part of the Daman and Diu union territory. It was in possession of Portuguese from 1535 until 1961, when the Indian government launched Operation Vijay – A fierce land, air, and water attack that lasted 48 hours until the Portuguese surrendered. Diu was declared a union territory as part of Goa, Daman, and Diu. Goa was later provided full statehood in 1987. Portuguese left the island nearly 55 years ago, but their influence runs deep – be it the food, the architecture or the people of Diu
Diu, aptly tagged “Isle of calm” as part of Diu tourism’s advertising campaign, exudes peace and serenity, as one explores this tiny island. We walked down the various beaches of Diu barefoot every evening for the four days that we spent here. For an island so small it has many beaches each with its unique identity. To know more about the beaches and attractions of Diu check our Travel Guide
The highlight of our trip was the Diu fort, where we enjoyed the views of the Arabian Sea from the many vantage points near the lighthouse. The evenings, we spent mostly at the Amphitheater overlooking the Arabian sea on the Jalandhar beach. I could sit there for hours staring at the blue sea, and it was undoubtedly my favorite spot in Diu. Our favorite restaurant in Diu was O’Coqueiro. The restaurant is run by a couple hailing from the Garhwal region in the garden of their house. In the evenings, they have soft Beatles music playing in the garden that is lit by Paper lamps. In the morning we loved the Pancakes and the coffee, while for dinner we opted for authentic Portuguese seafood that was freshly prepared after we placed the order. Until then we enjoyed the music and the many books that dot the shelves of their tiny library.
One afternoon, after having a big brunch at O’coqueiro we walked along the tiny lanes of Diu. The houses still have a strong Portuguese influence. Soon we came upon the Church of St. Thomas, that houses the Diu museum which is a collection of wooden statues, carvings, clocks, and artifacts from around Diu. The museum is tiny, and not noteworthy. The church, however, with its Gothic architecture is a sight to behold. From there, we walked straight ahead through a garden and reached St. Paul’s church, a magnificent white structure built in the Baroque style of architecture by the Portuguese. We spent the evening at Vanakbara, a fishing village, where the trawlers bring fresh catch every evening from the sea. The hustle and bustle of the fishermen, amidst the backdrop of a setting sun, is a sight to behold.
From Diu, we planned to do Somnath, Porbandar and Dwarka. However, we fell in love with Diu and decided to stay there instead of doing the extended road trip in a jiffy.
After Diu, we headed to Gir – the last bastion of the Asiatic Wild Lion. The drive is a little short of 100 Kms, and after Talala one enters the Gir National Park precincts. The roads through the forest are not very good. That slowed us down a bit, and we went along smitten by the beauty of the dry yellow deciduous forest.
Gir National Park spread over an area of 1,412 km², is synonymous with the Asiatic Wild lion. Conservation efforts at the Gir National park helped increase the lion population from less than 200 lions at the start of the 20th century, to 523 lions – 109 Male adults, 201 Female adults and 213 cubs and sub-adults as per the last census count in 2015. Lions, though are not the only attraction. Gir forest is the largest tract of compact dry deciduous forest in the country. It hosts over 606 different plant species, 39 species of mammals, 37 species of reptiles and over 300 species of birds. To know about the Gir National Park check our Travel guide.
We had booked the early morning jungle safari for Gir National Park for the next day. In the evening we went out for a walk to the market, but on the way spotted a hill, so decided to climb that and see the sunset from up there. The hill provided a great vantage point to the entire Sasan Gir village and the forest. We took many photos from up there, and after sunset climbed down the hill. On our return to the lodge, our caretaker was concerned as we were not there until it was quite dark. Leopards were frequently spotted near the lodge and he advised against roaming outside the lodge in the dark. Good advice, so from then on we walked around with torches.
Our time slot for the Gir jungle safari was at 6 am. The Jeep and the guide, booked by our lodge, picked us up at 5:30 am and took us to the Sasan Gir Reception center. When we entered the forest, the first rays of sunlight were seen in the skies, it was pretty dark. The Guide gave us a detailed history of the park, listing down the animal species and other important facts about the park. He finished off his long speech with the disclaimer, that there is no guarantee to spot a lion in the park. Nonetheless, our fingers were crossed with hopes of spotting a male lion. At the start of the safari, we did not spot many animals, except for antelopes and Nilgai. Later we did spot many birds, a porcupine, peacock and a Great horned owl.
We were half-way through our route. The jeep turned a bend, and we saw lots of jeeps lined up along the side of the road. There was excitement in the air. A lion was spotted, but we could still not see anything. Few minutes later in the woods, some 100 metres away, a male lion, sensing the crowds, walked with panache deeper into the jungle. The whole scene lasted a couple of minutes, and our hearts were thrilled. No words can describe the experience of seeing this majestic creature in the wild. We spotted a wild Asiatic Lion in its natural habitat, and the experience was sufficient to put a smile on our faces for the entire time we were in Gir.
The jungle safari lasted about 3 hours. Enchanted with the experience, we walked back to our lodge and had breakfast. In the evening, we went to the Devalia Safari Park. It has an Interpretation zone, which is a fenced area housing all habitat types and wildlife of Gir. This provides an opportunity to see lions and other animals in their natural habitat, albeit stage-managed, in a short period of time and at cheaper rates. We took the bus safari that lasts around 30 minutes and saw hyenas, leopards, lions, Nilgais, wild boars, porcupines, and antelopes.
Early morning, the next day we were headed back to Mumbai which is nearly 800 Kms away. We did a stop-over at Vadodara, for the night, where we enjoyed the street food, before proceeding to Mumbai. Having visited both the Legends, at Dandi, and the Lions, at Gir, we brought our road trip through Saurashtra to a successful end.