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Beastly tale.

Summary: The king of the jungle, the world's only antelope with four horns, hundreds of feathered beauties... Gujarat's forests are amazing for their wildlife.

It's not often that one hears of or reads about the beasts and birds of Gujarat. While many of its neighbouring states steal the limelight for their tiger population, Gujarat remains the last abode of endangered mammals, like the Asiatic lion and Indian wild ass. It is also one of Asia's most prolific birdwatching areas. The best period to visit Gujarat is in winter when millions of migratory birds gather at its grasslands and water bodies.

Just one hour drive from the Ahmedabad Airport, the Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary is part of Gujarat's Bhal grassland region. Nalsarovar is a shallow lake, about 121 sq km in area, dotted with about 360 tiny islets. Visiting this bird-rich lake on a winter morning is a breathtakingly beautiful experience.

Hire one of the country boats at Nalsarovar to get close views of the birdlife. The local fishing community use long poles to navigate through the dense aquatic vegetation of the lake.

Watch ibises and spoonbills feeding in the shallow waters of the lake, herons and storks spearing fish, and raft-like formations of ducks. The boats get you fairly close to flocks of flamingo, wading through the waters, dipping their beaks to feed from the bottom. In the more open waters, pelicans and geese are commonly seen during the winter months. Raptors like Palla's fish eagle, greater spotted eagle and marsh harrier are other birds that are worth watching.

While visiting Nalsarovar, try the winter favourite of Gujarat's Saurashtra region--bajara rotla (thick millet rotis) with seasonal veggies, garlic and chilly chutney, freshly churned buffalo-milk butter and chopped onions, washed down with chhaas (butter milk). To get away from the crowds, you could instead head for Ranagadh, off the Ahmedabad-Rajkot Highway at Limbdi, where fishing people offer fish from the lake, shrimps and local produce with bajara rotla in the courtyards of their houses, and take you for boat rides in the moonlight.

From Nalsarovar, the drive to the Velavadar National Park goes through the Bhal plains. Spectacular V-shaped formations of demoiselle and common crane can be seen flying overhead between the fields and marshes on the way. Keep your binoculars handy as this road offers good birdwatching opportunities. As you arrive at the Velavadar National Park, it comes as a surprise looking more like the African Savannah, with its sea of medium-sized grasses and teeming herds of antelope, than any other national park of India.

Velavadar is a little gem--just 35 sq km in area, this national park is best known for its large population of blackbuck. The mammal's attractive eyes, sleek build, spiralling horn and graceful gait make it one of the world's most attractive antelopes. The blackish brown of the male stands out in graphic contrast to its white under-parts. The blackbuck achieves high speeds when leaping and bounding over the grasses and scrub.

It is a good idea to stay a day or two at Velavadar National Park, in order to get glimpses of nocturnal wildlife like Indian wolf, striped hyena, golden jackal, jungle cat and Indian fox. Velavadar's greatest spectacle is the winter roost of harriers--light-bodied hawks that migrate from western countries to Gujarat, gather in large numbers at the Bhal cotton and wheat croplands to hunt locusts and other prey.

As the evening approaches, the harriers fly in from the fields to the grasslands for their evening roost. You could get to see as many as 2000 harriers wheeling and turning in the evening, against the backdrop of the setting sun!

From Velavadar, the drive to the Sasan goes past the open grassland areas to the east of the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. Sasan is the headquarters of the Gir wildlife reserve, the last home of the Asiatic lion. Driving in an open vehicle in the hill tracts of this wildlife sanctuary, with its deciduous forests, grasslands and scrub, is an exciting experience. Spotting a lion requires both luck and skill, and drivers and guides keep their eyes open for pugmarks, and listen intently for alarm calls of spotted deer or sambar deer.

While most visitors come to Gir in search of the lion, it also ranks among the best places in India for leopard sightings. Gir is also an important habitat of chowsingha, the world's only four-horned antelope. The most scenic place in the reserve is the Kamleshwar reservoir, where you can spot the crocodile.

For a break from the wildlife reserves, head for Gondal where you can stay in one of two heritage houses--Riverside Palace or Orchard Palace--and admire princely memorabilia, like vintage and classic cars, silver furniture, howdahs, palanquins, caskets, custom-made furniture and antique textiles.

On the outskirts of Gondal are rolling grasslands, including privately owned lands. These private grasslands, maintained as pasture for cattle, offer a contrast to the wildlife reserves as you are often the only visitor. Watch out for rose-coloured prinia, larks, quails and other avian species while driving through the grasslands.

Fact file Stay Gir Birding Lodge: It has an enviable location in a fruit orchard at the very edge of the Gir National Park. Tel: (0)98240 72075 Rann Riders: It started as a small fcamp and has grown over the last few years to become a sprawling resort. Tel: (02757) 280 257; Eat Kathiawadi Thali : This food is strong on chillies and garlic, unlike other Gujarati food. Mop up the spicy gravies with bajra and jowar rotis, with a generous dash of hot garlic chutney. You will find it anywhere along the Ahmedabad-Rajkot highway Shop Embroidery: The artisans of the dry and arid desertscape of Kutch create the most exquisite embroidery, block-printed and bandhej textiles. See Somnath Temple: A legendary temple, which has risen from its ashes, each of the six times it came under attack. Near Gir National Park

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Publication:India Today Travel Plus
Date:Feb 1, 2011
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