Gujarat

Backpackers guide to incredible Sasan Gir and Junagadh

Gujarat is underrated and often missed entirely by most backpackers as they pass right through on their way to more popular states like Rajasthan or Maharashtra, and that is a shame. Gujarat has an incredible natural, cultural and historical heritage. I want to help my readers explore this underdog state and get the most out of their time. In this post a backpackers guide to incredible Sasan Gir and Junagadh, I will discuss what it is like to travel in this enchanting corner of the Indian subcontinent.

By writing this post, I am hoping to steer more of my readers to Gujarat as this state is like no other. While it is an expensive state to move around in, I have found it to be well worth every rupee. With its unique identity, customs, culture, food and wildlife, it is sure to satisfy whatever it is you are seeking on your journey to this incredible country.

Backpackers guide to incredible Sasan Gir and Junagadh

This male rules the roost. Scared from battle, he stands proud and not in the littlest bit interested in my presence when he surrounded by so many lion ladies.

Sasan Gir national park

Sasan Gir national park is one of a kind, literally! The whole world’s population of Asiatic Lions live in this one national park and that numbers around 700 as well as the stars of the show that people fly from around the world to see you can also find, 38 species of mammals, 300 species of birds, 37 species of reptiles and more than 2,000 species of Insects.

All this incredible diversity is set in a low thorny acacia forest. The local Siddi people will further baffle your orientation as they are clearly of African descent. You could be forgiven for thinking this is Africa. This astonishing place cannot possibly fail to Impress, and that’s why I am giving a detailed guide to India’s wild west, so lets us start with Sasan Gir.

Background on the last lions of Asia

Sassan Gir animals

This lone Sambar deer has to be always on alert as that’s a prime meal for any Lion.

700 Lions doesn’t sound like a lot when you consider every last one lives here. But the truth is, it is way more than the carrying capacity for the park, and that leads to conflict between the lions and the local people, as they spread there range ever further. These animals will eat domestic livestock and have attacked the people numerous times so you can imagine their presence is controversial.

There are no plans as of yet to move some to other national parks, and I suspect that’s just greed on having a monopoly on the whole world’s population, and if you want to see them you have to come here. It is not cheap to visit, but I will do what I can to try and explain how to save a little money. The cost is the reason why not many foreigners come this way if I am honest.

Asiatic Lions are slightly smaller than there African cousins due to the harsh conditions they have to endure. They have a fold of skin that runs across their bellies, and They have smaller manes. The real difference is how they live. They live in a matriarchal society, and the usually older female leads the pride. An Asiatic lion pride are typically related and tend to be smaller than those found in Africa. Males only come to breed, and they compete for their mating grounds. If a competitor takes over another dominate Lions territory, any offspring will be killed to bring the lioness back into mating.

These are the Lions that were used in ancient Rome’s Colosseums and once roamed all the way to Persia. Towards the end of the British Raj era, there was not more than 20 left on earth, so their story is one of optimism and hope for other species. It shows we can save populations of animals if we try. For more on this check out an excellent documentary called the last lions of India. Alternatively, David Attenborough has a fantastic documentary on the wildlife of Gujarat and who doesn’t like him? So here is the link to that.

The rest of the astonishing biodiversity of Sasan Gir

Another example of the wildlife of Sasan Gir

Certainly one of the most apparent reptiles in the park is the Marsh Mugger. This Crocodile is gapping not because he is hungry but to cool himself down.

Aside from the Lions, this national park has one of the most significant collections of carnivores in Asia. The 38 species of mammals include the Striped Hyena, Honey Badger, Indian Leopards, ruddy mongoose and some very rare animals such as the Rusty Spotted Jungle Cat.

The birdlife is both apparent and out of this world. There are so many species to feast your eyes on here. Some of my personal favourites are the Indian Pitta, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Indian roller and any of the six species of vultures found inside the park. For a full checklist, check out this birders website.

For a more comprehensive breakdown of the birdlife, I love the website the birder’s hub, and this also covers the best spots, and you won’t necessarily have to be on a safari to see them.

 

 

Moving around the area independently is very hard as the government are a little overprotective on safety. If you pay a few hundred rupees at your guesthouse, they will take you for a walk. You are allowed to walk in the farmlands, and there is a dam that is highly recommended by other birders.

When the Safari starts, it is hard to stop and see anything as the jeeps all want to show you lions before the other vehicles scare them off. The jeep drove so fast I thought we might go back in time as we raced across country until we found our first lions. Ironically the lions didn’t care in the slightest how many jeeps were there, so it all seemed unnecessary. You will be hard-pressed to find a guide who knows about the birdlife as they just want to show you the big hitters, so those walks are a treat.

The varied culture of Gir

You will notice a few settlements inside the park and these belong to Maldhari people who live a very ancient and uneasy lifestyle with the wildlife inside the park. It must be hard to share a life with 700 odd lions roaming around, but they do. Every night their villages are surrounded by a fence of thorns that keeps them safe. Although they lose many animals throughout a year and the locals themselves are attacked sporadically.

I wanted to stay in their villages, but it is costly, and you have to apply for permission in New Dehli. Approximately 450 families are living in this timeless tradition.

The African culture you see has been in India for centuries when an east African princess married the nawab of Junagadh. She bought many local people over to India with her to act as her bodyguards and lay the railroads. They made a home in villages fringed by the forests of Gir. To find out more, there is a short documentary.

I have covered what you can expect, so now I will talk about how to get here where to stay and how to save a little bit of money.

Booking you Safari.

Now I have told you how wonderful it is, let us talk about the bad part. The cost of visiting this park is crazy, and there is no cheating as all booking is made online on the official website.

Days Particulars Indian (In Rs.) Foreigner (In Rs.)
Note: In one E-permit maximum 6 (+1*) persons will be allowed.
* Only one child between 3 to 12 years will be allowed.
* The permit doesn’t include the Guide charge (Rs. 400 only) and Gypsy cost (Rs. 1700 only), which must be paid separately to respective Guides and Gypsy vehicle owners.

Season Days Morning Timings Evening Timings
Winter

(16th October To 28th/29th February)

Monday To Sunday 6:45 am to 9:45 am 3 pm to 6 pm
Summer

(1st March To 15th June)

Monday To Sunday 6:00 am to 9:00 am 4 pm to 7 pm
Winter/Summer Monday To Sunday 8:30 am to 11:30 am
Note: Gir Jungle Trail is closed from 16th June to 15th October every year.

That is the current information from the government website. Don’t hurt yourself further by using an agent as they will levy a charge on top. You will need to do more than one Safari to maximise your chance of seeing the Lions. Travelling in numbers does not seem to bring the costs down. There is also a 200 rupee charge for a nonprofessional camera. Obviously do a safari on a weekday to save a bit of money, and it is not so busy neither.

Do your safaris in the height of summer as there will be less greenery and you can see more wildlife. The heat is intense, so get the early morning or evening safaris when wildlife is more abundant. While it is costly, but the park is dripping in biodiversity and worth the money for any animal enthusiast. For more information on when to travel to India, check out my post, for my tricks and tips on getting the most out of your time.

Getting a nights rest in Sasan Gir

Indian wildlife at its best

A languor sits and poses for my camera lens. These creatures are very accustomed to people and not camera shy.

When it comes to places to stay there is only really two options, and that’s Nitin Ratanghayara Family Rooms or Hotel Umang. The rest are geared towards domestic tourists so a considerably more expensive. The first gets good reviews, but my personal experience was when I got off the bus I was greeted by very cocky young males who just presumed I was going to stay there and I was in all fairness. But they were very rude, so I walked to the second.

Hotel Umang was just fine for a nights rest. The staff was friendly enough, and the food is good. The staff organised walks around, and that maximised my experience in a big way. They want 500 rupees to walk you around the farmland and to the dam but is well worth it. The cost of the comfortable rooms is negotiable. Since they appeal mainly to foreigners and given the cost of the park, it is safe just to walk in and bargain.

Getting a bit to eat.

Eating nonIndian food is hard here. There are some tasty Dhabas near the bus stop and are very reasonably priced. If you want coffee in the morning, I found Hotel Gateway makes a buffet breakfast that outsiders can pay for. The hotel is fantastic, and it is not crazy expensive for the food at least. There is a beautiful garden you can sit and watch the wildlife, and the western breakfasts are amazing. The hotel is a short walk away from the bus stop and down a dirt track that is signposted from the main road.

Getting there and away from Sasan Gir.

Buses frequently run from Junagadh to Sasan Gir, and there is also a slow unreserved train that you can take at 5.58 pm.  Taxis operate from the train station into town, but I’m not sure why as it is less than ten minutes walk? The patch of scrubland at the back of the train station is a good place for spotting wildlife, but if you carry on to the road, you may be pulled over because the government is very very protective of your safety. Some may say a little too much in all fairness.

Junagadh

Junagadh is the gateway to Sasan Gir and most travellers whizz straight past it, and that is a shame as this place has plenty of charm of its own. It has plenty of historical sights and is the starting point for the sacred Hindu pilgrimage site to impressive Girnar hill. In fact, the whole surrounding landscape is remarkable. With a complete lack of tourists, there is no hustle, and that is refreshing. It leaves you to wander the streets and take in all the sights and sounds of the city in relative peace.

Historical sights

map of Junagadh

I thought this would complement my post Backpackers guide to Sasan Gir and Junagadh. This map was bought to by courtesy of the Science Museum and Garden Cafe. 

Uperkot fort

The area the fort now sits on was originally built on the era of Chandragupta in 319 bc. It has of cause been built on throughout the ages. There is now a charge to enter the fort, and it is a humble 100 rupees for foreigners and 5 rupees for Indian nationals. The fort contains a mosque, step wells, city gate and some Buddhist caves that’s is an additional cost. These archaeological sights are not maintained at all and very under-loved. It is still a pleasure to visit and well worth the time.

Vazirs Mausoleum

The Mausoleum is a rare example of Euro – Islamic architecture. Relatively unloved it still stands majestically and looks like something from a fairytale. The dome and the miners are clearly Islamic, yet the sculptures and the pillars are distinctly gothic, giving this place a very unusual feel. Constructed in 1896, Despite years of neglect and pollution, the elegance of the building is awe-inspiring.

Mahabat Maqbara

Right next door, this elegant Mausoleum is yet another example of the Euro, Islamic architecture. I have never seen anything like it before and is well worth the walk. It was built by Nawab Mahabat Khan II of Junagadh (1851–82). Notice the delicately carved french windows.

Trekking Girnar hill

The jewel of Junagadh

The insanely beautiful Vazirs Mausoleum. I have never seen anything quite like it.

Girnar is a group of mountains just outside of town and is an important pilgrimage site to both Hindus and Jains. Some of the temples and shrines date back as early as the 12th century. To walk alongside the pilgrims is a delight, and your memories doing so will last a lifetime.

However, I must make it clear this is not an afternoon stroll. There are 10000 steps to the summit, and you must start to walk at dawn to avoid the heat. Start when it is still dark if you can as it will take a full day up and down. The entrance to the start of the walk is 4km out of town. Expect to pay at least 100 rupees for a rickshaw.

Photography is allowed along the trail but not permitted inside any of the temples. There is no cost for you to walk the route.

Getting a bit to eat in Junagadh.

There is one clear winner for me, and that’s Geeta lodge. It serves Vegetarian Gujarati food and gives you a chance to sample some of the local flavours. The food is cooked to perfection, and there is a lot of it! All served by an army of waiters who are very keen to make sure you have a pleasant experience. For a few rupees extra, you get dessert, and I strongly recommend it. This place is quite rightly hugely popular with locals and its not hard to see why.

Gatting a nights rest in Junagadh.

You have to be a little selective when selecting a place to get a nights sleep here as many of the cheaper hotels attract a very dubious clientele as they often double up as brothels. I stayed in Gautam Guest House on Kalwa Chowk; This is the best economical option in town. I found it to be clean with friendly service, albeit a very basic place. They do not have a website, so I am unable to provide a link. A Rickshaw from the train station or bus stand should never be more than 60 rupees.

Another more upmarket option is the lotus hotel on station road. It is a smart, clean hotel but will cost at least three times as much for a nights sleep than Gautam guest house. Gautam guest house will set you back a few hundred rupees whereas the lotus hotel will cost at least 2000 rupees as it is popular with the well-heeled local pilgrims. But then again Gujarat lacks the whole budget hotel scene that its neighbouring states have. In all fairness, the hotel is sparkling clean and offers a high level of comfort in a safe environment.

Getting to there and away from Junagadh

Junagash bus time table

To Complement my post backpackers guide to Incredible Sasan Gir and Junagadh here is a local bus time table.

 

The ST bus stand has frequent departures in all directions across the state. I have provided a time table to help you plan your routes. My advice is if you turn up late stay in the more expensive hotels with 24-hour check-in to save you having to wander around in the dark. I do not recommend you do that!

The bus service is punctual and efficient. But if you are looking for the comfort of long haul busses, there are a few companies that offer their services from around the train station. They will of cause cost a little more but are much faster.

Junagadh rail station has a computerised booking office. An important note is that it is not a destination you can use the tourist quota for so book way in advance unless you want to travel in an unreserved class. There is only a limited number of trains that stop here.

One useful train is the Jabalpur express ( number 11463/5) it leaves at 11.10 am and stops at Rajkot and Ahmedabad seven and a half hours later. There is also a second class train going to Sasan Gir and Diu although this is prolonged service. Train number 52952 leaves Junagadh at 7.15 am.

 

Summary of my post – Backpackers guide to incredible Sasan Gir and Junagadh.

I think it is not hard to see what the benefits are to take the time and come and explore this beautiful place yourself. No matter if its culture, history or wildlife that you are looking for, you will find it all here. What’s more, you will find it with virtually no other western tourists so you can start to create your unique path in this underrated yet undeniably charming state.

I have tried to include as much information as possible to make it as pain-free as possible to visit. I hope you all found this post useful and as usual, if you have any further questions or comments, just leave them in the section provided, and I will get back to you.

 

 

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