I arise before dawn and make my way to the main office. The world is dead still with the only motion being the roosting of a few straggling party bats. The moon is half-full. Standing on the G. beach seems like it was so very long ago and so very far away.
No one's up yet so I just sit on the doorstep and wait. My jeep shows up -- it's a Tata, cut in the exactly the same way as the Murati was in B. The driver is a somewhat slick-backed want-to-be-wise-cracking guy -- almost certainly a tout on his off time. There's no telling how much this rides gonna cost.
Gr. as a park is run differently than B. Here the park owns and operates jeeps -- if you bring one in from the outside (a "gypsy"), it's midly frowned upon. The park hits you up with an additional fee and still force-feeds you a guide which, as the guidebook says, "speak little or no English and does nothing."
We pay. All the rates are shown in dollars, but they're expecting payment in rupees. Entry to the park is $40, the miscellaneous other fees raise it another ten bucks.
We've never talked about the Asian lion so it's worth saying a few words on the side about it. They are related to the African lion, but have been removed from them long enough that they're a different sub-species. Asians are slightly smaller, have a bigger belly, the males have a shaggier mane, and the big difference is Africans are primarily scavengers whereas Asians only eat and kill live.
The Asian lion used to be throughout Asia, but in the 20th century was hunted down to the point where there were only about 20 left. Their biggest hunter, of all people, decided to protect them and as a result has left the only tiny outpost of Asian lions in the world. It's right here in Gr., and there's about 325 now.
With some animals you can't be sure if you're seeing the only ones or if there's some tiny outpost of them somewhere else (like with the Vietnamese rhino). But lions, unlike leopards, can't inhabit a region much different than what's sitting right here in Gr., so the odds are very high that these are the last ones on the planet.
Unfortunately, for the first time in the history of the park, there was a poaching incident last week. Three lions were killed -- all the meat, bones and organs were taken -- and the skins were left not less than 500m from the ranger station. When a killing like this happens, there's no question that it's professionals, and one of three things must be true:
* The park is in on it.
* The park knows about it and is doing nothing to stop it.
* The park is incapable of stopping it.
It's an ugly situation no matter what is true.
An investigation has been called, but this means what it always means in In. -- a bunch of fat H. men will sit around and talk about how serious the problem is, but no one will figure out anything.
Which means there's no telling what the lion situation is going to be today. They may have gone far and away, they may not react. One thing is for damn sure and that is I don't want to run across a poacher. Why they've done the killing is anyone's guess, but my bet is that the market for tigers is getting in such short supply that they've decided to skip on over to Gr. and peg a few lions instead.
We're assigned a guide that, on the surface at least, appears to be one of the dullest people I've ever come in contact with -- all things considered, that is saying a lot. We're also given "Trail #1," as with B., they divide things up. The guide's happy with this, "Lion. Good chance," and beams at me with the dopey thumb's up. Just turn around, goddammit.
Gr. is also the largest population of leopards (aka panthers) in In. -- there are more than there are lions, in fact -- but seeing one of those would be borderline miraculous. Leopards get up and go and masters of not being seen.
The very first thing I notice is how strong my sense of smell is today. I don't know if it's how little I've been eating, or the fact that I spent 29 hours in a sensory deprived train car, or what. But I'm smelling everything -- and I'm having a good sense of directional smell. There's a flower to my right, there's a cow behind me to the left, etc.
We enter the park and immediately I smell, then see, a couple wild pigs. I wait. I wait. These guys don't see them, so I point them out. "Oh yes, those are pigs. Look!" Yeah, no kidding. It was me who showed you, remember?
Then I see some spotted deer (chital). I wait. I wait. They don't see them, so I point them out. "Those are spotted deer! Look!" These guys are hacks. I'm going to have to do all the spotting myself.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm really good at spotting wildlife. Really good. In fact, even with my left eye bad, I don't know anyone who's better. You can put me driving a car of three people and I'll see more wildlife than the rest of the car combined -- I've done it several times. But, come on, these guys do it for a living, or at least in theory they do, and they see them every day. I'm sitting here in an unfamiliar environment, looking at unfamiliar critters -- I just shouldn't be outspotting these guys.
Man, I would kill to have that Nirobi bushman with me that I had in Kaziranga for the rhinos all those years ago.
The landscape is similar to B., but much much drier. Everything is very dusty and what little grass there is is mostly irrigated/cultivated. And whereas B. is essentially pristine, almost to the point of having to be in a bubble while you're there, Gr. has people living on the land -- the Muldahari -- nomaidc goat grazing kinds of people. We see a bunch of them as we drive along. So many, in fact, that I'm having my doubts about this section of the park.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that we aren't going to see any lions except for two factors. For one, we're seeing a lot of wildlife -- not on the scale of B., but this is easily equal to say the open Wyoming plain. And for another, we're the only jeep that's been on this road today. In fact, it's possible that we're the only one that's been on here this week.
We wind along but there's no sign of lions. At one point we see an unusual bird with waddles on the top of its head.
"What's that?" I ask.
"It's a bird."
"I know it's a bird. What type?"
"No, what kind of bird is it?"
"What kind? Like this car is a Tata. What kind of bird is that?"
Oh nevermind. And damn your entire "English speaking" country while you're at it.
We wind around and get to some kind of official iron-works gate. The driver and guide talk and then the driver goes inside. We're starting to get on the edge of no where and the way I can tell is how the kids approach the vehicle. You'd think that the great white warrior would be the major attraction, but it's not ... It's the jeep they're interested in. They look it over in the same way you'd look at something in a museum that you weren't sure you could touch.
The speedometer is cool, bordering on really really cool.
And the gear shift is obvious and really smart. Having a gear shift like that? In a place like that? Working that way? That's smart. That's really smart.
The glove box is a mystery. I don't know what that's for. It's not the engine. No way. The engine has to be at least twice that big. I don't know. Temple? Is it a temple? Maybe. These people are temple crazy.
And man, these guys carry a lot of water. Look at all that water. In bottles. Heh, heh. Bottled water. Can you imagine? Do they have to pay for water in bottles? I doubt it. No, maybe they do. No, I don't think so. I don't know. I think they pay for everything. Even food. Hmm.
Let's look at that speedometer again. That's pretty cool. That's the coolest thing I've seen this month.
One of them says, in the mildest of British accents, "Hello. What's your good name?" to me.
I say, "b1. What is your name?" Blank expression. I point at me "b1." Then I point at him, "You?" Blank expression. They know how to ask the question, they just don't know what to do with the response. I try again and then one of his friends gets it. He points and says, "Blershev." Then we go around the circle and everyone says their name. After each one I try to say the name and they laugh. After awhile they're laughing so hard that they're crying. Then I point at myself and spin my finger by my head. "I'm crazy." They love that.
An old grizzled man-thing comes out and opens the gate to whatever the hell this place is and we leave the kids. "Goodbye, sir." They wave by sticking their palms out and waggling their fingers up and down.
We move into the zone and there's considerably less wildlife than there was. Very mild, rolling, dusty hills. Very little vegetation. Paths here and there that look human to me. Whenever we come upon a "lusher" spot there's always a small spring or a rivulet. We come across the occasional wandering person. People doing laundry by the rivulets. A motorcycle passes us one way, and then another.
We stop at a small bridge with a pond in front of it.
Lions. I can smell them. They're here. Pretty close. Upwind from us, for sure.
We stop and look. I tell the guide and the driver I can smell them, but they either don't believe me or don't understand. I look. Nothing.
We drive on down the path and come to the end. It's some sort of watering hole-cum-concrete manufacturing plant. It looks like the natives use this to fashion building materials. The driver and the guide both get out of the jeep and encourage me to do so. We all poke around in different spots, looking for tracks.
This area is used by the animals, for sure. There're dear tracks everywhere. Peacock prints. A couple wild pigs. Nothing else.
I smell deer. Nothing else.
There's a sign on the road, along with a primitive gate, that says, "No tourists beyond this point." My guide ignores it and hikes up the road a bit.
He comes back. "No."
We start heading back and there's three locals standing at the bridge where I could smell the lions before. They're looking off into the distance. The guide and the driver get out and talk to them.
I stay in the jeep and am just looking around at the general area. It's nice, but it's odd. The park only feels slightly less trodden than the general In. countryside -- which means it feels pretty beaten. It's pretty, but it would be prettier if it were allowed to breathe a bit away from the people. But the contention between the people and the land is decades old here and very touchy -- the In. government, in fact, pays money to the local tribes for the buffalo that the lions (inevitably) kill.
I'm just pondering the world for about five minutes when my driver says to me, "There are lions there."
Well, hey now, there's an idea. WHY NOT FRICKEN TELL ME THAT THERE ARE LIONS THERE SINCE THAT'S WHAT WE'RE HERE TO SEE.
They motion for me to get down and point. I know where they should be, just under the shade of that tree (an acacia, I think), but I don't see them. I'm not adjusted to what I should be seeing.
"I don't see them."
"Come." And both the driver and the guide start to walk into the wilderness. I follow a fair distance behind, looking. I still don't see them.
I'm looking for lions. They'll be about the color of the straw here. They'll be kind of furry. Lions are kind of furry. And they'll look like lions. They'll be lion-like. And they will probably be looking at or near me. And they'll probably be lying down. Look on the ground. Look for something that looks like a lion.
I'm not seeing any.
I walk a bit more and just as my driver says, "Now?" I see them.
Two lions. Cubs, but old ones. Maybe three years old. They're looking at my guide in front. I stop.
My brother and I share a trait that is almost uniquely Asian and that is we laugh when we get nervous or embarrassed. I have no idea where we got this from, because we've been that way since we were kids -- and our parents certainly didn't do it. I've been in movie theaters several times when something's happened on-screen and he and I have had our laughs echo solo in the darkness.
I laugh and they immediately understand why. It's nice to communicate.
"No, this is close enough."
The lions are a little over 100 feet away. "Come!" I edge a little more forward. "Come!"
"No. This is fine."
"Because those are lions. Lions eat meat. I am meat."
They laugh. "Come!"
No. This really is close enough.
The lions are interested in us. Curious. And they don't take their eyes off us. We stand and look for about five minutes. It seems like and eternity.
I go back to the jeep, the driver and guide follow. The locals think it's funny that I've, essentially retreated. They especially liked the part of the play where I acted out the very-well-played part of "meat." They also are fascinated by the lions, which surprises me a little because they've got to see them all the time.
As we sit in the jeep, the lions get up. But there aren't two, there are four. A very large lioness moves behind and the three old-ish cubs move in front. It's two females and a male. The lioness moves quickly across the road, maybe 50 feet from the jeep and into the bush. She's making her way to the water tank. The three younger ones take their time. They're tracking over the area we were in, and particularly are interested in the trail of the driver.
They get to the road, again about 50 feet from the vehicle, and lie down in the middle of it. The male rolls on his back and scratches himself. The get up and move into a small set of undergrowth on the far side of the road.
We sit for a bit and then the driver wheels the jeep around. We go back to where the cats had left the road. The three are lying, but muscle tense, in the shade. We are, at most 25 feet away. They don't move and we don't move. I'm close enough that I can see the flies on their noses and an identifying white patch of fur behind one of the female's front paws.
My brother has a bunch of wildlife photos on his walls, some he's shot with a self-made motion-sensitive camera, the rest have been shot by his wife under a fair amount of magnification. If I shot these lions, right now, with that level of magnification, I would see the reflection of my camera in the left eye of the closest one.
Aside from a few antelope that I've taunted in WY, I've never been this close to a truly feral animal. Which means I've also never been this close to a carnivore. They are attentive without being tense, and probably because I'm both the highest, and only exposed person in the vehicle, they are staring at me.
They're beautiful creatures. 100% muscle. Faces that are losing the look of juvenile. The coats are a light amber with just a hint of darkening near their heads. The look is one of curiosity. In the guide books they say that the lions essentially ignore the jeeps, but right now, right this second, we are quite literally, the only game in town.
It is awesome.
People fall into two broad categories when they run across wildlife -- those who just stop and stare, and those who expect "something more." You see those kinds of people at the zoos -- they holler at the animals and bang on the glass. Your cousin is one -- I once saw him chase a tapir through the edge of a Malaysian rain forest (and I'm still not sure what he would have done if he'd caught it). I've never understood where it comes from -- but it's not an inherent part of me. It was either beaten out of me as a small child, or I never had it in me in the first place.
The driver has it in spades, though. He's making a squeezing/clicking sound with his mouth. The lions are interested in this. Definitely.
After sitting for maybe ten minutes, we drive down the road. The driver and guide get out of the jeep to have a post-codial cigarette and offer me one. I've smoked bidi with Muslims before, in fact my Xmas cards one year had the photo of it -- but this isn't the time, nor the place.
The mom is also somewhere in here and I don't want to tangle with that.
"How was it?" the guide asks.
He's not going to understand. How do I make this succinct? It's something I've thought about, nearly every day, for the last ten years. I cut this part of my last In. trip off and had regretted it. There's almost nothing in my life I regret (although the things I do regret are biggies). And now it's done. Not only is it done, but sort of against the odds -- post poaching and with the two stupidest of the three stooges guiding me.
They both know the word and kind of mock it. They follow this with "You should have a camera. You need camera. No camera, mistake. Big mistake."
I'm not having this conversation, so I say the obvious. "Yes."
We get back in the jeep and drive back. The lions have moved up next to the road. We pull up next to them and now I am, at most seven feet away. I can hear them breathe. I can even hear them blink.
The idiot driver is making his clicking sound again. Without taking my eyes off the lions I lean forward to ask him to stop and just as I do, I see a flicker in the eyes of the male. He's switched from curious and playful to something far more sinister. That, right there, two arm's lengths from me, without question, is the look of "kill."
Fortunately the guide has seen it too and whispers to the driver -- without even thinking I say, "He's right, we need to go now."
The piece of crap Tata has been starting only sometimes. I'm figuring out just what the hell I should do if this lion comes at me. I'd say it weighs about 300 pounds, but it may well be more because of the muscle mass. I'm not sure. And indecision, in a situation like this, is worse than no plan. Go between the seats feet up and kick like hell. That's the best, I guess.
The Tata fires up and it's only then that the driver sees what the guide and I have been seeing. He mutters some obscenity under his breath and the jeep starts pulling away. The male jumps up and starts following the jeep. The driver accelerates and the lion kicks into full-on "hunt" mode, dropping low to the ground and running fast. He's gaining on us. And, at the risk of personification, it seems as though he's enjoying it.
The road is going to drop down back to the place where we originally saw them. We can't hit that bridge at speed or we'll either spill the vehicle or punch through the bridge. Which means we can't go faster than we are right now. Which means we'll have to slow up in about 100 yards. Which means I may be the front page news of the Gu. paper tomorrow.
And then the lion just quits running. He goes to a plod. He's not tired. In fact, I don't know why he stopped. He lies down in the road and watches us pull away.
The driver and guide don't speak to each other and it takes about 40 minutes of rolling through the park for me to regain general mental composure. I'm flicking through everything frame-by-frame. So much of your life get encapsulated into days that you just forget. So much just "goes away." It's so rarely that something lives up to your expectations. And my expectations are so high. Both of myself and the people around me -- it's more of a curse than a blessing. While it's true it has brought about some of the greatest accomplishments of my life, it's also left me, and many of the people I've truly loved, gigantic psychological scars.
And then there is this.
If you sit and describe the ultimate event, the thing you'd like to see, would it be less than what just happened? Probably. Goddamn.
Lions. Here. In this place. You'd never see a slide and think, "That's where lions are." Never. I smelled them, I saw them, they chased me.
We see some more wildlife, but nothing like what's happened, we drop the guide and head back to the hotel. The fee for the gypsy jeep is RS800, which is only RS200 more than the park -- it's not unreasonable. Now normally I'd book another evening trip into the park -- in fact, I have never been disappointed by a second trip into In.'s major wildlife parks, even after a major sighting, but I don't think I will today. The park itself is not beautiful and it's not clear how things can get "better." Only an idiot keeps climbing a mountain once he's at the top.
I spend the afternoon writing postcards and a letter that I may or may not be able to find postage for -- sitting on my terrace with my mountain view room. Lots of time to think.
If I stand up on my chair, and look to the left, just beyond the mango plantation, I can see the trace of the road. If you go across that road, just at the bend, there are lions -- they are, in fact, the last Asiatic lions in the world ...
... I know this because I've seen them,