Forests. Forts. Coral walks. Asokan edicts. Extinct volcanoes. Ghee-wale jalebis. Usha Subramaniam finds all this and more in a week-long road trip.
Rustic colour codes peppered our week-long road trip in Kathiawar... ochre-grey stone walls, straggly clumps of cacti thriving on dry scrubland, swathes of dark furrowed earth, vast mango orchards, groundnut fields, sturdy teak, luxuriant banana plantations, gleaming multi-hued chakdas (Gujarat’s ubiquitous jugaads) loaded with glinting milk-vans and colourfully attired rural womenfolk!
Hitting the road at Rajkot we sped past Jetpur — oh, for a dekko of its famed textile outlets — to Sasan Gir 160 km away and checked into the 100-year-old, sprawling, Forest Department-run Sinh Sadan Guest House, once the erstwhile Nawab of Junagarh’s hunting lodge. Would we glimpse one Asiatic Lion? Barely 411 now survive within Gir’s 1400 sq.km of protected forests and nowhere else in the world. Driving on one of eight defined trails, each 30 to 35 km, we caught sight of a lion leisurely sauntering ahead. We gaped spellbound as he strode, drank water, threw us an unperturbed look and languidly went looking for two siblings. Later, in the gathering dusk, as our jeep headed to the exit gates, a “log” lay across the path. A head gradually reared, watching us. A three or four-year-old lioness, said the guide, as she strolled into the thicket beyond. Sometimes, lions use trails, quite unlike elusive leopards that lurk in dense undergrowth. Luckily, priceless images of this endangered animal were framed in our memories to last a lifetime.
Kathiawar’s roads are spoken of in superlatives but large stretches of the 90 km Somnath-Diu road were lamentable. Nevertheless, traversing vacant swampy flatlands threaded by tickling rivulets, across an unpretentious bridge and arch, we came upon deserted roads straddled by Diu’s distinctive multi-branched hokka palms. The south-eastern coast of the tiny island has a rugged, rambling fort built by the Portuguese in 1535. Though the chapel and armory quarters are in ruins, the bastions, numerous cannons, lighthouse and commanding views of the sea make the exploration thoroughly enjoyable. Panikotha, the ship-shaped, desolate, grey fort bestride the sea, was intriguing but clawing hunger dragged us away towards restaurants along Diu’s beautiful Nagoa beach where luscious trees and coconut palms gaily swayed beneath refulgent skies that merged with the cerulean sea in the far horizon.
Restaurants were closed. Our driver belatedly advised: restaurants in Kathiawar are closed 3-7 pm, so finish lunch by 2 pm. Settling for filling deep-fried faafdaas, ghee-wale jalebis (bought earlier from way-side stalls upon the driver’s insistence) and coconut water, we enjoyed the serenity of crowd-free beaches as dusk fell.
The unexpected gem was Junagarh with astoundingly diverse periods and styles of monuments — the ancient Uperkot Fort, three-tiered Buddhist monasteries dating to 2 century AD, the astonishing 1000-year-old Navghan Kuwo (step-well), magnificent but dusty exhibits at Durbar Hall Museum, Bahauddin Maqbara’s dichotomy of architectural flourishes, 14 Asokan edicts of 3 century BC carefully sheltered within a clean whitewashed building (unlike the important Asokan edict near ISKCON, Delhi, where a scant “cage” is all that “preserves” faint traces of the edict).
Rugged Girnar is an extinct volcano that surveys Junagarh from a 3,383-ft elevation, Gujarat’s highest. Regretfully excluded from our schedule since six to 10 hours are required for the arduous 9999-steps climb to the summit, we, however, learnt of a unique adventure that awaits fleet-footed youth. The Girnar Ascending-Descending Competition is conducted in the first week of January every year. Apart from medals awarded by the State Government, bountiful prize money awaits winners. Dev Ambalia, the gold medallist in 1979, mentioned that Girnir is Wi-Fi enabled for live telecast of the competition. He now coaches participants prior to the competition.
At Porbandar, our GPS showed no trace of Kirti Mandir. After several enquiries we located the 22-roomed, three-storied dwelling in which the Father of the Nation was born. Browsing the cramped photo gallery, we rued about photographs being haphazardly displayed, wishing it had at least a chronological order.
Sixty km west of Jamnagar, Narara’s near-isolated landscape unfurled before us. Treading past vast rippled mudflats and shrubland mangroves towards the ebbing waters in the distance, I squealed at the sight of hundreds of molluscs and dull chunks of algae-covered coral strewn around. In the receding tide were trapped several varieties of crabs, sponges, dozens of fish. Plodding on patiently, our guide upturned rocks, coral, sponges seeking starfish, octopus and sea cucumber. Here, spread out, is an exotic marine-scape, best explored in a four-hour adventure during December-January.