A Sanctuary of Luxury in Gir

At Aramness, Gir National Park, the wonder of wildlife, from Asiatic lions to sleepy crocs, works in tandem with a lavish lodge to provide an unparalleled safari experience.

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The Haveli’s lamp-bestrewn dining area (left) is one of the property’s many culinary outlets, including garden luncheons and night-time barbecues on the patio; Gir National Park holds the largest lion population in India (right). PHOTO COURTESY: ARAMNESS, GIR

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With each step the thews of his forearms ripple like rivulets coursing over river rock. Amber eyes lock mine with the welly of sparing spotted deer antlers, drinking in the fear and fascination at seeing a lion pace seven feet away from the safari jeep. The cub in the background watches the male. It’s as if he’s a slack-jawed child studying the moves of Shah Rukh for the first time, learning how to strut his strength with a tsunami of swagger. The alpha is refusing to let me pass the trail, he won’t let me leave my dream, and that’s fine by me.

The clay earth jolts me awake, my eyes darting out the window of the Fortuner crawling over the rutty road: no lions, just a comically stunned chital meeting my gaze from the surrounding forest. After a three-hour drive from Rajkot, I reached Gujarat’s Gir National Park, ambling through the woodland towards my safari lodge, Aramness—the deer bolting away towards the property as if to tell my hosts that I arrived.

 

A Sanctuary Of Luxury In Gir

A peacock (top) makes itself at home at a Maldhari village within the confines of Gir National Park; Each kothi at Aramness is a two-storey villa, the lower salon area (bottom) drinking in natural light from the private veranda. Photo Courtesy: Aramness, Gir (Kothi), Julian Manning (Peacock)

Namesake and Nature

Ensconced in the native dry deciduous forest, the 12-acre property opens its gates up to a colonnade of fruit trees, guiding me past flowers floating in ponds, and lush farmland that supplements the kitchen. The frontage of the formidable safari lodge is framed by the landscape’s foliage, intricate yet massive jali-screens fashioned out of sandstone cloak the haveli and pool house, mimicking the contours of teak leaves that rustle all around this opulent outpost. Cold towels and warm smiles usher me into the vast ‘village’, Aramness taking its name from the Hindi word ‘aram’ (rest) and ‘ness’, the name for a Maldhari tribal settlement, several of which are located within the national park confines.

I’m informed that this reference to the community, which coexists among the wildlife within Gir’s 1,412 square kilometres of protected nature, is a nod to the rare balance of coadaptation the founder, Jimmy Patel—a passionate wildlife conservationist and photographer from Gujarat—aspired to replicate when he took over a swathe of forsaken farmland in the buffer zone, years ago. His vision was carried out by a collaboration between Fox Browne Creative and Nicholas Plewman Architects, two design firms whose accolades include creating some of Africa’s most stunning sustainable lodges. The spanking new complex that sprawls over 40 per cent of this 12-acre slice of the Gir National Park buffer zone is reminiscent of grand lodges I encountered on my first safari in Maasai Mara, but I constantly learn that the implemented motifs and materials mirror the majesty of this region with mesmerising elegance.

I make a beeline for my kothi, one of the property’s 18 private villas, guided by my butler, Yash. The exquisitely refurbished haveli door swings open to swish interiors, which I trot about in like a lion cub exploring new territory, peering and poking my head around the sleek space. I make a note to make use of the marble bathtub and my personal plunge pool as the butler brings lunch to the patio (I could get used to saying that): lounging upon the daybed like a nawab posing for a portrait, grazing on a wholesome meal of pumpkin bhartu–the winter squash grown in the edible garden. During the afternoon I opt for a nature walk across the surrounding protected zone with Head Naturalist, Varun Taneja, one of the property’s four wildlife experts. He guides me through tall grass, stopping to pluck a couple fresh juju berries for us to munch on as he tells me about how a staff member chanced upon a leopard last night: on the road I had not long ago driven up on.

Off in the distance we see Naman, another of Aramness’s naturalists, waving us to an elaborate picnic setup in the grasslands. We join him, and while Varun mixes me a kesar mango cordial and tonic, made from the property’s scrumptious fruit, Naman begins to lift nearby rocks in hopes of showing me a scorpion. Upon turning the second one he ushers me over, pointing out a large yet well-camouflaged arachnid. The creature looks bloated, and Naman informs me it is an Indian Red Tail Scorpion—one of the most venomous in the world—and that because of his inflated appearance we can deduce it is a male. I struggle to rein in my smile, not wanting to offend the obese deathtrap; I had never known there were, in layman’s terms, chubby scorpions.

Until the last licks of sunset the two naturalists help me out with ornithology 101, sensing my curiosity on the matter, explaining how to break down a sighting. First figure out what family the bird belongs to, they tell me, and then use its characteristics, from its plumage to its flight pattern, to better classify the bird. In perfect timing, Naman hands me the binoculars and points to the top of a tree in the distance. “Okay, you see those birds on the uppermost branch…alright, just tell me, what kind of bird do they remind you of?”

 

A Sanctuary Of Luxury In Gir

Clockwise from top left: The Pool House offers guests the opportunity to take a dip in the midst of grasslands and forest; A oneness with nature underlines Gir’s communities, from the wholesome millet patties fed to the Maldharis’ buffalo and the bright bougainvillea that twists itself around village gates to farm-to-table food served at Aramness. Photo Courtesy: Aramness, Gir (Pool & Salad), Julian Manning (Patty & Gate)

“Uhhh,” I groan. “Honestly, they kinda look
like pigeons to me,” I venture.


“Excellent!” he says, “Now tell me, what
colour are they?


“A sort of neon green”


“Yes! And the feet?”


“Kinda yellow…”


“There, you got it!”


“Got what?”


“They are yellow-footed green pigeons. Good job!”

 

Even though Naman handed that to me on a silver platter, I grin like I had just impressed my favourite teacher in the 6th standard. As daylight wanes, Varun and I make our way back to Aramness while Naman’s smile waxes at the prospect of staying to spot minivets roosting in the nearby treetops. During a satisfying Italian dinner of pesto pasta and wood-fired shrimp pizza, I’m told to keep an ear out for a late-night lion roar that the staff had recently heard echo from the forest edge near my kothi. After returning to my villa and logging on to the Wi-Fi to make sure yellow-footed green pigeons are an actual species, I try to stay awake to hear the lion’s call, but the warm hot water bottles and plush comforters lull me to sleep before I even have a chance.

 

Bones and Brooks

My butler wakes me before dawn, compassionately pouring freshly brewed French Press into my mug. By 5:45 a.m. I’m climbing into a restored Gypsy next to Varun, en route to the park’s doorstep to pick up our government-mandated local driver and guide at the Sasan-Gir Forest Department. Varun has a game plan, “Today, we’ll concentrate on lions. We’ll get to the park early and take a longer route to an area where a pride has been active.” While he’s keen for me to see lions, he also wants me to have time to experience greater flora and fauna of the park, and hopes that an early sighting will give us enough time to achieve this.

 

A Sanctuary Of Luxury In Gir

Though lion sightings are never a guarantee, Gir homes plentiful prides, the writer spotting 12 Asiatic lions over two three-hour safari outings.

 

We’re the second vehicle in the gates, and we take a sharp right down Route One and drive for 40 minutes along the periphery of the park. As we twist and turn along the track, the jeep headlights reveal millisecond vignettes through the dark vegetation, from leaping langurs to bounding bucks. Gradually, the sky’s hue shifts, the faint pinks of ballet shoes dancing across the horizon, hinting at sunrise as we move past a Siddi village, one of 60-something hamlets classified as tribal territories that still exist in the national park. Five minutes later, a murder of Indian jungle crows draws my attention to the flensed carcass of a water buffalo, and with it, a lion and a lioness, gnawing the meat off the bones, 40 feet away.

We move down the road to a watering hole where another jeep is positioned, the tourists’ lens’ trained on other members of the sizable family, two adolescents and five cubs, that are resting near the site of their kill—perhaps a portion of the previously spotted buffalo carcass that had been dragged off for the youngsters. They are, similarly, about 40 feet away, but suddenly the adult male moves towards our small convoy, passing a spitting distance from the back of my jeep, and stops under the shade of a small tree a short ways away, on the other side of the road. The female follows, patiently putting one paw in front of the other as she walks past, her inner forearm caked with buffalo blood. The cubs come after, one by one, the first perching along the side of the road to better peer at us, before they all begin to tumble across the grass in play.

Now, having spotted lions, Varun simply wants me to enjoy the beauty of the park, and I’m all onboard as we mosey past the shimmering white trunks and empty branches of ‘ghost trees’ that look like they’re lifted from the pages of fantasy novels, until we stop over a passing stream. We cut the engine and then cut the still-warm chai into matka mugs, and I dig into a chicken ham sandwich and soft banana bread as the rustling brush works with the babbling brook to lull much-needed slack into my stressed city shoulders. The rest of the outing is spent birding. I spot a portly Kingfisher, Varun points out a Blue Heron perched over a river, surrounded by a flutter of parakeets, and we leave with a face-to-face encounter with a curious Shikra hawk.

A Sanctuary Of Luxury In Gir

Lazing langurs (top left) line the trees along the safari trails; Varun, the Head Naturalist at Aramness, explains the medicinal benefits of the surrounding bael trees (top right); While the successful conservation of Gir’s Asiatic lion population is the overarching draw of the national park, its significant Indian leopard population (bottom) is not to be eclipsed–though, ironically, their existence is often cloaked by the dense habitats in which they thrive. Photo by: Julian Manning (LLANGUR & Book), Photo Courtesy: Aramness, Gir (Leopards)

After a wholesome chicken curry lunch, a gander at the library’s collection of antique wildlife art, and a refreshing soak in my plunge pool, I’m all ready to link up with my Maldhari guide from the morning–the man who had earlier caressed his burly arm while I snacked on my sandwich, and informed me that a litre of buffalo milk a day is all he needs to stay strong. The Maldhari are classified as a buffalo herding tribe, nomads who once roamed the regions around the national park and beyond. Today, several outposts are now permanent settlements within its borders, and the herders still take their livestock on daily outings through the potentially perilous forest, letting them graze from dawn until dusk.

At the ’ness, peacocks peer over the thatched roof and swarms of sparrows flit from their nests in the rafters. We arrive at feeding time, when the calves, kept in the open-air centre of the mud-plastered home, munch on sun-dried millet patties. We sit down to slurp chai made from fresh buffalo milk admiring the bright bougainvillea that stretches into the barn area. The humble network of homes fashioned out of traditional techniques was the design outline for the glamorous cluster of kothis at Aramness, hence the name. It’s clear livelihood and not luxury defines the scene here, but the charming azonic flow and use of natural and local resources reflect what Aramness’ designers ultimately drew from this ancient community’s way of living: hospitality as comforting as the chai I’m sipping out of a stainless steel saucer, as is the way in most of Gujarat, and a oneness with nature.

An evening bonfire and hot toddy in the brisk breeze mark my return to Aramness. For dinner I dig into a 21-dish Gujarati thali served on kansa utensils, comprising exemplary pumpkin methi, limbdi chicken, and cabbage sambharo, to mention but a few samples that show off consultant Kamini Patel’s—Founder of Kitchen Therapy—and Executive Chef Chetan Singh Rana’s superlative attention to the area’s ample and artful culinary accents.

 

Roars and Rills

After a morning visit to Somnath Temple, an hour’s drive from Gir, I opt for a massage in my room and later read a chapter of Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train on my balcony overlooking the forest, before my afternoon safari. Given Varun and I had spotted nine lions yesterday, we decide not to chase the popular big cats and aim to venture through as much of the park’s terrain as possible. Five minutes in, our guide miraculously spots a spotted owlet half-hidden behind a teak tree. Then we head to a reservoir and stop the jeep to enjoy the vista.

Later on, we cross a stream gently cascading towards a tiered waterfall. I’m chuffed to spy a nearby red-wattled lapwing standing in the water, but the natty naturalist next to me hones in on a huge croc basking on a sunbaked rock about half a football field away. As we pull out of the river and climb a hillock, we meet a Maldhari herder who our driver greets with a hearty, “Jai Mata Di!” We stop to let his 40-something herd pass, his homespun axe glistening in the sun. Soon after, we pause by a watering hole that is circulated by a nearby windmill, one of many simple and intelligent solutions used in the park, our quiet presence guerdoned with another hawk sighting.

During our last hour in the park we drive up to three safari jeeps and a host of forest officers stopped on the track. Varun whips out his binoculars and says, “This is a rare one,” explaining that one doesn’t often see two adolescent males solely accompanying a tiny cub. While the rule of thumb is that lions are less aggressive towards safari-goers than tigers in close proximity, nobody wants to lose an appendage, or more, by betting too heavily on that adage; the forest officers inform everyone not to move closer to them as the males may be on edge when on babysitting duty. Just then, a lofty roar rings out, what Varun expects is the unseen lioness calling out to her cub. The trio stand up and trot down the road towards the call. All the other jeeps are told to hang back, but we are allowed to move forward with the forest officers as we are coming up to our cut-off limit of three hours at the park, since the lions had been blocking the path. And even though they move down the road, they are still in our way, or more accurately, we are in theirs.

A Sanctuary Of Luxury In Gir

After a late safari, pre-dinner drinks around a bonfire provide the ideal atmosphere to unwind after a day well spent in the wild. Photo Courtesy: Aramness, Gir

The larger of the two male lions seems unhappy about our patient progression on the road behind them, and often stops to sit in the centre of the trail and scowl at us. Our driver, who bore witness to a gruesome encounter years ago, is so rattled our guide takes over the wheel and manoeuvres us around the lions with but a metre or two to spare–seconds that stretch out into a slo-mo saga. I share a smile with Varun as we squeeze by unscathed and clock out of the park in the nick of time; our reluctance to chase big cats almost appeared to have been ‘rewarded’ with a big cat chasing us, a would-be parable I am happy I didn’t have to participate in.

A striking nighttime barbecue marks my last evening at Aramness, the Haveli’s lawn lit up with a dazzling display of vintage-style, faux kerosene lanterns. I swap safari stories with a lovely family from Ahmedabad under the stars, and we unwrap the treasures of our time in the park like friends exchanging Christmas presents–they had spotted a large male leopard, a fine sighting to make amidst the forest veil. After a feast of hearty black dal and a surfeit of sizzling and succulent kebabs, I bid farewell to Varun and Naman.

My entire time at Aramness, Gir National Park I strove to keep my eyes wide open, but as soon as I left for my morning flight they started to shutter, holding onto the moments of my safari like a vision you just don’t want to let go. With only a minute or two of shut-eye, the driver chimes, “Sir, sir!” arousing me from reliving yesterday’s lion sighting to show me a pack of jackals trotting through the grassland just outside the car window. As I look upon this impromptu farewell party, I enjoy my last taste of tranquility at Gir the way my gracious hosts taught me, channeling the calmness of Varun—who made sure my time in the forest wasn’t a frantic race for big cats, but a relaxed rove that respected all the wonders we met on the way–and Naman’s smile as he scoured the horizon for minivets, ready to stay just a little bit longer.

 

 

This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India March-April 2022.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

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  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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