“Velavadar? Where is that?” – That was the most common reaction from family & friends when I told where them my next short break destination was. Such is the anonymity of the park that even in Gujarat where the park is located the driver scheduled to take us there from Ahmedabad didn’t know where it was. ( We got there thanks to Google Maps!)
So then why Velavadar? The relative unknown nature of the park among the general population is exactly why. The only people visiting are Birders and wildlife enthusiasts. Also, since it is not a ” Tiger Project” Park it does not get the crazy hordes that plague the famous national parks of India. Also apart from the park itself there is nothing remotely touristy in the area which helps protect its untouched nature. ( Hell! there is not a single souvenir stand in the area!)
Velavadar or “The Blackbuck National Park” has huge herds of blackbucks, nilgais roaming pristine grasslands. It also gives a chance to view rare predators like the Indian Wolf, Striped Hyena, the Indian fox & The Wild cat. These predators thrive in this park due to the absence of the big cats. Also in the birding season from October to February the park hosts a huge number of Raptors. The park is recognised as the site where a large number of Harriers roost every year & gives the best chance to see these otherwise high flying birds up close.
So on a free weekend we booked our plane tickets to Ahmedabad from Mumbai. From there we would drive down to the park which is a 3 hour drive away. Another reason the park is relatively unknown is that there is hardly any option to stay near the park. Being budget travellers we did not even think about the ultra expensive privately owned “Blackbuck Lodge” near the park. The only other place to stay in Velavadar is the government owned forest rest house named “Kaliyar Bhavan”. Earlier the process of booking a room here was ultra tedious. First you had to call the Bhavnagar forest office and book a room. Then you had to make a demand draft from a particular bank and send it there. Then you had to call after a few days to see if they received it! Typical bureaucracy! Thankfully it has become much simpler now. Now you only have to call the office and book a room 15 days in advance and pay by cash there.
My friend did the needful there as the Bhavnagar office staff refused to speak in any other language other than Gujarati. The safaris and guides have to be booked on the spot and due to the lack of crowds is a very smooth affair. With all preparations done me, my dad and friend set out on a Friday evening from Mumbai.
We flew to Ahmedabad where the vehicle booked was there to receive us. After a change of driver at the office of the transport company we were off. The roads in Gujarat are very well maintained. But the one hour delay in our flight plus the need to enter Ahmedabad city to change drivers meant that we were very late in reaching Velavadar.
It was almost midnight when we reached the park there appeared not a soul in sight and luckily we saw the Forest Officer on duty at the park gate office & he told us that the dormitory that we had booked was just next door and that it would be open with the key in the lock! Such a thing is unthinkable in any other place I have visited in India. But the secluded nature of Velavadar allows such things to be possible.
We reached the dormitory to find it open and surprisingly clean and well maintained. All 3 of us and our driver Mannubhai quickly chose a bed and dropped off to sleep since we had to wake up early for the safari the coming morning.
All of us woke up on time the next morning and got ready to go to the park. I had read that the entry time was 6.30am. So we reached according to that information. It turned out that the opening time in winter was 7 am so we decided to drive out 10 km to the highway for a hot cup of tea.
Refreshed after a cup of tea we paid our fees to enter the park and hire a Guide. We are allowed to take our own vehicle inside the park. So we had booked a Toyota Innova with a commander seat so that all 3 of us and the guide had a window seat. Our guide for the safari ( and the rest of the trip) was Vishal, a young local with good knowledge, friendly disposition and a keen eye. We made our introductions and entered the park to be greeted by a huge herd of blackbucks. It was still not bright enough to get good photos. So we couldn’t take a photo and were left staring in amazement when the lead male jumped right across the road in front of our car. The whole herd followed and we just sat and witnessed their graceful movements. Right there in the first 5 minutes I knew that I would have fun taking photos here and I wasn’t wrong.
We left the first herd behind after taking a photo or two.
Just ahead we saw the only car in front of us stop suddenly and from behind it ran a Alpha Male Indian Wolf. It didn’t stop running till it was a fair distance from the track and in that light we could only get a blurry photo of a wolf in the distance. But it had been a lucky start to the trip.
Next we came across a group of Nilgai or Blue bulls. These huge antelope (despite it’s name it is not a cow!) is the largest Asian antelope and enjoys a fair degree of protection in India even outside the parks. This herd was grazing except for a pair of males who were posturing to show who was boss. Sadly the contender backed off without a fight and left two keen photographers disappointed.
As the light improved so did the photos and the bird activity giving us some decent photos.
We then visited the wetlands on the opposite side of the road that cuts through the park. The lack of rainfall last monsoons meant that the wetlands were almost dry and the number of waterbirds were far less than usual. But we still got a few birds to whet our photographic appetite.
We then cut across back to the grasslands where a hyena sighting had been reported. The Indian Striped Hyena is a scavenger which builds huge subterranean dens as home and is mainly nocturnal in nature. Early mornings and late evenings are the only chance to see this rarely spotted creature. So we rushed to the location of the Hyena den under Vishal’s expert guidance. We made an unscheduled stop to take photos of a Grey Francolin posing majestically on a rock. These timid birds usually scurry away at the sight of humans so it was a opportunity that couldn’t be missed.
After giving the Francolin its due we reached the Hyena den to see it far away from the road. We didn’t expect it to come any closer and took whatever photos we could get at the moment.
Luckily for us the Hyena was thirsty and came towards us as the waterhole was on the opposite side of the track. Vishal our guide positioned our vehicle in such a way that the Hyena had adequate place to cross. We saw the speck get closer and closer till it came out of the grass right in front of our car and we got the photos we had waited for. It crossed right behind our car and went to the water hole on the other side.
It had just got to the opposite side when some inexperienced driver raced a car just behind us and the Hyena set off racing and quickly disappeared to the safety of its den.
It was bright and sunny by now and the blackbuck herds were out in full force. I had a blast filling up my SD card with a gazillion photos of these elegant creatures. There was an albino black buck in the herd and it stood out in the otherwise camouflaged herd.
To see a blackbuck jumping is a thing of absolute beauty for which words are inadequate. You have to see it once and it will stay with you forever.
The huge herds are to be seen to be believed. Their number has increased from a few hundred when the park was formed to a few thousand now and when you reach a big herd they can fill every corner of your frame. You feel that you have reached the grasslands of Africa!
Due to the lack of water the only cranes around were the common cranes. Small groups of these tall, lanky birds roamed in between the herd of blackbuck and we saw a group close to the track and stopped to take a few photos.
We then got down at a watchtower to see if there were any wolves around the area. Though there were none in the vicinity we got the chance to photograph two of the most common birds of the park – The silver beak and the crested lark.
We then decided to visit the museum inside the park which has paintings of the wildlife that can be seen inside the park and some history of the park. On the way Vishal spotted a Kestrel on a tree nearby and asked Mannubhai to slow down lest it flew away. We got a few really good photos of the Common Kestrel before leaving it in peace and visiting the museum.
I remember the museum more for the parakeets which had made their home in the rafters of the shed which houses the museum. I took no photos in the museum and lots of the parakeets outside.
After visiting the museum it was time to leave the park and we returned to our dormitory. Just outside the gate on the side of the road was a huge purple heron fishing at a small pond. We got some great close ups of the bird before it got too irritated with us and flew off.
We had only eaten some packed theplas for breakfast before entering the park and were very hungry now. Food is available on prior notice at the Kaliyar Bhavan but since we had arrived late night and gone to the park early morning we hadn’t met any staff there. My friend requested them to make some food for us and thankfully they agreed. We ate the rustic but tasty and freshly made food and rested for a while.
After a short nap I woke up to walk around the rest house grounds with a camera in hand and was rewarded with photos of the long tailed shrike, the fork tail drone and the black shouldered kite.
Soon it was time to enter the park again and we had asked Vishal to join us for all the Safaris we would do. Thankfully that was possible here unlike most other national parks in India. We paid the fees and entered the park for the shorter evening safari.
The first sighting was a soaring tawny eagle which did a quick fly by and gave us a chance to photograph it in flight.
We hadn’t spotted a jungle cat in the morning safari. In the afternoon one we spotted two in quick succession. One got spooked by the approaching bike of the forest officer and quickly slinked away.
We were still talking about what a missed chance that jungle cat sighting was when Vishal spotted another one. The one sitting in the open and this one gave us a few poses before disappearing into the tall grass.
What came next was a lesson of how some humans can injure creatures while others can go above and beyond to prevent them from getting hurt. Till now we had only spotted Pallid harriers in the distance, so we were surprised when we came upon one sitting in a tree right by the road. Vishal noticed that the Harrier was resting on one leg. We took some photos of the injured bird before moving on. A short distance ahead Vishal noticed something, confirmed with his binoculars and asked Mannubhai to stop.
Before we could ask him what it was, he was out of the car and walking swiftly across the grassland. Soon we realised why, it was a kite with a lot of the sharp kite string attached stretched taut across the grassland. The poor harrier in all probability might have flown right into this death trap and cut its leg on the sharp manjaa. If Vishal hadn’t removed it who knows how many more would have got hurt.
We then set off with kite and string safely in our car. We spotted a huge Nilgai Male right by the road chewing away to glory. The light was perfect and we took photos of the huge antelope with its jaw in every possible position!
As the light faded we spotted a pack of Wolves rushing across in the distant plains. We took a few photos and decided to follow their general direction.
What we witnessed in the next half an hour was typical pack behaviour of wolves. They had sighted a huge cow that had strayed into the park and the four wolves were trying to tire it down by making it run and surrounding it from all sides. The cow was not a small sized animal and it had huge horns to boot! It charged any wolf that got too close to send the predator scurrying away.
This continued for a good 15-20 minutes before the wolves decided that it was not worth the risk and slinked away to find a less fiesta meal. With that our first day at the park was at an end and we were on our way out when we saw the most joyous sight.
A two day old fawn running like the wind across the grasslands. Running circles around the herd it was part of. The speed and agility of this young one brought a big smile to the face of everyone in our car. That was the last photos we took before we moved out of the park.
Vishal informed us that a fox visited the dormitory complex for food after dark. So after an early dinner of tasty local cuisine we camped with our cameras outside our room. But a noisy family had moved into the other dormitory and we gave up thinking that the fox wouldn’t come in all that disturbance.
We had almost slept off when the staff came to inform us that the fox had come. We saw this cute little predator in the torch light scurrying around wary of all the humans, but wanting table scarps at the same time.
We took some photos knowing that this might be the only time that we see a fox that trip and it was. hopefully some day we will return to Velavadar to see a fox in some better light. But till then we have to be satisfied with some blurry night photos.
With that we came to the end of our first full day at Velavadar. It had exceeded our expectations on all fronts and we slept happy at the days sightings and eagerly expecting some more the coming day.
What we would see the next day is a something for another post, some other day some other time. As it is I have almost doubled my usual word limit singing paeans of this hidden gem of a park.
Till next time.