I am happy to be writing a new post after what has been my longest period away from the blog after I started it 5 years ago. The reasons for the prolonged absence, as most would have guessed, are the lack of travel due to the now seemingly never-ending pandemic and my reluctance to board a flight due to the same. So all my travel has been restricted to destinations that are within a day’s drive from my home in Mumbai.
Last year in the lull between the godforsaken peaks of the pandemic we had driven to the Old Magazine House in Karnataka for a short vacation. (The Old Magazine House, Part 1 – Initiation into the birders paradise ) So this time we decided to train our sights northwards and plan a longer vacation to the state of Gujarat.
Due to professional commitments we could only go after the festival of Diwali, so it meant travelling in the school (albeit online nowadays!) vacation. I have always hated travelling to crowded places and the pandemic has only reinforced my phobia of crowded places, so we had to choose destinations that were relatively unpopular among the masses. In a country as populated as India that isn’t an easy task. Gujarat is a state that is full of great destinations, so we had no shortage of places to choose from.
Luckily (for me!) it was also the start of the migratory season for birds from Europe and beyond to the Indian Subcontinent. Gujarat has some great birding destinations that are known mostly to hardcore wildlife and bird lovers and not frequented by the masses. One such destination is the Little Rann of Kutch that we had visited 7 years ago (Little Rann of Kutch – A Birders Paradise). Meeting hardcore birders on our travels over the past 7 years and hearing praises of the Little Rann made me want to revisit the place again. The other place we decided to included was Velavadar National Park which I had gone to just a couple of years ago with my father and a friend. (Velavadar, Part 1 -The hidden magical grassland park of India ) The better half had heard me wax eloquent about it since then and wanted to see what the fuss was all about. So we included it on the itinerary.
But this post isn’t about birds or national parks at all. As we searched the route to be taken to reach the intended birding destinations we saw that another recently developed tourist destination was relatively on the way. The Statue of Unity ( given the massive media push the statue has received since it has been planned everyone in India knows it, so this is for the rare person who doesn’t !) is a statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the first home minister of India. It is currently the tallest statue in the world at 182m, dwarfing all other well known statues like the Statue of Liberty in the USA, Christ the Redeemer in Rio, Brazil and the Spring Temple Buddha in China. It is built overlooking the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river and has become a very popular destination since it was inaugurated. Putting the statue on the itinerary meant breaking my no crowded place rule. But since the statue wasn’t a destination I would specifically plan a trip to, I decided to grit my teeth and bear the crowds with my fingers and toes crossed.
As preparation for the statue visit I booked “Express entry” tickets from the surprisingly well laid out website (https://www.soutickets.in/ ) expecting huge crowds for the Diwali vacation. If anyone reading this is planning a visit to the statue on a public holiday / school vacations I would highly urge you to splurge on the Express entry tickets.
With all preparations done we set out from Mumbai in our hired car at 6 am and had a smooth ride to the Statue. We reached the parking lot of the statue at 12.30 pm and boarded a ramshackle, supposedly electric bus to reach the site of the statue. Immediately my teeth are clenched tightly under my mask as all social distancing goes for a toss and no one seems to be wearing a mask except us. A 5 minute claustrophobic ride later we alight at a bus stop at the foot of the statue. Greeting us there was a sea of humanity. It was like all of Gujarat and beyond had decided to visit the statue that day. The queue for tickets and general entry was more than a kilometre long. I almost thought of boarding the next bus back to the parking lot and getting the hell out of Dodge!
We suppressed that urge and enquired to the present security / staff if this was the line for Express entry. I was half expecting them to say yes but my pessimism was misplaced and we were told to go straight to the gate and bypass the kilometre long human chain. That was a relief as without the express tickets I would not have bothered standing in line for hours to visit any statue, however tall!
Once inside the Express entry tickets allowed us to bypass another long line for security check before entry to the statue premises. Till now I was too busy hyperventilating at the crowds around us to take photos. Once inside I finally calmed myself down & started taking photos with the SLR that had been hanging around my shoulder all this while.
The crowds aside the sheer size of the statue is impressive. But the surrounding area is quite unremarkable, luckily for me the beautiful skies that day made for some pretty photos.
While the crowds inside the premises were less than those outside we were in no mood to linger. So we went straight to the visitors centre at the base which has access to the elevator that takes tourists to the viewing gallery at the chest level of the statue.
If the visitors centre had been relatively empty we would have lingered and checked out the artifacts on display, but given the current situation we went straight to the lift where the express tickets again put us at the head of the line. Those Express tickets were the best 2000 rupees I had spent in a long time.
We were packed like sardines into the elevator which zoomed up and opened only at the viewing gallery. We stumbled out and started walking around the gallery.
The viewing gallery has good views of the dam and the reservoir beyond. But other than that the view is pretty underwhelming as there is nothing else in the immediate surroundings. So after a few minutes in the gallery we took the elevator down. Before stepping out of the visitors centre I took a few photos to show the crowds.
We then took some Patel point photos to show that we were actually in the vicinity of the Patel statue. Once outside the statue premises we stopped and took in the enormity and scale of the statue itself. We then returned to the bus station at the statue base and took what we thought was a bus to our parking lot. We were deposited at a totally different parking lot!
View of the other side the dried river bed of the Narmada
On enquiring we found out that there are 14 different parking lots around the statue. As I described our parking lot to the police they helped in identifying our one as the “Gora” parking lot. There are no signs at the bus station to say which parking lot that particular bus is going to and I hadn’t researched the parking lots around the monument. That left us in a quandary as our parking lot was a good 4 km from the one we were stranded at. It was way past lunch time and the hunger would soon become irritation. So we bought and had a cold glass of lassi. By the time we had our last sip an autodriver arrived like a saviour and agreed to take us to our Gora lot after a few buses and autos had refused.
We reached our parking lot and set off towards Vadodara which was our overnight halt that day.We had a surprisingly good lunch at a very small dhaba on the way.
We reached our hotel in Vadodara in the evening tired but satisfied at having managed to visit the Statue of Unity despite the massive crowds.
We would see the beautiful Laxmi Vilas palace at Vadodara before leaving for Patdi, our base in the Little Rann of Kutch. But that is story for another post. Some other time, some other day.
PS – I’m sure the rustiness shows in the writing of this post. Hopefully it improves before I reach the end of the series