In our second of the HT Interviews series, we interviewed Mickey Desai of Blackbuck Lodge, Velavadar. This is a luxury lodge set along the Velavadar Blackbuck National Park. When we think wildlife in India we all tend to gravitate towards the big cats, especially the Royal Bengal Tiger. But what about the Blackbucks of India? There are so many long weekends in 2015, maybe this can feature as one of the plans. If you’re wondering what makes this national park special apart from the blackbucks? Quoting from the website: “This is the only tropical grassland in India to be given the status of a national park.”
Tell us a little about yourself.
I did my schooling in St. Xavier’s School and finished my graduation from Gujarat University St. Xavier’s College. I love travelling and go extensively to Africa, almost every year for the last 7-8 years. It’s part work, part holiday. I travel to lodges there to see what works there, and whether it will work here. I make notes, observe. You see the topography is so similar and so are the climatic conditions, it helps me learn and make my offering better.
Tell me something about your childhood, a story, a nugget…
Both my parents have been very keen wildlife enthusiasts therefore since my childhood, along with my two brothers, I’ve been exposed to nature and wildlife. As children we visited the various national parks and therefore developed a passion for being close to nature.
We travelled mostly in India. Once on a fishing trip, I was waist deep in water, fishing calmly. This was near Gir. I didn’t realise there were crocodiles in the river. I spotted him in time and backtracked quickly onto the land, I was a good 8 feet away from the bank so…
What made you start the BlackBuck Lodge? Was it always a dream to run a resort or was it something that you chanced upon?
My passion for travel and wildlife has continued and made me start a travel agency, and subsequently lead to me setting up a wildlife resort at a convenient location in Gujarat. By doing this I could not only develop a business enterprise but also create an opportunity to continue my keen interest in wildlife. I visit once in ten days and try to spend weekends there. We have experienced professionals who run it, but need to visit to keep a tight, well-oiled ship!
Why a luxury resort?
Gujarat has no lodges that were offering luxury. Everybody just wants to make do, but I believe that after a safari, the guests need to come back to comfort… a nice bedroom, bathroom with running hot and cold water. They need the luxury, they need the perfect ambience and perfect amenities. We go down to the very last detail… like very careful about our linen and we even ensure a fine selection of tea in every room. At the same time, to keep the front-end looking superb we have a well-equipped service area, with efficient laundry machines, dishwashers and sterilisers. We have it all!
What made you choose this location… and why the blackbuck?
While scouting for a suitable location for my resort, my choice narrowed down to Lion Park at Gir and Velavadar. Out of these two, I found Gir over-populated with hotels, resorts and lodges. Against that, Velavadar National Park had nothing in the form of a decent hotel or lodge. I belong to Dhandhuka which is located in the Bhal region of Gujarat and my family owns farmland and property there. Dhandhuka is only 50 Kms away from Velavadar, so I decided to set up a resort here.
How come you weren’t tempted to set up in a tiger sanctuary? Or was that never an option?
Forget tigers and lions, there is a huge section of people, Indian and international travellers who are keen birders. We have around 375 species of birds at Velevadar, our property is a paradise for birding. There are also many people who are interested in wolfs and hyenas. And there are the blackbucks, we are after all in a blackbuck sanctuary. Increasingly besides tigers and lions, there is a whole lot of wildlife that people are interested in now, which is good.
That’s nice. It’s great that people are thinking about wildlife beyond the big cats. Were there ever tigers here?
Actually there must have been. It is presumed, not proven yet, that around 100 years ago there were tigers in Surat. But don’t see them anymore!
What were the roadblocks when you started building this resort? Any interesting stories/challenges about setting this up?
When I bought land at Velavadar this area was totally barren, farming was difficult which resulted in villages in and around Velavadar being very backward and farmers remained marginal. It was also difficult to find a building contractor to take up our construction work because the location was isolated and without basic facility. I persevered and got the job going. At this stage, the Government of Gujarat encouraged and helped us a great deal. I could successfully complete and commission my project because good support from Dist. Collectors’ Office in Bhavanagar, and various other departments. Finally I am thankful to the Almighty that I have been able to set up this luxury wildlife resort in a backward area of Gujarat and put Velavadar and Blackbuck on the international map.
Now, tell me about your most interesting guests… something they did or said… they could be your favourite or they could be guests who still give you nightmares…
Since starting operations, we have had very well travelled and Internationally acclaimed wildlife experts who has stayed in the best safari lodges in the World. We have had excellent reviews from these guests and it’s a matter of great satisfaction that they have compared our resort with some of the top lodges in Africa.
Though once we did have a guest from England who said this is perfect lion territory after a morning safari and asked, “Can we see lions in the evening?” I had to explain that the only places to see lions in the world are Africa and Gir.
Mr. Amitabh Bachchan was our honoured guest for three nights in the beginning of 2014 and he tweeted: “The Blackbuck Lodge at Velavadar is indeed a sanctuary for tourist”
What advice would you give to future guests? When to come, what to expect etc?
Our cottages, dining area and library are very comfortable and air conditioned. Guests coming in during winter can have safari rides for the whole day. In winter, there is a huge congregation of the Harrier birds. Those arriving during summer can do safaris early morning and late evening. In summers, the mornings and evenings are pleasant. During monsoon the whole area becomes lush green with Jhinjhva grass. This is the time of year when the very rare Lesser Floricans visit Velavadar and it is a pleasure to watch these birds jump out of the green grass.
We have walking safaris which are a big hit. These are within the property and outside too with experienced naturalists.
I understand that all seasons have their speciality but what would the best season? Or what is your favourite season?
Monsoons are a great time. Mid-August is when the landscape changes completely. The parks are closed but the Lesser Floricans are here and they are very rare birds. We have 150 acres within the property that is left wild and natural, so the Floricans are all around in our property itself. You don’t have to walk too far to see them.
What about sustainability and being eco-friendly… given your location it is crucial. How do you address that?
Yes, we are always trying to be environmentally friendly and it comes at a huge cost. We use only biodegradable detergents. Our manure is all organic: cow dung, cow urine, neem oil, tobacco dust. We strip down the packaging of products in the city itself and then bring them here. All unused items, plastics, bottles, etc are sent to the city every fortnight. We have two to three composting pits and we grow our own vegetables. Guests can go choose the vegetable they wish to eat and a dish will be cooked with that!
Talking about food, it’s our pet topic. Any speciality dishes that your chef is known for?
In non-vegetarian definitely try the Roast Chicken with brown sauce. For vegetarians the chef makes a good lasagna or pasta. We also serve the traditional Kathiyawadi cuisine from this region. We have our own bakery and bake our own breads–banana bread, whole wheat bread and muffins, etc.
So what next? For you? For your resort?
I have plans to start a resort 40Kms from Udaipur on way to Kumbhalgarh. Land has already been purchased at what I think is an interesting location. I also plan to set up a resort in the Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat. Looking at creating a high-end luxury resort, cost around Rs. 25000-30000 per night.
And parting words?
If you’re game, so are we!
For more details check out The Blackbuck Lodge.