Garavi Gujarat : A tale of prophets, artisans, wildlife and India's forgotten mother

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#1 Apr 15th, 2017, 01:13
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Dear Friends,

First of all my heartfelt thanks to the contributors to this forum. Without your help my trip to Gujarat would not have materialised. I sincerely hope my rambling would encourage the future travellers to this amazing land of rich mix of religion, craftsmanship, history and the wildlife.
First a little bit about us. We are a family of four from UK. I'm originally from Bengal, living in UK for nearly 25 years. My wife is Gujarati but she has only been to Gujarat once as a child, I've never been. Colour of our passports have changed many years back, but the ties remained very strong.
After spending nearly fifty years of her life in sinful existence, my wife decided to go on a pilgrimage to wash away her sins. The intended place was Palitana hills in Gujarat, India, which is the holiest of the holies for the Jains.
I'm not a Jain, not really a very religious Hindu either. I have eaten many creatures in my life and not too worried about my sins. But when I was planning the trip for her I realised there was plenty of attractions nearby which could keep me busy for a week. And when my wife promised to sponsor the trip I decided to somehow cope with the repentance for couple of days followed by continuation of my hedonistic life style.
The girls also wanted to tag along to see where their ancestors hailed from.
So Gujarat : here we come.
Most of Gujarat is not really popular with the average western tourist, who do not venture beyond the Golden Traingle. The more I did my research the more impressed I was with the hidden gems of Gujarat.

I am planning to go and see the Altiplano salt desert of Bolivia, but the Great Rann of Kutch was no less impressive. The Little Rann of Kutch was a heaven for bird watching, with the last few remaining wild asses. The seven thousand year old neglected ruins of Indus valley civilisation at Dholavira would have been a star attraction in any other country.

Throw in a few amazing handicrafts, unique geological formations, mouth-watering vegetarian food, pronking Blackbucks, Ayurvedic Spa for the ladies, drinking camel milk straight from the udder and a great beach to relax : our itinerary looked great.
Communication was not a problem as Gujarati is my wife's mother tongue and I have also managed to learn a bit to make sure I understand what my in-laws are talking about me.
I usually try to avoid the most popular places wherever I travel. Checked Tripadvisor for popularity and Gir forest, Somnath and Dwarka temples were out. Focused more on off the beaten path.
It was not really a wildlife trip but more of an immersion in the rich cultural heritage of India but we did see quite a bit of wildlife, so I guess one can call it a half-Safari.
I knew February was not the best time to see the migratory birds, as they would have started their journey back to Europe again, but because of kids' school time we could not go earlier. The temperature was just right. Pretty cold in the desert in the morning needing a thick fleece at least and boiling hot by noon. Away from desert it was fine if we could avoid direct exposure to midday sun.

The itinerary :
  • 4th February : London-Dubai- Ahmedabad
  • 5th: Reaching Ahmedabad at 8 am, lunch with friends and then 4 hours drive to Bhavnagar,: Top's 3 Lord's Resort Bhavnagar for 2 nights.
  • 6th : Whole day trip to Shatrunjay hills Palitana for pilgrimage, an hour's drive.
  • 7th: One hour drive to Blackbuck Lodge, Velavadar, Blackbuck NP for one night.
  • 8th : Five hours drive to the tiny village of Jogad at Little Rann of Kutch (LRK) to stay at Eco camp with Mr Devjibhai Dhamacha, for two nights.
  • 9th : Day trips to the interior of LRK to the Wild Ass sanctuary.
  • 10th,11th, 12th, 13th : Five hours of drive to the coastal town of Mandvi via a brief stop at Bhuj. Stay at Serena Beach Resort, Mandvi for four nights. Day trips to ruins of Lakhpat, rock formations of Nakhatrana and the raptor heaven of Banni grasslands.
  • 14th : 2.5 hours drive to Dhordo via many stops to see the remarkable artisans of Gujarat, to check the last frontier post of India, Black Hills of Kutch overlooking the Rann, and overnight at Gateway to Rann resort, Dhordo to watch sunset over the white desert.
  • 15th : five hours drive circumnavigating the whole Rann to the little island in the middle of Kadir Bet, Dholavira to see the best preserved ruins of Indus Valley civilisation in India. Overnight at Dholviara Resort ( resort is an overstatement), practically middle of nowhere.
  • 16th : Long seven hours drive back to Ahmedabad, but not before seeing the ancient handicraft of Patola Saree ( one single saree can cost up to five thousand pounds) and the majestic Sun temple of Modhera. Stay with friends.
  • 17th February : spend time with friends at Ahmadabad, more shopping and start the return journey .

The route map looks like this :
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#2 Apr 15th, 2017, 01:54
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Now down to logistics.
We haven't driven in India for more than twenty years and every time we return we get more shocks at the number of cars and government's futile attempts to enforce road safety.
So I opted for a car and a driver, which was relatively cheap. All the bookings were expertly handled by our trusted friend Meera Rajaram from Narmada Holidays and she also found a Toyota Inova seven seater ( needed for our luggage, my wife does not believe in travelling light and we had one suitcase just packed with gifts) and our driver cum guide cum food connoisseur cum art critic Shri Gambhir Singh for us.

I won't say his driving was faultless but it was perfectly acceptable in India. Only one hair raising moment when I was rudely awakened from my slumber to realise the driver side mirror had broken into thousand pieces by a soft touch from the side mirror of a van coming from the other side.

Gambhir Singh ji turned out to be an excellent spotter as well, spotting birds perched on faraway roadside tree tops, while driving at full speed on highways. And he knew the right food joints as well. My anglicised stomach protests every time I travel to India. The last trip to Manas NP, Assam was a disaster as I spent most of the time in toilets, while local amoebas had a field day inside my gut. But this time my tummy was absolutely fine and I started venturing more and more outside the posh restaurants and towards the end thoroughly enjoyed freshly fried pakoras with jilebis and halwas from all roadside stalls, served on old news papers. Of course the water I couldn't risk.
The quality of food and services of Emirates are rapidly declining. The only good thing was that I managed to finish watching the last three episodes of "Billions" which were long overdue.

After surviving the vomit inducing Asian veg meals,we landed at Ahmedabad in time and I cleared the immigration in ten minutes. Wow !!
But where are our bags ? Ours was the only international flight and it took nearly forty minutes to get the bags. Never mind at least they reached us.

Went to have a quick meet up with a friend. Had a delicious thali lunch, showed my skills in cricket to my friend's son and then took plenty of snaps of the local langur family who were watching me bowling the unplayable leg spins. The langur family was just like a human family having a lazy afternoon.

The story of the langurs...


"Listen, my dear husband. Would you please stop thinking about those papayas and show some interest in Junior's education ? He is now nearly one year old and can't even steal a banana from the hawkers or jump between two rooftops. I'm thinking of some private tuition from the resident Langur-in-Chief of the Hanuman temple "





"Don't worry Dad. Do not listen to mum. Look I can do double flip over mummy's head."






"You silly woman ! Did you see that? Monkeying comes to a monkey naturally. No need for tuition. Now let me enjoy the sunshine and digest those papayas in peace !!"

#3 Apr 15th, 2017, 04:16
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I've got to say that I was amazed to see how deftly those langurs balanced their rear end on those spiky railings. It clearly shows how little space we need and the needless complain about the seat width of airlines. But it'd be very dangerous for a langur with piles or a langur who develops a sudden urge for a violent sneeze.

Then it was time to drive for 4 hours to the small dusty town of Bhavnagar which would be our base for next two nights. On the way we stopped at a roadside shopping mall and I was very impressed with the cleanliness of the toilets.

Welcome for the son-in -law

r

I was having a nice snooze when Gambhir Singh started shouting , "Sir, pakshi, pakshi ( Birds, Birds)". He was clearly aware that I was more interested in nature than in temples. I spotted a large number of flamingos and many other waders on a wetland just outside Bhavnagar. Quite a few painted storks as well. Birding from roadside, a good omen !

The reception party for me


















What's wrong with him ? Had a close shave ? No oil spill nearby




Satisfied reached Bhavnagar. Top's 3 Lord's resort was a modern comfy hotel but what I absolutely loved was their staff. The young boy who brought my bags up didn't linger on looking for "bakhsheesh".
In fact he looked genuinely embarrassed when I offered a small tip. The food was honestly too good and served with warmth. How I miss the authentic food of India. Eating in so called Indian restaurants in UK, who use same ingredients for all curries. Tired but with a full belly it was time to hit the bed as we needed to get up at 4 am to hit the road by 5 am, aiming to reach Palitana before sunrise. 3788 steps were waiting for me !! But I'd be free of all my sins at the end !
Or would I ? Anyway, who cares !

Some pics of Tops 3 Lords hotel, strongly recommended. We had booked two rooms, one executive and one deluxe. Both had plenty of spaces. food was delicious. The maitre-d was very attentive. I had asked for simple onion kulcha but he asked the chef to put a little bit of stuffing inside the kulcha which made it much tasties. Even simple dish like hare-bhare kabab tasted heavenly. Or may be it is just breathing the air of India which made me happy !

Wow ! Great news !



Dining area





Room interior

#4 Apr 16th, 2017, 16:44
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My apologies for a long post full of words but I think it is important to describe in words first and the pics will duly follow.

My Melatonin induced sleep was broken with an alarm at 4-30 , freshened up quickly, the manager had kindly provided some fruits and sandwiches, added a few cereal bars and 3 litres of water per person and started our day of repentance in pitch black darkness at 5-15. The sunrise was around 7-15. I wanted to start the ascent at that time and come back before the hottest part of the day : late afternoon. No shades available and even in February, by noon the sun was roasting me nicely. As usual because of my photography we got delayed on the way up, so had to endure pretty tough condition. At least I was not going up in the heat.
We reached the place beyond which cars were not allowed to proceed anymore and immediately were swamped by men and women jostling with each other for our custom. My daughters were not used to this and they were genuinely overwhelmed. All these commotion was to force us to hire a "Doli" which would carry us up.

I had to keep my stern face on and just ignore them. This went on for at least ten minutes. Any western tourist will definitely be put off with this.
I understand that infirm and old would go for a Doli but I was genuinely surprised to see quite a few not so old men going up on doli. I hope the Gods deduct some penalty points from their account of "punya" for that.

I went into the office where a very nice man, Jayant bhai explained everything in perfect English to me, including some eating places on the way back.

I have also bought an app for Palitana prepared by a Jain lady : high tech pilgrimage in 21st century !! It was fine for religious details but not so for more practical details. like : where are the toilets. Jayant bhai reassured me that there were toilets up there or I could always go behind the bushes.

Shatrunjay is a large hill with two summits in the town of Palitana. Shatrunjay is to Jains, what Jerusalem is to Christian and Jews and what Mecca is to Muslims. 3400 steps to reach the top of the world's largest temple complex with over 3,000 temples and 27,000 idols of the 24 Jain Tirthankars (prophets).

The Jain sadhvis ( priestesses) are the first to set off at day break, barefoot and fasting till they return back to the ground. Some Jain worshippers consider it a duty to support the backs of these Jain sadhus ( priests) during the ascent. Bird feeders along the way to feed the birds who visit in thousands : a form of Jeev-daya, compassion to animals. Also free cold water kept at regular intervals.

I believe in God but have little love for organised religion, but even I found the temple complex quite astounding. Especially when you think all these stones had to be carried up the hill on bare back and painstakingly joined.
Early Muslim invaders attacked this complex a few times and according to the legend the idols were protected by a Muslim Sufi saint. The Jain community were eternally grateful to him and till this day there is a darga ( worship place) to this Muslim Sufi saint among this Jain temples. Nice tale of religious harmony.

The ascent was not too tough and the views were lovely with sun rising over the Shatrunjay river and the sleepy town below. Thankfully there were stretches of flat sections in between steps, so not continuous climbing.

My wife followed the tradition of going diagonally criss-cross across the steps instead of climbing along a straight line, to increase the distance covered. I'm sure she would get some bonus points for that. And I was allowed to keep shoes on till the main complex, after that no leather goods were allowed. One can take as much photo as like , but not of the idols.

Once we reached the Ram Pole , the main gate, the path bifurcated. My research suggested the path to the right, which was practically deserted and took me to a large number of small temples and then the highest point of the complex, from where I could get a bird's eye vista. The photos did not come out well because of blinding midday sun but even then it was quite impressive.

We circumnavigated the whole complex and then went into the main temple of Adinath Swami- the First of the Twenty-four Prophets of the Jains and actually more revered than the better known Mahavir Swami.

Adinath Swami looked at me sternly while my wife continued with her Puja. After a while I drifted away to take some more photos and found the toilets. Well, it was not the best of the toilets but will do if one is desperate.
The ascent was not that difficult and a fit person can do it in 2-3 hours easily with a few breaks.
We started our descent much later than originally planned, noon time, because of my digressions. I actually found the descent more demanding on my aging knees and calf muscles. Also the sun did not help.
The calf muscles really protested heavily the day after and I limped for next couple of days !
On the way down it was tradition to have Ganna ka ras ( pressed sugar cane juice) and Bhel. My wife heartily tucked in, while I could not indulge in the Juice because of my sensitive stomach, although I did try the Bhel. Not bad. Followed by 2 big coconuts and I was rejuvenated again.

On the way back Gambhir Singh tempted us with suggestion of some food shopping, which is always a hit with us.
Bhavnagar is famous for its Gathia, a heavenly savoury, which I devour in tons with my full English breakfast in UK. Of course we could not stop just with gathia, ended up with some Penda as well.
I was hoping to wash this down with a pint of cold beer, but when called the reception in the evening, learnt that the bar closed at 7 pm. What ? bar closing by 7 pm ? So had to settle for Buttermilk instead of beer. Had another superb traditional dinner with mouth watering dishes and then soaked myself in the royal bath tub for an hour.
Apart from the early morning ugly mle of Doli bearers the day was a very nice one and I strongly recommend this place, even for non-believers.
#5 Apr 16th, 2017, 17:51
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The pics are here to add some flavour to my dry rambling. These pics won't win any prizes as harsh sun was not helpful, but just to give some ideas to the side of India usually not explored by western tourists. And unlike Hindu Temples, the Jain temples have no restriction of visiting for believers of other faiths and western tourists as long as one follows their request not to take photo inside.


The Ascent begins before sunrise



The "Doli"



Sometimes the Doli is just a piece of woven cloth which looked pretty precarious to me



One of the first temples near the base : telling the whole story of jainism inside in paintings and Murals. Very impressive



The sleepy town below, slowly warming up with sun






Jain "Sadhvis" going up barefoot




Some devotees wish to support the priests on the way up



Sun rise over the Shatrunjay River



Rest points on the way



Regular reminders of Step counts






What is this ? A bag sitting on a Doli ? Is that a very special bag ? Later I realised the owner of the bag was stretching his legs and jumped back after a few minutes.




The steps are nicely spaced




My wife doing her diagonal Criss-Cross style of climbing to increase her toils and gain some additional bonus Punya points in the process. I stuck to the straight line.






The misty river beyond




Wildlife on the way





I was genuinely touched by these two ladies who supported each other through the entire trek. The slimmer and fitter one did not leave the other.



The traditional dress for worshiping



Long way down




First glimpses

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The Main Complex with the main temple dedicated to Adinath Swamy




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Caves carved out of rocks and deities there for worshiping



The old fashioned windows




The biggest bell I've ever seen



Armed guards for pilgrims travelling from far off lands



Ground level temples and gates





The quenching of thirst and hunger







#6 Apr 18th, 2017, 02:50
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A relaxed breakfast and then we were off to the Blackbuck Lodge. I had high expectations of this lodge. This was one of the most expensive properties that I've ever stayed in India. 18,000 Indian rupees i.e, 218 at present exchange rate, per night for 2 with 3 meals. On top safaris and tips and alcoholic drinks extra. It better live up to the price tag.
There is a nicely situated Government guest house Kalyar Bhavan situated within the park and I did try to book that. But the booking process was unbelievably cumbersome when I made enquiries six months in advance.
I had to send a banker's draft only a month before the dates, with a letter and then phone the main office to check the booking. The booking would be of no value if a VIP or a forest officer decided to visit on the day and in India everyone is a VIP if you know the right person. This had happened to me once before, when the DFO enjoyed his tea while I waited outside to find out whether he would stay overnight or not.
Also what really put me off was the exorbitant price tag for foreigners. Although I do hold an Overseas Indian passport which technically should give me parity with Indian nationals when it comes to financial dealings, but the authorities had never heard of that and they were charging me nearly ten times more than Indian nationals. This is becoming a norm in almost all the national parks and I think even rich western tourists are feeling the pinch, especially in relation to camera/safari fees.
In some of the Indian national parks there is hardly any infrastructure to justify this fleecing of foreign tourists.
My calculation showed that as foreign nationals for 4 of us staying in 2 non-A/c rooms at Kalyar Bhavan government guest house with very simple meals and two safaris with local guides/camera fees would cost me 34000 rupees, a shade cheaper than Blackbuck Lodge.
So why bother ? I opted for Blackbuck lodge.

One should never show his back to an Emperor and shuffle back and bow till one is out of sight of the emperor and then only he can make a turn. When your server at dinner table treats you in this fashion then you know you are in for a royal treatment.
Then you find a silver boar on your table, which acts up as a tooth pick holder giving the impression of a skewed boar in a hunt, gifted to the owner of the lodge by the Maharajah of Jodhpur, then you can forget about the price tag.

The hospitality of Blackbuck lodge was truly faultless. The manager Rakesh was always very prompt to reply to my e-mails. The lodge was built by Mr Mickey Desai who had a business in USA but then decided to return to Gujarat and build a lodge in the African theme. Everywhere I looked reminded of Africa. Even the long masks , which my wife immediately recognised as she remembered haggling very hard with an old lady in the road side wood market of Okahandja in Namibia.

The view was exactly like that of African Savannah of tall grass set on fire by the setting sun. The huts were well spaced out with fantastic outdoor showers. And there was beer available any time, Yippeee !!! The food was nice, although I won't call it mind-blowing.
In the night they built a small Boma style camp fire. We are simple non-demanding travellers and at times I found the attention too much. I guess they sensed it and left me on my own. They have a small lake near reception and a bigger lake towards the back which attract a number of birds. Blackbucks and nilgais can be easily seen from the property.

The park itself at Velavadar is a fairly small one with two sections. The grasslands and the wetlands. One of the main reasons for me to visit this place was to see the roosting of Harriers at sunset. I was surprised to hear that the evening safari had to finish well ahead of sunset , so no chance of seeing the roosting.

I was hoping that we would see some predators like Hyenas and wolves but sadly in our two safaris we did not encounter any, although I could not fault the naturalist lady. She did try her best. There was an American tourist, who was doing some sort of research in wolves. He had been staying for three days and I was relieved to hear that even he had not seen any wolves.

The wolves are not really residents here, they come and go. So the chances are slim. I believe the chances of seeing hyenas are better as they usually stick to their dens, but we were unlucky. I had several reviews in Tripadvisor mentioning wolves.
We had two safaris, evening and morning. The wetland safari was really no good as the wetland itself was pretty far and the bird population was not that great. I was surprised as I had seen photos of many pelicans on the wetland.

The grasslands safari was better, simply because the views were really fantastic. We went around the loop couple of times but sadly no predators although did see some eagles and harriers.
Blackbucks were everywhere, so no need to worry about them. We stayed for one night and perhaps could have stayed for two nights. The naturalist we had with us was new. She was a very nice girl and she was willing to extend the safari time without additional charge, but looked like the other guide Haider was more familiar with the lay-out. But even Haider had failed to unearth any wolf.

The forest department put a mandatory guide in our jeep who did nothing and I did not tip him a single penny. There is a forest department guide called Ismail who clearly showed a lot more enthusiasm.

So, overall the safari experience was slightly underwhelming. It was also probably due to the fact that I was there outside the peak time of December -January. The lodge was fantastic but I wished the park was bigger with more bio-diversity.
#7 Apr 18th, 2017, 03:42
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Yippee !!



Out of Africa into Gujarat : the only thing missing is a red sand Barchan dune



The Hunt ( with toothpick)



Delicious Phirni



The swings



Playing with fire ( with camera)






The drives








The sun and the moon








The entrance
#8 Apr 18th, 2017, 06:43
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Loving the beautiful and detailed narration.tfs.

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#9 Apr 18th, 2017, 07:03
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Originally Posted by iamsomnath View Post Loving the beautiful and detailed narration.tfs.

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Kindly remove Tapatalk signature, Somnath.
#10 Apr 18th, 2017, 07:31
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Done, thanks for pointing out.
#11 Apr 19th, 2017, 05:44
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Thanks Somnath and others. Enough dry words. Now a few photos. Feathery friends to start with. Not the best of my results. Harsh light did not help either. Despite my disappointment I scored quite a few. But the authorities really should change the rule of kicking everyone out 30 minutes before sunset, when one of the biggest attractions is the roosting harriers at sunset.

Let's start with birds first and this little pearly beauty. Our driver spotted him on the way to the park entrance and I wondered how he had spotted this little one. Later I realised the owl had made this pillar with hole his home and the driver knew he might peep out. So future travellers look out.










Not my best shot. I challenge the learned friends. Marsh Harrier perhaps ?






















































































These two were the easiest to photograph

#12 Apr 19th, 2017, 07:59
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Nice ones, keep rolling.
#13 Apr 19th, 2017, 21:48
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More pics from the drives, the park and the lodge interior. Got to say that list of non-blackbuck creatures is not that long !!

My wife and I in the beginning of the day. In perfect harmony moving towards our goal in unison ......





My wife and I after just one hour. In perfect disharmony, going in totally opposite direction...





Lone Nilgai in the ocean of grass




Close up





This wild boar surprised me totally, very well hidden in short dry grass. I missed my toothpicks for the hunt, so let him escape.




African savannah


















This one has lost half of his horns





Early morning exercise




Ladies Day out




Sparring practice





This is a big bull in "Mating Mode. . Ears completely down, neck up : shows he is having an overdose of Testosterone and has only one thing in mind








Sorry, not a mammal but honestly my list of mammals exhausted quickly







Now some more of the park and the lodge and that'll be the end








Overlooking the little pond :












Open shower




Brightly decorated walls




Touch of Africa






Bye bye blackbuck NP & Blackbuck lodge. Next accommodation couldn't have been more different. Mud huts "Bhunga" in one of the tiniest villages. Long drive ahead.
#14 Apr 19th, 2017, 22:02
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EXCELLENT trip report with stunning photos and fun write-up!
#15 Apr 19th, 2017, 22:37
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ViShVa View Post EXCELLENT trip report with stunning photos and fun write-up!
Thanks very much for your appreciation Vishva. When I was looking for info on my trip I didn't really find too many reports on Gujarat, especially about places which were slightly off the beaten path. I strongly feel this state has huge potential untapped. I felt like crying seeing the condition of Dholavira ruins. Such neglect is unbelievable.
I hope my rambling will generate some ineterest and prove to be useful for future travellers.
Cheers.
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