POINT & SHOOT
THE LITTLE RANN OF KUTCH IS not so little. To the untrained eye and to someone standing somewhere in the middle of its 5000 square kilometres of vastness, it appears as flat as a witch’s tit. But, if you know the Rann like Uzair Kasbati does, you’ll know that there are 74 elevated plateaus on the Rann. If you know the Rann like he does, you’ll know that it is these grassy plateaus that serve as home for hundreds of the Rann’s inhabitants and no, they are not human. The numerous species and one in particular is what we are here for today. It is also no coincidence that I’ve brought the Mercedes-Benz GL 63 AMG. You see, the Rann is most famous as the home to the Indian wild ass – it is one of the last places on earth that this species is found and it is a fast animal. As far as I know, no one has arrested it for speeding yet but some say that it can hit 70kmph! The grass on the plateaus that is its main diet must be some grass I say!
If you spot one, make sure the moon-roof is open and the telephoto lens is primed for that perfect night shot says Uzair Kasbati, a 23-year old lad just out of college. When I come to the Rann though, I’m always scanning for wild asses, he continues. Uzair is yet to lose the baby fat off his face but he’s an old hand at wildlife photography. I’m not convinced, so he slips in a story of one of his experiences at the Rann when he had gone in to photograph flamingos just after the rains. He got his shot but also got his SUV stuck in some marshy land. He waded through almost knee-deep slush for kilometres with his five kilo lens above his head. The boy got a crash course in army training. I want to see some of his pictures, so he pulls out his iPad and flicks through a flock of flamigos. The pictures are like cherries on a vanilla cake. I am now willing to risk my life in the Rann if Uzair is riding shotgun.
You see, when you are in the Rann, you have to switch back to the old ways of navigation because the GL 63’s navigation system is useless. You have to navigate using the sun’s position in the sky or, by using the North Star at night. Or you could take someone like Uzair who knows his way around the Rann.
The Rann splits into two parts, the Little Rann and the Greater Rann. It is a 4,953 square kilometre area and in the 2015 census, the count of wild asses was at its all time high of 4,800. That’s still less than a wild ass per square kilometre so spotting one requires some talent, let alone getting them framed for the camera.
Uzair hails from Ahmedabad, about 100 clicks from the Little Rann and visits his playground every fortnight. He usually takes his Safari to the Rann to get his wildlife photography fix, but today, he’s not going anywhere near his beautifully maintained Tata. He heard a roar a while ago at the front porch of the Rann Riders resort, our stopover for the night before we enter the Rann. The guy is a petrolhead so he knows there’s something special for the morning ahead.
Speed or sound
That something, is wilder than the wild ass. About a square metre in front of me, I’ve got 550 wild German horses reined in. I like the traditional twist of the key fob to get the GL 63 AMG roaring as the quad pipes at the back wake us up from our slumber. It’s 4:00 AM, the dead have died some more and we don’t need a double shot of espresso. It’s the peak of summer, the sun rises before six and the wild asses will find a cooling spot away from the wide open baked lands as the sun finds its energy. Good thing we can sprint to the Rann in double quick time then. The two and a half tonne monster gets to hundred in 4.9 seconds so we are in the middle of cracked earth and dust in just a few minutes.
We drive about 10km into the Little Rann and yet there is no sign of wild ass. Uzair is patient, he knows these lands like the back of his hand and we’ve still got an hour before the light gets harsh. The hunt is on. If there’s one thing you need to be wary of in the Rann, it is large mud rocks and old tyre tracks. Don’t cross either at high speeds or you will blow tyres, break your suspension or, in the worst case, flip your vehicle. I’m not too bothered though – the GL 63 AMG is a sportscar on stilts so it has the ground clearance to deal with the Rann’s minor undulations. It also has the power and the size to run amok in the Rann because the place is so flat and wide, it is all too easy to step on the gas and let loose. We’re also making a lot of noise, something you don’t do when you want to spot wild animals.
You’ve got to adopt the instincts of a hunter as a wildlife photographer. Get close slowly, don’t make a sound, don’t attract attention, and when the distance is right, shoot. Well, click. Uzair is off the cooled perforated leather seats of the GL 63 AMG, on his feet, sticking his head out of the sunroof, eyes in the viewfinder of his Nikon and breathing slow calm breaths. I’m crawling at single-digit speeds in an AMG, not my happiest minutes at the Rann, but the shot is close. I can sense it, so I oblige. It has taken us about 30km of driving around in the wilderness to spot our first herd of wild ass. They haven’t spotted us yet, or are yet to figure out what lies behind the large Mercedes badge on the grille. The AMG horses are sleeping, the wild asses are grazing, and Uzair is framing. He’s also forgotten English all of a sudden. The guy makes bird sounds, I look up to him and he does it again. Now I’m looking at Uzair and so are the wild asses, curious to
know what this bird has to say and the shutter goes click, click, click. He’s back to talking English now – give it some gas. I happily oblige. The German horses gallop, the wild asses sprint and he gets some action shots. Old hand alright.
We’re not chasing them, mind you, as that is a no-no. All we are doing is allowing the GL 63 AMG’s eight cylinder orchestra to serenade the asses.
The sun is now toasting the land and we are done for the morning. Wild life photography sure needs some skill – besides proficiency with the camera, you’ve got to be patient, sometimes for days on end, to get your perfect shot. You have to love your subject, in this case animals and appreciate the fact that you are in their natural habitat so you must behave yourself. The more comfortable the animal is in your presence, the easier it is to get that perfect shot.
We are both looking forward to an evening in the Rann. The mercury is hovering around the 45-degree mark and another wild ass spotting session has to be undertaken to get our video shots. The second herd is spotted quicker than the efforts we made in the morning and the temperature drops as quickly as the sun sets. We have plenty of time late in the evening to please the horsepower fed souls of Affalterbach. We recce a few strips for some quick runs in the AMG, away from the wild asses and any other animal life around, slam the throttle and crack some earth. The beast in Sport mode with its throttle map set to Sport and the suspension lowered is blisteringly quick. It just goes like a bullet train with a loud braaaap from the exhaust, barrelling down the Rann at break neck speeds, fully confident with the traction the all-wheel drive system has. You sit high up with eyes set at the vast expanse in front of the chrome gills on the bonnet, as cracks in the earth vanish into smooth dust leaving a cloud as big as a sand storm in your rear view mirrors.
Uzair has his shots, I’ve got my adrenaline rush, the sun has set and the sky wears its black cloak. I turn on the GL 63 AMG’s night vision camera – don’t want to run into any asses at night – and we follow a tyre track out of the Rann. The pace is slow, the day has been long and the closest road is hopefully closer than the 114-litre fuel tank’s range. The Rann makes you wander, from minutes to hours, and before you know it, you are in the middle of nowhere. Uzair is confident the edge of the Rann and the road is behind the salt mounds at the village ahead. I’m confident I’ll eat him for supper if he loses his way.
Thankfully he’s right and minutes later we are cooling off at the sprawling Rann Riders property in Dasada, just kilometres from the Rann. It’s like an oasis in the desert, and the guys there want you to experience the Rann like you could never imagine. They’ll take you deep into it to see the birds and animals in all their magnificence when the weather is more forgiving in the winters. They’ll even take you camping under the open sky.
Winters are the best time to visit the Rann to see a lot more than the wild asses. Flamingos and other migratory birds flock to the wildlife sanctuary so if you are an avid photographer or just a plain nature lover, you must flock to the Rann too. Uzair’s words, not mine. He’s got an ulterior motive though, next time he wants us to get the G 63 AMG. Apparently the crazy green colour works like camouflage after the monsoons.
Top: Uzair's knowledge of wildlife in the Little Rann is impressive. Right: Drag strips aplenty here, just do a slow recce run first. Bottom: GL 63 AMG at the Rann riders resort