POINT & SHOOT

Evo India - - AH MY GOD - Thanks To Rann Rid­ers, Dasada. www.ran­nrid­ers.com

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.

Creepy crawly

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.

Sun­set shenani­gans

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

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