You don't think of life when you visit an empty bar­ren salt flat, right? Yet, if you're ready to dis­cover the un­ex­pected you will be sur­prised at how alive the Rann of Kutch truly is


Thought a bar­ren salt flat is life­less? It’s your turn to be sur­prised. Just as we were

THE VIEW THROUGH THE WIND­SHIELD of the Land Rover Dis­cov­ery Sport I’m in is stag­ger­ing. I have never seen any­thing like it be­fore. It stretches on be­yond the lim­its of vi­sion and it is flat. Flat­ter than a ta­ble top. And com­pletely, ut­terly, empty. An in­cred­i­ble 5,000 square kilo­me­tres of empti­ness. This, is the Lit­tle Rann of Kutch they told me. Turns out, and this is not sur­pris­ing given my pro­fi­ciency in Ge­og­ra­phy, there is an even big­ger Greater Rann of Kutch. But we’ll leave that for an­other day. To­day, let’s just stay with the lit­tle one.

What is the Rann to­day was once the sea, prob­a­bly about a zil­lion years ago. With sed­i­men­ta­tion and changes in sea lev­els and changes in rate of ti­dal flood­ing, this vast salt marsh would have got­ten ex­posed and be­come what it is to­day. All of this would have hap­pened mil­len­nia in the past. The Rann still gets flooded each year dur­ing the mon­soons. “You will find about three to four feet of wa­ter through­out the Rann if you come here dur­ing the rains,” said Muza­hid Ma­lik, owner of the Rann Riders re­sort where we had put up. Born and brought up in the lit­tle vil­lage of Dasada where his re­sort, prob­a­bly the best in this re­gion, is lo­cated. Dig just 25 feet and you will find wa­ter. Salty sea wa­ter. That’s the Rann for you.

In­cred­i­bly bar­ren and un­fit for any kind of cul­ti­va­tion, the Rann has re­mained largely un­in­hab­ited over the cen­turies. The prin­ci­pal econ­omy of the vil­lages and towns around this vast des­o­la­tion runs on the back of salt pan­ning and shrimp farm­ing, both of which are dis­cour­aged by the For­est De­part­ment since both are po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing to the frag­ile eco-sys­tem of the Rann. What they do en­cour­age how­ever is tourism.

But what could you pos­si­bly see in miles and miles of pure desert? You’d be sur­prised. A sim­ple Google search will tell you that UNESCO listed bio­sphere re­serve is the coun­try’s only sanc­tu­ary for the In­dian wild ass, or Khur as they are known in the lo­cal lan­guage. You might not be able to spot a mag­nif­i­cent herd rac­ing their own dust, like you would imag­ine, but you will cer­tainly spot a few. We did. Spot­ting a herd will take some luck, and pa­tience. While we had loads of the lat­ter, whether you get the for­mer isn’t some­thing you have a say in re­ally.

Wild asses (no puns please) how­ever aren’t the only things to chase on the Rann. With luck, pa­tience and proper guides you’ll be able to see flamin­goes fly, foxes leap and kestrels. And if you’re there on a par­tic­u­larly for­tu­nate day then you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the mag­nif­i­cent pere­grine fal­con. The friendly folk at Rann Riders are more than happy to or­gan­ise not just guides but also sa­faris into the Rann. With the Land Rover Dis­cov­ery Sport, pow­ered by its 148bhp two-litre turbo diesel with 382Nm of peak torque, four-wheel drive and LR’s Ter­rain Re­sponse sys­tem at our dis­posal, we of course needed noth­ing more than the able guid­ance of Issa and our motto of be­ing ready to dis­cover.

Long be­fore we met Issa and Muza­hid how­ever, we had to first tackle the ad­ven­ture of In­dian high­ways as we started off in dis­tant Pune, 760km away nes­tled in Ma­ha­rash­tra’s Sahyadri

(Western Ghats). The jour­ney starts off pleas­antly enough, cour­tesy the six lanes (three on ei­ther side) of the Yesh­wantrao Cha­van Ex­press­way that con­nects Pune with Mum­bai. There­after starts a down­ward spi­ral as you find your­self cut­ting through Thane and back on to NH 48 to Bar­oda. From there to Ahmed­abad is the bril­liant, though nar­row by ex­press­way stan­dards, Bar­o­daAhmed­abad Ex­press­way. A slalom run through traf­fic and a toll booth later you will be on the Ahmed­abad By­pass from where you will have to hang a left to­wards the in­dus­trial area of Sanand and Vi­ramgam be­yond.

Be­yond Sanand the road is an old school two-lane high­way. Thanks to the Dis­cov­ery Sport’s abil­ity to cruise at high­way speeds for hours on end, the en­tire 760km took us just 13 hours. And the ef­fort­less­ness of it all meant that we ar­rived at the gate of Rann Riders fresh enough to head off into the Rann right away. To miss sun­set on the Rann is to miss one of the great spec­ta­cles of life.

In the fad­ing light of dusk we spot­ted two wild asses, a bunch of dogs and two trucks car­ry­ing god knows what rac­ing across the Rann, rais­ing a huge plume of dust. Back at the re­sort and hud­dled over an ex­cel­lent din­ner, we de­cided to head to Mar­dak the fol­low­ing day. Mar­dak isn’t a town or even a vil­lage. It is a bet. Bets are the only fea­ture that you will find oc­ca­sion­ally on the Rann. These mounds of crusty dirt or salt dunes with some thorny veg­e­ta­tions were is­lands once when the Rann was a sea. With the clos­est wa­ter be­ing 25 feet be­low the sur­face, these bets with their veg­e­ta­tion pro­vide ex­cel­lent cover for the an­i­mals of the Rann. We were go­ing specif­i­cally to look for the den of an In­dian fox that had had pups.

We didn’t find the pups or the mother or even the den but what we did find at Mar­dak was a mag­nif­i­cent view of the sur­round­ing flat­ness. When viewed from a slight height, this marsh­land is even more spec­tac­u­lar. Not too far from Mar­dak we found a run down boat, parked in the mid­dle of nowhere with wa­ter nowhere in sight. As far as I know, and my his­tory is tonnes bet­ter than my Ge­og­ra­phy, when the Rann was an ocean, hu­mans were still liv­ing in caves and hadn’t quite grasped the con­cept of a stream­lined hull. No, this was a mod­ern day relic. Per­haps at some point it may have been used in the mon­soon for shrimp fish­ing. Per­haps for some­thing else. For us, this aban­doned boat smack in the mid­dle of this lu­nar land­scape only height­ened the sense of lone­li­ness that the Rann in­evitably brings.

On the way back, with a cloud of dust trail­ing our blue Dis­cov­ery Sport, Issa pointed in the dis­tance and said the one word that I wasn’t ex­pect­ing at all. “Wa­ter!” Shim­mer­ing in the dis­tance like a danc­ing sheet of sil­ver. As we got closer how­ever the sil­very wa­ter started to get a pink glow. At first it was a whis­per. The whis­per grew into a con­ver­sa­tion as we edged closer. A con­ver­sa­tion be­tween birds. And that pink? Flamin­goes. A full flock. Ringed by a flock of ducks and the odd sea har­rier.

Squat­ting at the wa­ter’s edge with a pair of binoc­u­lars glued to my dusty, gritty eyes I stared at what was the most in­cred­i­ble sight I had ever seen. And then, it dawned on me. The dis­cov­ery. That de­spite its ut­ter bar­ren­ness and the noth­ing­ness of the des­o­late land­scape, the Lit­tle Rann of Kutch was full of life! ⌧

Left, from top: The oc­ca­sional wa­ter body in the Rann is usu­ally flocked by flamin­goes. We spot­ted this soli­tary kestrel in the mid­dle of nowhere. Turn on the Mud and Ruts mode on the Ter­rain Re­sponse Sys­tem and you're ready for ac­tion

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