READY TO DISCOVER
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