Gujarat. What comes to mind when you hear this name? Maybe temples? Maybe the Bhuj earthquake? Or maybe the infamous Godhra riots? There is so much more that Gujarat has to offer. Its’ a unique land on its own. It has everything from beaches to barren deserts to cosmopolitan cities and world class sea ports.
I am always looking for excuses to get out of Delhi and hit the highways. The excuse this
time was to do a recce of the Rann of Kutch. The idea was floated by Sanjay (my friend and the most passionate driving enthusiast I know) who said that we should organise self drive expeditions in the Rann of Kutch. I was game and so were 2 of our friends Amit and Anurag. So before we knew, we had a group of 4 guys all geared up to hit the road and drive 1400 km from Delhi to Gujarat.
The vehicle of choice was Sanjays’ Land Cruiser which is a beast on its’ own and is always raring to go. We packed our bags, icebox (filled with you know what!), some spare parts, wireless sets, GPS, music on a USB stick and hit the road at 11 PM to avoid the crazy highway traffic on NH 8. We were a bunch of 4 drivers and each one of us wanted to sit behind the wheel and flirt with the Cruiser. So we took turns.
The plan was to drive on the barren landscape of Little Rann of Kutch, visit Mandvi beach and drive to the White Rann which is past the BSF post and close to the border with Pakistan.
A few hours after leaving Delhi, we decided to stop for some ‘dhaba chai’. A tiny dhaba run by a teenager boy was the only place open at 3 AM when we decided to take a break. We sipped tea standing next to the highway while trucks went past blaring their horns and throwing dust clouds at us. ‘Welcome to India’, I said to myself. Having spent last 10 years abroad, I realized how much I had missed the simple pleasures of travelling in my country.
Back in the Cruiser, Sanjay took the passenger seat and now it was my turn to sit behind the wheel. Taking charge of a vehicle at 3 AM after having travelled for 4 hours already can be a bit challenging. 3 AM is a funny time. It is either too early or too late to start doing anything. My body clock was telling me ‘you stupid, go to sleep!’ but I didn’t want to back down. I wanted to take it up as a challenge and prove to myself that I can take hold of a situation and drive in any condition whether my mind and body allow it or not! I wanted to push myself.
Soon after we hit the road, I heard Sanjay snoring in the passenger seat next to me. A quick glance in the rear view mirror and I found Anurag and Amit sleeping like babies. So it was only me and my thoughts for company on the dark empty highway that was coming towards us. Driving at this hour also gives you time to reflect. I lit up a cigarette and carried on. I always enjoy these moments behind the wheel. It is a good time to clear your thoughts and recharge your mind. I guess such moments do to me what meditation does to a lot of people.
I carried on driving till I saw sunlight cracking through the clouds above the Aravalli hills in Rajasthan. ‘Are you tired?’, came a voice in deep slumber from the rear. It was Anurag. ‘I couldn’t sleep this whole time because I was feeling guilty’, he said. ‘Why are you feeling guilty?’ I asked. ‘Because this whole time you have been driving and we all have been sleeping’ he replied. I just smiled. Secretly, I was feeling guilty for not letting anyone else get the chance to drive at the best time of the night.
The sun was waking up and so was everyone else in the car. It was now time for me to take a break and I desperately wanted some sleep. What happened in the next few hours will remain a mystery. All I know is that before I closed my eyes, it was not full day light but when I opened my eyes I was greeted by bright sunlight. Soon we stopped for breakfast somewhere close to the Rajasthan-Gujarat border. Though we were still in Rajasthan, but the road side ‘dhabas’ were now serving Gujarati food. We were famished and didn’t mind the deep fried paranthas with pickle. We had already done 14 hours but someone rightly said that, ‘No road is long with good company’.
Change of driver and once again we hit the road. In a few hours, we reached the border.
Gujarat being a dry state, it was funny to notice a ‘Wine and beer shop’, only a few metres before the border. It was incredible that as soon as we crossed the border, the terrain started looking different. Rajasthan was mostly desert and brown, but Gujarat seemed greener. How does nature know that it has to look different on the other side of a border? The highways were definitely smoother and I was impressed to see pink flowers dividing the highway for miles. I wish all roads in India were planned like this! Trucks and cars were following traffic rules; actually driving in lanes! It was almost a different country! Instantly I knew that our journey in Gujarat over the next few days was going to be a smooth one.
After taking a few pictures in front of a huge sign that said, ‘Gateway to Gujarat’, we carried on and after some time stopped for refreshments. Cool grapes, mineral water and loads of crushed ice for the icebox! The sun was right above our heads and we had started feeling the heat. April is not the best time to visit Gujarat, but once we had decided to go, there was no stopping us!
Soon we lost our way. Our GPS had managed to get us to Gujarat but it was struggling with some inner roads. A lot of people don’t like saying ‘I don’t know’. Unfortunately, we stopped to ask directions from a man who misguided us and we ended up going about 10 km in the wrong direction. Finally, we found a taxi driver who put us back on track towards our first destination – Dasada.
90 kms from Ahmedabad, Dasada, on the edge of Little Rann of Kutch is where one can find India’s only habitat of Wild Ass. Capable of reaching high speeds when galloping across the Rann, the Wild Ass is usually seen in small herds. The elegant blackbuck, blue bull (India’s largest antelope) and the graceful chinkara (Indian gazelle) are other mammals that can be seen here. Little Rann is also a birding paradise. Birds here include Steppe, Imperial, and Short-toed Eagle, Houbara Bustard, flamingos, pelicans, storks and cranes. The best birding is during the winter months from October to March when waterfowl gather in vast numbers.
Exactly 17 hours after leaving Delhi, we arrived at Rann Riders in Dasada. Rann Riders is
without a doubt one of the best resorts in Gujarat and its’ located very close to the Wild Ass sanctuary and the vast expanse of the barren and cracked landscape of the Little Rann. We checked in and while walking towards our rooms, we saw the shimmering cool blue water in the swimming pool. We all looked at each other and someone said, ‘We deserve it!’. 10 minutes later, all 4 of us were in the pool. It was almost 3 hours later that we realized that we were in Gujarat to do a recce. We had to talk to Mr. Mujahid, the owner of Rann Riders about self drive expeditions in the Rann. He had in fact invited us for dinner but we got carried away floating in the cool water with a clear and starry sky looking down at us. I think Mr. Mujahid had guessed that we were not coming for dinner any time soon, and once we reached the restaurant, he smiled and greeted us saying, ‘Hope you guys are refreshed after the long drive’. We had a nice long chat with him and received some great pointers about the best locations and ‘things to do’ on a self drive expedition in Gujarat.
Next morning, we went for a safari in the Wild Ass Sanctury and spotted a few Wild Ass. It was very hot and not the best time to visit the sanctuary. We had to make do with the few animals we saw running away from us. We took some pictures and went a bit deeper in the sanctuary. We saw workers doing ‘salt farming’ and making salt hills in the middle of the barren land of the Rann. Far in the horizon, we saw a mirage. It was unbelievable. I can bet a 1000 dollars it was water and we kept driving towards it but it kept moving away from us. We were chasing a non-existent target. Even in the pictures, the mirage looks like an ocean or a massive lake full of water!
After a few hours driving around the sanctuary in hope of spotting some more Wild Ass and Chinkaras, we decided to drive towards the desert of the Little Rann of Kutch. This was the highlight of our journey and the place that we all had come 1400 km to experience.
We decided to cross the open desert – a distance of about 100 km. The Little Rann of Kutch is a geographically unique landscape that was once an arm of the Arabian Sea. As the land separated from the sea by geological forces, it became a vast, featureless plain encrusted with salt that is inundated with water during the rains. The safari across the Little Rann visits the ‘bets’, islands on the ancient seabed that are now higher grounds covered with grass and scrub. Imagine a vast, never ending, smooth, flat and cracked land in every direction. All you hear is the sound of the wind. No people, no trees, no animals, no birds for miles and miles and miles in every direction. Imagine setting up a tent here and spending the night. A clear sky above you and 4000 sq km of mother earth all to yourself! That is the beauty of the Little Rann of Kutch. As soon as we entered the desert, our jaws dropped. It was almost a different planet. It was nothing short of a scene out of a sci-fi movie! I have seen many interesting places in the world, but I had never seen a sight like this ever in my life. The natural
landscape of Little Rann is a driver’s paradise. The unique part of this landscape is that you can drive with your eyes closed in any direction you want! There are no roads, no signs, no cars, no lights and no stops! We attacked the Rann with our cameras and I think we took somewhere close to 200 pictures in less than an hour. We then decided to shoot some videos of dust clouds left behind by our speeding Cruiser. Brilliant! Little Rann surpassed all our expectations. ‘We have to come back’, was the slogan for the day!
After our shoot, we drove through the desert fairly quickly and hit the highway. Are you wondering how we crossed the desert if there were no tracks? Well, we couldn’t do it by ourselves. Mr. Mujahid had kindly provided us with a local guide named ‘Babu’ who knew the desert well and without his guidance, we probably would still be wandering somewhere in the desert. Tip: never even attempt to cross the desert in the Little Rann of Kutch without taking a local guide with you.
We crossed the desert and carried on towards Mandvi. The city has more than four hundred year old ship building industry that still manufactures small ships. The center of attractions at Mandvi is the Vijay Vilas Palace, a Royal abode set in the middle of well-laid gardens with water channels and marble fountains. The Vijay Vilas Palace has its own private beach which offers air-conditioned tented accommodation. Being private with
conditional access it is a must visit for all beach lovers who want to enjoy their solitude and admire its pristine beauty. The beach took us by surprise again. It felt like we were in an exotic location somewhere in Bali or Maldives. Clear blue water, white sand, little huts and the soothing sound of the waves. Ah Gujarat! Where have you been hiding? It was only yesterday that we were driving through a lonely, barren desert where the thought of finding a few drops of water seemed impossible. But, drive a few hours, and you are greeted by the tempting clear blue water of the Arabian Sea.
We decided to stay in the camps at the beach for a night. ‘We have to come back’, was the general feeling among the group once again. So far, every day in Gujarat has been a different experience. Gujarat kept throwing little surprises at us. People are friendly, food is cheap and cheerful, roads are smooth as silk and the landscape is carefully picked out and put at the right distances as if god himself planned the itinerary for an ideal adventure holiday!
From Mandvi, we drove an hour and arrived at Bhuj. In January 2001, the city was struck by a major earthquake which caused a great deal of damage and loss of life. The legacy of the quake can still be seen in some old buildings which have developed permanent cracks and are yet to be repaired.
After a quick lunch at Hotel Prince, we carried on driving towards the Great Rann of Kutch. The Great Rann is a seasonal salt marsh located in the Thar Desert in the Kutch District of Gujarat, India and the Sindh province of Pakistan. It is about 7,505.22 square kilometres (2,897.78 sq mi) in size and is reputed to be the largest salt desert in the world. The most beautiful part of the Great Rann is the vast salt desert known as the White Rann which is 1000s of sq km of saline wetland that floods up with water during the monsoon. Around the month of October the expanse starts to dry up leaving behind white crystals of salt. A white salt desert.
Since the White Rann is close to the border with Pakistan, a special permit is required from BSF in order to visit this region of the Great Rann. We arrived at the check post which is about 30 km before the White Rann. Our permits were issued quickly and we started driving towards the White Rann. After about half an hour, the landscape ahead of us started opening and far ahead we could see vast empty land that looked completely white through the windscreen of our Cruiser. We arrived at the last BSF post where our permits were checked. We had a quick chat with the border guards who warned us not to drive our Cruiser on the White Rann.
‘White Rann is wet and the ground is very soft. It cannot take the weight of a car and there is a high chance that your vehicle will sink into the ground. Please follow the tracks and stop as soon as the tracks disappear’. they warned us.
‘What happens in case we get stuck?’ someone had to ask this!
The guard smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry sir, if you get stuck, we are here to rescue you. But I would still advise that you stick to the tracks to avoid any mishappening’.
We respect nature and were not going to challenge it in any way. We drove past the BSF post and soon entered the vast expanse of white. I was confused and so was everyone
else in the car. It was not clear if what we were witnessing was actually there. Were our eyes fooling us? Was this real? Were we actually standing in the middle of one of the largest salt deserts in the world? Were we seeing salt or snow? We parked our car, took out the wireless sets and started walking on the desert. The ground felt firm for a while and we foolishly decided to drive a bit further. We could still see a bit of the track and thought that why not go right till the tip of the track. I guess it was adrenalin doing the thinking. We went back to the car and started driving. After about 50 metres, the ground gave away and the front 2 tyres sunk into it! We stayed calm, put the 4×4 gear and the Cruiser did its magic. We got out but the car received a good slap from the desert as if telling it to behave itself and not become too ambitious. We quickly reversed and parked the car back on solid ground. We started walking off the track now and could actually feel the soft ground giving away as we walked. We had to take every step slowly and carefully. Every now and then, my shoes would dig into the ground. My shoes and jeans up to ankle length were completely wet and white. It was a struggle to walk on the White Rann. Now I understood why the BSF post was on the edge of the White Rann. The border guards told us that 80 km ahead of us was Pakistan but no one could possibly cross this terrain from either side so there was no security needed in the middle of the White Rann.
White Rann was the biggest surprise for us. The most unusual landscape I have ever witnessed in my life. It didn’t feel like any place on earth. Though I haven’t been to the Moon yet, but I think that Moon would probably look like the White Rann. I wish I had the talent to describe it more vividly. You really have to see White Rann to understand what I am struggling to explain. We had carefully timed our visit to the White Rann on a Full Moon night. We had arrived in White Rann in the evening which gave us the chance to witness one of the most beautiful sunsets. Once it was completely dark, the full moon came out and lit up the earth. Imagine, standing in the middle of a completely white desert that is lit up by the powerful white light of a Full Moon. ‘We have to come back and spend a night in the White Rann’, we echoed.
This journey has left an everlasting impression of Gujarat on our minds and hearts. We had planned to visit all the places I mentioned above but none of us was prepared or expected to witness what we witnessed. It’s a great feeling to discover that such unique, beautiful, extraordinary, unusual, breathtaking, ‘out of the world’ places exist in India. For us, Gujarat is the perfect recipe for self drive expeditions, adventure, luxury and jaw dropping landscapes. To sum it up, I completely agree with the recent promotion on Gujarat by Mr. Amitabh Bachchan on radio, where he says:
‘Kuch din to guzariye Gujarat mein!’ (Spend a few days in Gujarat).