What do you do when you see miles of unbroken surface of dark silt, all bare and without a sign of life? You will no doubt be tempted to step on the gas in your SUV, hoping to catch the horizon. Do so by all means, kick mountains of dust with your tyres, and feel the thrill of driving in the Little Rann of Kutch – just mind the wildlife though!
About the Little Rann of Kutch First
The Little Rann is a saline desert, and believed to have been a shallow sea at one time. It can be considered a large ecotone, a transitional area between marine and terrestrial ecosystems, stretching across 4,953 sq. kms (1,935 sq. miles). Dry for most part of the year, it gets inundated with water during the monsoons – the only land forms visible at this time are about 74 elevated plateaus or islands, locally called ‘bets.’ In the Rann, you must watch out for marshy bits – they can suck you in real fast.
The area may look arid and forbidding but, surprisingly, it is home to many species of animals and birds, and rich in its unique flora. And it supports life far beyond its boundaries – the Rann is a valuable source of salt, supplying 20 percent of India’s output. You can see mountains of salt and equipment used to extract the same as you drive around.
What the eye cannot miss are swathes of water bodies – looking like an endless sea in the distance. Complete with reflections of trees in the water. Only, these are mirages. Even when you know it, you will have to pinch yourself to believe they are so – it is not easy accepting what you see is not for real.
Chasing the Wild Ass in the Rann of Kutch
The Wild Ass Sanctuary was established within the Rann in 1973 to protect the last home of the endangered Indian Wild Ass, or the Ghudkhar as called locally. They number in the thousands, and you have to be very unlucky not to spot any. The sanctuary features on the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
The first impression: They are not bad looking at all. Fair in colouring, much smarter turned out than the common donkeys. If their facial features were any sharper, they could well have passed for ponies for children. And they sure can match up to the strength and speeds of horses, weighing up to 230 kilos and managing speeds of upto 70 kmph (45 miles per hour). Wonder if they are as intelligent as horses? Will they ever make it to the Derby?
The Ghudkhars once roamed across North-West India, West Pakistan and Iran but are now found only in the Rann. They are a sturdy lot, withstanding extremes of weather in a terrain without shade that gets droughts and floods in equal measure. Meals include fodder, scrubby grass and sweet water. Their life span is 20-25 years. Breeding season is August to October, away from the prying eyes of tourists when the region is mostly closed. Gestation period is about 11 months, and kids don’t take too long before they join the herd.
The Wild Asses are an alert lot, scampering away at the slightest sight of an approaching vehicle. Visitors are strictly warned not to chase them in their cars, but few can resist the temptation.
The Rann: Full of Life
The Rann is an important destination for migratory birds, who come here by the tens of thousands in season. You can find over 380 species of birds including Chestnut-Bellied, Spotted and Painted Sand Grouse; Lark; Desert and Variable Wheatears; White-Eared Bulbul; Macqueen’s Bustard; Greater and Lesser Flamingoes; White Pelican; Spoonbill; Demoiselle and Common Cranes; raptors including Aquila Eagles and a variety of Falcons.
My sightings included those of Demoiselle Cranes, pecking at God-knows-what in the sand and around some water bodies. And then I saw hundreds of Lesser Flamingoes, with their cheerful white and pink hues. The flamingoes come from Australia according to my guide, but some nest at the Rann itself. My shoes sunk into slush around the water bodies, sending an early warning signal to watch out for quicksand.
Residents also include many species of mammals including the Nilgai (Blue Bull or Antelope), Chinkara, Wild Boar, Blackbuck, Hare, Indian Wolf, Golden Jackal, White-Footed Desert Fox, Jungle Cat, Desert Cat and Striped Hyena. Reptiles include the Spiny-Tailed Lizard.
There are 253 different species of flowering plants and other vegetation found in the bets or islands. The sanctuary is habitat to about 93 species of invertebrates, including 25 species of zooplanktons, one species of annelid, four crustaceans, 24 insects, 12 molluscs and 27 spiders. A total of four species of amphibians (frogs and toads) and 29 species of reptiles (two of turtles, 14 of lizards, 12 snakes and one crocodile) occur here. The mixing of tidal water from the Gulf of Kutch with freshwater discharged from rivers takes place in the Little Rann of Kutch, making it an important spawning ground for prawns.
Who would have thought life could flourish so in this desert?
A Temple in the Middle of Nowhere
There is a temple and an Ashram miles from anywhere in the Rann. It has a few permanent residents, with hundreds and even thousands visiting on certain days of the week and during festivals. Faith! The temple is also home to some beautiful and rare birds – must be a sanctuary and an oasis for them. Spotted a pair of rare Peregrine Falcons and yet more cranes. Bulbuls and white doves too.
Tips for Visiting the Little Rann of Kutch
* Go with a guide, and have a reliable GPS system. You can easily get lost and mobiles don’t always work.
* Carry some extra food and water lest you get stranded.
* You can take your own car in but need a permit – a formality after you pay the fee of about Rs. 500.
* Be prepared for temperatures varying between 4 – 47 degrees Celsius depending on the time of the year. Annual rainfall varies from 100 – 300 mm.
* I hit speeds of over 100 kmph (70 miles per hour) in the desert. It may have been exhilarating, but I realized the need to be careful lest I hit any bumps or depressions, or hurt any wildlife.
* You could stay in Dasada, about 90 kms (55 miles) from Ahmedabad, the nearest airport.
* Best time to visit: November to March.
* Make day trips to Patan and Modhera from here.