Friday, June 1, 2012

The Little Rann of Kutch - Desolate Bounty

How can anything that’s 5,000 sq. km large be called ‘Little’? Only if you have a sibling who’s a monstrous 12,000 sq. kms. Which is why, despite being larger than most of India’s wildlife parks, the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK) will always carry the ‘Little’ prefix to its name.

Unlike most typical Indian forests, The Little Rann of Kutch is a vast, desolate, flat open expanse interspersed by dry scrub vegetation and the occasional water body. It’s incredibly barren, with not a blade of grass for miles at a stretch. I’d heard and seen pictures of wildlife from the LRK, but seeing how completely inhospitable it looked, the only thought that came to mind was “Surely no living thing could survive here?” I could not be more wrong.


Dried, cracked earth - the predominant view at the LIttle Rann of Kutch
The third destination on our West and North leg, we left Velavadar drove to the LRK from Velavadar, through Central Gujarat, finally arriving at Rann Riders in Dasada village, on the eastern boundary of the Rann.  Rann Riders is built with local sensibilities in mind, cottages made the traditional way, with local materials and a lovely open dining area. If you are lucky, you will be joined on your sofa by their own resident peacock, resplendent in all his feathered finery.

The owner of Rann Riders, Mr. Muzahid, is a legend with all popular wildlifers who visit the LRK. And he suggested that first up; we visit the water body that afternoon, with trips to the Rann itself to follow on the morrow. While I’m not really an avid birder, the prospect of seeing demoiselle cranes and flamingos seemed at best reasonably interesting. But that was because I had seriously underestimated the scale of the offering!

Demoiselle cranes resting
When we got there, it was beyond anything I had ever imagined. The flamingos were around (most had migrated away post the winter) but what took the breath away was the sheer number of demoiselle cranes. Wherever one turned, these beautiful birds filled every conceivable vista. There must have been thousands and many more thousands. And as we set out of our jeep, Ayub bhai our excellent driver/guide, asked us to not approach the birds too quickly or too directly.

They take to the air

In their thousands, squawking and screeching
As slow and deliberate as we tried to be, we were apparently too quick and too direct. The entire flock of cranes suddenly seemed to come to life and in one grey/black mass of flapping wings they took to flight. And for a few moments, it was all dark overhead; they had blotted out the sun. And away they flew, to land a kilometer or so away. And we were gutted, having blown an excellent chance to photograph these birds, and moreover, felt like intruders into their domain. But Ayub quickly told us to go to the water’s edge and sit. So we sat. And waited. And they came back, slowly, gradually and undisturbed. At times, I couldn’t even bring myself to raise the camera; all I wanted to do was to look at and admire these beautiful birds, which fly great distances every year to grace the Rann. And as we watched them, we got another LRK special – the sunset. Unbelievably spectacular. Period.

Early the next morning, we set off to the Rann, 30 kms away from Dasada. On the way, we had a really close shave as, out of nowhere, a tractor suddenly hauled itself onto the road from a blind dirt track. I don’t know how he did it, but Ayub swerved at the last minute and managed to miss it, else this blog would have probably been renamed ‘HospiTales’ and the only wildlife sightings would have been those of irate nurses aggrieved at this raconteur’s failure to comply with some order or another. Net, if you like this blog, you know whom to thank, and for those of you who hate it, I’m not putting up Ayub’s contact details for fear of reprisals against that excellent gent.

On our way to the Rann, It was eye-opening to how in the smallest of villages, in living conditions that we wouldn’t even sneeze at, the people are ever hospitable and always smiling and vivacious – something which we city slickers with our artificial and self imposed pressures could do very well to learn from.  Anyways, end of sermon. One very interesting village we came across was called Visawadi – in English-Gujarati translates to ‘Home of Visas’ – Rural Gujarat branch for the US Consulate perhaps?


Anyways, back to the Rann, it was a superb first morning, as we first came upon a herd of Indian Wild Ass. Now, when you think Ass, you think grey, boring and bordering on ugly. Not the Wild Ass; reddish brown and white, it looks far more graceful, athletic and powerful – a beautiful animal. And skittish as you please, the moment a vehicle gets even a little close, they’re off on a gallop. And the sight of these beautiful animals striding across the arid Rann is one of the highlights of my Wildlife Wander.  

The Indian Wild Ass


With a temple in the background
Then Ayub led us to the den of a family of Indian foxes. A subterranean palace under a thick, thorny bush, with several entry (and exit) holes, it housed a family of 4 little pups. Their mother was out, probably scouring the nearby scrub for some food. But these little guys were in complete form. We parked the jeep far away and slowly walked upto the den, so as to not scare the little pups. Then we settled down a few metres from the den, me lying prone on the ground, camera ready.

Indian fox pup, playing with a dung ball
And then they came out, in ones and twos. Like little kids, they were frisky, curious, playful and very naughty. One of them would stare into the camera, walk a few steps towards us and then turn back and run to the den, Another would pick up whatever he saw, with his mouth, toss it in the air and try to catch it. The other two just popped their heads out a couple of times, decided we weren’t worth it and went back down to their underground nursery. We spent a lovely, quiet and peaceful hour with them till the sun got sharp; then disappeared down the tunnel, and we headed back to the resort. We came back that afternoon and spent more quality time with these lovely little pups.

Desert Fox pup 
Desert Fox pup
Over the next couple of days, we saw more herds of Wild Ass, plenty of harriers – Pallid, Marsh and Monties, but the highlight was the rare desert fox. One morning, Ayub sighted a female trotting across the Rann and we quickly headed towards it. But before we could line up the cameras for a proper shot, it had zipped out of the frame and into some thick scrub. But Ayub wasn’t a quitter – he knew where her den was and we made our way there. It was out in the open, with no cover at all, and we saw two pups sitting on top of the mound. On seeing us from afar, they scooted into their home, not as comfortable with us as their Indian fox cousins. Again, we sat in front of the den and waited. After about half an hour, one poked its face out of the den and gave us some superb photo ops. He came out, preened and posed for a bit and then, like a veritable supermodel, vanished back down the hole. And that was that. Fabulous sighting of a really rare animal.

The Little Rann has some amazing sunsets
Harrier taking off
So that was the Little Rann of Kutch. A set of paradoxes that somewhere epitomize the variety and diversity of existence on this planet; featureless yet beautiful, desolate yet teeming, barren yet bountiful.  An incredible, finely balanced eco-system that overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles to support itself and its denizens. Every living thing has a role to play to keep this eco-system going, each one take what is due and no more, and gives back in equal measure. There is a huge lesson in it for us, the squanderers of this planet’s wonderful bounty. Time we gave something back to Mother Earth.

Common crane
Little Rann of Kutch Trip Guide

Getting there 
Viramgam (30 kms) is the nearest railhead and Ahmedabad (150 kms) is the nearest metro and major airport. The roads are excellent in Gujarat and the drive to Dasada is a very pleasant one.

Stay
Rann Riders (www.rannriders.com) is an excellent option to explore the Rann. Comfortable air-conditioned rooms, created in local styles and a lovely open dining area are the highlights. You can reach Muzahid, the owner on (+91  9925236014) for reservations. It’s better to book in advance, especially on weekends since they get big groups of locals for weekend getaways.

Food and Service
The people at Rann Riders are great, the service is prompt, understated and professional. The buffets are extensive and the food is very good, if a bit touristy at times. But certainly the best option in the area. There is another option, Desert Coursers, closer to the Rann. We didn’t really have the time to check it out.

For those who can’t do without the daily tipple, just remember that you’re still in Gujarat, which is a dry state, so your alcoholic urges need to be contained for a few days, officially at least.

Safaris
Like Velavadar, there are no organized safaris or timings. But the best times for wildlife sightings are the same – early mornings and late afternoons. Rann Riders have their own vehicles – Mahindra Thar, excellent for the terrain.

Ayub bhai with his Mahindra Thar
I’m sure all their driver/guides are excellent, but if I were you I would ask for Ayub bhai, he’s spent his whole life in the area, and knows the Rann like the back of his hand. He knows where to find the harriers, the foxes and desert foxes, not to mention the Wild Asses. And if you’re really, really lucky, he could find you Hyena, Indian Wolf or the Desert Cat.