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A SAFARI IN THE RANN

Bounded by crystals of salt and inhabited by exotic wildlife – the Rann of Kutch makes for an exhilarating destination with delightful views of surreal landscapes

The Rann of Kutch is a vast area of salt desert and seasonal marshes located largely in Gujarat along the border with Sindh. The Rann is divided into two parts – the Great Rann of Kutch and the Little Rann of Kutch. The latter is especially exciting for wildlife enthusiasts as the last remaining stronghold of the endemic Indian wild ass, an important bird area and an easily accessible place to see species typical of the desert habitat. Just about a two-hour drive away from Ahmedabad Airport, the Wild Ass Sanctuary covers much of the Little Rann of Kutch and its environs.

It was morning when we started out from Ahmedabad for the Wild Ass Sanctuary. With growing tourist interest in the geologically interesting and wildlife-rich region of the Little Rann, there is now a good choice of accommodations at villages in the 30 km radius of the sanctuary. We booked our room at Rann Riders, which is an imaginatively designed ethnic-theme resort, made using local materials, near the village of Dasada. The resort looks like a village with cottages designed like the houses of local communities like the Rabaris and the Bajanias complete with mud and dung, plaster decorated with hand-paintings and mirror inlays, straw-thatched roofs and carved wooden doors. The inside though features comfortable furniture, contemporary amenities and modern bathrooms. The resort has well-kept gardens, trees and a water body, which together bring in a good number of birds and bats to the property itself, and it has its own working farm, poultry, livestock, pets and a stable with about a dozen horses from indigenous breeds like the Marwari, Kathiawadi and Sindhi-Kutchi. The staff proudly showed us a graceful Kathiawadi mare with elegant inward facing ears and a sturdy Marwari mare, both of which had won many prizes at horse shows.

After lunch, we strolled down to the parking area where open jeeps were waiting, ready to take the guests for the late afternoon safari in the Little Rann of Kutch. It took about 30 minutes by road for our driver to get us to the entrance gate of the sanctuary, from where he then took the jeep off-road through the scrubby terrain. A few minutes later we came to the open plains stretching for miles on every side, in parts covered with dazzling white salt. We enjoyed the exhilaration of standing at the back of the jeep as it sped over the salt flats, with the keen breeze running through our hair and clothes. We saw a lone wild ass that stood to watch us – a well-muscled stallion, chestnut brown and white in colour, with a blackish mane running along its neck. When we came too close, it began to gallop away at a high speed, so we turned away and drove to a scrubby area where the guide with us had spotted a group of about 20 wild asses through binoculars. They were patiently browsing the grasses and scrub, allowing us to get a close view of them. It was a group of mares and foals, who usually herd together unlike the stallions who are usually solitary or seen in small bachelor groups.

Once we were satisfied with the photography of the herds, the driver started again and took us to an elevated patch of land covered with vegetation. He explained, "The Little Rann is roughly triangular in shape, with the Arabian Sea on the west, agricultural plains to the east and south, and to the north are rivers like the Banas River that empties into the salt desert. The Rann was once an arm of the Arabian Sea and is still inundated with water from the sea and the rivers during the monsoon.

There are islands called `bets' in the seasonal wetland which carry much of the vegetation of the Little Rann, and this is where we look for wildlife''.There was sandgrouse that was hard to spot because of their cryptic colouration when sitting on the ground, songbirds like larks of various species, shrikes and bush chats. We also saw an Indian courser crossing the path in front of us. Suddenly, our guide signalled us to look into the distance where we saw a MacQueen's bustard, a largish bird – on seeing our vehicle, it took flight and we could see the long wings with a striking white patch at the base of the primaries. Shortly after this, we saw a white-footed red fox, well-known as a desert fox, among the bushes. We scanned the grass with our binoculars and were rewarded by the sight of a short-eared owl on the grass – this owl gets its name from the tuft of feathers that resembles a mammal's ear. Larks were abundant – we could identify six different species of this little songbird. On a previous visit, we had visited Mardak Bet in the Little Rann where we saw a hoopoe lark.

By now we had arrived at a large lake that the guide called Bajana Creek – this wetland is scenically attractive with grassy islands in the centre and salt covered edges. Flamingos and ibises were feeding in the shallows, painted storks and herons were spearing fish. Further ahead were large and squat white pelicans. While we stood on a knoll of land enjoying the view, flocks of Demoiselle and common eastern cranes flew over us in spectacular v-shaped formations before landing on the water.

We waited for sunset – a glorious orange ball sinking into the horizon, before starting back for Dasada.

Getting There: The Wild Ass Sanctuary is about 100 km from Ahmedabad Airport and 35 km from Viramgam Railway Station. It is also within a feasible driving distance from Rajkot Airport.

Where To Stay: Rann Riders, Royal Safari Camp, Desert Coursers Camp Zainabad and Bhavna Farm are some of the popular places to stay near the sanctuary. Desert Outpost is a heritage guesthouse at Kharaghoda which has a few colonial-style rooms to let.

Anil Mulchandani

Anil Mulchandani

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