We visited the little Rann of Kutch in Jan this year, just after our tour to the Gir forest…Jan has been a touring month for us indeed!!!Just like Gir, I was pretty excited to visit the “Little Rann”,the last abode of the Indian wild ass.
Just to give you a background,Little desert of Kutch is an extensive salt marsh of western India.The Great Rann of Kutch, along with the Little Rann of Kutch and the Banni grasslands on its southern edge, is situated in the district of Kutch and comprises some 30,000 square kilometres (10,000 sq mi) between the Gulf of Kutch and the mouth of the Indus River in southern Pakistan.It is famous as the world’s last refuge of the Indian wild ass(Khur) for the conservation of which it has been declared as the Indian wild Ass Sanctuary.It was the scene of major border disputes in 1965 and 1971.The name “Rann” comes from the Hindi word ran (रण) meaning “desert”.Though a bleak landscape it is rich in biodiversity and is an ecologically important area for wildlife and many local and migratory waterbirds nest here during winters.This is one of the hottest areas of India – with summer temperatures averaging 41°C and peaking at 49.5°C. Winter temperatures reduce dramatically and can go below 0 °C (32 °F)
We started our journey to the “Rann”on a fine Saturday morning with our family friends by road from Ahmedabad.We had booked our stay at “Tikar Eco Camp” which is at a distance of 130km from Ahmedabad.You can access the desert area of LRK from different directions and Tikar is one of them.The “Tikar Eco Camp” is run by Mr.Devjibhai Dhamecha, who is a wild life enthusiast,photographer and naturalist and has extensive knowledge about the flora and fauna that is found in the desert area of Gujarat.
The first 2 hours went by quickly,we friends were meeting after a long time and had lots to catch up.Along the way,we halted at a roadside hotel for some refreshments.It was 11 o’clock already and we were hungry, so we had some “Aloo paranthas”.Soon we got a call from Mr.Dhamecha,that he was nearby and he will guide us to his nature camp.Mr Devji Dhamecha turned out to be a very simple man,cordial and friendly from the word go.Next we followed Mr.Dhamecha to his eco camp.The road to the camp was not very smooth,was bumpy at places ,with lot of potholes and ups and downs on the way,but once we reached the camp we forgot our discomfort.
It was well past 2PM when we finally reached the camp area,our stomachs had started growling by then. The camp is surrounded by vast desert area and tidbits of small villages nearby.We quickly retired to our colourful round shaped huts with straw roofs,got fresh and dashed for lunch.The lunch served by the hotel staff was a bland affair and we couldn’t find too many vegetables included.We had to make do with a potato curry and chappatis,dal and rice.The staff told us,that being a desert area, they don’t get too many vegetables to cook and non-veg is strictly prohibited in the area.Later we came to know that for non-vegetarians, the “Rann Riders” is a popular destination which is close to a 100 km from “Tikar Eco camp” and where Mr.Amitabh Bacchan pays visit very frequently!There aren’t many huts in this camp and make sure you book in advance,by calling Mr.Dhamecha, if you wish to stay here.We could spot 2-3 foreigners in the adjoining huts,who the staff said were photographers and come from Italy.I was amazed to hear about the kind of dedication these foreigners had.These people were staying in the camp for days now,everyday they went in the open marshland, took a specific subject and dedicated hours together to study and photograph them.The friendly banter went on,with few more tidbits and stories about the region and its people.Mr Dhamecha told us that LRK(Little Rann of Kutch) is known as India’s ‘Survey Number Zero’ because no land survey has been conducted here since the British left!!Finally we retired to our rooms to catch a short nap,we were to leave for an evening safari to the “Rann” at 4.30pM sharp.
We started our safari at 4.30PM with Mr Dhamecha playing the perfect host,he drove us in his jeep and we were delighted to have him as he is such a rich source of info.After few kms, we spotted mounds of white.Devjibhai said “this are man made salt mounds.The salt is taken from adjoining salt pans and deposited by the merchants here,later it goes to the factory for further processing”.We saw many tractors and dumpers in the area which were carrying salt to and fro.We started to climb on one of the salt mounds, the terrain was slippery and we had to watch our steps.We held each others hands and were finally able to reach the top of the mound.It was a feat in itself!!The feeling was like we have descended in virtual Kashmir as the background glistened in white salt.We took handful of salt crystals and started to pose for some funny pictures,also kept aside some as souvenirs.
A few meters away,we spotted some Nilgai’s in the bushes of Baval trees.We tried to get closer,but they ran away.The Nilgais looked like goats,a little taller,their hide bluish in colour and short horns.Mr Dhamecha explained that in total there are 6 types of antelopes found in India,a Nilgai is one of them.Rest are the Sambar ,the Gazelle(famous for its long curvy horns),the black buck(famous for the Salman Khan hunting episode),the Spotted deers and the Chinkara.
Our next stop was a few meters away, where we spotted a group of Wild Ass freely moving around.The very animal had brought us to this dessert area of LRK.They had white skin with large brown spots.Mr Dhamecha said that this was a group of males,females and males can be distinguised by the colour of their hide.The males had more brownness and females had more whiteness in their hides.These animals were born to resist extreme desert temperatures.In summer months the temperature crosses 48-49’c sometimes and the “Eco camp” remains closed at that time.The camp remains open only for 5 months,mid Oct to Mid March.We also got to know that Wild Ass, is the father of all modern donkeys and horses.There are 3 more varieties found of the “Asian wild Ass” type,apart from Indian Wild Ass, each in Turkey,Mongolia and Persia.We borrowed Mr. Dhamecha’s binocular, each one of us took turns to have a better look at the Ass population.We could spot a Marsh Harriet,perched atop a small bush.Devjibhai informed us, that this bird preys on sparrows/other small birds in the area.
The sight of the cracked earth beneath us was amazing.The colour and texture of the dry dessert grass and shrubs gave the area a distinct eerie look.There was no habitation to be seen around in the miles of land that followed and we joked among ourselves that we would be lost,if we were left aside here.We continued on our safari, this time we saw a group of female wild ass,marked by the presence of small patches of brown on their skin.Few Nilgais were also grazing besides the asses and we were spellbound to see these animals in their natural habitat.We lazed around the area for some more time,trying to get closer to the animals,yet not scare them away.
Next Devjibhai took us to a Salt mining site.We could see miles of salt pans and mounds of salt,glistening in the rays of the evening sun.
Gujarat produces close to 73% of total salt consumed in India.Close to 60% of this is produced in Little Rann of Kutch.Little Rann of Kutch is a 5183 sq.km land mass having dual characteristics of saline desert and wetland.It is divided between the 5 districts of Surendranagar, Mehsana, Banaskantha, Kutch and Rajkot.Close to 43,000 traditional salt workers (Agariyas) live in more than 108 villages on the periphery of LRK. They mostly belong to Nomadic and De-notified Tribes (75%), Schedule caste (10%), Schedule Tribes (10%) and others backward communities (5%) and salt making in LRK is more than a century old tradition for most of them.Every year from September – May season (period varies based on monsoon), Agariyas migrate to the desert along with their families to produce salt.They live in temporary make-shift houses made out of mud and bamboo in the harshest conditions of the desert for 8-9 months in an year .
Devjibhai explained that during monsoons, water from the Arabian Sea floods the Rann converting it into a lake. In September, when the waters recede, it’s time for Agarias from the 107 villages around the Little Rann to move in. Mud huts come up in Survey Number Zero, where Agarias stay till spring, making the Vadagara variety of salt–it has big crystals and is considered inferior to the powdered marine salt sold in most of urban India.
Vadagara is made from sub-soil brine. Agarias dig a 6-9 metre-deep well from where the brine is pumped out. This is then taken through channels to large flat pans. Getting these pans ready to receive the brine is tough work. Agarias stamp hard and level the earth with their bare feet. The pressure tightly packs the loose soil and ensures the brine does not seep back.The initial layer of salt that is formed, once the brine evaporates, is scraped with heavy wooden rakes, locally known as gantaras. Some dry branches are thrown in, around which salt crystals form.Once the salt has been harvested it is sent to collection points. Here traders take over.Exploited by traders and middlemen the Agariyas make as low as 12-15 paisa/kg of salt they produce.We came to know that the labourers who work in these salt mines work in extreme hazardous conditions,they get skin infections due to the constant exposure of their body to salt,have abnormally thin legs which become so stiff that even after death, they do not burn in the funeral pyre.Their legs are then collected by their relatives and buried separately in a small grave with salt so that they can decompose naturally.The Agariyas harvest 10—15 tonnes of salt from each of these fields every 15 days which is then sent to salt companies and chemical factories across the country through trucks and trains. Every family takes care of around 30 to 60 such fields.
We could spot a lone hut in the middle of the salt mines,an agariya labourer sitting there all alone.Night had started to descend.Suddenly we saw a bike nearing us.We were told that the labourer’s brother has brought dinner for him, he will eat his dinner and retire in his hut after that.We asked him,”Dont you feel scared staying out in night in absolute wilderness when no one is closeby?”He replied,”we are used to the darkness and wilderness!!”.
We began our return jouney, saw a bird watch tower on the way ,a tourist vehicle had parked nearby.We saw another jeep full of tourists and Mr.Dhamecha informed us that they were bird watchers gang.
After reaching home we retired to our rooms once again.We informed the hotel staff that we will have dinner by 8.30PM.We were called for dinner at 8.30PM,what lay before us was Bajrano rotlo(chappatis made out of bajra), ringanno odho(brinjal mash),god(jaggery) and khichdi,local delicacies of Gujarat.We had our stomachs full and sat in a circle near our huts discussing various incidents of the day.The chill in the air had deepened and the cool breeze made us shiver.The discussion continued till 12PM and we slept after that.
We woke up the next day around 8’o clock and went for a solitary walk in the fields nearby.We could see all sorts of pugmarks on the muddy trails and wondered which animals have passed by.We returned in time for breakfast,though were dissapointed with the options that were available.Breakfast mainly comprised of fruits and “poha”.We had another round of session with Devjibhai after breakfast where he showed us his collection of books and photographs on wildlife,several in which he has done research and given his inputs.He had clicked some rare pictures of wildlife and was felicitated for his achievements by Gujarat government.
He went on. Different people come for different purpose to the “Rann”.Some like to have fun,they move around the desert,enjoy camel rides,visit the artisan’s village to have a look at their art and go back.Others come here to relax,to be one with the nature and enjoy some peaceful time away from routine life.
He remarked how salt harvesting was disturbing the ecology of the area and how government was trying to curb it.Another info we got was, the best quality of prawns are harvested in these fields during monsoons when the fields are drowned with water.
We finally left the “Tikar eco Camp” at 12PM and reached the restaurant of “Rann Riders” by 1PM.Rann Riders turned out to be a well maintained resort,we had a buffet lunch and we could get some non veg items unlike Tikar Eco Camp and were delighted.Finally we parted from Rann Riders and reached Ahmedabad by 4PM.
The trip to the “Rann” was truly amazing..