Near a dargah in Bajana, Junaid curved his jeep onto a narrow bumpy path that ran beside a village. Several tribeswomen emerging from the Rann walked by barefoot, balancing enormous stacks of wood on their heads. Some stopped to eye the vehicle from the vantage point of a sand dune beside the path. Beneath where they stood lay something strange: tiny stacks of flat stones set above large bumps in the dune. These are the graves of sweepers, Junaid said, buried outside the village by other sweepers. No one else could touch a sweeper, he continued to explain, they could just not be touched. He drove by without pause, his face impassive. He had done this many times before, I reasoned. Why should he be surprised? He might even be bored.
“Bored? Never,” he smiled, and his face turned harder, more worn, when he did this. “I like the birds and I like driving here. It is a superhighway,” he said, as we rattled along noisily over the bumpy trail, with bushes scratching metal along the way. This went on for a while. Thick bushes lay beside the path, there was bare soil on either side, and a cloudless sky above. There was no sign of life, not another sound.
When we arrived at Bajana Creek though, it was packed with birds. The air was filled with squeaks and cries and squawks and chirps. The sharp smell of salt was everywhere. The ground was cracked, white with saline. I stepped out and heard a satisfying crunch, nice as popping bubble wrap. At the edge of the Creek, translucent orange dragonflies flew about, settling around me, moving only if I moved. There were cranes from Siberia, spot-billed ducks, flamingoes, and pelicans. They moved away as I drew closer, and as their alarm spread in waves, they too took flight in waves.
We travelled further into the desert and, at some point, left behind a world we knew. Past a rusty forest office signboard with simple illustrations of ‘Lion, tiger, leopard’ — animals which had no business here — there was a vast empty expanse. Junaid said nothing. He stopped the car and fiddled while I looked ahead. It was massive. From horizon to horizon, there was nothing but flat land and the odd shrub, making it strangely claustrophobic. No one had mentioned that. People discussed wild asses and passing birds and the flat cracked soil. But desolation and the enormity of the Little Rann? No. I wonder why. It’s not something you’re likely to forget soon.
And then, as I stood bemused by its vast mind-boggling expanses, Junaid leaned forward and the car lurched right into the Rann… 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90… what was ‘fast’ here? What could it be placed against? The signpost behind disappeared, and only a faint track indicated our trail. “Look around, do you see water everywhere?” he asked. “It’s a mirage.” Indeed, the horizon shimmered but came no nearer. But ever so often, lumps were seen in the distance. They were wild asses.
Seeing a wild ass isn’t considered as exciting as sighting a tiger. There is supposed to be no mystery about them. They are light brown, with muscular hind legs, and travel in small herds with one lookout. At the hint of a threat, real or imagined, they are off. “It’s illegal to chase them, but don’t even try. They can touch 80 km an hour,” Junaid said. A more informed guide later revised this to around 70.
Hours later, under a shade, I chatted with a man whose family had lived here for centuries. He mentioned how extreme the Rann was, and how hostile it could be, both physically and mentally. “You could go mad here if you lost your way,” I commented. He began agreeing, but then scratched his chin. “Yes, but you know what the beautiful thing is? You might get lost here, but you’ll always be found. And what you saw? That was nothing. Absolutely nothing. You could be here for ages and yet keep on seeing new things.”
About the little Rann
The largest sanctuary in India and a Ramsar Wetlands Site, the Little Rann is spread over 4,953 sq km and the five districts of Surendranagar, Banaskantha, Patan, Kutch and Rajkot. Since the area is so vast, it is possible — though illegal — to venture into the sanctuary from anywhere. Safari operators often bypass the entry points and travel along the edge of villages to the Little Rann. Logistically, it’s wisest to head for places where the wildlife congregates most densely. The two main entry points are Dasada and Jinjhwada. Dasada is 27 km from Bajana. One safari route is to Bajana Creek, accessible from Bajana, a largely silent place where migratory birds appear during the winter. The other route is to the surreal salt hills of Jinjhwada, 20 km north-west of Dasada.
The Rann is a flat, white, cracked and utterly barren land in the winter — so flat, vehicles can break the speed limit on it — except for sparse vegetation. There are 364 hills, called bets, which rise across the Rann, and become islands during the monsoon, providing food and shelter to animals. In the rains, the Rann is filled with water as a result of reverse flow of seawater during the rains, and only the bets stay above the water level. The largest of the bets is Pung Bet, covering 84 sq km. The tallest is Mardak, 80 km north of Bajana. Dasada village, where the Rann Riders Resort (for more see Where to Stay on page 302) is based, is one of the two main entry points.
The Little Rann Sanctuary was established in 1973, at a time when the wild ass was in danger. Conservation efforts led to an immediate recovery, and from 362 in 1963 their number rose to 720, thirteen years later. Seven years later, 1,989 wild asses roamed the Little Rann, and their numbers continue to grow as of the last census done in 2010 when the figure rose to 4,085 . This growth had much to do with the strict rules in place: chasing them is illegal, leave alone hunting them. This is today the topic of some debate, for the rules are so stringent that some villagers settled on the periphery of the sanctuary committed suicide, feeling powerless to curb the animal’s appetite for their crop. Officials deny the occurrence of any poaching, but knowledgeable guides will tell you that this is not always the case.
The Little Rann is staffed by fewer than two dozen officers and constables. Besides protecting the herds of wild ass, they patrol the outer edges of the sanctuary. Both guides and officials are hesitant to travel too far into the Little Rann except on established tracks. This is because the parched topsoil is deceptive, and not just near watery areas. This could result in you sinking into soft mud. I sank up to my knees in three different places in an hour, had to be extracted forcefully each time, and had to buy new shoes.
While the Forest Department claims it provides guides, considering the department’s less than enthusiastic involvement in the sanctuary, it is advisable to hire a guide not employed by the government. While it is not compulsory to hire a guide, the presence of one is reassuring, as most guides have lived in the area for decades and know the terrain. Guides can be hired at the two resorts here, Rann Riders and Desert Coursers.
All travel has to be done in jeeps and trucks, the only vehicles that can handle the baked flats. Rann Riders provide jeeps, if requested in advance (see Things to See and Do on page 300). It is imperative for reasons of your own security as well as the Forest Office’s frayed nerves that you register your entry into the Rann at the Forest Office at the park’s entrance at Bajana, which has a Range Office, or with the forest guard at Jinjhwada. The entry receipt given by the office is in Gujarati on a paper of remarkably poor quality but it is genuine. In fact, insist on a receipt of entry as proof that you have entered the park lawfully.
In winter, you will need warm clothing, a strong torch, medication (carry this with you because medication may not be available there), and a few provisions and plenty of water. Binoculars and a long-range lens will help, as will a pair of light shoes. Keep a knapsack handy.
The Little Rann is a contemplative place. It is mostly silent except for where animals or birds congregate, or where pickaxes pierce through hardened hills of industrial salt. Apart from the wild ass, other animals found here include wild boar, jungle cat, desert cat, black buck, chinkara and nilgai. While the wild asses are easily found, guides say the rest take some time. In three visits to the sanctuary, I did not see them even once. But it is the birds that lure visitors from far away. There are over 300 species of birds that visit, and over 200 kinds of plants, and yes, the powerful chestnut brown wild ass, which can burst into a 70 km per hour charge. Also, the visual strangeness of the salt pans is also an attraction: for miles and miles there will be nothing, and then, in the distance, beside a tent, there’ll be a luminous white block. This place is not only attractive for what it has, but also for how empty it is.
Asiatic Wild Ass: Solitary Creatures
Any visitor to the Little Rann of Kutch is bound to see the extraordinary Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus khur), locally called ghudkar. They are most ofen basically solitary creatures, but also do tend to move in packs at times. Often, dominant males preside over herds of females. If a threat is close by, look-outs communicate through scent, visual signals and calls, and they can burst into a gallop touching 75 km per hour. Though these speeds are short-lived, they can sustain speeds of 35 km per hour. Weighing anywhere from 160 to 240 kg, most wild asses have a shoulder height of 1.2m.
They roam in familiar areas, though when it rains, they move to higher land — called bets — where vegetation abounds. They otherwise live on the sparse vegetation scattered in the desert. Once, they could be seen as far as the Indus, and the Mughal Emperor Akbar is said to have hunted them on the banks of the River Sutlej. They were considered endangered two decades ago. But thanks to conservation efforts, their population now stands at 4,085 at the time of the last census here.
Location The sanctuary, spread over five districts, Surendranagar, Banaskantha, Patan, Kutch and Rajkot, is close to the Gulf of Kutch
Distance Dasada is 642 km NW of Mumbai JOURNEY TIME By air 1 hr + 2 hrs by road By rail 10 hrs + 1 hr by road By road 13 hrs
Route NH8 to Ahmedabad via Manor, Vapi, Valsad, Navsari, Bharuch, Vadodara and Nadiad; NH8A to Sarkhej; SH to Bajana via Sanand, Viramgam, Mandal, Dasada and Zainabad.
When to go The park is open round the year but the best time to visit is October to March Best sightings November to February, when it is cooler and migratory birds arrive in thousands. Go there for Wild ass, migratory birds, desert birds.
Wildlife/ Forest Dept office
Sanctuary Game Warden
Bajana, Patdi, Surendranagar
STD code 02757
By Rahul Bhatia