Out here at the perimeter of the Rann of Kutch, there's just the soft light of the rising sun and desolate flatness as far as the eye can see. Driving a Jaguar XKR into this great brown open feels absolutely bizarre. The Jag is not supposed to be here - it's a sports car that belongs to the road that leads to the Principality of Monaco or the paved boulevards of south Mumbai. And we've brought it to this starkly beautiful, utterly inhospitable place. We've brought it far from its regular high-octane drinking holes and into blazing Indian sun. Why, you might wonder, would we take a Jaguar to the Rann of Kutch?
The simple answer is that Gujarat has some great roads - open, fast and almost devoid of traffic. You have to watch out for neelgai and the odd buffalo, but that's about it. Our chosen road is the sort of place where a Jaguar can roam unmolested by oblivious cyclists, crazy rickshaws and buffoon motorists. At least that's what I thought.
On the Harappa trail
Our story starts in Ahmedabad. The plan is to drive to the Rann Riders Eco Resort in Dasada, 100km away, spend the night there and head into the Little Rann of Kutch in the morning for some spectacular photo-ops. After that, head towards Dholavira, 246km away, to the site of the ancient Harappan civilisation through the inner roads of Gujarat. I'd been on this road a couple of years ago on a bike, and remember thinking how perfect it would be for a sports car. And here I am, commander of more than 500 supercharged horses comfortably ensconced in the feline curves of a Jaguar XKR. Woohoo!
Among the rann riders
Before we can start though, there are two big questions - fuel quality and the current state of the road. A quick call to Jaguar confirmed the XKR will run just fine on regular unleaded (brilliant!) and another call to the Rann Riders (they know everything worth knowing about Kutch) confirmed the roads are generally excellent.
So we offload the car from the flatbed truck on the outskirts of Ahmedabad and use the 503bhp to demolish the beautiful four-laner to our first turnoff at Viramgam.
Our route gives us an early insight into the Jag's off-road abilities. The road that bypasses Viramgam is a narrow little ribbon that's chock-full of traffic, has huge speedbreakers and deep potholes, and is bordered by crumbling shanties. The Jag doesn't get stuck or its belly scraped, and burbles through the village dragging a trail of dust and the gobsmacked expressions of onlookers behind it.
We reach the resort in no time and tuck in for the night. Tomorrow is going to be epic.
As a gateway to the Little Rann of Kutch, the intricate stone arch at Jhinjhwada heightens anticipation like nothing else. Beyond this gate lie 5,000 square kilometres of blue sky that meets brown earth at a hazy line far ahead of us. The road past the gate is a rollercoaster of hard-packed mud, but amazingly the Jag clears it without grounding out and we get to the flatlands.
It is the end of summer now, and the land is at its crispiest. That means the cracked earth you see is hard enough to drive on, and if you dig into it (like when there's wheelspin), it crumbles and turns into harmless dust. The bodywork is safe from chipping, then.
Knowing that a cyclist won't jump out of nowhere, knowing that there's not a policeman around for miles and knowing that you can pretty much do what you want to do with 503bhp is, I believe, the most liberating experience of my motoring life. And, hearing that Jaguar V8 bellow under the vast blue sky is another.
A word of caution here. The Little Rann of Kutch is home to the Indian wild ass and countless other species of mammals and birds. Give them their due space. You are, after all, invading their territory.
No Fuel stations in Rann
Our next stop is Dholavira, 246km away. With an experienced guide on board, you can drive the much shorter route across the Little Rann to get to Dholavira, but we opted for the longer route via NH27, mainly because the Jag has quite an appetite for fuel and there are no fuel stations on the Rann.
So, confident the coming monsoon will cover our tracks, we head back towards regular Jag territory and the first fuel pump we can find. The fact that the XKR won't grumble about its 'regular unleaded' diet makes it so much more India-friendly. It means you can actually take it to remote places as long as there are half-decent fuel pumps along the way.
Life in sixth gear
Now, NH27 is a two-laner that has long straights, perfectly cambered corners and tarmac as smooth as the XKR's V8. It is here that I begin to appreciate how phenomenal the Jag is as a grand tourer. It's not hard-edged like a Lamborghini or a Ferrari and, on these roads, is all the better for it. The suspension is compliant, so imperfections on the road are absorbed by the car, not your spine. The engine is a gem - thanks to the supercharger, there's a great wallop of power almost from idle and because it pulls so hard low down in its rev band, you unconsciously upshift at 5000rpm. Keep the throttle pinned though and you'll discover a whole new definition of shove. The grunt it has between 5000 and 6500rpm is a little too ballistic for these roads, so I restrict myself to a few short blasts when the road is clear.
We've reached Radhanpur, and it's a six-laner from here to our turn-off at Adesar. The XKR is simply sublime on roads like these. Its long-legged gait and tall sixth gear makes it feel absolutely relaxed and unruffled as we blast down the wide open highway. There's one point on this road where you have the Little Rann on your left and the Great Rann on your right, and for a brief moment I consider ditching the Dholavira plan and getting back into the loose surface again. But no, there are even better roads to be driven ahead.
Break fast at the salt pan
We reach Adesar and both car and occupants need fuel, so it's sev-ussal for us and unleaded for the Jag. From here it's pure two-laner, bordered by agricultural land and it rises and falls sharply, giving you a stunning view of the surroundings. We burble past people dressed in colourful garments waiting for the few buses that ply this lonely road, and we pass dry river beds that are apparently gushing full in the monsoon. I'm taking it easy, the Jag's engine loping along at a mere 1600rpm, and taking in the beauty of Kutch.
We motor on past the next town of Rapar and then onto the stunning 8km-long land bridge that links the mainland to the island of Khadir Bet, where Dholavira is. On both sides of the bridge is the white salt of the Great Rann of Kutch and I was looking forward to driving on it. But the Rann has other plans - it's still too wet and too soft for the Jag to venture onto.
It is around now that that I feel a long, long way from home. We haven't seen another vehicle for two hours and there are signs of strong Border Security Force presence. In fact, if this car could drive across the salt flats, we would be in Pakistan in half an hour, maybe less - that's how close we are to Zardari right now.
The end of our trip is nearing and we reach the excavation site at Dholavira a while later. From here we load the Jag onto a truck and send it back to Mumbai, while we hotfoot it back in the support car.
We took the perfect car to an almost perfect road. At the start of this trip, we expected the Jag to be exciting, powerful and nimble, but had no idea it was so fuss-free and comfortable as well. As for Kutch, even the Jag pales in comparison to the beauty of the land and its people.
Our route gives us an insight into the Jag's off-road abilities
We burble past people dressed in colourful garments waiting for buses
The Road map
Take SH17 out of Ahmedabad - there's a bit of traffic till you cross Sana. From here, it's a four-laner to Viramgam. Bypass Viramgam and get onto the smooth two-laner SH18.
From Dasada, continue on SH18 and then onto SH55 to Radhanpur.
Radhanpur to Adesar (NH27) is 70km of pure six-lane bliss. Turn off at Adesar towards Rapar - it's a narrow but well-surfaced two-laner.
Watch out for animals crossing the roads. From Rapar, take SH51 to Dholavira.
"There are two things no man will admit he cannot do well: drive and make love" - British racing driver Stirling Moss
(The author is assistant editor Autocar India)
From HT Brunch, January 27
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