Legend has it that when Mughal emperor Babar was scouting for routes to India over the Hindu Kush mountains, a wise man suggested he follow the tracks of the Indian wild ass, which in those days roamed over northwest India, Pakistan and Iran. My guide saw the incredulous look on my face as he narrated this story, and simply said, "Come with me for a safari. Not many can survive such tough conditions."
Trudging the barren land
A couple of hours later, as we rode over the bleak landscape, the sun beating down on us and the salty winds cutting across our face, the guide's words kept ringing in my ears. After countless trips to exquisite mountains, here I am on a battered jeep, driving through what for me was one of the most inhospitable of all terrains -- the Little Rann of Kutch.
My guide across Rann, Devjibhai Dhamecha, is a local of the village Dhanghadra. He started out as an amateur photographer and over the years, protecting the Little Rann of Kutch wildlife sanctuary became his sole ambition. We stayed in kooba huts -- circular mud huts with conical roofs resembling those of the Banjania tribes of Northern Gujarat.
The Rann of Kutch is a saline wasteland of around 30,000 sq km between the Gulf of Kutch and the Indus in Pakistan. It is the largest declared biosphere in India, and an effective deterrent for illegal immigrants -- one wrong turn in the desert could prove fatal.
Centuries of silting has turned this extension of the Arabian Sea into a mud flat, which is inundated during the monsoon and salty and cracked in other seasons. Surprisingly, the Rann has five distinct wetlands which are a rich habitat for water and terrestrial birds such as the flamingoes. On a highway running alongside the sanctuary, which leads to a marshy area, Devjibhai said I'd be able to spot a few remaining migratory birds -- given it is almost summertime now and they have flown back to cooler climes.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a colourful tapestry of the white Demoiselle Cranes, the Pink flamingoes and red-wattled Lapwing, interspersed with the Little Cormorant, Pelicans, Lesser Flamingoes, Herons and egrets. In winter, the place turns into a bird lover's
To get a better shot of the birds, I waded through the black mud as quietly as I could. But my foot slipped, and the next sound I heard was the flapping of a thousand pairs of wings as they all took flight en masse.
On the way back to the kooba huts, we crossed a group of Maldharis packing up for the next leg of their journey. The Maldharis are nomadic herdsmen who migrate annually after winter from Kutch and Saurashtra to Madhya Pradesh.
A sea of nothingness
The next day's safari, far inside the sanctuary, transported me to a different panorama altogether. We were taken around the flat land and a bare horizon broken only by the occasional salt pan or sometimes a bet (plateau or elevated island).
The only other tire tracks we saw were those of salt trucks. A third of Gujarat's salt comes from the pans of Rann. Due credit goes to the hardy Agarias, the traditional salt workers who camp in the desert in summer to eke out a living from salt. It is important for water to keep flowing on the land so that salt crystals form properly.
As the heat intensifies, the salt in the earth transforms into a radiant, dazzling white. "Even after an Agaria is cremated, the soles of his feet remain intact," rues the guide. "Years of toiling in the salt pans harden their skin so much that even fire cannot burn it."
Boats in the desert
I was prepared to see mirages, of course, but the first time I spotted a 'lake' far off in the horizon, I actually thought it was an artificial water body constructed by the workers. And within just a few moments, trucks hovered straight above the shimmering reflection!
As we moved away from the salt pans, the cracked earth gave way to the softer sand of the deserts, where we drove by herds of chestnut brown wild asses, locally known as the Ghud Khur. The Rann is the home of the last surviving asiatic wild ass and along with the blue bulls (Nilgais), they are the most easily spotted fauna in the desert.
In the monsoon, the Rann fills up with seasonal brackish water ideal for shrimps. The desert metamorphoses into a huge fishing pond, and the Agarias give way to the local maachlimars who cultivate shrimps. That explained boats parked smack in the middle of the desert!
Evening set in and as the jeep took one last turn, I saw smoke billowing from an Agaria camp. A family of salt workers preparing for dinner maybe? Stepping into this hostile terrain was difficult, but I easily pacified myself with thoughts of the comfortable city life that lay ahead of me now.
But for the Agarias, the summer has only begun. And with it, the hard toil under the relentless sun, with not even a tree for shade.