Wilderness in Rann

Wilderness in Rann

They were right; and they were also wrong. When our friends heard that we were heading out to Gujarat’s Rann again, they said, “But you’ve written all about Dhola Vira, the ruins of the civilisation of the greatly industrialised Indus Valley people.

And about the temple where wild jackals come for prasad and that Afghan tribe of horse breeders who settled there many generations ago and still maintain their old traditions. Oh yes, and also about that wonderful resort in Hodka where guests live in bunga huts and the local astronomical society offers you a star-gazing trip. We’ve been there, done that. You can’t get anything more out of a saline wilderness!”

Wild desert

They were right in calling the Rann a saline wilderness. They were wrong in saying that there was nothing more in this great expanse of glittering wonderland. This time, in another part of the Rann, we discovered the intriguing Rann Riders Resort.

It is a green, moated haven with 19 Marwari and Kachiawari horses, a cat named Tom, a peacock named Dick and a mongoose named Harry. Also black-blooded fowls busy keeping down the insects. And a chorus of frogs who serenaded the moon and the stars and went silent when dawn leached darkness out of the desert sky.

The chorus was still uncertain about the dawn when we headed out for the Rann. This virtually featureless plain gets submerged when monsoon storms push in the waters of the Arabian Sea. After the sea retreats, it leaves glittering salt crystals on the cement-hard surface and sloshes around underneath. An inhospitable, scraggy land at first glance. But we had been told that it held a rich array of life. And, right on cue, life appeared.

On a reedy channel, just off the road, a brace of whistling teals ducked their heads under the surface, emerged, swallowed, and then quacked in contentment. Closer to us an open-billed stork stood gazing morosely into the water. Stillness was his strategy, encouraging inquisitive fish to venture within impaling reach of his beak.

The rising sun was a red eggshell peeping over the horizon, when we left the channel and bumped over the cracked surface of the Rann. Nothing moved except a chill wind stirring the scattered thorn thickets. Then our driver said, “Desert fox!”, and pointed.

We frowned, scanned, searched. Nothing. Clipped on our zooms. Panned. There! He was dun coloured, merging with the buff landscape. The fox puppy had large ears — “All the better to hear you with, my dear!” — large eyes, and was quite fearless. He was sitting up when we spotted him. Then he settled down on his tummy. Finally, bored with all the clicking and moving, he stood up, turned and vanished into his den at the base of the thicket. In this part of the Rann, foxes were the largest land predators and had nothing to fear.

Our jeep had just started again when we spotted two large, slow moving shadows. As we dove up to them, they froze. This is a favoured Nilghai tactic: emulate a statue and hope you’ll be mistaken for boulder! Then the lighter-coloured cow moved. It began to nibble the young leaves of the thorn bushes, bent its head and munched on the stubby grass that thrust up through the cracks in the surface of the Rann.

Now, suddenly, this uninviting salt desert began to teem with wildlife. A herd of beautiful, fawn-and-white, wild asses appeared as if out of a shimmering desert mirage and ambled past. But when our jeep moved to get closer, they began to trot, and then they galloped. The fluidity of their motion was superb. In 1946, there were between 3,000 to 5,000 of them, but epidemics devastated their numbers. Today, however, thanks to strict conservation, their population is increasing. These animals are so attuned to their environment that they can sense when the Rann is likely to be flooded. They congregate on the little hillocks, called Bets, which dot the saline plains, and stay there till the waters recede.

Erratic conditions

Not all inhabitants of the Rann resent the presence of sea water. A pump thudded like an erratic heart spouting sub-surface brine into flat, shallow pans. There the battering heat of the sun sucked up the water and left white encrustations of salt.

This was raked up by salt-pan workers, packed into bags, and trucked out to chemical factories and table-salt manufacturers.

We stopped at an encampment of Maldhari herdsmen. They are nomads, driving their herds from one pasture land to the next. The women lead their laden camels, dogs guard both the caravans and the herds, and though the moustached and turbaned men are, traditionally, dressed in white, their ladies wear a resplendence of jewellery and brightly embroidered blouses and skirts. They also tattoo their hands and necks with tiny motifs. We asked them where they were going. “Not far,” said a pretty young woman, leading a galumphing camel. “We will make camp a little before sunset.”

We passed a herd of breeding camels, their calves like cuddly stuffed toys. Further on, the Nawa Talab was a shimmering spread of briny water dotted with marshy islands. A spoonbill stood, meditatively, in a green reed bed. Tacky clay squelched under our feet and a cacophony of quacking, rasping, grunting, splashing sounds grew. This estuarine lake was shimmering with flocks of long-legged cranes and high-stepping flamingoes with their curved, food filtering beaks, foraging busily.

Most of them were daubed with pink, thanks to a rich diet of shrimp. We squelched closer. The lake erupted in a silver spray as the birds took off, soared, filled the sky with a flickering, feathery, canopy like a legion of angels wheeling overhead. We gazed up at them in awe. And then we trod back to our jeep.

Clearly, this fascinating part of the wilderness of the Rann was vibrantly alive and thriving.

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