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Published: November 21st 2018
Today we’re headed to the Little Rann of Kutch. It’s a 4 ½ hour drive, but the roads are good. Along the way the vegetation is much as elsewhere in Gujarat, but as we near it becomes noticeably more dry and less cultivated, but still no sign of any salt flats. We arrive at the Desert Coursers EcoLodge at Zainabad just in time for lunch. A handful of circular mud build cottages – or huts - stand in a semi circle around an open area, and we’re shown to the green one. It’s small and basic, but the warm welcome and the sights of the Little Rann more than make up for that.
At 4.00pm we go out in the jeep to the national park. We set off through the local village, which is poor, and covered in piles of rubbish, though most of the homes have electricity. There are herders shepherding flocks of cattle or goats, and people working in fields growing cotton, palm oil and vegetables, and as with many Indian villages when you are in the middle of them, the healthy smell of cow dung is overwhelming. Our host, Dhanraj – or to give him his full
name, Kuvar Shri Dhanraj Aziz Malik, the son of the local chieftain, tells us that there are only six types of vegetables grown locally, which raises a challenge for his chef who has to ring the changes with this limited selection. He does, and it’s very tasty.
Finally we reach the park, which is unlike anywhere we’ve ever seen. There is no formal entrance and no set roads. Instead, we are free to roam as we wish across a huge flat expanse of dried up salt marsh. It is the last home of the Indian wild ass, together with nilgai (blue bulls) and a host of wild birds. In the monsoon season it’s pretty much all under water, but now it’s almost completely dry, with the mud broken up into deep roughly octagonal blocks.
We speed along the flatter sections at up to 45mph, faster than we average on the roads. It’s an exhilarating ride, with the wind blowing in our faces, keeping us cool in what would otherwise be uncomfortable heat. It’s not long before we slow to see our first wildlife – a blue bull. Then we see more nilgai, which are a species of antelope.
Soon after that we see first a solitary wild ass, and then little groups of females. We can’t get too close in the jeep, but the wide open spaces mean we can follow the groups, and circle round them to get a better view. The asses are the size of small horses, and look more like horses than donkeys to our eyes, and they watch us with interest before skittering away.
As the sun starts to drop, we see a wild boar, who keeps ducking in and out of the prickly mesquite bushes, followed by an owl. It’s the first time we’ve seen an owl on the ground, but it’s not long before he takes off in flight circling around looking for his evening meal.
Our target destination is an area where we hope to see hyenas, who come out just as the sun is setting. It seems a miracle that our driver knows where he’s going, as the landscape is almost devoid of landmarks – then we realise the miracle is, in fact, GPS.
We arrive, stop the jeep and wait, while the driver scans the mesquite for signs of movement. The silence is extraordinary and
beautiful. In the distance we can hear a pump, but other than that there is just birdsong. The sun turns a deep red before dropping below the horizon, leaving the sky tinged with purple and pink. Suddenly the guide points urgently to a mesquite bush 200 yards away. ‘Hyena’ he hisses. We have heard their barks, now we peer anxiously, desperate not to miss it, and are relieved when we finally spot it. Even through the telephoto lens, it looks tiny, and it’s only the next day when we magnify the photos on the computer that we can see what a handsome animal he is, with brown stripes and black ears.
By now the sun has pretty much entirely gone. We set off back, with the driver shining a large spotlight from side to side in the hope of spotting more animals, while driving with just one hand. He spots a fox, by the gleam of its eyes, but it’s far too dark to take a photo. It takes a good 45 minutes to get back to the lodge, by which time we’re tired but exhilarated and ready for dinner.
After dinner Dhanraj offers to drive us into
the village to look for a jungle cat. He tells us there used to be two that roamed the village every night, but one was killed by a car recently. It seems strange to be driving along with him shining a spotlight into the rubbish piled up by the side of the road, and onto the ground in front of the little shacks that serve as roadside stalls during the day. We drive past two mosques, both of whom have imams seemingly ranting in very animated fashion through loudspeakers. One mosque is a traditional one with a prayer hall and minarets, the other is an outdoor one with men sitting on one side and the women on the other. One or other imam goes on preaching from 7pm to past 11pm, booming away! Somewhere there in music and drum banging emanating from the Hindu temple, just to add to the cacophany.
After 20 minutes, we turn back, and it looks as though the search has been in vain, but Dhanraj suddenly spots movement in a field. We pull to a halt and yes, there’s the jungle cat. Amazing! We reverse up and go round the other side of the
cat, and David manages to get some photos with the aid of the spotlight. Dhanraj tells us he thinks this one has taken over the territory of the recently deceased one, which came every night to his house to sit on his roof. This one, he reckons, will do the same......
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