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Taking advantage of the long October 2nd (Gandhi Jayanthi) weekend we decided to do a trip to the Little Rann of Kutch.
The little Rann of Kutch is a huge salt marsh situated southeast of the Greater Rann of Kutch in the Kutch District of Gujarat, India.
During the Monsoons it is inundated with water that dries quickly leaving behind a vast, salt-encrusted desert. It is home to the Indian Wild Ass and is the only place on earth where the animal can be found in its natural habitat. In 1972 an area of just under 5000 square kilometres was demarcated as the Wild Ass Sanctuary.
Let me start off by saying that, if you are in this part of the world to see wildlife in general and birds in particular, early October is not the best time; long weekend or no long weekend!
A search on the internet threw up two promising locations to stay: Rann Riders and Royal Safari Resort. We opted for the former.
We flew to Ahmedabad and then arranged a taxi to complete the two and a half hour drive to Dasada where the resort is located.
Rann Riders Resort
The resort itself consists of a number of cottages, a spacious dining area and a swimming pool spread over a large property that also includes two water bodies.
The website and resort staff suggested that there were Rohu and Catla fish to be caught in the ponds. All I had to show after a couple of sessions of fishing was a turtle (that I released). Like any other self-respecting angler I am a firm believer in the dictum: ‘catching is believing’!
The one we were allocated was circular in shape with exquisite plaster and mirror work décor on the walls.
The roof was made of radially arranged strips of wood that created an interesting geometric pattern. Predictabaly, my daughter Rhea grabbed the nearest camera (that happened to be my iPhone) and shot a series of images, one of which is below.
The exterior walls were plastered with mud that had leaf motifs imprinted in it. The interiors were spacious, air-conditioned and spotlessly clean.
A short passage that doubled as a changing room led to a circular, adequately sized and clean washroom. My one grouse was that the ‘hot’ water was, at best, tepid.
All in all the cottages were unique and very different from the usual run-of-the-mill resort accommodation at the same offering a very satisfactory degree of comfort.
The dining area (above) reminded me of a dhabha; a large open room with wooden rafters and a tiled roof. There was a buffet table at one corner and a variety of seating arrangements including lounging areas. Mirror work décor on the walls, brightly coloured curtains and matching upholstery were all in keeping with the rest of the ethnic ambience of this Kutchi resort. The meals were buffet style, consisting of a mix of Continental and Indian cuisines and, let me tell you, they were excellent!
Desert Safari and Wild Asses
Topping of the to-do list of anyone visiting this place is sighting the Indian Wild Ass in its natural habitat. Apart from lodging and meals, the resort’s package includes one desert safari per day. This is usually done by jeep, but we were given to understand that horses and camels were other options.
On our first evening a new-looking, open-topped Mahindra Thar SUV took us out to the Rann, the driver doubling as guide and spotter. After a brief drive we got off the main road and onto a dirt road, the vegetation becoming noticeably sparse before finally disappearing altogether.
We had arrived.
The little Rann of Kutch. A flat, barren stretch of land as far as the eye could see. It was hard to believe that barely a few months ago this was covered in 2 feet of rain water. All there was to show for this year’s poor monsoon were a few far-flung shallow pools of water. The salt encrusted ground already cracking under the fierce unforgiving sun.
Within minutes the driver pointed out to a heard of Wild Ass about 15- 20 strong.
They are beautiful specimens but observing their herd from a distance of about 50 metres as they slowly picked their way across the desert, they appear almost tame and I couldn’t help experiencing, (and I feel extremely guilty for saying this), a sense of anticlimax.
In the group there were a number of foals including the one above that I’m sure augers well for their survival.
The Indian wild ass or Baluchi wild ass (Equus hemionus khur) is also called the ghudkhur in the local Gujarati language. It is one of the fastest of Indian animals, with speeds clocked at about 70 – 80 km. per hour and can easily outrun a jeep. In 1960 their count reduced to 362 animals. It was then declared an endangered species and conservative methods were put in place. Though their numbers have increased considerably, (over 4800 animals existing in the wild at the last census in 2015), make no mistake, they are still listed as ‘endangered’. (Wikipedia)
We had seen what we came for on our very first evening and we had another three days to kill!
That’s when we met Aditya Roy one of the partners of the resort and a wildlife enthusiast himself. Aditya is doing his Ph. D. and his thesis topic is related to studying the dwindling vulture population in the region. He offered to take us to one of the few remaining villages where these vultures could still be spotted and we jumped at the opportunity. It was a 2-hour journey from the resort and we set off at about 3.30pm and arrived at the village just before dusk.
En route, adrenaline surges in the form of a cobra crossing the road, and a sounder of wild boar kept the excitement up!
At the village there was this huge pond, elaborately constructed in stone and dating back several centuries. Roosting on the upper branches of some of the trees surrounding the pond we saw what we came for: about 5-6 white-rumped vultures.
There was a vulture nest with an adult and juvenile atop a palm tree on the opposite side of the pond. We needed to skirt the pond area to get to the other side. I must say, walking on the centuries old series of stone pathways and steps was a pleasant experience and certainly contributed to making this trip memorable! As in the case of the Wild Asses, seeing an endangered species successfully raise its young is a heartening sight.
Lugging the Canon 7dII + 500mm f4 II +TC through the soft soil was a definite tester for my bad back and I am happy to say that it held up quite well.
The white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis) is closely related to the European Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus). This species, as well as the Indian Vulture and the Slender-billed vulture has suffered a 99% population decrease in India and nearby countries since the early 1990s. The decline has been widely attributed to poisoning by diclofenac, which is used as veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), leaving traces in cattle carcasses which when fed on leads to kidney failure in birds. (Wikipedia)
Sensing our willingness to rough it out a bit, we were informed that there were a pair of eagle owls a few kilometers away from the resort and would we like to see and photograph them? Silly question, of course we would!
Just beyond one of the villages and bordering its fields was a large rainwater pit. It must have been about 25 to 30 metres across and about 15 feet deep.
This year’s monsoon was poor and with the exception of a boggy area in the centre it was devoid of water. The rim of the pit was surrounded by dense undergrowth that we cautiously made our way through till we reached the edge. The guide scanned the opposite wall for a few minutes and then excitedly pointed to a spot just below the opposite rim, insisting that there was a large Eagle Owl perched there. (The image above was taken from our vantage on the edge of the pit. The white arrow was where the bird was supposed to be on the the opposite rim)
For the life of me I could not see a thing, even through binoculars, and I was beginning to suspect that this guy was bullshitting! (Pardon the language, but it was the most appropriate word I could think of!)
I even set up the camera on the tripod, switched to live view and asked him to locate the bird. Still nothing. By now I was convinced he was taking our case!
The undergrowth was partially obstructing our view so he suggested that we scramble down the 15 feet wall into the pit to get a better view. I was a bit skeptical, but the overwhelming temptation to see, and photograph, the bird ( or expose the guide, whichever the case may be) got the better of me and using the roots and branches of the surrounding undergrowth for support, I climbed down.
Hot on my heels was my son and, I am proud to say, my daughter as well! (The fact documented in the above image taken by my wife, Vanessa!)
Setting up the camera on the tripod at the bottom of the pit, and switching back to live view the guide finally managed to frame the bird! (Click on the image to appreciate the full power of the bird’s ‘how-dare-you’ glare!!)
The Eurasian Eagle-owl resides in much of Europe and Asia. It is one of the largest species of owl and females can grow up to a length of 75cm (30 in) with a wingspan of 188cm (6ft 2in). It has distinctive ear tufts and orange eyes (Wikipedia)
The Comic Chase
There was this interesting sideshow while we were tracking the owls in the fields.
The guide stopped suddenly and gestured to us to come quickly but quietly. When we arrived, he silently pointed to a spot on the ground barely a few feet away. Crouched in the middle of a bit of shrubbery between fields was a monitor lizard.
Realizing it was spotted it made a dart for cover into the field and before we could say ‘Jack Robinson’ the guide took off after it!
The next few minutes were comic. The man ran full pelt through the tightly packed, waist-high bajra, abruptly changing direction every few moments. We were all convinced he would be unsuccessful and kept calling out to him to give it up. All of a sudden he was gone, only to reappear seconds later with victorious look on his face and a large monitor lizard dangling by the tail in his hand!
A few images later the reptile scurried away, completely unharmed with the possible exception of its pride!
The Bengal monitor (Varanus bengalensis) or common Indian monitor is distributed all over the Indian Subcontinent as well as parts of Southeast and West Asia.They can grow upto 175cms (almost 6 feet). They are usually shy and avoid humans. When caught they may bite but rarely do so. A clan in Maharastra claim that the name is derived from a legendary founder who climbed a fort using a monitor lizard and a rope. Folk traditions have various stories of monitor lizards being used by soldiers to climb walls of forts. (Wikipedia)
Water bodies and the potential for bird life.
There are numerous water bodies in the region around the resort that were teaming with birdlife despite being very, very early in the season. And one can only imagine the birding potential when the migrants begin to flock in! Below are a series of images (a small selection from thousands of others) to illustrate my point.
Although the package includes all meals and a safari per day, many may yet find it a bit expensive. We decided to stay 3 nights which, looking back may have been one night too many and 2 nights would have been more than enough.
This is not a modern, sterile concrete jungle of a resort. The surroundings are rustic (which in my opinion contributes to it’s charm) and one will experience the occasional insect or lizard.
Would I recommend this place? Wholeheartedly! In fact I can’t wait to come back in season!!