Laziness. Isn't that what occupies your every Sunday? Mine isn't a different story. At times I end up documenting a trip after months because the post-travel laziness kicks in. But yesterday when I watched the movie Highway, I could connect so well with one particular scene shot at the Sambhar salt pan that I was determined to start, write, finish and publish the Rann of Kutch story in a day. Sambhar salt pan however can't be called as White Desert! Only The Great Rann of Kutch deserves that name .
This trip was special for two reasons. I had a thing for the White Desert even before Amitabh Bachchan started promoting it for Gujarat tourism. And I was travelling with my family after 11 years.
Day 1, 18th January 2014, Saturday: After a delayed flight, we landed in Ahmedabad at 12:15 a.m. and reached a family friend's place at Mehsana by 2:30 a.m., where we had planned to stay for 4 days before heading to Rajasthan. By 9:30 a.m. we were back on the roads. Post Radhanpur, we drove on NH15 for 2 hours at the speed of 100 kmph before reaching Bhachau. The town of Bhachau was the center of 2001 earthquake. From there, we took a turn at the Bhuj-Bhachau highway and reached Bhuj by 2 p.m., thus beating the 5 hours 5 minutes time suggested by Google Maps.
The look of Bhuj got an 'Oh My God!' expression on my face. Though there isn't much of the earthquake effect except for few hard-to-spot cracks on some of the houses, it still can't be called a 'city' like Wikipedia claims it to be! While searching for Hotel Ilark that the family friend had booked online, our apprehension increased as we passed by many shabby hotels. When we found the hotel, it exceeded our expectations. It was luxury in midst of run down houses and under-developed surroundings. It just didn't feel right, though everyone else was more than happy with the selection. We used as much time as it is required for dumping the bags in the room and putting on a jacket or so. Deserts are supposed to be cold at night so that was required. We couldn't imagine yet what magnitude of coldness a desert offers on a January night.
In an hour or so, we were applying for entry permits at the border check post handled by Kutch police (You'll spot the check post on your right just before the left turn for Dhordo). Getting the permit is a hassle free process and includes filling up a form, showing your ID proof and paying Rs. 100 per person entry fee. And don't throw the entry slip away. You will have to submit it at the BSF check post right before the White Desert entry.
We passed the Dhordo tent city on our way to the white desert. It was Rann Utsav time. Right after crossing the BSF check post, you have to leave the road (check for tyre tracks on the left side) and drive through the desert. Yeah you heard it right - Off-roading!!! So SUVs are highly recommended. Ours was a Mahindra Xylo that ran through the vast expanse effortlessly, making its own road and leaving a cloud of sand behind it. (In case you don't get off the road and continue straight, the road leads to India bridge and the Indo-Pak border.) Cars are permitted only till the point where you will see the below banner. After that there is the White Desert and there are your two feet - as far as they can take you.
Locals say the Rann changes mood with the changing hour of the day because the white desert reflects the mood of the sky. We had reached there at the perfect time - an hour before the sunset. The sun was still blazing, but I couldn't spot much whiteness around - only specks of salt here and there. This was so different from all the snow white pictures of Rann that I have seen. There were people around though, a little too much to spoil the mood and all the photography attempts.
I had to leave the group and walk further inside. I had an unlikely company tough, the 7 year old daughter of the family friend, who was as interested in finding more salt as I was. The more we walked inside the more white the land became. We walked more than a mile or so, till the salt layer was almost 3 inches deep. The sun has set by then. But there was still daylight. And it was snow white all around, just that it wasn't snow.
As it started getting dark, I started getting calls on my phone to come back - the down part of tagging parents along. So we started walking back toward the group which looked like specks over the horizon. The more it grew darker, the more we realized how easy it would be to get lost inside the Rann, especially at night.
It was 2 days past full moon. Wishing that I could see a waning moon I looked up. I couldn't see a moon, but what I saw was jaw-dropping. An infinite black sky with more stars and constellations than I had seen in my entire life was spread out above me. Wasn't it the same sky that I see in Mumbai or Kolkata or Assam. Wonder how I never saw so many stars in those cities or at my hometown? Or was it a desert thing? The starry sky seemed to merge with the unending dark horizon. Within fraction of seconds I was lying on my back on the salt staring up at the starry night, mesmerized. It was getting colder but somehow it didn't matter. The entire universe was staring down back at me - twinkling. And there was absolute silence. 'The silence that is in the starry sky' in the words of William Wordsworth.
The phone broke me out of my reverie and it shattered the silence too. I walked back in the dark focusing on a far away hut like structure that I had seen while going in. As long as I was moving towards that direction, I was moving towards where the cars were parked. Whenever I needed light, I used the flash of the camera. At times, I stole glimpses of the starry night turning my face skyward. I was so much in trance that I almost bumped into this camel sitting in the dark.
After few minutes, I found my companions and we drove back to the Rann Utsav camp. There were rows of white tents and bhungas inside the Rann Utsav area. Bhungas are circular mud huts of the Kutch region. There were dance performances going on when we entered. The dances of the likes of Ghumar and Kalbeliya were atypical of Gujarat, more of Rajasthani.
There were armed BSF around considering we were just a few kilometers off the Indo-Pak border. It was closing 10 p.m. and extremely cold. The warmth of the car felt like oxygen when we were finally driving back towards Bhuj. I kept staring at the sky through the car windows as long as we didn't reach civilization.
So this was where the scene from Highway where Alia Bhatt runs into the Sambhar salt pan connects so well with my experience. All of a sudden she looks up and is overwhelmed to see a vast night sky filled with infinite stars. It looks like special effects but trust me it isn't. I wish I had a camera powerful enough to capture those stars. So I am giving you one more reason to watch this beautiful movie, that in case you haven't been to the Rann (at night), that scene might give you a hint of what it feels like to stare back at infinity.
(This article is solely dedicated to Rann of Kutch. The rest of the journey will be documented in a separate post.)
, by Sanghita Nandi