The Unlikely Backpacker
By Nanditta Chibber | Published: 18th May 2014 06:00 AM |
A day spent in a boat rowing slowly, silently. Sometimes drawing curtains of reeds on marshy patches to come close, very close to a flock of flamingoes busy in their own world till they sense your presence and suddenly take flight, in thousands. Furiously flapping their wings to reveal stunning pinkish undertones and paint the sky in a rhythmic dreamlike moment. Along the day, flocks of tubby pelicans goof around, photo-still cranes pose with many other birds just larking about.
Dawn to dusk boating with a pair of binoculars, camera and a bird book in tow might not be enough to fully explore the Nalsarovar Lake Sanctuary, a birdwatcher’s paradise in Gujarat thriving with local and winter migrants. The local Bharwad shepherds, the Padhars scattered across its 360 islets were talented artisans until doubling as boatmen and guides to the various bird hideout havens made better economic sense. For a quick bite, their women cooking in the open on the isles dish out bajra (millet) rotis with chutneys, the local fare to keep hunger at bay. This shallow marshy natural lake spread over 115 sq km is the largest water bird sanctuary in the country and is a mere 60 km off the main commercial hub of Gujarat, Ahmedabad.
It might sound strange but the thought of a backpacking trip in arid Gujarat—the alcohol banned, mostly vegetarian land and practical business-minded people—is quite possible and surprisingly enriching; not just for the holidayer but also for the traveller. The high here lies in the stunningly stark landscapes, the distinctive wilderness and the rich and preserved culture of the tribes. And a tuk-tuk ride to Nalsarovar Lake is the perfect first stopover for anyone attempting such a journey.
The city slickers of Gujarat might tell you that Rann of Kutch is “banjar”, a barren wasteland. ‘Rann’ meaning desert and ‘Kutch’ meaning island in classical Sanskrit. But for the wanderer’s eye, if there is any beauty in barrenness, nothing showcases it better than the Rann. Once upon a time a shallow sea bid farewell to this land, leaving a vast stretch of desiccated, unbroken but severely cracked surface of dark silt that starts off with the Little Rann of Kutch. The 4,954-sq km of nothingness has an austere vibe. It cracks under your weight and leaves a trail of your presence. The saline desert-cum-seasonal wetland where close to no vegetation grows, except sporadically on the fringes, is also the largest wildlife sanctuary in India, the Wild Ass Sanctuary, the refuge to the last population of the Asiatic Wild Ass locally known as Khur. These handsome sandy-coloured stallions offset with white bellies effortlessly outrun safari jeeps.
Zainabad and Dhangadhra, both approximately 100 km off Ahemdabad, are the two popular approaches to this wilderness where traditional mud cottages called Koobas offer local cuisine and organise jeep and camel safaris. Often on the fringes, the sheep and cattle-rearing tribes of the Rabaris or Bharwards in full traditional gear, with dark kohled eyes and windswept look, shepherd their herd of hundreds to suddenly take over the roads. Meanwhile, on the fringes of the Gulf of Kutch, the tidal waters of the sea and fresh water of the rivers entwine to make way enroute for thousands of migratory birds to feed, breed and roost, especially the greater and lesser flamingos. The shores resound with a cacophony of bird calls.
But the rareness of the Rann does not end here. It stretches further to the Greater Rann of Kutch to unveil more wonders. For the adventure-seekers, travelling in a Chagdri, the local jugaad three-wheel vehicle innovation made with a motorcycle’s front part on an open carriage painted in a riot of bright colours, is an interesting experiment for an outdoorsy ride with the tribals.
The doorway to the Greater Rann of Kutch is through the chaotic and historically important small town of Bhuj which demands a stopover not only to acquire the required entry permits, but also as a place to meander along flea markets, dilapidated royal palaces and museums. Bhuj gets its name from Bhujiyo Dungar, a 160-m tall hill topped by a temple said to be the residence of the Hindu mythological serpent, Bhujang. A strategically important city on the ancient trade route, it’s the melting pot for all traditional Kutchi crafts—made by tribals like the Ahirs and Rabaris—comprising vibrant mirror embroidery on Galichas (carpets), Durries (rugs) and Dhablos (blankets) made from wool, camel and goat hair by the pit loom weavers of Bhujodi. Only good bargaining skills ensure not getting fleeced.
The 19th century Prag Mahal commissioned by Rao Pragmalji in 1865 in the Italian Gothic style stands tall and a bit out of place in this desert town. It has weathered burglaries, the 2001 earthquake and the slow decay of its royal past. But remnants of grandeur remain even though in a forlorn state with broken chandeliers and dusty interiors. Its durbar hall is a gallery of stuffed animal trophies; big cats, bears, bisons and buffaloes from hunting expeditions from all over the world, frozen in time witnessing the palace disintegrate day by day. The next door 18th century Aina Mahal gives a peek into the gilded life of royalty, its walls adorned in gold lace, Venetian glass and mirrors.
Beyond Bhuj, on entering the Greater Rann near Dhordo, an unreal sight of endless miles of blinding white salt emerges. This flat salt desert, as far as the eye can see, is the largest in the world spread across 7,505.22 sq km. It resembles snow, and the salt slabs crack under the slightest weight. The bewitching white desert soon starts playing up mirages. Salty winds blow parching everything in their way. At night, a strange dance of light plays up suggesting the paranormal which the locals term as Chir Batti or ghost lights. This salt desert is surreal,
leaving one enthralled yet strangely numb. Round mud huts known as Bhungas, an even dose of ethnic food, dance and music are part of Rann’s tribal culture. For a token amount, the tribals happily open up their lives and readily pose for the lenses.
On the periphery of the Greater Rann, neat salt panes emerge. This is where the Agarias do salt farming by embanking the saline sea water for the sun to dry it. The process is painstaking—the callous salt cuts through their skin and their lives in this harsh terrain.
After the fascinating asceticism of the Rann for the backpacker to keep the rhythm going, the roar of the lions in Gir National Park changes the landscape to a tawny leafed forest. If the king of the jungle decides to hide in the wild, the state government has made a sure shot arrangement at the Devalia Safari garden, seven km off Sasan Gir—a pride of lions lies yawning lazily, ignoring the tourists invading their five sq km enclave.
And finally for the last leg of the journey, the crystal clear blue waters in the languorous town of Diu are perfect. Diu is like Goa without the crowd. The sea breeze sways one to laze in shacks, propped up with a book, maybe while digging into basic European traveller food and sip copious cups of port wine. The locals offer bikes on rent to explore Diu languidly, a day at a time—the beaches, fishing docks, the once-upon-a-time Portuguese bastion Diu Fort, stunning creeks and churches in Victorian and Georgian architecture. The backpacker’s journey might end here, but its hangover remains for a long, long time.