This is a 12 day long circuit by road from Delhi/Gurgaon to Kutch in Gujrat. Although I had been to Kutch several times earlier on work, my last visit was in 2007. The rest of the family had not been at all. And my son Anav was very keen on bird-watching there. So, this was an all family trip with bits of birding, history, landscapes and culture. We left on 27th December 2014 and were back on 7th January 2015.
The travel route to Kutch:
Traveled to Udaipur. Left home at about 7am and reached destination at about 6pm. Great roads all through. Recommend eating a heavy meal just before the turnoff to Ajmer on NH8 as no great food options after that. Passed the wonderfully interesting cities of Ajmer and Chittorgarh on the way – each worth a stop and stay. The kids got their binocs to see the massive Chittorgarh fort that dominates the skyline as we passed the town. But we had to hurry on to Udaipur, so we did!
Stayed at: Chinar Villa, a homestay run by Ajit and Manju Rathore, a lovely couple who built this home to retire in. The rooms are very clean and reasonable. But the absolute gem is the enormous balcony that has the best views of the entire city. We got the room that has this balcony and I suggest you insist on this one. The sunrise and sunset from here are great. Location is quite central too. http://www.chinarvilla.com/aboutus.htm
Ate at: 1559 AD. Okay food, nice atmosphere. Especially nice old ceramic plates on the wall
Traveled around in Udaipur. Visited the Monsoon Palace, City Palace. There was lots more to see but we really did not feel like. Instead we had a lazy lunch at Udaivilas and then parked ourselves at the sunset point – Deendayal Park for some great views. An alternative location for sunset is the Ambrai restaurant or even another branch of 1559, situated very close to Ambrai.
Ate at: Don’s miss the samosas and kachoris at Jagdish Misthan Bhandar (fondly called JMB). For dinner, we had thalis at Gordhan near the railway station. They had good food but if you want authentic dal battis and don’t mind a basic eating place, then would recommend Santosh Dal Batti.
Stayed at: Chinar Villa…
DAY 3 and 4
We left Chinar Villa at 8am and took the beautiful, rugged road to Little Rann. The NH8 stretch winded through the Aravalis – hilly terrain and tiny tribal hamlets. We turned off the NH8 near Chiloda, somewhat short of Gandhinagar and passed the milky blue Sabarmati river. We then continued onto Dasada where we planned to stay for 2 nights at Rann Riders.
We reached in time for lunch and then swiftly went for our afternoon safari into the Little Rann. Mainly saw flamingoes. Also gazed long at the Wild Ass. The Rann of Kutch is the ONLY place in the world where they are found. The most beautiful part of this afternoon was the sunset. We went to nearby salt pans where salt workers continued to be busy making salt from the earth. Their children were children – jumping on the salt without a care in the world. Our kids had never seen salt being harvested before and they marveled at how many people had to work so hard to something as basic as salt in their food.
There is something about the terrain at the Little Rann, unlike anything you will see even at the Greater Rann. Its location makes it a huge swamp, where water gets stored and then drained out into the sea. Coupled with the harsh sun, it becomes a salty swamp. The outer layer is like caked white mud as if the land is always thirsty. But a few inches below there is lots and lots of mushy water.
We got an experience of this on Day 4 when we were busy bird watching. We got so excited chasing the Greater Spotted Eagle that we drove right into a wet patch of the swamp and got badly stuck. We had to be towed out! Getting off the jeep and feeling the wet mud sucking my feet in was a humbling experience. Never take nature too much for granted! Day 4 was all about great bird-watching: Indian Coursers, Avocets and the very rare Mcqueen Bustard. We also saw the elusive Desert fox. It was a pleasure birding in the company of some super birders here – Megh Roy Choudhary, Himanshu Jani, Jayantika and Prasanna.
Stayed at: Rann Riders (http://www.rannriders.com) is the best stay option in the area. The owner, Muzahid, is local and started this as a “nature” destination 12 years back. He has 6 dogs, 2 Persian cats, many geese, 17 horses, and a couple of emus on the resort! But now, it caters to all kinds of tourists – not just birders or wildlife enthusiasts. So, if you are focused on these two, you have to make sure that he knows. Then they will give you some of the best guides. Otherwise its a pretty place to stay for a couple of nights, close to Ahmedabad.
Ate at: Rann Riders – they do an all inclusive package. Very decent food and if you eat non-veg, fill up here as the rest of Kutch is unlikely to serve up any.
DAY 5 and 6
Day 5 we moved deeper into Kutch district. Rann Riders is just at the mouth of Kutch and Kutch is the largest district of India, So, we had some distance to cover. We headed to the westernmost point we intended to reach, a place called Nakhatrana. This is right in the middle of the Great Rann and a good location to look out for birds in the region. On the way we passed huge windmills, many smoke-spewing factories – all signs of the rapid industrialisation of Kutch. Thankfully, this was largely near Kandla port and as we moved past that towards Bhuj, the beautiful barren landscape stood before us.
Kutch is very different from the rest of Gujrat – you see this in the vast empty spaces , the dry shrubs but most of all in the people. Rabaris in black moving on their horse carts, men in stunning multi-coloured shawls and scarves and women in clothes with intricate embroidery and glasswork. it is a living museum of craft. There are signs of modernity – good roads, shops, vehicles etc. but still the world of the nomadic Kutchis survives.
We reached Nakhatrana, had lunch and then left for the Banni grasslands. We saw the most glorious sunset on the last day of 2014 with thousands of Common Cranes coming home to roost at Chari Dhand. Unforgettable. And our first sunrise of 2015 brought us a sighting of Grey Hypocolius which can be spotted only for the first hour of the dawn, if at all. Other special bird sightings were of: Grey necked Bunting, Red necked Falcon, Cream coloured Courser, Marshall’s Iora and White naped Tit. We also did some great shopping – pickles, earthern pots and clothes!
Stayed and Ate at: CEDO http://cedobirding.com/. This is a homestay run by a local NGO that focuses on environment protection and sustainability. It is led by Jugalji who is a renowned botanist with a passion for environment and geology. The rooms are very clean and airy. And the food is fantastic – all local Kutchi preparations. Definitely ask for bajra rotlas, baingan sabji, khicdi and kadi. CEDO provides naturalists for those interested in birding and geology and if you are lucky to have him, Jugalji is an expert guide. CEDO and Jugalji are also part of a comprehensive film on the Rann of Kutch by Discovery: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HO8QV0PvQoU
Note: On earlier trips, I did not do Nakhatrana as the aim was not birding. So, if birding is not your thing, I recommend going to the most touristy part of Kutch – Kaladonger. This is a small hill from where you can see the white salt desert right till the border of Pakistan. You also can drive or walk into the salt desert here. There are tiny villages around where you can visit the homes of artisans and see the astounding beauty of the lipan work done inside and outside their houses, their embroidery and wood work. During the months of December to February, you could participate in the Rann Utsav held here and stay in tents and see artist exhibitions etc. There is also a lovely eco-resort run by locals called Shaam e Sarhad that you can stay at – I loved it.
With our birding appetite satisfied, we now moved on to the more cultural and historical aspects of Kutch. We headed for Mandvi and Bhuj. Mandvi a quiet town by the sea. The beach is secluded, long and wonderful. For more solitude, we headed towards Modava. The drive is beautiful with little lagoons and ponds on the way. On the beach, we saw flamingos walking daintily and a jackal relaxing! Also, Shyamji Krishna Varma memorial is a good place to visit to see how this early revolutionary from Kutch contributed to the freedom struggle. We also briefly visited Vijay Vilas Palace – seen in many movies. It is located right on the beach. We were scheduled to stay in the tents but ditched the idea. They did not look great at all. We went to Bhuj and stayed at Amikunj, the home of our friends, Dipesh Shroff and Kirit Dave.
What a breakfast we had at Amikunj! Hard biscuit type wheat bhakris topped with pickle for savoury and organic honey for sweet. We alternated between savoury and sweet and ended up eating A LOT. Large amounts of tea followed. We slowly moved to Bhujodi, a village very close by and very well known for its weavers. We spent the morning understanding the spinning, dyeing and weaving process – enthralling! And then ofcourse shopped for some great shawls and scarves. More shopping followed at the Shrujan shop – run by a NGO dedicated to improving livelihoods of women artisans and led by Chandaben Shroff, a lady who has inspired many including me.
But the truly amazing place that morning was the Living and Learning Design Center. This was under construction to be inaugurated in March 2015. But we were guided there by staff of Shrujan who explained the vision and intent. This place will showcase arts and artisans from all over Kutch, have live galleries and films and places for people to learn in. This is a must-see.
By 11am we headed towards 4500 BC – to the ancient Harrapan town of Dholavira! This meant now moving back eastwards from Bhuj to Rapar. This would also be our way out of Kutch into Rajasthan.
Dholavira is situated on an island called Khadir Bet right in the middle of the white salt desert. To reach it, you have to pass a long stretch of black tarred road with the white desert gleaming on both sides. It’s an outstanding sight! What is even more astounding is the location of the site of Dholavira. It’s far far away in one corner of the island, resembling a large mound of mud. When you get closer you see a huge campus complete with a fort, houses, canals, drains, playgrounds and massive water tanks. At the highest point, you can see the white desert on all sides and can imagine a time when this was all sea and ships sailed all the way to Persia and Greece. And just 10 kms away is Sindh, in Pakistan where other major Harrapan sites can be found. Standing there, with the breeze blowing in, as it must have come in for centuries, you get in touch with something timeless and surreal. We slowly disengaged ourselves from that time and moved to the sunset point, near Fossil Park, a few kms away. On the way saw the Indian Fox and a pair of sandgrouse. We climbed a small hill before Fossil Park, from where all you could see is the white desert. And the sunset was magical. We stood there with not a soul around, only the sounds of the wind and wolves in the forest. As the sun went down and the moon came up, we walked on the white salt desert. First slowly and then running, chasing each other – laughing and happy to just be alive and in such a beautiful place. Perhaps what added to the magic was the near full moon. It stayed with us shining all the way back from Dholavira, through the tarred road to Rapar. As you can imagine, this was the absolute highlight of our trip to Kutch.
Stayed at: So, whats the downside of visiting Dholavira? There is no decent place to stay at all. Dholavira has a rotten government hotel – to be totally avoided. There are no homestays allowed as it is a sensitive border area. You cannot camp without permission of the BSF so basically you have to stay at Rapar. There is not much to choose from at all. We stayed at the Suvidha Guest House – atleast we got clean rooms and toilets. Just slept and left early in the morning next day.
Left Rapar for Mount Abu. On the way we made a small detour to Patan, the town known for its Patola weaving and beautiful stepwells. It was also the capital of the Gujarat Sultanate (before Ahmedabad) and has beautiful havelis. We could only stop at the Rani-ki-Vav, an exquisite stepwell built in the 10th century and then at Patola Palace, to see the intricate patola dyeing and weaving process. But Patan could be worth a couple of hours more.
We continued on to Mount Abu and reached around late afternoon at the famed Dilwara temples. Whatever you hear of white marble Jain temples, does not prepare you for the beauty of these temples. I had seen Ranakpur temples but Dilwara made me do a double take. The fact that these were constructed in the 11th century, in such a remote part, with incredible fine detailing, it’s truly gob-smacking. In the evening, tired, we checked into our hotel and wound down.
Ate at: We were zooming off on the highway around noon when we saw restaurants with big signs “Non-veg served here”. The kids went mad, we stopped and had our first non-veg meal in a long time! Close by was the Havmor ice-cream parlour. So all in all, a long lunch and dessert distracted us from hurrying to our destination.
Stayed at: Bikaner House with sprawling grounds, its own lake and all the various memorabilia that make up such heritage places. The rooms were large and comfortable. Food was okay. http://www.palacehotelbikanerhouse.com/index.html
Day 10 and 11
Traveled to our last stop on the way back – Kumbhalgarh. We selected this as it was a good place to break the long journey back and we had heard good things about the fort and wildlife sanctuary. The drive there was very interesting passing by deep ravines, small lakes, rugged territory and tribal hamlets. This was the place I had first seen the ‘rehat’ or persian wheel nearly 25 years back when I had visited Ranakpur (located very close by). This contraption to lift water from wells/ponds powered by a pair of cows or humans was so intriguing, I never really forgot it. And now, so many years later, villagers continue to use this method and ‘rehats’ dominate the landscape. Some things will remain the same…..and why not?
Kumbhalgarh turned out to be pleasant surprise and well worth a lazy three days visit. We could only do two. The fort is huge – the length of its walls next only to the Great wall of China. The ramparts are formidable and the entire inner area is dotted with interesting temples and ruins. There is also a sound and light show in the evening which the kids found entertaining and we discovered a new Rajput hero – Raja Kumbhal! Large areas around the fort are actually a sanctuary for leopards, wolves and other wildlife. We went around for a night safari, very exciting and some near misses with a leopard! The guide was great – Rajkumar @07568486383.
Stayed and Ate at: Club Mahindra. This is one of their nicer properties, well laid out and good food. The buffets are great value and ask for their local specials – ker sangri, gatte ka saag and ofcourse dal battis.
Started the day early and drove all the way back to Gurgaon. back in time for evening tea!
Ate at: Ajmer family hotel just before the toll naka at Ajmer – the best toilets and parathas.