Every year for a little under three months a fabulous city pops up in the middle of remote wilderness and makes it easier to experience the exotics of the otherwise inhospitable Rann. The unique landscape and the immense natural beauty attracts thousands of tourists and tens of thousands of birds. It offers stunning views of quiet sunsets and fiery sunrises over a mesmerizing blanket of white salt crystals only dotted by the brown dents from human footsteps. This sits on that funky grey area between travel and tourism and the only small blot on the immense natural beauty is the crowds that now tend to form.
We had booked a two-nighter in the premium tents at the main Rann Utsav city. Just as we stopped our cars at the end of a 6 hour drive from Ahmedabad, the sheer size and complexity of the city dawned on us. It was all cloth and tents but built to look like a real city. The gate was large and inviting, the check-in tent was massive and air conditioned and the roads were wide and lined with shops. There were giant sized human figures in traditional attire and activity centres for both kids and adults – what more can one ask for in the middle of a desert. The tents weren’t the Swiss tents I had expected but were nice and comfortable – with a sitting area and private washrooms.
I would guess the city had about 500 tents across 3 categories. There were two large dining areas where vegetarian (and also Jain vegetarian) buffets were served for breakfast, lunch, high tea and dinner. There were activity areas, a small art gallery, a stage with nightly performances and many adventure sports including a microlight flight (for an additional charge). The city was large enough that they had golf carts and bicycles to move people around. While there was a small set of shops selling local handicrafts and wares in the city, just behind the city was an even larger set of temporary shops setup to attract the visitors. The most exciting thing for me there was boiled corn on the cob generously dabbed with spices – delicious!
We had checked into the city at around 4, leaving us just time for the high tea and then a ride to watch the sunset over the salt plains. The dining room was a 10 minute walk or a 2 minute golf cart ride away. The tea was average but there were some delicious snacks to go around and satiate our appetites. Busses started from right outside the dining area to take us to the plains. It was about a 15 minute ride on the bus, but it was mostly on sand and so, quite slow. In all we would have probably gone 3 km or so. The busses stopped a little before the brown sand off the rann started getting its white salt cover. The last 200 meter or so were covered on a camel cart, just for the authentic experience. This would have been quite lame, except for the drivers getting into a camel cart race – that was exciting. Once on the salt plains, it was a totally different experience. It was serene, beautiful and quiet. The immense beauty of the white crystal sheet was broken only by the brown patches created by hundreds of footsteps. We had to walk a little bit into the interior for the brown patches to give way to unbroken while. There was also this pink art structure designed by a US based design professor that just added some flavor to the all white view. The sunset itself was stellar, orange disc disappearing behind a sheet of white was quite a sight to remember.
Once back in the tent, it was time for a buffet dinner which consisted of some better than expected vegetarian fare. The dal and freshly made roti were all I would have asked for, but there was a lot of other local Gujarati fare to make it even better. The entertainment program started at 9pm and was average at best and we slipped out of it very quickly to get some rest, there was a sunrise trip scheduled for 6:30am. It was only after the entertainment ended at 10:30 that I could fall asleep.
At 6 am, the tea arrived at the tent – a magical warm cup in the chilly morning. In another 30 minutes we were at the gate and loaded into busses. The drive now was a little longer and on a road as we went to a slightly further point where the horizon wasn’t obstructed. It was still dark and cold. A large watch tower stood right next to the parking lot, but we decided to stay on the ground and enjoy the proximity to the salt. The walk and the sunrise again was quite magical especially the minutes right before the sun made its first appearance on the horizon.
The day was scheduled to include a group tour to kala dungar, which is a magnetic hill with a view. We skipped it to avoid the group and went on our own post lunch trip to Chari Dhandh, a lake that attracts a large number of bird species, including the flamingos. The drive was quite an adventure as the road did not seem to lead towards the lake. We went off-road for the last 30 minutes and found the lake with a lot of birds. Driving the the Rann was quite an adventure and finding some amazing birds added cherry on top of the cake. We saw some duckbills in the lake and then a very large flock of flamingos flew by in the background. We also came across a solitary flamingo posing for us and then a beautiful black necked stork.
This was a great way to say adieu to 2019 and post dinner we sat in the tents and enjoyed some good conversation and cards. We had skipped the musical entertainment but stepped out to watch the fireworks at midnight. In the morning we would have a good breakfast, check out and start our long drive back home.