The story of an adventure through India’s largest salt desert, that didn’t quite go according to plan.
Our journey began with an argument over a piece of corn and ended with an act of kindness. There were a few times on our travels through India when I found myself massively frustrated by the way things ran there or stuff generally going wrong. And then, just when I was about to explode with rage or collapse in a heap on the floor, all that bad feeling and anger was magically rubbed out by an act of kindness – usually from strangers.
That’s exactly what happened during our trip to see the Great Rann of Kutch.
On the road
We set off by scooter from Bhuj in Gujarat, the nub of land in North Western India that nudges out proudly into the Arabian Sea, with a vague plan to ride north to India’s largest Salt Desert. We hoped to see some salt gathers at work along the way and camp out for a couple of nights. Easy.
Usually you need an (easily obtained) permit to visit the Salt Desert, because of its proximity to the border with Pakistan. But when we got to the first Border Security Force (BSF) checkpoint we were told we didn’t need a permit this week due to a special Government event that was taking place. Great: no Indian bureaucracy to deal with for once…or so we thought.
The corn incident
Near the check point there were a few stalls selling fruit and corn on the cob, we stopped and bought two pieces of corn; glossy and slick with lime and chilli seasoning. I’m not sure how it happened, but I was one bite in when Anton bumped into me and my piece of corn went crashing to the ground. I muttered something like, “I can’t believe you just did that!” and he muttered “I can’t believe you’re blaming me for that!”. And so began corn-gate.
I washed the corn off with some water to get rid of the sand coating and then we ended up squabbling over the fact that I didn’t want to go back to the stall to get more of the sauce, which had now been washed off. Cue the kind of argument where you’re pretending you’re not arguing because there are other people close by and you don’t want them to know that you’re arguing.
We continued eating our corn in silence and facing opposite directions.
One of the, many, cows that was roaming around decided this would be a good time to come over and stake a claim on my, now half-finished finished, corn cob. Having lost my appetite, the enthusiastic cow was gifted the corn and we continued along the road, not speaking. Was this the sign of things to come?
On the road again
The further we got from Bhuj the quieter the roads became and the less frequently we saw houses, cars or people. The landscape of thorny scrubland was occasionally punctuated by men and young boys herding livestock and clothed in single colour shalwar kameez. When we saw any women, they were dressed in Kutch’s famous brightly coloured fabrics and sporting gigantic nose rings.
Corn cob differences now behind us, we were searching for salt pans and using Google Earth images as our guide (in hindsight not the best idea). We veered off the main road and down a side lane towards a small village we’d marked on the map. The lane tapered off until it became nothing more than a sand path, with thin bushes running along either side and shielding small clusters of houses.
A couple of kids spotted us and stood open mouthed for a second or two, before running away (in fear?). The more people we saw, the clearer it became that they didn’t get many foreigners passing by these parts. When we stopped the bike we’d gathered a mini crowd of nervous and bewildered looking children, they were all wild eyes and messy hair. In India we’d gotten used to children rushing up to us and asking for photos, but this bunch was different, they were wary and suspicious of us.
We’d parked up outside the village mosque and the Imam came out, looking just as confused as the children, but thankfully less afraid. Although he spoke no English we somehow managed to explain what we were looking for and he helped with directions, inviting us up onto the roof of the mosque to point out where the salt pans were.
In search of salt
After a longer than expected trek across the sand, passing the time by discussing whether or not we thought there were any snakes in the desert, we finally reached the salt deposits. Conversation then transferred to how the texture of the salty land reminded us of different desserts; puddles of salt with a creme brûlée crust, chocolate brownie chunks of sand and shores made of mousse. Maybe we were just hungry or maybe the heat had sent us loopy.
Across this dessert landscape lay the salt lake, which we had to figure out how to reach. Anton decided to take the direct route across the stream that blocked our path; shoes and socks were pulled off, he strode out into the water and promptly sank into the chocolate mousse. He made it to the other side and then had to tackle the sharp salt shards in bare feet.
I, on the other hand, opted to look after the shoes and walked a little further down stream where it was narrow enough to cross without getting wet, sinking or cutting my feet.
A short scramble up some rocks led to a view across the deserted salt lake, it glistened with a pinkish hue graduating to a deeper blue further out.
We headed back to the village and the small group of curious children came back out to see us off, all the while maintaining their safe distance from the strange foreigners who’d disrupted the usual quiet of their village life.
Heading for the hills
Next we rode towards the highest point in Kutch, Kalo Dungar, to get a birdseye view across the Great Rann of Kutch. As we arrived and turned into a parking space we went over a rock; the bike skidded and slipped on the sandy ground beneath, sending us sliding to the floor. Immediately a few men with camels (yes, camels!) came rushing over to help. We were both fine and just wanted to continue as if nothing had happened, but the well-meaning men fussing around us, and all the bloody camels, made that impossible. This day was just getting better and better.
Feeling like complete idiots we walked up to the viewpoint and tried to figure out, through the haze and glare, where Pakistan was. Around us young men milled around the area trying to get visitors to rent their binoculars for 10 rupees a go, or to buy hats and bird whistles.
We sat for a while admiring the undulating hills and wide-open salt flats, figuring out where to head. We needed to pitch our tent before sunset and spotted a potential location from the viewpoint.
In search of a campsite
As we rode towards our proposed camping site another BSF checkpoint came into view. A couple of puppies frolicked in front of the armed officers and I was confused as to whether I should feel intimidated or endeared. They made it clear that we could go no further as this was a controlled area, we were still a good 30kms away from the Pakistan border.
There was no choice but to head back in the opposite direction, the light was starting to fade so we knew it was a race against time to find somewhere to pitch the tent before dark.
After some searching, we found an empty field a few hundred metres off the main road. It was surrounded by bushes and trees and we blocked off the entrance with branches, to deter any stray animals wandering in.
We set about putting the tent up, but when we kneeled down to connect the outer and inner layer, we realised we were on a bed of thorns. The entire field was thorny! But it was too late, we’d committed. It had taken us an age to find this place, so we just had to suck it up and brace ourselves for a thorny night’s sleep.
About an hour later the sun had disappeared behind the trees and we and our little tent were shrouded in darkness and surrounded by creepy nighttime sounds. I was already feeling anxious and half expecting an angry landowner to appear; waving his fist and asking why we were in his field. But he didn’t. Someone else turned up instead.
A restless night
We could see the glow of flashlights flickering in the distance and froze in fear; could they see our tent, could they see us? Who were they? We switched off our head torches and didn’t dare move a muscle for fear of being heard. I crept further back into the tent and listened intently for any indication of what was happening outside.
We heard two men start to call back and forth to one another, and soon realised it was the BSF sweeping the area, but we had no idea if they were looking for someone or something specific or if they always check this area. Whichever it was, we had obviously chosen the worst place in Gujarat to set up camp for the night.
What ensued was a restless, thorny, night’s sleep. The slightest sounds woke us from our shallow slumber, as visions of the BSF creeping up to our suspicious looking tent and bursting in with guns kept running through my mind. Why is everything so much more scary and dramatic in the dark?
At first light we got up and hastily packed away the tent. Momentarily stopping to admire the orange drenched hills in the distance. There were tiny thorns embedded in every item that had been in the tent, as well as the tent itself. We would still be finding them amongst our possessions for months.
A new day, a new adventure
We breathed a sigh of relief as we made it back to the main road and shrugged of the previous evening’s adventure, acting as if it had never happened.
Word to the wise; don’t try and camp anywhere close to the India / Pakistan border, it’s not nearly as adventurous as it sounds.
We headed back along the dusty road towards the Great Rann of Kutch, which, at this particular time of year, had been turned into a giant theme park called the Rann Utsav. Rann Utsav is a festival held on the edge of the Salt Desert every year, during the dry season. There are lots of tourist attractions and amusements put on, and for those that can afford it, there’s the opportunity to glamp in the desert. A world away from our own recent Kutch camping experience.
Bypassing the Rann Utsav circus we headed straight for the entrance gate to the Salt Desert. Except when we got there we were told we couldn’t enter, because of a special Government event taking place; we would need special permission during this period: “Go and talk to someone in the Information Centre”, we were told. We go inside the Information Centre next door, but no one is there. And no one is going to be there all day…because they’ve got a special event on!
There was no one around to answer our questions and the BSF officers had no interest in talking to us. At this point we were feeling pretty rubbish. The main attraction we had rented a bike to reach was closed to the public this week: no word on their website or social media announcements about any of it. Typical India.
But my travel partner in crime is a determined soul and he was not going to give up that easily, so we rode around looking for another potential way out to the desert. We even tried approaching another checkpoint to get in, but they didn’t speak any English and had no intention of letting us through anyway. The one opening we saw was through the kilometre wide gap between the two checkpoints.
We made a break for it. Hearts thumping and ears straining to hear any distant shouts as we rode into the nothingness ahead. No one followed, so we kept going until the ground began to get too soft for the bike, jumped off and headed off on foot to reach the desert.
We knew we wouldn’t have long before someone spotted us, so we took a few pictures, enjoyed the spectacle and then walked back to the bike.
In the midst of our excitement and joy at having beaten Indian bureaucracy and made it to see what we came all this way to see, we weren’t paying attention to the road. Suddenly the bike started to slip and before we knew it we were stinking into a chocolate puddle and struggling to drag the bike out.
We and the bike were caked in mud, and trudged back towards the stalls at the festival, desperate for the bike not to have been damaged by mud getting into the engine.
The happiness we had felt just minutes before dissolved instantly and we were back to a state of anxiety about whether the bike would still run and whether we’d lose our deposit.
We asked some guys at one of the stalls if we could use their water hose to clean up the bike and started scrubbing. But within a few seconds one of them started to help, and then others. The guys insisted that they clean the bike up for us: “You’re visitors in our country, we’ll clean the bike”. Next came chairs and tea and instructions to sit down. It was a whirlwind of activity and within 30 minutes all signs of mud and dust had vanished.
Feeling completely humbled and grateful to this wonderful bunch for going above and beyond, we chatted to them for a bit before going on our way. Their act of kindness completely changed the course of our day and what could have ended in disaster and losing our bike deposit, ended on a high note instead.
Changes of fortune like this happened so frequently in India that it became a running joke between us; just when you want to hate everything about the place someone or something turns that on it’s head. As I mentioned in a previous post, India and I have a love/hate relationship and this story sums up why.