This seven-day journey will take you through a motley mix of landscapes. There are the endless miles of scrubland that offer panoramic views of the blue sky meeting the dusty earth with patches of green to break the monotony; and the Rann itself, large, isolated, sparkling and beautiful. Then, there are the narrow roads that run along villages, past women wearing backless blouses and colourful lehengas (a flared, long skirt), shepherds with weatherworn faces under their large white turbans, as well as herds of sheep, the bane of any driver’s existence. Add to this the sumptuous Kutchi cuisine, and Gujarat becomes a must-visit on every road traveller’s itinerary. A traditional Kutchi thali is an elaborate affair comprising bajra rotla, odho (brinjal curry), sev tamatar, kadhi and a tumbler of buttermilk. By the time the meal ends, you realise that you are almost incapable of movement because of the amount of food you have gluttonously ingested! Whatever else you may or may not have to worry about on this trip, food – provided you enjoy authentic Indian cuisine – should not be on that list.

Route: Ahmedabad-Little Rann Of Kutch (97 km)-Morvi (142 km)-Bhuj (172 km)-Dholavira (219 km)-Bhuj (219 km)-Mandvi (58 km)-Bhuj (58 km)-Ahmedabad (332 km) 
Total distance: 1,297 km 
Time: 7 days

DAY 1 
Route: Ahmedabad-Little Rann Of Kutch 
Distance: 97 Km 
Time: 2.5 hours

According to the locals of Ahmedabad, the city suffers terrible traffic congestion. Hence, those planning to exit the city by road are advised to leave early (or on a Sunday when there is only a trickle of traffic). If you want to make the most of your time at the Little Rann of Kutch, leave at daybreak and carry a packed breakfast that you can munch on as you drive. The shortest route from Ahmedabad to Dasada, one of the main entry points to the salt marshes, is via Viramgam on the NH947, a smooth stretch of road. After you cross Malanpur, take the SH18 to Dasada, 11 km away.

Marsh Mellow
The Rann (meaning salt marsh) is an unusual place – miles of greys, whites and blacks formed by salty mudflats and shimmering stretches of water. It is a vast seasonal marshland, for months inundated with seawater, which then dries up leaving behind swaths of salt. During the dry months, it is a white, cracked and barren land, with sparse, usually thorny, vegetation. Despite being barely habitable, the Rann sees plenty of human activity. This is because the region is rich in natural gas, the Indo-Pak border nearby is heavily militarised, and cattle grazing, firewood collection and salt extraction are routine activities. In order to preserve this unique ecosystem, many wildlife sanctuaries and reserves have been set up here, of which the Little Rann Sanctuary is of particular note. The largest sanctuary in India and a Ramsar Wetlands Site, the Little Rann covers an area of 4,953 sq km and is spread over five districts: Kutch, Patan, Surendranagar, Banaskantha and Rajkot.

The reserve was established in 1973 to protect the endangered Indian wild ass subspecies. Besides the wild ass, the sanctuary is also home to several species of birds. It is staffed by officers and constables, who besides protecting the herds of wild ass, patrol the sanctuary’s boundaries. They are hesitant to travel too far into the Little Rann except on established tracks as the parched topsoil is deceptive and there is a risk of sinking into the soft mud.

Waders ambling near a water body, Little Rann of Kutch
Waders ambling near a water body, Little Rann of Kutch

Orientation 
The two main entry points to Little Rann are located in Dasada and Jinjhwada. Dasada is 27 km from Bajana. One safari route is to Bajana Creek, accessible from Bajana, where migratory birds can be seen in winter. The other route is to the salt hills of Jinjhwada, 20 km northwest of Dasada. It is wise to hire a guide to explore the Rann as they have lived in the area for decades and are knowledgeable about the terrain. Guides can be hired at the two resorts here: Rann Riders and EcoTour Camp. Note that only jeeps and trucks can handle the baked flats. For your own security, you must register your entry into the Rann at the Forest Office, situated at the park’s entrance at Bajana, which has a Range Office, or with the forest guard at Jinjhwada. Insist on a receipt of entry. 
Park Entry: Indians ₹350; Foreigners ₹1,350; for 1-6 pax, per vehicle Timings: Sunrise-sunset 
Tip: Do not visit the Rann alone; travel with someone who knows the area and the local language

Things to See & Do
Salt pans possess a distinct charm of their own: for miles there will be nothing, and then, in the distance, beside a tent, there will be a luminous white block. However, this barren terrain supports a wide variety of animal and bird species. Besides herds of the Indian wild ass, it is possible to see wild boars, jungle cats, desert cats, blackbucks, chinkaras and nilgais here. The area is also a haven for ornithologists: over 300 species of birds visit the Little Rann Sanctuary. After the rains, birds flock to the Bajana Creek, on the southeastern boundary of the Little Rann, and the neighbouring Nawa Talaab. Cranes, greater and lesser flamingoes, ducks, pelicans and storks all can be found at the creek or close to it. Be careful not to venture near the water – you might find yourself sinking in the mud. Visitors can contact Rann Riders to arrange for a bird safari. Tour operators arrange camel safaris on request. These can be done as day trips in the Rann (overnight stays are not legal). Both Rann Riders and Desert Coursers organise camel safaris. Numerous tribes, including the Rabari, Bharwad, Mir, Koli, Bajania and Siddi, live in villages around the Little Rann. A guided tour through these villages makes for a superb experience. Located along the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch is Zainabad where ornithologists and naturalists can base themselves. A short distance from here is Kharaghoda, where the British salt trading post was located. The village retains some of the Colonial architecture, including the cricket pavilion and bandstand. Further southwest lies the village of Dhrangadhra, known for its 18th-century palace and darbargarh. The town also has some fine Colonial buildings. Jhinjwada Fort, on the edge of the Rann, a little to the north of Zainabad, boasts beautiful, intricately carved gateways. Celebrating the art forms and culture of Kutch, the three-month long Rann Utsav is held every year from December to March at different locations across the desert. The music, jewellery, crafts and souvenirs add up to a treat.

DAY 2
Route: Little Rann of Kutch-Morvi
Distance: 142km
Time: 3.5 hours

After exploring the salt marshes, spend the night at one of the camps, before heading out early the next morning for the city of Morvi. Drive southwest from Dasada on the SH18 via Zainabad, and then take the NH947 just past Halvad. From here, Morvi is an hour’s ride on the SH22.

Treasure Trove
For a bustling manufacturing hub noted for its ceramic and clock-making industries, Morvi, located in the district named after the city, packs in a startling extent of architectural heritage. The city was one of the most prosperous princely states in India, ruled by a progressive clan of Jadeja Rajputs. Among the city’s highlights are the Rajput-style Willingdon Secretariat, the engineering marvel Julto Pul (suspension bridge), the Green Chowk (inspired by European town planning principles), the Art Deco Palace and the Nazarbag Palace (which now houses the Lukhdhirji Engineering College). But the most beautiful of all of Morvi’s treasures is the spectacular Darbargadh Palace. A sprawling edifice overlooking the Machhu river, this 19th-century palace was severely damaged in the 2001 earthquake, but has since been painstakingly restored by Princess Uma Morvi.

DAY 3-4

Route: Morvi-Bhuj 
Distance: 172km
Time: 4 hours

After a night in Morvi, take the NH8A to Anjar, and then the SH46 to Bhuj. The NH8A is well-maintained and makes for a smooth ride. On the way, you will see salt pans and factories with heaps of brownish-white salt around them.

Tribhuvan Tiwari
A typical hut in Gujarat
A typical hut in Gujarat

Shaken Not Stirred
An inhospitable land to inhabit, Kutch is nevertheless a fascinating place. Severely hot and dry during summers, this sparsely populated district in northwestern Gujarat is effectively an island, with the Arabian Sea to its west, the Gulf of Kutch to its south and the Greater and Little Rann to the north and east. Bhuj, the capital of the former state of Kutch for almost 400 years and now the headquarters of Kutch District, is an interesting mix of the ancient and modern. Compared to a metro like Mumbai or Delhi, Bhuj is a veritable oasis of peace. But by Kutch standards, it is positively bustling with life. The road to the city is flanked with hills crowned with a fort’s ramparts. These are the Bhujiya Hills from where Bhuj gets its name. Unfortunately, the city is mainly remembered for the devastating earthquake of January 2001, the scars of which are still apparent. On your second day in Bhuj, you can visit the several crafts villages around the city. These villages are yet another example of the Kutchis’ cheerful acceptance of their harsh landscapes and way of life. From round mud-huts with thatched roofs, women and children emerge, trailing colour and laughter into the air. A number of these women, who keep house and tend to livestock, are also part of a supplychain system of NGOs that work towards preserving traditional Kutchi crafts and making the women selfsufficient. Vibrant embroidery, expertly woven handloom fabrics, intricate threadwork as well as metalwork and shimmering mirror work are only some of the specialities of this region.

 

Magnificent interiors of the Aina Mahal, with the chandelier as the centrepiece
Magnificent interiors of the Aina Mahal, with the chandelier as the centrepiece

Things To See & Do 
Past the Shroff Bazaar and close to the Swaminarayan Temple lies the Darbargadh Palace Complex, which houses both the Aina Mahal and the Prag Mahal. The first thing about Prag Mahal that strikes you is how incongruous it looks. Tall and stately, with Gothic windows and Corinthian pillars, the palace stands out amid the crumbling ruins of the complex. The palace itself is imposing, and the intricate carvings on the walls and the jaali work on the jharokhas are exquisite. On one hand there are the unmistakable symbols of erstwhile royal pursuits: yellowing photographs of young men in sports attire, and walls adorned with trophies, comprising lions, deer, bears and even a hippo. On the other is the state of disrepair that everything has fallen into. Aina Mahal, the ‘mirror palace’, was added to the complex in the 18th century, during the reign of Maharao Lakhapatji. It was designed by the legendary Ramsingh, who survived a shipwreck off the coast of East Africa, reached Europe, and over 17 years learned skills such as ship-building, stone-carving, glassblowing and tile-making, eventually introducing them to Kutch. Damaged during the 2001 earthquake, Aina Mahal is still prettier of the two palaces. The hall of mirrors would have, in its heyday, put Oriental and European palace rooms to shame. It continues to awe visitors with its stained white marble, mottled mirrors and fading daguerreotypes. The Kutch Museum, the oldest in Gujarat, houses the best collection of coins, paintings, arms, sculpture and metalworks. The Bhartiya Sanskriti Darshan (or the Folk Arts Museum) has a superb collection of local textiles and artefacts. The Sharad Baug Palace is worth a visit for its beautiful grounds peppered with flowering plants. Depending on the time of the year, the Hamirsar Lake, in the western end of Bhuj, may be dry and therefore largely deserted, or full of water, and surrounded by merry families. Kutch is well known for its wealth of culture and handicrafts. The region produces some of the world’s most exceptional textile products and embroideries, and intricately crafted leather products and metalworks. A number of NGOs operate in villages near Bhuj and work towards preserving these craft traditions and providing the artisans a sense of pride in their culture along with monetary benefits. If you want to explore the villages, you can get in touch with these NGOs; they can usually send someone to accompany you to the villages should you need assistance.

Weaving shawls in Bhujodi
Weaving shawls in Bhujodi

At Sumrasar Sheikh, you can contact Kala Raksha (Tel: 02808-277237-38; W kala-raksha.org), which is in Parkar Vas. It’s a village 25 km from Bhuj, home to tribes that migrated from Sindh, bringing with them the craft traditions of that region. Specialised in intricate embroidery, artisans from this village create four traditional styles of embroidery: soof, khaarek, rabari and paako. Soof, or suf (meaning triangle), is one of the most difficult types of embroidery in the world, since patterns are not traced beforehand onto the fabric. Instead, the women imagine the designs, count the threads of warp and weft to ensure symmetry, and then put in their stitches. Khaarek embroidery is largely geometrical in appearance with squares of vividly coloured thread in stain stitches that fill the entire fabric. The rabari style is distinct in that it uses the chain stitch to outline patterns and is liberally embellished with mirrors. In paako style, the patterns are first drawn on to the fabric using a kind of mud and then filled in with a tight chain stitch and satin stitch. This style is said to be so full that the backing fabric might actually thin out and fall away, but the embroidery will still hold. The motifs usually include flowers, plants and animals. Ajrakhpur in Anjar is well known for its block-printed fabrics, silver jewellery and nutcrackers. Though not located in Anjar, the Khamir Craft Resource Centre (Tel: 02832- 271272/ 422; Email: info@khamir.org; W khamir.org) works with a lot of artisans in the area and can possibly send someone along with you to the villages. The centre is located at Lakhond Chowkri, behind BMCB Social City, Kukma. About 12 km from Bhuj is the crafts village of Bhujodi. Most of the 1,300-strong population of Bhujodi consists of the Vankar community who were traditionally weavers. Even now, the Vankars are known for their unique shawls, floor rugs and blankets, though they also do embroidery and mirrorwork on fabric. Shrujan (Tel: 02832- 240272, 241903; W shrujan.org), an NGO in Bhujodi, works with the local women to create apparel and home linen products that are decorated with the exquisite embroidery styles of the region. Their office is located behind the GEB substation.

Interesting curios at Srujan Handicraft store, Bhujodi
Interesting curios at Srujan Handicraft store, Bhujodi

DAY 5

Route: Bhuj-Dholavira-Bhuj 
Distance: 219 km
Time: 4.5 hours

Bhuj makes a superb base for exploring the Kutch region. Take a day trip to the archaeological site of Dholavira, situated in the Rann of Kutch, on your third day in the city. Follow the Bhuj-Bhachau Highway almost all the way to Bhachau, then take the Kharoi Road to Rapar and finally the SH51 to reach the site. Before heading to Dholavira, be sure to tank up. This is not a place you want to be stuck in if you run out of fuel. Remember to carry plenty of sunscreen as well as a cap – the citadel is situated right on top of a hillock and has no defence whatsoever from the glare of the sun. Even the shortest half-an-hour exploration can leave visitors feeling exhausted. It is also advisable to carry water and snacks. The site is so incredibly remote that there isn’t a proper food stop for miles around. Take a restroom break wherever you come across one. The museum complex has restrooms, but unfortunately they are quite dirty and not well maintained.

Ancient city
In 1967, when the ASI stumbled upon Dholavira, it found the largest Harappan city yet that preserved seven distinct cultural phases spanning a period of 2,000 years. Not even Harappa and Mohenjodaro can claim to have material remains from all the distinct phases that made up the historical extent of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Dholavira acted as a link in the trade routes from the Harappan cities in the Indus Valley to the port of Lothal. Situated in the salt flats of Kutch, Dholavira was built in three tiers: a ‘citadel’, an upper town and a lower town. One of the most important discoveries in Dholavira was the town plan, which incorporated a sophisticated network of storm water drains connecting to a main artery, which in turn fed a reservoir. The other big find was a ‘signboard’ containing ten large Harappan pictorial letters. Given that the civilisation’s script continues to be a mystery, these remain of great value. At the entrance to the site is a small museum that offers an insight into the history of the Indus Valley Civilisation. The museum has no timings as such, nor any entry fee (at least there are none on display). However, it’s understood that the museum, along with the site, is offlimits at sundown. Apparently the site is overrun with scorpions, bats, snakes and assorted nocturnal creatures once the sun goes down. From here, retrace the route to get back to Bhuj.

DAY 6

Route: Bhuj-Mandvi-Bhuj 
Distance: 58km
Time: 1.5 hours

Set off on another day trip the next day – this time for a relaxing and rejuvenating day by the beach in Mandvi. Access the town via the Mandvi-Bhuj Highway.

The elegant Vijay Vilas Palace
The elegant Vijay Vilas Palace

Sandy Shores
Mandvi, a little seaside town, is located south of Bhuj, on the southern shore of Kutch. For many centuries, it was a famous seaport in Kutch, having trade links with South Africa, Zanzibar, Malaysia, China and Japan. The town is well known for exquisite batik work and a 400-year old cottage shipbuilding industry. Even today, the expert carpenters use traditional methods to build ships and fishing boats. Mandvi has a small beach, however, a more attractive one lies a few kilometres southwest of the town. It is part of a seaside resort called The Beach at Mandvi Palace. Next to it is the striking Vijay Vilas Palace that is well worth a visit.

Camel rides, a must-do activity at Mandvi Beach
Camel rides, a must-do activity at Mandvi Beach

Things to See & Do
Mandvi’s shipbuilding yards are located on the banks of Rukmavati river, just south of the bridge. Here, visitors can observe craftsmen busily creating structures of varying sizes out of wood. Climb up a ship to find someone who can explain the craft. The Mandvi Town Beach is frequented by locals in the evenings who congregate here to relish the ragda patties and gol gappas, feed the seagulls and enjoy their walks. Round off the day with a leisurely stroll on the beach, then follow the route back to Bhuj.

DAY 7

Route: Bhuj-Ahmedabad 
Distance: 332 km 
Time: 5.5 hours

After a good night’s rest, head back to Ahmedabad via the Bhuj-Bachau Highway, then take the NH8A. At Khirai, stop for a quick meal before you take the NH947 to Ahmedabad. The highways are in great condition and make for a smooth ride.

The Route 
Drive out of Ahmedabad on the NH947 and the SH18 to Dasada. From here, take the SH18, NH947 and then the SH22 to Morvi. The drive from Morvi to Bhuj is on the NH8A, and the drive back to Ahmedabad is via the NH8A and the NH947.

Tips and Tricks 
For this journey, you will need plenty of mineral water, sunscreen, and some form of headgear to protect your hair from the scorching heat. Be sure to carry packets of Electral, which is a lifesaver in a land where it is all too easy to get dehydrated without realising until it’s too late. Speaking of replenishment, Kutch might have a largely inhospitable terrain, but its people more than make up for it. You will experience this hospitality wherever you go. A Qualis works admirably on the highways, but is extremely difficult to manoeuvre through the narrow lanes of the villages. A smaller vehicle might wind through the villages with more ease, but there are some rough patches on this drive which it will probably not be able to handle efficiently. Also, for certain stretches on the road you’ll almost be rubbing shoulders – or fenders more likely – with trucks, buses and camel carts. While the camel cart is easily dealt with, the trucks can get somewhat intimidating. Besides the desolate stretch from Rapar to Dholavira – before which you must tank up – almost all the roads on this route have numerous petrol pumps. In some sections, you can come across three within a 1-km radius. In case you are brand-conscious about fuel, you are likely to find your brand of choice after a short drive of a few kilometres. Service stations and puncture repair shops are few and far between while on the road, but as you get closer to a town, you’ll usually find them chummily sharing boundary walls with the petrol pumps.

Where To Stay and Eat

Little Rann of Kutch
Rann Riders (Tel: 02757-280257, Cell: 09925236014; Tariff: ₹7,200, with all meals and safari), southeast of Dasada village, is a popular choice, with its rustic-chic accommodation. The resort offers jeep and camel safaris, but even non-residents can arrange for jeep excursions. Eco-Tour Camp (Cell: 0982554800-90; Tariff: ₹7,500-10,500, with meals and safari), near Sumera Lake, is another good option. The camp offers accommodation in kooba (thatched roof huts) and tents. Desert Coursers (Tel: 241333-35, Cell: 09426372113; Tariff: ₹1,900-2,800 per person, including meals and safari) also offers Kooba huts with attached baths in a small grove. The resort remains open from October to March. To stay at the government resthouse in Dhrangadhra, contact the Sanctuary Superintendent (Tel: 02754-260016). The hygiene in some dhabas is downright dodgy, so you’re better off frequenting the resorts.

Morvi 
Morvi offers limited accommodation and dining options. The JK Hotel (Cell: 07802929000; Tariff: ₹630-1,040) on Jail Road is decent. It is relatively clean and the owners make an effort to make your stay as comfortable as they can. Dariyalal Resorts (Tel: 02822-283351- 52; Tariff: ₹1,600-2,600) on Wankaner Road and Avadh Hotel (Tel: 244744; Tariff: ₹1,200-3,000) on the highway are other decent options.Shiv Ajanta on the main road right at the entrance to Morvi, is a much better option for a meal. While the flavours are nothing great to write home about, the surroundings are clean and service decent. The menu also has a Continental section that features spaghetti, pizza and burgers. But when in Gujarat, it is best to eat what the Gujaratis do. The best part about the Shiv Ajanta, though, is its restrooms. Clean and shiny, they have Western style WCs, running water and toilet paper, should you need it. For those willing and able to experiment, Morvi’s main market has rows and rows of small hole-in-the-wall eateries that serve Indian snacks.

Bhuj
On Station Road, Hotel Prince (Tel: 02832-220370; Tariff: ₹3,375-7,575) is one of the best options, with wellmaintained rooms and efficient service. Hotel Lake View (Tel: 253422; Tariff: ₹900-1,300), Hotel Ilark (Tel: 258999; Tariff: ₹2,600-6,000) and Prince Residency (Tel: 230236; Tariff: ₹1,500- 4,100) are good options as well. Besides the hotels, Green Rock Hotel, opposite the STC Bus Stand, serves a sumptuous Gujarati thali.

Mandvi
The Beach at Mandvi Palace (Tel: 02834- 295877, Mobile: 09879013118; Tariff: ₹8,600 with meals), a short distance from the main town, offers comfortable, air-conditioned tents and an exclusive, pristine white-sand beach. The restaurant is open to non-residents. Vijay Vilas Heritage Resort (Tel: 277700; Mobile: 09898944958; Tariff: ₹7,000-8,000), located within the Vijay Vilas Palace Complex, offers eight beautifully decorated suites, two tents and a restaurant.

Driving Options 
The itinerary can be changed according to how much time you have: you can either spend less time visiting the villages around Bhuj or more. It may be worth driving to Mandvi Beach, 8 km from Mandvi town, where stands the excellent The Beach at Mandvi Palace (see above) that provides accommodation in luxurious tents. You can laze around the beach or go for a swim. Also worth visiting here is the Vijay Vilas Palace (see above), an elegant structure built in the early 20th century by the rulers of Bhuj. It now houses a guesthouse.