A Traveller’s Guide to Gujarat’s Best Kept Secrets.
On a chilly December night, I lay on the roof of a watchtower in the darkness of India’s stark salt desert – the Little Rann of Kutch. The silence of the night was occasionally broken by the howling of a lone jackal or the running footsteps of a group of Asiatic wild asses. But the real show was unfolding above – a Geminid Meteor Shower, with bright green shooting stars falling through the dark skies!
As I felt wonderstruck in the vast silence, my host joined me with yummy local snacks – chakra and fafra – and together we took in the wonder above, delving into stories of life in the desert. It struck me then that I had already fallen in love with the misunderstood state that is Gujarat.
I was a bit skeptical while planning my maiden trip to Gujarat, but over an incredible fortnight, I stayed in a restored heritage haveli in Ahmedabad’s old city, stumbled upon an abandoned flamingo colony in the Little Rann, met nomadic tribes that live deep in the grasslands of Banni, spotted a majestic pride of eight lions in Gir, and treated my taste buds to the delightful flavors of the state’s unique cuisine.
The first time I visited Ahmedabad on my way to Diu, its crowded streets and oppressive heat made me want to leave immediately. But thanks to the work of Three Foundation, a heritage restoration project in the 400-year-old walled community of ‘Dhal ni Pol’ in old Ahmedabad, I got a chance to travel back in time.
Rajiv Patel started restoring heritage buildings as a hobby and gradually turned it into a sustainable business, realizing the immense tourism and economic potential of India’s centuries-old architecture. If all goes to plan, they could be hosting traditional music concerts and plays in restored heritage houses in Dhal ni Pol as early as next year.
Where to stay: Staying at the French Haveli, a restored 150-year-old Jain haveli with a central courtyard, ancient rainwater harvesting system and charming corners to sit and write, I felt a little like India’s erstwhile royalty.
Little Rann of Kutch
I was surprised to learn that this dessert is neither little nor in the Kutch region, but perhaps the biggest surprise was driving for miles through this vast expanse of a cracked earth without seeing another soul. The only way my host could find the way back was by leaving distinguishable wheel tracks in the desert! The Little Rann of Kutch was full of surprises:
World’s only refuge for the Indian Wild Ass: These Asiatic Wild Asses migrated from Kabul, barely survived a deadly disease and adapted to the cold, arid desert of the Little Rann. In 1971, their habitat became a protected Wild Ass Sanctuary – India’s largest wildlife sanctuary – and they share this arid space with blue sheep, blackbucks, Indian fox and short-eared owls.
Tracing the journey of salt: 14% of India’s salt is made in large salt pans in the Little Rann – through back-breaking work by local families who spend half the year in makeshift homes in the desert heat. Hearing their life stories definitely put the food on my table into perspective.
An abandoned flamingo nesting colony: When the water level falls after the monsoon in the Little Rann, the migratory flamingoes fly off with their young ones, abandoning the eggs that haven’t yet hatched. One salt worker tipped us off a colony deep in the desert, and when we found it, I was shocked to see newborn flamingoes baked in the sun and eagles feeding on the dead eggs; nature can be cruel like that.
Solitude in a white salt desert: When I confessed to my host that even though I wanted to see the white desert of the more popular Great Rann, I wasn’t ready to share it with a thousand other people, he took me to a secret place in the Little Rann which accumulates salt too! Walking alone in that white, limitless space made me feel like I was on another planet.
Gemenid Meteor Shower / Wish upon shooting stars: I spent late nights on the roof of a watchtower in the Little Rann, watching the awe-inspiring Gemenid Meteor Shower in the dark skies in the company of my host – hatching plans to rent a boat and explore the Little Rann when it’s flooded in the rains!
Where to stay: I stayed in a traditional Kooba (circular mud hut) right across the road from the Rann, set up by Devijibhai Dhamecha – a passionate environmentalist and wildlife photographer, who was instrumental in the conservation of the Little Rann and its wild ass sanctuary. Indeed, I could see wild asses trotting in the desert even from the charpai (traditional rope bed) in my balcony!
Banni Grasslands (Kutch)
Before I arrived in Kutch, I had only heard of two things: the white desert and the Kutchi crafts. Luckily my host, a renowned environmentalist, wanted me to the unexplored delights of the region:
Nomadic ways of the camel herders: Our adventures began with a serendipitous encounter with the nomadic Fakirani Jath people and their large herd of camels! They invited us to their makeshift homes deep in the wild scrub desert of Banni and shared stories of how when the India-Pakistan borders were still lax, brides and grooms would walk across the length of Banni to get married. Their resolve to keep their traditional way of life within the confines of Banni, when urban civilization is literally at their doorstep, amazed me.
A million cranes flying into the sunset: In the seemingly lifeless scrubland of Banni, I was mesmerized by the vast species of birds we saw, and even more so in witnessing a million cranes flying together to their home in the wetlands just as the sunset.
Strange mineral-infused landscapes: On an early morning, I witnessed sunrise over the Grand Canyon-like landscapes in a secret part of Kutch – once under the sea, with minerals accumulated on unearthly rock formations to give them a strange shiny white color.
Where to stay: I would’ve been quite lost in Kutch without my host Jugal Tiwari, a professional ecologist, and an inspiring soul. CEDO Homestay, his home in the village of Moti Virani, is a hub for birding enthusiasts, and his work and stories of Kutch made me fall in love with the region.
Gir National Park
It’s one thing to go on a jeep safari through Gir National Park; quite another to live inside the park’s buffer zone and hear about hair-raising lion encounters from your Gujarati hosts on moonlit nights!
Living in the buffer zone of Gir: That experience of casually strolling outside on a moonlit night and seeing a pair of shining eyes moving through the bushes, looking right at you! Living in a charming house on an organic farm, with just a fence separating me from the territory of Asiatic lions, was the highlight of my time in Gujarat.
Saurashtrian (vegan) food: In the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, which has traditionally been famine-prone, the rule is that nothing gets wasted. That meant I feasted on seven tamatar by night, and on poha and saunf (fennel) stuffed roasted tomatoes for breakfast. My host family veganized their delicious traditional dishes, and I promised to come back, stay longer and indulge further in the culinary delights of Saurashtra.
Jeep safari through Gir National Park (Sasan Gir): I could score a booking for a jeep safari in Gir thanks to someone’s heads up on Instagram; bookings can only be done online and as far as 3 months in advance. I chose to pay a bit extra and have a jeep and guide all to myself – and I’m glad I did because there is so much more in that dry teak forest than lions. All other jeeps zoomed past us in search of lions, while we took our time, watching birds, smaller mammals and discussing the lives of people who live inside the park without electricity. Just as we were on our way out, a majestic lioness crossed our path, and led us to a tribe of 8 lions – 3 lionesses and 5 cubs! What a sighting.
Please avoid: Even if you see no lions on a safari, please don’t go to the adjacent Devaliya Park – which is essentially a zoo of Asiatic lions where older lions are kept in enclosed areas and fed manually. What a pity that the forest department encourages this form of cruel wildlife tourism – let us be responsible and not support it.
Where to stay: Staying at Aranya Eco Farm, an organic mango farm in the buffer zone of Gir National Park, hosted by a sweet Gujarati couple – was totally worth the splurge! I spent time with their friends in the village, cooled off in the pool on warm days, saw stunning sunsets on the hill nearby, appreciated their approach to organic farming and eco-friendly living, and promised to come back in the rains and stay longer!
Safety as a solo traveler in Gujarat
I loved journeying through Gujarat all by myself – my hosts, co-passengers on long daily bus rides and random people I interacted with were all very friendly. I never got cheated, rarely saw touts, and the few autos/taxis I took were very decent. In retrospect though, most of my interactions were with men; I rarely met women leading tourism initiatives.
Getting around by public transport in Gujarat
I was surprised to arrive at the intra-state bus stop in Ahmedabad – a fancy, clean, well-maintained space for people in transit. But my elation quickly crashed when my bus arrived – no different from the dingy, rickety state buses across India.
I ended up traveling fairly long distances on such buses (thankfully it was winter and the heat was bearable), for no Volvo or luxury buses run during the day. I hope Gujarat tourism fixes that soon.
Eating vegan in Gujarat
As a newbie vegan, I was apprehensive of my tryst with the dairy capital of India. I found that people are incredibly proud of their vegetarianism (except the small meat-eating population), but no one quite engaged with me to debate the cruelty in dairy farming.
Ghee (clarified butter), butter, milk, and curd feature in several dishes and veganism is an alien concept – so I had to constantly remind and check whether the food being offered to me was dairy free. It was worth the effort, because from my first Gujarati thali at the House of MG in Ahmedabad to Saurashtrian food in Gir, I loved every morsel I ate! I think I finally get the Gujarati obsession with carrying theplas for emergency meals