Desert luxury

How does a hotel announce to a visitor that it is special? I’m not talking about the service or the rooms, which is the core luxury that a hotel must provide, because this only becomes apparent over time. The announcement has to be instant. It is often something about the look: large lobbies in crowded cities, quietness in a noisy district, expensive art if you enter through a visually cluttered neighbourhood. I found that in a desert it is the suggestion of abundant water.

My trip to the Rann of Kutch was done on a pretty tight budget, but I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that prices in the Rann are bound to be much lower than in Mumbai. As a result, the hotel turned out to be luxurious by local standards. In terms of first appearances, it didn’t impress. There was a decorated door with rustic designs which opened into a garden. It was not one of the exquisitely carved, finely polished, and very well fitted doors which I have seen in this region. So this it left me a little apprehensive about the quality of the room.

Exotic animals roamed the grounds. I was in the desert with a bunch of bird watchers, so the sight of domesticated African guinea fowl did not exactly spell luxury to any of us. When I saw the room I was quite surprised by the size and the cleanliness. The food and service also turned out to be excellent. So I was sure that I’d missed some cues.

Then it struck me: greenery, flowers and lawns. In the parched surroundings of a desert, this was the declaration of wealth and luxury. It was not the garden door that I was supposed to notice, but the garden. Silly me. Not a single wilted leaf could be seen in the tall bushes here. The grass on the lawn was springy, and invited bare feet.

And, in case you still needed another hint, there was an enormous lily pond. I had been looking at everything with eyes jaded with the greenery and dampness of Meghalaya. This was the other side of the country in many ways: literally, in terms of geography, and metaphorically, a desert instead of the rainiest place on earth. I had to look at it through local eyes to see the signs of luxury and conspicuous consumption. I quailed at the thought of the ecological cost as I caught on.

Meeting her again

The Rann of Kutch is such a flat desert that anything vertical sticks out. Our driver suddenly picked up speed before I saw the little blip that meant a concrete marker. In a few moments I could see something sitting on it. There was a sudden buzz as people recognized a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus): it was large, the ashy grey-blue of the back, the long tail, and the size are indicators at a distance.

As we approached I could see the dark moustache on the white face, and then the yellow of the eye ring and culmen (upper part of the beak). This one also had a pale “eyebrow”. I suppose this is the Indian subspecies, Falco p. peregrinator, the Shaheen falcon. We were probably near the westernmost edge of its range, since it is found from this desert eastwards to the Pacific, and southwards to Sri Lanka. In the past around 75 subspecies were described, although today many of these distinctions are held to be trivial, and only about 19 are recognized. A recent DNA analysis indicates that the subspecies diverged very recently, perhaps between 100,000 and 10,000 years ago. This is not a rare bird, although the population declined in the 20th century until the mid-70s when the use of DDT was banned. Counts made in Sri Lanka, about a decade ago, indicate that the population of Shaheen falcons has increased to the levels before DDT came into use.

This was a bold bird. It looked closely at us, and then stood its ground. It normally perches high up, so that it can take off easily when it sights prey, and then stoop down on it very fast to snatch it in the air. In the desert this little marker was a high perch. Our jeep could even circle around the bird to try to get her in good light. After a while she hopped from foot to foot, clearly bored, and flapped her wing once and took off. The last impression I had was of enormous wings, the better for mid-air manoeuvering.

Entering the desert

It is late afternoon. A short detour from the highway over a bumpy stretch of land, and suddenly we are in the desert. The Little Rann of Kutch seems to be a perfectly flat landscape. I’m lost instantly. There was no landmark that I can see, but the drivers of jeeps here seem to find their way as if on signposted highways.

There must be ways of seeing. This is not barren land, there is life here. Over the next two days I’ll begin to understand its signs. There are clumps of hardy bushes, sometimes even trees. There are insects, birds which eat the insects, and birds which eat the birds which eat insects. There are lizards, jackals, and wild ass. There are scorpions and snakes. Sometimes I can see water in the distance; I will have to learn the difference between a mirage and the water. This is not too hard, it turns out. It is much harder to understand how the drivers navigate.

Now and then there is a hillock. Man made? We come across one near sunset. An imperial eagle rests on top of it. There is dry grass at the base of the hillock, and a white patch, clearly visible even in this failing light. Salt left by evaporated water. The Rann of Kutch lies below sea level, and covered with a sheet of water when the tide is sufficiently high. When the sea level rises this land will be the first to drown.

After the sun goes down the jeep drives around to the east, where there is a thin sheet of water between us and the hillock. The ground must be wetter here than in other places, because there is almost a forest of bushes. I wonder whether the water is permanent. Probably not; there are tyre tracks pointing into the water. Those must have been made when this area was dry. This is a wonderful angle to take a photo from. I’ve never lost cell phone connectivity through the day, so I could share the journey with The Family. Now I send her the last photo of the day.

Off-road at the edge of a desert

We were on a long straight road to the weird desert of Kutch. The main highway was in very good repair, and allowed us to make good time. The dawn was still pink in the sky when we left Ahmedabad, and even after a leisurely breakfast and a detour through Nal Sarovar for Sociable Lapwings, it was well before noon when I noticed how dusty the surroundings were.

There were still cultivated fields by the road, but you only had to look at the sky to see the dust. Directly overhead the sky was a clear blue, but if you let your eyes fall towards the horizon you could make out the grey of suspended dust. I had brought along a packet of surgical masks to protect me against this desert dust, but eventually it turned out to be inadequate. The next time I come this way I will have to bring along a sturdier mask with a good filter.

The moment you go off-road, everything changes. The irrigated edge reveals itself as a tiny intrusion. This is the kingdom of dust. Clumps of woody bushes grow here and there, and get more sparse as you penetrate deeper into the desert. Here at the edge of the Rann of Kutch, there are ponds, but even at the edge of the pond there is no grass. Taming this desert will require finding a grass to hold the topsoil together.

In the last year I’ve begun to see the desert as an exercise for the future. This part of India does not get monsoon. The popular understanding is that this is because the monsoon winds are “depleted of moisture” by the time they reach Gujarat and Rajasthan. This is false. The desert is very close to the sea, and right in the path of direct monsoon winds. These are kept away by a high-pressure system which sits over West Asia. In future if the monsoon wind system slackens due to the warming of the oceans, then this high pressure zone will expand, and the desert will begin to move eastwards. Finding a way to keep the topsoil from crumbling into dust is therefore an insurance against the future.

We pass villages where dust has piled up against structures, a graveyard is in the process of being buried again. I wondered about this village, which seems to have been abandoned rather recently. I saw a large house, with the roof caved in, walls still standing. Behind it was a shady tree which brought back memories. When I was a child, growing up in north India, courtyards of each house would have one or two such trees. Learning to climb them was one of the rites of passage for youngsters. In north India the courtyards and trees are gone. Here the trees remain, but people are gone.