After our time in Rajasthan we were both eager for something a bit less hectic, so we were heading for the Kutch district in Gujarat. Surrounded by the Arabian sea and the Gulf of Kutch to the south and west, and by marshlands that are flooded for half the year to the north and east, the area isn’t really part of the tourist scene, so the culture, crafts and lifestyle of the locals hasn’t been affected all that much by western influence.
As we travelled south, locals and chai-wallahs recommended we have a look at nearby Mount Abu, so we took a little detour to check it out. Happily, the new route took us off the uninspiring highway and through little villages. The narrow roads were palm fringed, buffalo and children lounged in the road waiting to terrify unsuspecting bikers, and women in colourful saris walked in rows through green fields balancing silver pots on their heads.
It was the typically Indian scene that’s sold on tourist brochures, and the only reason it was still here is because tourism hasn’t found it yet. To top it off the road started to climb up mount Abu, and we were treated to an hour of hairpins looping around the mountainside and hanuman langur monkeys tussling and playing on the roadside.
We pulled up at the top of the mountain in front of a gate and an entry fee. A bit confused, we paid our ten rupees and rode straight into a scene of chaotic, synthetic, tourism hell. Ninety percent of the businesses were hotels, everyone else was selling sunglasses, ice creams or guides, and the place was bursting at the seams with Indian holiday makers. Apparently there were some temples and lakes further on but after a few minutes of shuffling through the town in heavy traffic, I just wanted out. Maria pulled up beside me, echoing my thoughts and pointing over her shoulder, towards the blissfully quiet hillside outside the gates. Yup, let’s get out of here!
We backtracked out of town, switched off our engines and coasted down the mountain, enjoying the silence, the cool breeze, and the lingering sunset. What a contrast that was to the serene little villages we’d passed to get here. India will always show you the best and worst of itself side by side. That’s what makes it so hard to either love or hate the place I guess.
It had grown dark while we worked our way back down the mountain, so we decided to risk wild camping. After getting off the main road and heading towards a small village, we found a little footpath leading off into the thicket, it looked promising enough, but given its proximity to the village, we wanted to avoid drawing attention to ourselves, so we switched off our headlights and crept forward. Of course without my light I crashed into a rock, and started to fall over. I instinctively grabbed the brake, illuminating the forest in red, and my tank bag slid to the side, falling against the horn and letting out an ear-splitting wail. The bike stalled, then started again; the autochoke pushing the revs up to 5000, just about audible over the dying echo of my horn. So much for being stealthy.
No-one came running, so we parked up and looked around. The footpath was one of a spiderweb of paths, connecting the various outlying clusters of houses to the village and we’d stopped at a crossroads underneath a huge willow tree. With a bit of hunting around, we managed to get off the crossroads and hide ourselves away where there’d be less chance of someone stumbling over us on their way home.
As we were packing up in the morning, a couple of youngish guys walked past on the way to the village. They gave a casual wave, shouting “We’re going now!” but we knew that wouldn’t be the end of it. Sure enough they were back a few minutes later with more friends in tow.
We chatted and they fiddled with the bikes till we were packed up, then we rode at walking pace up to the village, following them to their home. They’d insisted on making us tea and introducing us to the family. How could we say no?’The family’ lived on a sort of commune/farmstead. Three sets of relations, elders and children all lived together sharing the work, and all helping to tend their farm, which consisted of mango and papaya trees, chillies, sugar cane, water buffalo, and countless other plants that I lost track of as our host excitedly rattled off the list of their produce. The communal idea seemed to be working for them – they were well-off, well-educated, and happy, and were keen for us to stay and look around some more, then share lunch with them. We decided to push on though. We had our sights set on Gujarat.
the girls parked up with the water buffalo
the boss of them all
The prized holy cow that is allowed to live with its calf under the roof next to the house
Ladies of the house
The northern peninsula that forms the Kutch district is reached from the east by crossing the great rann, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Our map showed it as a huge body of water with a single road connecting two small villages on either shore. Judging by the types of village we were passing through, it hardly seemed unlikely we were about to be confronted with a ten kilometer long bridge. We scooted and swam through deep sand, occasionally coming to a stop to allow herds of shepherded buffalo to pass us on the narrow track, and eventually came to the edge of the great rann.
While it spends the rainy season submerged in water – turning the Kutch district into an island – what we were faced with was an infinite plane of cracked, dry mud, shimmering in the heat. There’s no feeling in the world quite like holding the throttle open and racing along a flat landscape without so much as a tree to give you an idea of your speed or position.
Even the occasional fishtail when the back wheel caught a patch of damp ground wasn’t enough to put a stop to the fun, and the only thing that slowed us down was the odd ‘island’ of dry sand sitting above the water level and forcing us to slow to a crawl to traverse. The only other soul we encountered was a lonely border guard who apparently motioned to us to join him for some food, but I flew past so quickly I didn’t notice. Sorry mate.
Lost?!? Nope, just stuck in deep sand :p
Somehow, we’d managed to enter the region through a cantonment area, and we were flagged down by a soldier, who was keen to know where we’d come from and where we were going. That was a problem, since I didn’t really know either. I dug out the map, and tried to point to a route, having a stab at pronouncing a few town names too, just to add to the confusion. Eventually, the guy’s superior ambled out bleary eyed and sent us on our way. There was no doubt we were off the beaten track now. Without the facade of touting, selling, and guesthouses obscuring the view it was a different experience of India, and we welcomed it.
Came across some Indian Wild Ass, home to this region, too!
As the sun started to set, and feeling pretty good after our last camping experience, we decided to have another go. We found an old, unused road running parallel to the highway and branching off into tracks that divided up the farmland. A little triangle of no-mans land just big enough for the tent was the best we could find. It was still close to the road, and was surrounded by evil-looking thorn bushes that left us with some serious wounds by the time we had the tent up, but we were tired and willing to settle. A couple of hours later we were woken up by shouting. Shit. I stuck my head out to locate the source of the noise and was instantly blinded by a flashlight. A couple of very angry sounding farmers were brandishing sticks and staring me down from a nearby field. A tense few minutes passed, where I used my little bit of Hindi to ask if it was ok for us to stay there, and then discovered that they only spoke Gujarati anyway. Eventually they just chuckled to themselves and went on their way.
An hour later they were back. The original brandisher of the flashlight had brought his tractor and half a dozen of his mates to have a look, and they amused themselves by scorching my retinas and nattering to each other in Gujarati. I ducked back into the tent, pulled on my jeans and went out to try and sort things out. In person they all seemed amenable enough. We smiled and shook hands and after exchanging pleasantries through mime, I wasn’t actually sure whether or not they wanted us to leave. They may even have been advising me to put the tent on their field, out of the way of the thorns. Either way we weren’t going to get any peace if we stayed; that much was clear. We begrudgingly loaded the bikes back up and started back on the highway. A few stops at roadside dhabas confirmed our fears that we wouldn’t be lucky enough to find a bed, so after putting a few kilometers between ourselves and the farmers we started trying side roads again. This time we didn’t unload till we’d found a place well off the road, along twisting, seldom used shepherding tracks, down into a dip in the landscape and hidden inside a ring of thorn bushes and cacti. Even then we didn’t have the most comfortable sleep; twitching at anything that sounded like a footstep. Just part of life on the road…