There used to be a time when I had a lot of time. Not that I’m complaining, but sometimes I look back at those days wistfully, when the entire office – and I mean every single person apart from the two editors – went off on a week long travel story with not a worry in the world. After all, back when I started writing about cars and bikes, there really weren’t that many cars and bikes to test and write about. My first road test was on the Sunny Spice and it was eight pages long. The next was some TVS moped and that was nine pages. And in between we had nothing to do, no social media to be active on, no website to continuously populate, just time on our hands.
We had to do something and that’s when I hit upon the idea of a 4×4 travel series. Adil, then editor at Overdrive, sent me to meet Bob Rupani who pointed me in the direction of the Rann of Kutch. And armed with two Tata Safaris we kick started a series that would keep us busy for a week every month. We were the first auto magazine guys to write about the Rann, the first to trek up to Ladakh, the first to drive across Bhutan; we went dune bashing, drove through insurgent infested no-man’s-land in Assam – heck, every place we went to and everything we did invariably had the tag ‘first’ attached to it as it was still the early years of modern automotive journalism as we now know it.
Today I’m back to where it all started, speaking to the man who introduced us and made us fall in love with the Rann. Muzahid Malik was our host at Rann Riders in Dasada, on the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch, and he’s still in the business – still as enthusiastic as ever in planning our route but now fully in sync with what we need to get great pictures and videos. Planning is also more important this time round as we have a much larger group and that’s at the core of this new series.
Readers, friends, people I interact with on social media, everybody wants to tag along on our big drives – and I can’t believe we haven’t had you join us! “Isn’t that selfish”, asks Vivek Srivatsa, the marketing head at Tata Motors and a good friend ever since his Maruti days as I explain why I want to take two Safaris back to the Rann of Kutch. And so we hit upon the idea to invite fellow Safari owners on this re-creation of my very first travel story, show them what the Safari can do, in the environment it was designed for. And that’s when I first heard of the Safari Owners United League.
And, as we were to find out, have a bunch of super active members. A message on their Facebook page and we had four Safaris joining our Varicor 400 on the drive to Dasada and onwards through the desert. It’s been a while since I came to the Rann, more than five years if memory serves me right, and how things have changed. The Rann Riders for instance has a Japanese restaurant! There are some Japanese factories coming up in the vicinity and quite a few of the expats now live in the idyllic surrounds of Dasada. We now need permits to go into the Rann, which is a sanctuary for the Asiatic Wild Ass. And I definitely do not remember clearly marked out trails in the Rann.
We enter the Rann through the Madapol gate of the Zinzuwada fort, a striking example of Indian architecture devoid of any Mughal influence. 100 years ago this gate had giant steel rings on it that boats could anchor to. Boats! Not that long ago, the Rann used to be the ocean and a branch of the Indus used to discharge into it, and when the waters receded, it left behind this vast desert that is the source of over 50 per cent of salt mined in India. Even now the Rann gets flooded during the monsoons and Aditya and Niyati, our guides for the weekend, tell us that during those months they get the best quality Kutchi shrimps from the Rann. Talk about a land of contrasts! With the waters receded after the rains and the merciless sun baking the land hard, we now have a vast open playground to do whatever we like with our Safaris. And this is exactly what it is built for.
Let’s be honest, the Tata Safari isn’t cut out for city commuting (unless you have a driver, in that case the acres of space and lovely ride makes it very nice). What the Safari excels at is munching big distances in comfort and speed. I’m driving the Tata Safari Storme, with the VARICOR 400 engine (400 denoting the torque), and on the drive up to Dasada it reminded me of everything that I praised when I first drove the Safari all those years ago – a throne-like seating position offering perhaps the best view out of any car/SUV on sale today, great seats, acres of space, lovely ride and unflappable stability. Sure the Tata Safari does wallow and pitch and the steering is like the helm of a ship but suspension setup is such that when you hit a bump the Tata Safari doesn’t pogo into the next lane – body movements are all vertical, not horizontal and worryingly unpredictable like other SUVs. This means you can maintain a high average speed irrespective of road conditions, the long-travel suspension taking it all in its stride, and with the 400Nm of torque, fifth and sixth gears are all that are required for quick progress. This Tata Safari Storme also has excellent air-con, something I had criticised in the past. Ours is not the only VARICOR 400 in this group, Ananjay from Mumbai bought his barely a month ago after being smitten by the space and comfort, after borrowing his brother-in-law’s Tata Safari on a recent drive to Bihar. And despite still being in the running-in phase, he easily maintains a high average speed on the Gujarat bit of the G-quad.
All those traits that made the Safari Storme good and great on the highway makes it even better on the Rann as we storm off towards the rising sun. With a vast expanse of nothingness, the flat desert all the way to the horizon, the mirage of an ocean to our right, and nothing apart from our five Safaris; it’s a sight that takes your breath away. It’s really hard to describe emptiness; the nothingness. Close your eyes and picture that for a minute. Nothing as far as the eye can see. Nothing to hit, nothing to go into, nothing to look out for, just dry earth crunching under your tyres as you drive flat out, steering a few degrees to the right, a few degrees to the left, just as I imagine the captain of an oceanliner would, as Aditya guides us in the general direction of Mardeik beyt.
I remember picking up some fossilised wood that used to be all over the place. Years of tourists doing the same have left it bereft of petrified wood and the scourge of illegal scavenging hasn’t even spared this place, with the smooth rocks being much in demand. Beyts are also where you will find Wild Asses grazing but it’s too late in the day and they’re probably out snoozing in the shade. We dig into brunch and carry on through the Little Rann, this time hitting a well-defined dirt track. This is new! I ask Aditya if the government has made this track but he says it’s maintained by the locals, and very well at that. At some places there are intersections with sign boards in Gujarati, and so that people don’t get lost at night or in a storm white poles and red flags are placed periodically at the edges of the track. We even crossed a family in a hatchback making for the Vachchhraj temple in the middle of the Rann where our snapper Gaurav sees a puppy so healthy and beautiful, he almost takes off with it before his wife assures him that his belongings will be on the road before he reaches Pune.
The 85km drive is also a shortcut (sans toll booths!) from Dasada to Dholavira, site of the Harappan civilisation ruins. Ajay and Anil, two S.O.U.L members who drove up from Pune with us are huge history buffs and with Niyati being a treasure trove of information on the site, we spend a scorching yet enlightening afternoon. Did you know the world’s first signboard was discovered here? But you want to know the most amazing thing about Dholavira? Despite being the most prominent archaeological site in India from the Indus Valley Civilisation, the ASI has stopped excavation after running out of funds. There isn’t even an entry fee to visit the site, and to imagine that the world over, they charge a hefty fee to see something that isn’t even as old as half the buildings in Mumbai.
White because of the salt that crusts the desert, past numerous signs for the ongoing Rann Utsav and head to the Kutch Wilderness Camp at Bhuj. Run by Aditya and Niyati, environmental conservationists to the core, the site is on the banks of a beautiful lake and half an hour away are one of Asia’s largest grasslands where we head the next morning to catch the sunrise. Winter fog means we don’t see the sun till midday but what a relief to find actual fog as opposed to smog.
A morning spent visiting local artisans in Bhuj and we head back to the Rann and this time catch the most spectacular sunset I’ve seen in all my visits here. I could take the next ten pages describing it but I’d rather leave space for a nice big picture to feast on. And tell you that you’re crazy not to visit the Rann – it’s barely three hours from Ahmedabad on lovely highways, there’s great hospitality at the Rann Riders, and the weather is now perfect. Yamini – who has driven up from Pune in her ten year old Tata Safari DICOR – is so smitten by the expanse of the Rann that she drives round and round in circles while the rest of us just stop and stare at the giant orange orb dipping below the horizon.
Aditya then asks us to pack up and head out, apparently some dam on the Narmada river was opened earlier in the day and wet patches have appeared in the Rann – hit any of them and you’ll need a tractor to pull you out (which I have plenty of experience from past visits); worse the muck is so salty that it can eat into paint within hours. We’re in 4×4 High, Aditya says to go hard on the gas, and yet we feel patches where the Safaris slows down facing resistance from wet patches that your eyes don’t register before hand.
Of course we make it out (not before Yamini gets lost and needs rescuing) and spend an evening dining under the moonlight in the Rann. The next morning we head back out into the Rann and as we wait for the sun to rise (again spectacular!) we chat with Jaideep and Kunal in the brown Tata Safari Storme from Surat. This is their third Tata Safari, would you believe, joining a 2.2 DICOR and 3.0 DICOR, all three still in their garage. These are guys who know their cars, running as they do a workshop outside Surat, and they swear by the Safari – its comfort and performance. That’s the thing I noticed about all these S.O.U.L guys – they know and are remarkably candid about the limitations of their Safaris (Ajay keeps a little electric car in Pune for daily commutes limiting his 2.2 DICOR for driving adventures) but they also swear by the fitness-of-purpose of their steeds; how for a drive like this, to the Rann for instance, no other SUV could offer the Safari’s blend of abilities and capabilities.
As the sun rises over another of the beyts dotting the Rann we spot a herd of Wild Ass, a beautiful, strong and hardy animal with a lovely golden mane and a running stance that’s more race horse than donkey. These are also shy animals and get easily spooked – and good luck trying to catch them as they can sprint at up to 80kmph. We drop off Gaurav and then circle the herd to get a shot of the Safari with the Wild Asses in the frame and even though the animals get spooked into sprinting off, Gaurav manages to recreate the iconic picture shot by Overdrive’s then head-snapper Suresh Narayanan 14 years ago. Mission accomplished.
Times have changed, cameras have become digital, time has become scarce and we travel the world for work (if you can call what we do, work!) but the setting sun in the Rann remains one of the most spectacular sights in the world, a Wild Ass sprinting across the vast nothingness of the desert still takes your breath away, and the Tata Safari is still the ship of the desert. As they say, the more things change the more they remain the same.