Thanks to Peter and Amit, I travelled to the Little Rann for Outlook Traveller's wildlife guide last year. While most of the piece was information-based, it also required a personal experience story to open the article. Since the book is available now, here is the story:
Near a durgah in Bajana, Junaid curved his jeep onto a narrow bumpy path that ran beside a village. Tribeswomen emerging from the Rann walked by barefoot, balancing above them enormous stacks of wood. Some stopped to eye the vehicle from the vantage point of a dune beside the path. Beneath them was a strange thing: tiny stacks of flat stones above large bumps in the dune. These are the graves of sweepers, Junaid said, buried outside the village by other sweepers. No one else could touch a sweeper, he continued, they could just not be touched. He drove by without pause, his face impassive. He had done this many times before, I reasoned. Why should he be surprised? He might even be bored.
“Bored? Never,” he smiled, and his face turned harder, more worn, when he did this. “I like the birds and I like driving here. It is a superhighway,” he said, as we rattled noisily over the bumpy trail, with bushes scratching metal along the way. This went on for a while. Thick bushes lay beside the path, there was bare soil on either side, and a cloudless sky above. There was no sign of life, not another sound.
Bajana Creek, when we arrived at it, was packed with birds. The air was filled with squeaks and cries and squawks and chirps. The sharp smell of salt was everywhere. The ground was cracked, white with saline. I stepped out and heard a satisfying crunch, nice as popping bubble wrap. At the edge of the creek, translucent orange dragonflies flew about, settling around me, moving only if I moved. There were cranes from Siberia, spot-billed ducks, flamingo, pelican. They moved away as I drew closer, and as their alarm spread in waves, they too took flight in waves.
We travelled further into the desert and, at some point, left behind a world we knew. Past a rusty forest office signboard with simple illustrations of ‘lion, tiger, leopard’, animals which had no business here, there was a vast empty expanse. Junaid said nothing. He stopped the car and fiddled while I looked ahead. It was massive. From horizon to horizon, there was nothing but flat land and the odd shrub, making it strangely claustrophobic. No one had mentioned that. People discussed wild ass and passing birds and the flat cracked soil. But desolation and the enormity of the Little Rann? No. I wonder why. It’s not something you’re likely to forget soon.
And then, as I was boggled by its size, Junaid leaned forward and the car lurched right into the Rann. 60,70,80,90… what was fast here? What could it be placed against? The signpost behind disappeared, and only a faint track indicated our trail. “Look around, do you see the water everywhere?” he asked. “It’s a mirage.” Indeed, the horizon shimmered but came no nearer. But ever so often, lumps were seen in the distance. They were wild ass.
Seeing a wild ass isn’t as exciting as sighting a tiger. There is no mystery about them, and they have no aura. They are light brown, with muscular hind legs, and travel in small herds with one lookout. At the hint of a threat, real or imagined, they are off. “It’s illegal to chase them, but don’t even try. They can touch 80 kilometres an hour,” Junaid said. A more informed guide later revised this to around 70.
Hours later, under a shade, I chatted with a man whose family had lived here for centuries. He mentioned how extreme the Rann was, and how hostile it could be, both physically and mentally. “You could go mad here if you lost your way,” I commented. He began agreeing, but then scratched his chin. “Yes, but you know what the beautiful thing is? You might get lost here, but you’ll always be found. And what you saw? That was nothing. Absolutely nothing. You could be here for ages and keep seeing new things.”