"Sometimes I turn off the music. The sound of rubber on the road is soothing by itself" - Anonymous
Gurgaon to Chittor and a chance to drive inside a fort
The day started early with the Gurgaon to Jaipur stretch being largely uneventful & full of traffic. From Jaipur, took the bypass to head to Chittorgarh. From here the drive is a dream - empty hghways winding through the Arravalis.I could consistently manage 120 kmph accompanied by the wailing sounds of Soundgarden.
On the way I met Sawan lal...an old barber probably in his 60s. I stopped to ask for directions...he was headed in the same direction to meet his daughter who stays in the next village. I couldn't say no for a ride. So he hopped on. We chatted about his family, tips on how to avoid thieves if I ever go to Ajmer Sharif and the national elections. This is 2014 general elections time, and in this constituency Sachin Pilot is pitted against a local pradhan. AAP is a non entity here. He predicts a stiff battle. I am always amazed by the political awareness of people in the country-side, far removed from the theoretical understanding us drawing room conversationists have in the city. I don't think he liked Soundgarden though.
The drive through the barren Aravalis is mind blowing and the road smooth. Along the way there was a truck on fire! I checked into the RTDC hotel in Chittorgarh. Always a safe bet. Except when there are bees in your room. The attendant simply looked at them and said "kategi nahi"!
Even though this is not a good time to visit forts in Rajasthan, I couldn't skip the massive Chittorgarh fort. The largest in India. There is the Padmini palace, Vijay minar but the best part is the chance to drive through the 13 km fort premises on top of a hill!
Tripometer 550 Kms
A dream drive and first glimpse of the Rann
I had a hard time getting up and by the time I was off it was 7:30 am. The drive from Chittor to Udaipur is a driver's drive. Around 100 km of mostly traffic-less scenic route, that is until you start approaching the city. The bypass is a two lane nightmare going through what looked like an industrial area. I was stuck there for close to 40 mins at speeds below 20 kmph. I was irritated, but then the highway suddenly opened up into four lanes of bliss through the Aravalis for the next 200 odd kms. This was straight out of Need For Speed - I was clocking 100 kmph plus on the hills. I fell in love with Rajasthan roads.
I entered Gujarat by around 1130 and The famed Gujarat roads disappointed me. Maybe it was too much expectation but I found them a tad below the last stretch I had zipped through in Rajasthan. The Ahmedabad bypass was great but I could not move fast enough due to big city traffic leaking out. Some pretty shabby highways later I hit NH17 a four lane piece of art to take me to Dhrangadhra and eventually to the ecocamp run by the renowned local conservationist Devjibhai kaka. The final 45 kms took me through the most remote parts of Gujarat. Villages that survive on salt making from the salt pans of the Rann. When I travel I tend to compare. Here I was comparing if the economically weaker parts of Gujarat were any better than similar parts of UP, MP or Haryana that I had seen. It did not seem so.
In the evening Devjibhai took me into the desert as a teaser. We did our quick tour of Rann and it's salt pans . It's hard to describe. There's something other-worldly about this place.The salt gives an impression of snow in the middle of the desert and as you move away from the pans suddenly you're in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing but you and cracked earth in every direction. Apparently you can drive for miles on end and not spot anyone or anything. It's also one of the few places where you feel e earth is round. Stop Amy where and you feel you're I'm the middle of a vast circular expanse at the edge of Which you'll fall off the face of earth. The little Rann btw is a unique Ecosystem - a desert in the summer, gets flooded by rain and seawater to become a lake in the monsoons and a bird sanctuary in the winters.The Agarias are the local community involved in salt making. They're being increasingly driven out since this is a protected area, the only place where the asiatic wild ass remains. However, the local say there is no conflict and that the wild ass population has only been increasing.
Devjibhai gave me some home work. Lots to read on the little Rann before we make or formal trips into the desert. April is close to the hottest part of the year here. So we planned evening and early morning visits to the desert for the next day. Time to get baked!
Tripometer: 1200 Kms
Wandering inside the Little Rann
We started the safari early at 6:30 AM. This was summer and we wanted to be back before 12 after which the sun would fry anything in sight. We planned the drive to be a straight drive of 150 kms through the middle of the desert.
There is salt everywhere. You can smell it. Not me of course, I have a blocked nose. I can taste it though. There no escaping salt here. We stared the trip with a short stop at a salt pan. There were Agarias at work. Salt making is tough business - manual work in extreme heat. Legend has it that even the funeral pyre doesn't burn the feet of an Agaria, hardened as they've been by years of tapping salt pans bare feet. You wonder whether this can be mechanised, but any mechanisation cannot be cheaper than the cost of labor which at times is less than one percent of the retail price of salt. Next we drove to no-where, and the farther we went, every time we stopped it seemed we're at the exact same spot as before. Driving here solo is not possible. You'll get lost in minutes. As we kept driving through nothingness I hit five sights that will stay with me forever.
A boat in the middle of the desert. How is that possible? It is because this place turns into a lake in monsoons and a lot of fishing trades place in hand powered boats. A boat in the middle of a lake. Only there is no lake. It's a mirage. There were also trucks driving through this lake. By noon there is a mirage one km from wherever you are. I could have sworn these were real lakes.
Flamingoes I'm the middle of the desert. What! In summer? Devjibhai kaka is a seasoned Rann expert. He know that one place in the desert where water hadn't dried. As I went close to the water body, to click a few pictures, my feet went half a feet into the ground in the muddy borders waters bordering the pond.
An accident in the middle of the desert. How is that possible in such a wide expanse. Apparently dust cyclone reduce visibility to zero. If you're driving when one of these is going on, anything can happen.
A white sand desert patch in the middle of the desert. This is where salinity is extreme and salt remains on the surface. It's what the white desert in the great Rann of Kutch would look like.
Sun setting over the Rann.
Another thing that i would never forget : My hair turning spiky after I washed them with salt water.
Tripometer : No change, I was in Devjibhai's jeep
Off to Udaipur
This was the drive back. Always less exciting than the one coming in. I took off early after an early Gujju meal and headed off to Ahmedabad and beyond. I thought I was going to Delhi but a cop who stopped me for booze check said that I was heading in the direction of Mumbai. Thank God he stopped me!! On a side note, I keep getting stopped for booze checks in Gujarat. There must be something about how I look. Or may be its the Haryana number plate.
The rest of the drive was uneventful except the highway lunch soaked in oil. I reached Udaipur around 4 and landed at Anand Palace. An RTDC property facing the Fatehsagar lake and right next to The Lalit. The government knows how to keep the best locations for itself. After a quick rest, I walked around the lake and rested my soles. I ordered Chicken curry that night. The moment I was done, I knew something was wrong. I felt a tingling sensation in my throat.
Tripometer: 1800 Kms
Dragging myself home
The sensation had turned into a clear and present throat monster by the time I woke up. The choice was resting and hoping to get better the next day or drive 600 odd kms to Delhi. I chose the latter. This was the toughest drive that I have ever done, with the fever building up. With the body failing, it was sheer desire to rest on my own bed that carried me home
Tripometer: 2300 Kms