My flight to Bhuj from Mumbai is delayed by at least half an hour. This means that I am waiting at this terminal 1B of Mumbai's domestic airport, for almost 4 hours. Earlier I had left my home town Pune around 8.30 in the morning. For commuting to Mumbai, I had taken a state transport bus service, named as 'Shivneri.' This service is fairly punctual and extremely comfortable, and on any day, I would recommend it. The Bus had dropped me just opposite the airport terminal and I had no problems at all in reaching the airport. The waiting hall at terminal 1B, is quite huge and I kill time looking at the wares displayed in number of shops and a cafeteria, provided for the convenience of the passengers. The flight is finally announced and after some usual confusion, I manage to reach the aircraft. The aircraft is quite full and since this particular flight is designated as low cost, airline does not serve anything free, except for drinking water.
A journey to Kutch and Kathiwar can be truly said to be a tryst with history of Indian sub continent. Almost on every step, a visitor comes across, period markers on a time scale from prehistoric periods around 3500 BCE to years of India's independence struggle in twentieth century, and subsequent years of building modern industrialized India of later years. The region is blessed with such wide range of landscapes on a mega scale, that one feels amazed at the wondrous scenarios produced by mother nature.
The time is well past 5 in the evening, as our plane lands at Bhuj. The airport is quite huge and I see only one Indian air force MI 17 Helicopter standing on the tarmac. Even the arrival hall is quite large, considering the fact that only a couple of flights land here or take off from here, throughout the day. Since I had checked in very early, as expected, my bags arrive on the baggage belt after considerable delay. By the time I come out of the terminal, most of the people have already left. Very few vehicles can be seen now parked in the parking zone. Luckily, I get a taxi rather easily, which does not appear to be a good sign at all, because that means that I am going to get fleeced. In spite of that feeling, I take the taxi, because prospects of getting stranded at the airport unnerve me. The airport is just 3 KM from my hotel and I reach there within 10 minutes. My hunch, proves absolutely correct as the taxi driver claims Rs. 500 or US$ 10 for that distance from me. Reluctantly I pay the amount and walk to my room.
Later I decide to take a walk through the crowded street, which leads to the 'Hamisar lake.' This lake is the central point of this town and a short walk of about 15 minutes takes me there. To my surprise, there is almost no water in the lake. Apparently, rains have been very scanty this year and the lake has not been filled at all. The roads are crowded with unruly and undisciplined vehicular traffic. There are no footpaths and heaps of garbage lie everywhere. My first impressions of Bhuj are not exactly favourable. I return to the hotel.
I have planned to check out of the hotel at 7.30 AM to reach the spot near Bhuj railway station, where welcome center is supposed to have been erected by the organizers of the Rann or the desert camp, my destination for next couple of days. I find much to my resentment that the hotel room service is rather slow and it takes ages to get a cup of tea. I somehow manage to check out of the hotel only around 8 A.M. And reach the welcome center at Bhuj railway station by quarter past eight. I am all wrapped up in warm clothing as the weather is bitterly cold with biting morning breeze.
The scene at the welcome center is rather uninspiring with number of buses standing in haphazard fashion and heaps of baggage lying everywhere. I manage to enter a tent with a welcome sign and go to a counter. To my complete surprise, the staff at the counter, extremely courteous and helping, sees my papers and allots a tent to me and asks me to tag all my luggage pieces with that tent number with paper tags provided by him. He tells me to go outside, give the luggage to one of the bus attendants and get on board of the same bus. I come out and immediately I find a bus waiting for passengers. Within next 10 minutes our bus leaves for Dhordo, approximately 80 Km northwest of Bhuj. We take highway 45 going in northerly direction and pass the Bhuj airport on way. I can see number of jet fighters in their hangers with covers fully on. The landscape outside is quite unusual with patches of waste land and blackish green fields intermixed. I can even see small ponds, which I believe was the result of earlier week's rains. The fields mostly have standing crops of 'Erandi' or castor plant, Ricinus communis (Euphorbiaceae). The seeds yield castor oil, widely used in many applications such as cosmetics and lubricants. Between the field, there are large patches of wastelands with soil looking whitish because of the ground salts. Only 'Babhul' or Gum Arabic shrubs can grow here. As we proceed north, more wastelands appear on our sides with scattered fields seen only near about villages. Villages have round shaped houses with terracotta tiled conic roofs. Occasionally, I can also see some thatched roofs also of conic shape. These are known locally as 'Bhunga” and apparently can stand the earthquakes and storms rather well.
After travelling about an hour, we stop at a road side village known as 'Bhirandiyarni.” We now enter from here the 'Banni' or grasslands of Kutch. We leave the highway and turn left on a small single lane road. On both sides, there are forests of Babhul or Gum Arabic trees with grasses, which have all dried up by now. Kutch area produces large quantities of cow and buffalo milk, and I can see the reason as large number of cattle appear grazing on the grass lands. In another half an hour, bus comes to a halt. We have arrived.
The desert camp is a huge affair with hundreds of tents having all modern facilities, dining hall, recreation areas, a strip mall for shopping and an amphitheater. They even have WiFi in the tents. I go through procedural formalities like registration and receive my camp ID, food coupons and then walk leisurely to my tent. Surprisingly, my baggage has already reached my tent. I am advised to have my breakfast quickly as it is served only up to 10 AM. All the meals are served piping hot, in huge air conditioned dining halls. I have my breakfast of purely Gujarati food like Poha, Jalebi and Gathiya served with sweet spicy tea.
I have free time now, up to Lunch time. After that, we would be taken on a tour to see village craftsman’s fabric embroidery. I decide to spend my time in the shopping mall, buy a few odd things and return to my tent.
I however end spending well over 2 hours in the strip mall, just amazed with colours and designs of the fabrics and beautiful workmanship of other artifacts.
I return to my tent. All tents are very well equipped with two beds, a side table and a table with an air heater, water heating kettle, chairs and a modern washroom. I relax a little, have my lunch, again an all Gujarati food affair, and get ready to reach the bus parking area before 2 PM.
(To be concluded)
4 February 2013