Two States: Of Art and Mind
Photos: Sankar Sridhar
It was a particularly warm Tuesday night and the stillness in the air was palpable. To the west, the faint orange glow of sunset was still visible, while in the east, the full moon had just risen on the horizon. There was silence all around in the vast open lake bed on one edge of the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, as the three of us and our host-cum-guide restlessly looked at our watches waiting for the moon to gain height. (Scroll down for video)
Thirty-six hours into our road trip and the black Range Rover Sport HSE SDV6 we had driven down for this shoot, looked none the worse for the wear basking in the moonlight after having transported us nearly a 1,000 km overnight and endured a full day’s shooting in scorching 40 degree heat. Also read: 2014 Range Rover Sport Road Test!
The 5-day, 4,000 km plan
We had picked up this black beauty from Jaipur the previous evening. Award-winning photographer Sankar Sridhar and I had driven down from Delhi to Jaipur to pick up this SUV to keep our date with the full moon, while Devdath Narayan, who we later nicknamed “Highway Prince” because of his ability to endure long hours behind the steering on pan-India trips, flew down from Bangalore to join us on what was to become a five-day, 4,000 km road trip across the western fringes of India.
Sridhar had managed to catch a few comfortable naps in the climate-controlled confines of the SUV during our overnight trip from Jaipur to Bhuj, while Dev and I had barely a few winks as we took turns at the wheel of the Range Rover Sport. The way this SUV can munch up miles effortlessly is quite an experience.
We left Jaipur at 6pm on Monday, stopping to fill the SUV’s 80-litre tank to the brim just as we reached the Jaipur-Kishengarh expressway. Dev took the first leg and we set out at a comfortable pace on the four-lane expressway that was choc-full with trucks of all sizes. As the night set in, we also ran into some showers on the way, but that didn’t really slow our pace.
The 3-litre, six-cylinder diesel in the Range Rover Sport was barely audible as the 8-speed automatic transmission kept it ticking over at a relaxed pace at speeds of over 100 kmph. In a couple of hours we pulled in to a dabha just after Bhilwara, and parked this Rs. 1.5 crore SUV among a crowd of 18-wheelers. As you step out of the vehicle, you notice the vanity it has, for projected from a hidden light source on to the ground below your feet are the word’s Range Rover.
After a standard trucker’s meal, we set off for Udaipur, our next waypoint. I was now at the wheel of the Range Rover Sport and found it a breeze to drive with great all-round visibility. In a couple of hours, we were bypassing Udaipur and headed towards Abu road, and it’s somewhere after this point that one enters Gujarat.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
The roads so far were really good and that allowed us to keep a pretty good pace. We stopped for fuel once more just before entering Gujarat, and were pleasantly surprised to see that the Range Rover Sport was giving us close to 11 kmpl even though we were travelling at pretty good speeds. Not bad for a 3-litre, V6 diesel, I’d say. Dev took over once again past midnight as we continued our journey. Past the Gujarat border and on to Palanpur, the roads get even better. There are a fair number of toll booths along the way, but with the kind of roads we found ourselves driving on, we really didn’t mind paying up.
As dawn broke, we found ourselves driving past the city of Bhuj to some picturesque areas Sridhar had handpicked for our shoot.
We just about had enough time to freshen up and wolf down some breakfast, before we set out to catch the morning light on the fringes of the Rann of Kutch. We had travelled nearly a 1,000 km from Jaipur to Bhuj, but we didn’t feel one bit tired. In fact, we still had enough energy left after shooting for 3 hours to give the Range Rover a clean-up for its afternoon shoot. While the mid-day sun shone bright, we quickly caught a nap, heading out around 3pm for more shooting.
It was here that we figured out why all British imports are not necessarily good. While the Range Rover Sport, a British marque kept us really comfortable, what was literally a thorn in our sides was another British import, the Prosopis shrub also known as Kabuli Kikar in Hindi and gando baval in Gujarati. This shrub was imported by the British to provide firewood to locals in the highly saline and arid regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan, and it has now taken over the area completely, spreading unhindered like a weed. It was one thorny outgrowth of this shrub that took the wind out of one of the Range Rover Sport’s Pirelli Scorpion tyres!
Now changing a Range Rover Sport tyre in 40 degree heat is quite something. As we jacked up the SUV, I couldn’t help notice a couple of vultures circling overhead ominously. Changing the tyre too required a phone call to the dealer in Jaipur, as the special key for the lock-nut on the alloy wheel was not easily traceable, but we finally found it after a few anxious moments.
Spare wheel in place, we set out to chase a few camels in the sunset and then settled down for the full moon, with just bottles of water and camera tripods for company. Once we’d had enough of the moonlight, we decided to head home. And again a few anxious moments.
In the desert, or the Rann, it’s important to keep your compass bearings. Once the sun goes down, it’s tough to see the tracks you followed. We kept bearing South West from the Rann after wandering around in circles for a few minutes, spotting the lights of a couple of villages in the distance and headed for them. Once we neared the villages, we easily managed to retrace our path for us. Phew!
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
A good night’s rest and the next morning saw us heading out before sunrise for another couple of spots in the vicinity for more pictures and some lessons in geology. And then once the sun got too hot to handle, we headed off in an easterly direction towards Rann Riders Resort in Dasada, on the fringes of the Little Rann, a distance of about 350 km. The drive, needless to say, was effortless, with just a quick break to re-fuel. Four-zone climate control quickly froze the interiors, and kept our drinking water cool in the chiller between the front seats.
We had heard a lot about Rann Riders on the Internet and hence booked ourselves into the place. The key attraction was that the resort boasted of Marwari horses, which we thought would look great pictured next to the Range Rover Sport. But we were mighty disappointed. The promised horses weren’t available. And to add to that, the rooms were poorly kept, with no running water available when needed, and the food was pretty average, even though this was the most expensive stay on our entire road trip! Quite a rip-off.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
As dawn broke, we still had hope as we set out to the Little Rann. The Little Rann was playing host to a flock of migratory flamingos, and we were hoping to catch them and their pink plumage in the morning light. We were in luck!
With the Terrain-Response 4×4 system in the Range Rover Sport working as intended we headed off towards a receding lake bed, where we could see a huge a huge flock of flamingos. Getting there though needed keen observation of the ground’s surface, as the wet clay soil can suck in a 2-tonne SUV in seconds. One needs to stick to the dry surfaces to stay out of the sticky stuff. And there are small rivulets to cross, which needs a bit of momentum, else it can bog the vehicle down. Of course, the Range Rover Sport didn’t disappoint and got us to within striking distance of the flamingos for some good pictures.
Next we came across some salt pans, where locals were busy producing salt, using the age-old evaporation method. About 20% of the salt sold in India comes from here. April is about the end of the salt season, which begins in October, after monsoon flood water recede from the Rann.
We then headed back to Dasada, stopping en-route to pressure wash the clay-covered Range Rover Sport, which looked more like one of the local water buffaloes after a mud bath. In the evening we headed out to a different part of the Little Rann to get the sunset and some mirages and to see if we could get lucky with some wild asses.
And yes, luck was on our side. While a better part of the evening was spent just driving through the vastness of the Rann and photographing mirages, we finally managed to catch sight of a young herd of about 5-6 wild asses. The locals told us that since food was scarce most wild asses had moved to the fields. Just was we had all but given up hope of spotting a herd, we found this one herd on the edge of the Little Rann ambling towards us. That’s where the Range Rover Sport’s huge sun-roof really came into good use.
The wild asses which were merrily trotting along towards scrub jungle on the edge of the Rann, stopped in their tracks, curiously sizing up the Range Rover Sport, with a human head peering out of the sun-roof as though it were some kind of buffalo. We crept forward slightly as they moved on trotting parallel to the vehicle and then breaking into a run. That’s when we figured that the natural terrain response that the wild asses have easily humbles the 4×4 Terrain Response that the Range Rover Sport has. Clocking nearly 60 kmph the wild asses got into a single file, put on an additional burst of speed, cut in front of the vehicle in a smooth sweeping arc and dashed into the scrub jungle, probably giving themselves high fives for beating the mechanised buffalo with a human head. It was indeed a treat!
Satisfied, we headed back to the resort, freshened up, had dinner and hit the road again, this time our destination was Rapar, on the edge of the Great Rann of Kutch. The distance of about 200 km to Rapar from Dasada took just about 2.5 hours and we checked into Suvidha Guest House in the centre of town at about 11 pm.
Friday, April 18, 2014
Early Friday morning we headed off towards Dholavira, which is the last town on this side of the Great Rann of Kutch, further north of which is the border with Pakistan. The Great Rann is still largely wet and the early morning dew makes the surface even trickier. The beauty of the Great Rann is the vast expanse of what appears to be white, salt-encrusted top-soil. Our plan was to get our black beauty pictured atop this white expanse. However, all that’s white is not necessarily salt. It is mainly a mirage!
We found out the hard way, driving across a large expanse of the Rann towards the “white” Rann, which kept going further and further away as we chased it. However, after a few kilometres of driving inside the Rann, we turned back because the soil was getting sticky and wet, and venturing further would be suicidal (and not just because we were closing in on an International border!).
While we were mulling about how Amitabh Bachchan in an ad for Gujarat manages to show sparkling white soil on the Rann, our local guide spilled the beans on what actually took place. Apparently 32 tractor-loads of salt were shipped to an area of the Rann and spread out for that video! Don’t believe everything you see on TV. The Rann does actually turn white, but that’s just after the rains, when the salt is left behind. It’s usually too wet to drive on though.
After lunch, we set forth with an initial plan of reaching Barmer in Rajasthan, to get some good pictures with sand dunes and windmills the next morning. However, thanks to the brilliant cruising abilities of the Range Rover Sport, we were in Barmer just after sunset and decided to push on to Jaisalmer instead, a distance of about 170 km more, which took less than 2 hours given the brilliant bit of tarmac we got. We reached Jaisalmer in time for dinner and checked into the RTDC Moomal hotel.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Before sunrise on Saturday, we headed out to the outskirts of Jaisalmer, a city which is encircled by huge wind farms for some pictures. We caught the sunrise at Badda Bagh, with the Range Rover Sport posing against the majestic cenotaphs of former royals.
After a quick breakfast we headed out to recce Sam Sand dunes and the Desert National Park taking the road from Sam to Khuri in search of some good locations to shoot. En route we did manage to try out the SUV’s 4×4 system quite a bit, venturing over a few dunes for some pictures. Once it got too hot we returned to Jaisalmer for lunch and then came back to Sam to catch the sunset with the Range Rover Sport on the dunes. Of course, we weren’t the only ones and just as it neared sunset time, the place was crawling with tourists, leading us to beat a hasty retreat… all the way to New Delhi.
Tanking up in Jaisalmer, we got on the road heading toward Delhi at 8pm, with me taking the first stint behind the wheel of what would be a near 900 km road trip that should have taken over 14 hours. At 11 pm we stopped just outside Jodhpur for dinner, already cutting our journey time by over an hour thanks to effective use of cruise control and brilliant roads. At 4 am we were in Jaipur for our second fuel stop with Dev driving the better part of the night in a robotic manner, while I caught a nap in the comfortable rear seat. We swapped driving duties again and left Jaipur at 4.45 am and reached South Delhi at 8 am on Sunday morning, with the Range Rover Sport making light work of the dreaded NH8 that fortunately had relatively low traffic that morning.
The odometer on the Range Rover Sport read just a few km short of 4,000 km. And we didn’t feel the journey at all, despite covering hundreds of kilometres every day! You really can’t put a price tag to the priceless memories this chilled apartment on wheels gave us over those five days. It took us above and beyond what we expected, just as its tagline promises.
The Range Rover Sport HSE SDV6 comes with a six-cylinder diesel engine that puts out 292PS of power and 600 Nm of torque with an intelligent 4×4 system and eight-speed automatic transmission. The Terrain Response system has four settings – General; Grass, gravel and snow; Mud and ruts; and Sand. These settings, coupled with the adjustable ride height, can take the vehicle virtually anywhere, while its occupants are ensconced in luxury.