How I almost got stranded in the Great Rann of Kutch White Desert
I spent nearly a month in India and was on the tail end of my journey when I almost got stranded in a very remote part of the country called Rann of Kutch, also known as the White Desert. The Great Rann of Kutch is a seasonal destination only open for a few months of the year. It’s a fascinating salt marsh located in Gujarat, India near the Pakistani border. The area attracts thousands of visitors each year to see the harsh, yet breathtaking white barren salty earth against the bright blue skies (Only about 20% of the visitors are foreigners, so it’s still fairly unknown). The white desert landscape reveals itself when the Rann of Kutch Lake recedes in the winter months, leaving behind several inches of white salt as far as the eye can see.
How I came to be in Rann of Kutch
I had been invited to Rann of Kutch to speak at a small conference on travel photography. It was a great honor to be invited as the focus of the event was to celebrate photographers and photography of India. I was the only Westerner in attendance. I was however in the company of several friends and fellow travel bloggers, one of whom I had traveled with from Delhi. On our last day in Rann of Kutch we had gone on a tour of a local village before being dropped off at the very small regional airport.
During my time in India I took several flights around the country. While I go by Mike, my legal name is Michael. I have had occasion where flights have been mistakenly booked under Mike vs. Michael. My flight to Rann of Kutch and back to Delhi was one such flight. I had no problems getting to Kutch and was able to present a credit card and my business card showing the name “Mike,” and was able to pass through security and board the plane just fine. As a matter of fact, I had another flight within India in which I went through this process.
In India, there is security personnel even before you enter the airport, this person is a gatekeeper who checks boarding passes and passports before entering. In Rann of Kutch, the security person decided that rules were rules and that under his watch there was no way I was getting through. I was told that I would need to see airline personnel to attend to the matter. I went over to the Jet Airways window to see if they could reissue my boarding pass so I could get past security, something I had done on a previous flight. The person behind the window told me she could not do that. After some discussion I asked to see a supervisor. That person also told me there was nothing they could do. They offered me no solutions. I finally asked what I needed to do to get on that flight (only 3 flights per week) and they said the only thing that could be done was for me to purchase a new ticket. I said fine. I was about to purchase the new ticket when they told me the price was 36,000INR (over $550). Mind you, my round trip flight was just over $100.
At this point my Indian friend Archana with Travel See Write piped in with the representatives behind the window. The conversation got very heated. The situation was getting out of hand and I actually had to physically restrain my friend as she was so angry. Archana felt a little protective of me as I was a visitor in her country, and, a bit responsible for the mishap as she was the one coordinating with conference officials since we were flying from the same city on the same day. I, too, was angry, but was trying to keep my cool as I knew they could refuse to let us board the flight altogether. This was a remote part of India and the airport was about an hour from the White Rann Resort. I really did not want to be stranded here for a couple more days.
The situation was just ridiculous. By this point I had presented several pieces of identification, such as my press passes, that showed that I go by the name of Mike. We even showed them the website for the Rann of Kutch photography conference at which I was a speaker and where my name was prominently displayed with a photo. The Jet Airways representatives acted like robots, unable to critically think through the situation and do the right thing.
A person in a military uniform approached us. He clearly looked like a high ranking individual. He was very calm and had a soothing manor about himself. We soon learned he was the person in charge of airport security. He was very nice to us and clearly saw that the airline was not going to resolve the situation, so he took matters into his own hands and led us past the gatekeeper. He had one of his representatives take a close look at my documents and then asked my friend to write a quick note vouching for me and accepting all responsibility if I did anything unruly on the flight.
We were the very last people on the flight and it seemed as though they were actually holding the plane for us. As soon as we boarded from the tarmac, the airplane doors quickly shut and we were off. A sigh of relief waft over us.
Visiting Ran of Kutch
There are many places to stay in Rann of Kutch, most are considered “tent cities,” as large glamping canvas tents are erected at the start of the season and dismantled at the end. These tents are considered luxurious, and by Indian standards, they are. Westerners will be comfortable enough, but the accommodations are far from “luxurious” when it comes to Western standards. The tents are spacious and have a private bathroom. Most important, they have air conditioning. I visited Rann of Kutch toward the end of the season in mid-February (season runs December through February) and it was quite pleasant at night. The days could be a bit warm, but if there were a breeze, it was tolerable, even lovely at times (28c/82f during the day, 22c/72f at night). In the summer, Rann of Kutch is one of the hottest places in India, with temperatures often a blistering 50c/120 degrees Fahrenheit.
I stayed at a place called White Rann Resort, which is a large compound housing some 100 tents and a few dozen traditional Bhungas, which are single cylindrical structures/huts that reflect the life in the Kutch desert. These Bhungas echo the vibrant Kutch traditions with its outer walls painted in an earth-tone mud color, while inner walls are adorned with Kutchi paintings. Three meals a day are provided in the dining hall and the accommodation packages provide daily transportation to the Rann of Kutch viewing area. Unfortunately, the white desert is not near the accommodations and requires about a 10 minute bus ride. During the short journey the bus goes through two security check points. Apparently the proximity to Pakistan requires a certain level of vigilance.
Staying at White Rann Resort
- There are multi-day packages that include food, transportation to/from airport and to/from the White Desert viewing area. Prices run about $100 USD per day (all-inclusive)
- Food is pretty good and plentiful. Service is great.
- Fantastic local entertainment is provided on a high-tech stage.
- No alcohol is served or available, Gujarat is a dry state.
- Tents are spacious and come with two single beds, a small desk, and indoor/outdoor style carpet. Bathroom is western style with a shower. Very clean, but bed/linens/pillows/towels are very modest.
- There is wi-fi, but it’s not very fast or consistent. There is also 3G cell service, but that too is not always reliable in this area.
Tips on Photographing and Visiting Rann of Kutch
- I found the light at sunrise to be the best. While the sunset is nice, the amber glow diminishes the whiteness of the salt.
- Consider visiting early in the season verses later. I think toward the end of the season, the salt is not as white with all the visitors walking on the surface.
- Instagramers will want to think through the logistics of their photos in advance. You won’t have much time at the White Desert so you’ll want to arrive each time ready to go. I had the grand idea of taking photos with dozens of colorful balloons, but that didn’t work out so well. I had some young men at the resort blow them up for me, but the heat on the bus caused them to expand and nearly every one popped before arriving. While I did stay in a tent, I did get to go into one of the Bhungas. They have the same setup as the tents, but are a real structure, so I imagine they are more private with regards to sound.
- Closest train station and airport to Kutch is in Bhuj (Gujarat, India). The drive to the White Desert resort area is about 85km or 1.5 hours, so make sure you’ve gone to the bathroom at the airport.
- If you need lodging in Bhuj, the Click Hotel is pretty nice. They have a good restaurant too!
While the incident illustrated above was a very stressful end to my time in Rann of Kutch, it did not diminish the experience to this unique and incredible place. Plus, it’s these types of travel experiences that make the best stories. If you’ve ever been to Rann of Kutch, I’d love to hear about your experience. Or, if you have any questions about visiting this White Desert, please leave a comment below.