Driving through the desert is always a surreal experience. There are wide expanses of flat land that stretch to the horizon. You tend to innately question how life continues to survive in this severely parched landscape. Adventure beckoned as we decided to set out on a trip to the fringes of human civilisation. We decided to go explore an island in the centre of the Great Rann of Kutch, known as Khadir Bet. Within it, lies Dholavira, a small village where the ruins of an ancient Harappan city remained buried beneath the surface for years, but was excavated from 1990 onwards. This was the first time anyone from Autocar was to visit this place. We knew that this landscape would be harsh. And so, we needed a sturdy vehicle that would help us combat these conditions. After all, we hadn’t had years to adapt to living comfortably in this sort of place.
The adventure begins
An early morning flight had us arrive at the Defence airport in Bhuj, Gujarat. After collecting our luggage, we proceeded towards the exit gates with a sense of excitement that stems from knowing that an adventure lies ahead. There in the parking lot, stood a sparkling Honda BR-V. The morning rays of the sun glistened against its well-chiselled contours. The day was certainly off to a good start and we were now itching to get on the road. We managed to easily fit in our luggage for four people in the boot, even with the last row of seats up.
Clutch-in, thumb on the starter button and you could feel the 1.5-litre i-DTEC engine gently rumble to life. After slotting it into first gear, we were finally ready to get this show on the road. We had about 220-odd kilometres to cover before we reached Dholavira. What lay ahead of us were stretches of almost arrow-straight tarmac that shimmered with mirages all the way through. Driving through this landscape is an almost meditative experience; you tend to go into auto-pilot mode after a little while. The BR-V’s 100hp on tap ensured we were moving slightly faster than the other cars around us. But the precise handling made these slightly higher speeds seem completely natural; it didn’t feel like the car was being pushed or stressed at any point. With such long stretches of straight road, random rogue potholes just spring up on you without warning. Luckily, the suspension soaked up all these bumps without much drama.
Destination set. Time to buckle up and get started with this new and exciting adventure.
We eventually made our way to Rapar, a small town on the way to Dholavira that would be the last point where we could actually stock up on stuff, aside from the bare essentials. As we stepped out of the car, the heat suddenly hit us like a wall; this is not something we were entirely used to. Inside the air-conditioned cocoon of the BR-V’s cabin, we had been unaware of the harsh conditions outside. After a nice vegetarian meal in the desert heat, we were ready to be on our way again. The one thing we all agreed on was the exquisite flavours of this vegetarian food; never mind the spices that lashed our tongues and made us even thirstier. Of course, after a good meal, everyone tends to get a bit groggy. So, we decided to put on some music to keep the well-fed lull at bay. Tunes ablaze, we were all set for the
The great white expanse
As we got further down the road, the anticipation of actually seeing the salt flats started to set in. The maps revealed we were actually travelling parallel to the Rann, about 15km away. A few more kilometres of arrow- straight highway and again, it was the music that kept us awake. All of a sudden, the foliage on either side of the road vanished and all we could see was the massive expanse of the salt flats that made the single road ahead of us seem miniscule. We were finally in the middle of the Great Rann of Kutch.
It was an absolutely humbling experience and definitely warranted a closer inspection. So, we pulled over to the side of the road, armed ourselves with cameras and stepped out of the car. It was a searing forty-one degrees outside. The vast quantities of salt around us made the air heavy and it was instantly a bit harder to breathe. But all of this seemed irrelevant as we absorbed the magnificence of the great white expanse that lay before us. It was beyond what any of us could imagine or expected, for that matter; the horizon simply vanished into a simmering haze. Tell-tale signs of moisture in the ground told us that this was actually a waterbody at some point.
Mucking around in the Rann is a surreal experience. You’re surrounded by endless stretches of salt flats.
The salt flats, however, seemed to be rather inviting; we just had to get the car down there. So, after going a few kilometres down the road, we crossed onto the Khadir Bet island and asked a few locals for directions to get on the salt flats. They pointed us in the right direction and warned us that there would be some rough roads on the way. We were more than happy to see what the BR-V was capable of. As we trundled along the rocky dirt road, we crossed a few shepherds with their sheep and were reminded of how well people have adapted to living in this part of the world. We finally hit the Rann and after hours of not-so-interesting tarmac, it was time for some fun. Who wouldn’t want to go flat-out when there wasn’t a single obstacle in sight? With pedal to the metal, the BR-V just blistered through, large trails of dust, salt and mud flying up behind us. The speedo needle comfortably nudged on triple digits without a hint of trouble. As we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, a lone wild ass could be seen sprinting away in the distance. Even though this was the animal’s natural habitat, it wasn’t really clear why or where the it was running off to; there was absolutely nothing around. After a few minutes of running, it came to a halt and decided that watching us seemed to be a tad more entertaining. We decided to reward the animal’s attention with some more drifting and throwing up dirt with the BR-V. After that, we continued on our way to Dholavira.
Transported back in time
The little village of Dholavira contains the ruins of an ancient city belonging to the Harappancivilisation. I’m no great fan of history, but the more I heard of this site, the more intrigued I became. This was a planned city with water collection and drainage systems and was laid out in the shape of aarallelogram. It bore a stark resemblance to the other cities in the Indus Valley civilisation, some of which are located over 2,000km away. As we got to the excavation site, we were greeted by our guide – a jolly old man with a brilliant moustache and thick-rimmed dark glasses. As he guided us towards the ruins, I was overcome with this sense of wonder.
It’s not every day you come across a city that’s over 5,000 years old! It just reminds you of the roots of our own cities; where they came from and what they are today.
The remains of ancient wells in the citadel courtyard
As we crossed over a small bridge to the ancient city, the guide explained to us that the city was once flanked by two seasonal streams named Mansar and Manhar. It seemed like the settlers knew what they were doing when they picked this location. The marvellous part was how they utilised these water bodies to survive in this part of the world. They had essentially converted this little slice of land in the middle of the desert into a paradise. Before entering through the eastern gate of the city, there are two water reservoirs for collecting and storing water. The excavations reveal how well they were designed; the walls of the reservoirs are made of cut stones that were held together by mud. Over the years, the mud eventually washed away so, the Archaeological Survey of India had replaced it with limestone plaster. Our guide informed us that these stones were cut with sharpened stones and copper tools. This civilisation existed during the copper ages and it was fascinating to find bits of unrefined copper among the ruins even today. Well, archaeologist aspirations aside, it was time to climb up and into the actual city.
As we slowly progressed to the higher levels, we noticed small canals that were integrated into the walls. These canals were actually a part of an intricate system that ensured that the residents of this city had a constant supply of water all year round. This system was so efficiently designed that modern city planners have conducted extensive research on these ancient cities. We entered the citadel through the eastern gate and were greeted with stone bases of the pillars that once stood there. These stones were cut so precisely it was hard to imagine that all this was done without the help of complex machines. As we proceeded into the city, our guide showed us even more water storage systems and even larger canals that would have been located in the upper reaches of the city. He showed us the courtyard of the kings and queens that was filled with pillars that once held up ceilings, to shield them from the intense heat. We then made our way to the northern gate of the citadel which was massive in comparison to the eastern one. It once held up a large slab of rock, three metres wide, that bore the inscriptions of the Indus Valley Civilisation’s ancient language.
Towards the borderlands
However fascinating this was all turning out to be, the heat was still wearing us down steadily and I was starting to crave the comfort of a car again. This time, I decided to have a seat in the middle row so I could relax a little and let someone else drive. Needless to say, after a few minutes, I had dozed off because of the wonderfully cool air the AC vents directed at me. When I woke up next, I was informed that we had just done another off-road stretch and were now at the fossil park on the northern edge of the island. Well, the BR-V had managed to glide over it somehow. Credit to the suspension because I did manage to sleep through all of it.
This was a different kind of fossil park, though. It didn’t contain the remains of dinosaurs as I had imagined. It contained the fossils of ancient trees that were millions of years old. The Harappan civilisation we were just at seemed young in comparison. We were informed that all those large boulders that littered the landscape were actually all tree fossils. It’s hard to imagine how years of weathering transformed these trees into something that not even closely resembles a tree. It got me wondering if even the oddly shaped rocks we kept finding scattered about the place were actually fossils as well.
It’s hard to imagine that a few 100 million years ago, this fossil was actually a part of an ancient tree.
As I stared blankly into the seemingly endless horizon, I suddenly realised that we were actually staring into Pakistan! Just beyond all that haze lay our neighbouring country; just about 25-30km away, to be precise. It seems eerily inviting, like it wants you to come have a closer look and find out what it actually looks like. But we were also aware of the Border Security Force officers hidden within the foliage; well-armed and aware of any activity in the area. All plans of frontier exploration were firmly discarded as we weren’t too keen on being considered illegal immigrants to Pakistan.
Back to reality
The sun was beginning to set and it was time to wrap up the day and head back to Bhuj. This was all a very surreal experience, to say the least. From the harsh environment, to the seemingly untouched landscape, it was eye-opening to actually see and begin to comprehend the amount of changes our planet has been through. We were fortunate enough to reach these places because of the versatility of the Honda BR-V; it seemed to handle all these situations much better than we did. With nary a whimper, it got us to the outer reaches of civilisation and even transported us to the remnants of a 5,000 year old one. Just as the Harappan city we just visited was an oasis for the people of that time, the Honda BR-V was our oasis during this whole journey. Well, now that we know how much fun it is, maybe we need to find some more fascinating remote places just like this one.