I don’t have anything against pigs but… a pig safari? That just sounded weird.
I’m going to divulge a secret, a secret that, by now, has made me the butt of many jokes (no pun intended). I thought asses were a type of pig. The word just seemed to have a piggy character to it. But it’s not like I gave it much thought, so when in India’s western state of Gujarat the opportunity arose to visit a wild ass reserve, I didn’t exactly jump at the idea. I don’t have anything against pigs but… a pig safari? That just sounded weird.
We arrived in the small city of Dhrangadhra by train, from Bhuj. The town itself doesn’t have much to lure visitors, so taxi and rickshaw drivers know that foreigners disembarking at the station are looking for Mr. Devjibhai Dhamecha, acclaimed wildlife photographer and owner of a small desert resort and ass safari outfit, the Eco Tour Camp. We were taken directly to Mr. Dhamecha’s house, where we were served drinks by his wife who didn’t speak English but was clearly used to disheveled-looking foreigners turning up at her house. As we waited for further instructions, we were given books to peruse, featuring Mr. Dhamecha’s beautiful photography. So many donkeys… tan and white, with curious faces and what looked like well-manicured manes, beautiful… what about the pigs?
We were served drinks by his wife who didn’t speak English.
Along with a couple of young Swiss women, we were driven out to the desert, the Little Rann of Kutch, to a wild ass sanctuary that covers around 5000 square kilometers. Mr. Dhamecha has built half a dozen round mud huts to accommodate tourists. Round huts can be seen throughout Rajasthan and Gujarat—states comprising large swaths of desert—as they are more comfortable in the blazing sun than buildings with flat sides: when the sun hits the outside surface of the building, it only heats up the small sliver of the wall directly exposed. In contrast, buildings with flat sides—common in modern, urban India—absorb much more of the sunlight, heating them to furnace-like temperatures at times. Mr. Dharmecha was a font of wisdom such as this.
Round huts can be seen throughout Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Before our orientation meeting, my companion suggested we go for a quick walk to get a glimpse of the asses. Waves of heat distorted the horizon; I understood why travelers of old could be fooled by their senses into thinking water lay ahead. “There they are!” he said, pointing at the horse-like creatures. This was when I realized my mistake—these elegant horse-like creatures were the asses!—but I couldn’t let on.
For a one-night stay at the resort, all meals and two safaris—just us and the Swiss girls—were included, one in the early morning and another in the early evening, as the animals behaved differently throughout the day. In the early morning, just after sunrise, the air was still cool.
The local people in this area are salt workers, about the toughest way possible of making a living.
We were taken out to the salt fields and a couple of salt-farming settlements. The local people in this area are salt workers, about the toughest way possible of making a living. Mr. Dhamecha, a man of around sixty, told us that he himself came from a salt working family, and would have gone into the job himself had it not been for some good luck. A local photographer was looking for an assistant when Mr Dhamecha was a schoolchild, and his teacher recommended him, as he’d shown an interest in art. He learnt to take photographs himself, and has had a successful career as a photographer and environmental advocate for the Little Rann area.
The Little Rann is either dessicated or flooded. We stopped at a village with fishing boats, so out of place in the desert. The sides of the boats were painted with shrimps because when salt farming isn’t feasible, these people made a living through fishing. In the wetter months, the area is also awash with flamingos, hundreds of thousands of them. To see them, though, you have to brave the scorching heat of a northern Indian summer.
In the wetter months, the area is also awash with flamingos, hundreds of thousands of them.
There are a couple of ass sanctuary outfits in the Little Rann region, and we selected Mr. Dhamecha’s because its base, Dhrangadhra, was more convenient jumping-off point on our route – Bhuj to Champaner/Pavagadh to Ahmedabad. This is not the most common route for travelling through Gujarat, so Eco Tour Camp is less popular than some of its competitors. It is the smaller operation, and as always in India, it is worthwhile seeking out family-run businesses for an experience with a personal touch. Mr Dhamecha certainly delivers this.
I let on about my misunderstanding after we’d left the area, and have been mocked mercilessly ever since. I have a PhD in literature, you see: so much cultural history changes with the swinification of assery… Cleopatra bathing in asses’ milk… Bottom being given an ass’s head in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream… Jesus riding on an ass..
(Everything mentioned here was paid for by myself, and all opinions are my own).
All photos belong to Elen Turner. Visit her and read her travel writing at Wilderness, Metropolis.
Elen is a travel writer, academic editor and literary critic currently based in Buffalo, NY. In previous incarnations she has led lives in Nepal, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and the UK. Her biggest travel dilemma is how to see all the places in India she hasn’t already visited, while not neglecting the rest of the world. She writes at www.wildernessmetropolis.com. See Elen’s Q & A.