In the 1980s, wildlife enthusiasts began flocking to the area around Zainabad, at the periphery of the Little Rann of Kutch, particularly to see the Indian wild ass, or ghudkhur, an endangered species found nowhere else. Environmentalist Bittu Sahgal persuaded Mohammed Shabbir Malik, Zainabad’s erstwhile ruler, to start a resort specialising in wildlife tourism to capitalise on the growing interest in the area. It was also an attempt to preserve the area for the wild ass and the migratory birds that flock here from October to March.
The Desert Coursers resort, named for the nimble-footed wild ass, opened in northern Gujarat’s Surendranagar district in 1984. Guests are greeted by Malik’s son Dhanraj, who now owns and manages the property. He wears his love for wildlife on his person. His hat has badges of birds and a silver wild ass in the centre: a great conversation starter.
We reached the resort after a half-kilometre drive down a thorn bush lined turn-off from Zainabad’s main road. Desert Coursers turned out to be a lush green oasis near a lake. It exudes a rural charm, with its focus on indigenous design and building materials. Each cottage or kooba, has mud-plastered walls and a tiled roof. Sand art decorates the interior walls and the beds are woven khatiyas. The eco-friendly aesthetic is combined with modern amenities.
The common area with its thatched roof is a favourite place for travellers to mingle. The seating area is made of mud and decorated with mirror patterns. Bright cushions add a dash of colour. Meals are served here: Generous buffets of local, seasonal delicacies. I gorged on bajra rotlas, which came with garlic chutney, dollops of ghee, and gur (jaggery). Glasses of buttermilk helped wash everything down.
Strolling around the premises, I spotted birds like the green bee-eater and an Indian roller. I also met women from the Mir community who live nearby and come to the resort to sell beaded jewellery and ornaments. In the evening I visited the Indian Wild Ass Wildlife Sanctuary, where in addition to the ghudkhur I saw flamingoes, pelicans, spoonbills, shelducks, and the well-camouflaged desert wheatear. At night, bundled in a shawl against the sharply plummeting temperature, I looked up to admire a twinkling star-spangled sky, and felt my heart give a wild leap.
Appeared in the January 2017 issue as “The Wild West”.
Desert Coursers resort is open from 1 Oct-1 Apr.
Accommodation It has 17 koobas and a building with 7 spacious private rooms with ensuite bathrooms. The resort can make arrangements for non-vegetarian fare on prior notice (www.desertcoursers.net; 94263 72113; doubles from ₹4,400, including meals and a safari in the Little Rann of Kutch)
Getting There Desert Coursers is in Zainabad, 105 km/2 hr southeast of Ahmedabad, which is also the closest airport (approx ₹1,200 one-way). The nearest railway station is Viramgam, (42 km/51 min southeast, taxis ₹700 one-way). Buses ply up to Dasada, from where you can take another bus or an autorickshaw. The resort also has a free pick-up service from Dasada.