Driving holiday in Gujarat: From Asiatic lions to sunrise at salt flats and more

A driving holiday in Gujarat offers a unique basket of experiences, and the Asiatic lions and a chance to watch sunrise and sunset on the salt flats are only two of the most mesmerising memories you will come back with

gujarat Picture: Enrico Boggia

Surat-Alang-Gir-Somnath-Bhuj

(3 days; 770km)

Day 1

The Hazira-Ghogha ferry distance is barely 60km, covered in less than four hours,  whereas the road distance is over 370km. I was surprised by what I saw at the Hazira Ro-Ro terminal in the Adani-operated port. First was the hassle-free online booking. Second was the effortless check-in at the terminal. After a quick examination of the papers, we were given wrist bands to wear and directed politely to the cavernous parking belly of the ferry. Thirdly, I was impressed by the wardens who silently did their job to make sure each vehicle was in its slot and the passengers settled in their seats for the four-hour ferry crossing. People had come prepared to picnic on board. Families spread out sheets, opened their tiffin boxes and feasted on their home-cooked food. 

sri shyam mandir surat dham The grand Shree Shyam Mandir Surat Dham was built using 125 trucks of marble, 100 kg of gold and 1100 kg of silver

The road from Ghogha to Alang wended through villages fronted by farming lands. Alang is the world’s largest graveyard of vessels, with the shipyards recycling more than half of all ships broken in the world. Over many years, the yards have been extended and now handle supertankers, ferries, ocean liners and container ships. Jalesh, a cruise vessel owned by the House of Zee, was waiting to give up its ghost in one of the yards.

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Day 2

Freshly made poha and methi/besan bhaji with delicious dates chutney and it was onwards to Sasan Gir. I completed 185km in five-and-a-half hours, admiring huge swathes under cultivation, mostly cotton. Lunch was at Hotel Rajwada before the safari at 3pm. The unlimited Kathiawadi thali included three types of pickles, sambharo, gur, three sabjis, dal, rice, phulka and bajra rotlas. To top it was the kesar mango pulp! 

The Gir safari is well organised. Firstly, the surroundings are neat, clean and welcoming to visitors. There are 13 routes for safaris inside the park. A steel flask with RO water for Rs20 has to be rented as no plastic can be taken into the park. The safari costs `3,100 for the gypsy and guide. The park is over 1,450sqkm and has over 50 indigenous tribes within it. They are permitted to build kachcha homes and live in clusters of about 35 to 50. 

camel rides in kalo dangor Camel rides are popular in Kalo Dungar, the highest point in the Kutch region

They graze their cattle, which are tagged, in the forest. Any cattle killed by the lions are compensated by the government.

The Gir National Park is a success story in the preservation and propagation of the Asiatic lion. The park came into existence in 1965 and lions now number nearly 650 with over 30 other wildlife species inhabiting the forest as part of its biosupply chain. 

The guide said that visitors have not been harmed during safaris in over 50 years, proving that lions are not maneaters. They will not harm you unless they feel threatened. And they don't eat human meat, we were told. The lions know how toxic we are!

plastic monster at morarji circle dumas The ‘plastic monster’ in Morarji Circle, Dumas

Somnath temple had been on my bucket list for a long time, amazed by the history lessons in junior college. Because of the pandemic, visitors to the temple are few. Aarti is held behind closed doors and projected on digital screens outside the temple complex for devotees. The light and sound show is suspended. A tour of the sanctum sanctum and the premise gave me an insight into what this would have been in the 11th century AD, for it to have induced an invader from Ghazni.

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Day 3

The Somnath Mahadev Temple looked mesmerising last night. I had to get back to experience it at the crack of dawn. When I got there, aarti was being performed inside the temple and worshippers had gathered near large digital screens to be part of the televised prayers inside the sanctum sanctorum. The sunrise added inner peace to those prayerful moments. Local people were hawking flowers, garlands and milk to worshippers who wanted to make offerings in the various temples. Overnight stay was in Dream Resort near Bhuj, in Madhapur village, which has a unique distinction in India's economy. It has a large NRI population because of which it has the highest bank deposits for a village in India, over $200 crore. Kutch is the largest district in India with an area of 45,674sqkm and a population of two million.

gir national park Asiatic lions in the Gir National Park, a success story of their preservation and propagation

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Bhuj-Dhordo-Dholavira 

(2 days; 410 km)

Day 4

Before leaving for Dhordo, I took a round of the Bhujodi handicrafts village, which was a revelation. One of the premium handloom weaving centres in India, the products of the village travel far and wide and designers from all over the world come here to get their creativity expressed. 

The village with 150 looms is a pride of India. The young owners of Rakhiyo Hastkala explained how natural materials, dyes and colours are used to produce the finest pieces that were on display. Arjan Vankar, the current owner of Vankar Vaas, is a president's awardee for an exquisite spread he took two years to weave. 

dandi memorial The new Dandi Memorial is a short drive from Surat and well worth a visit

The Vande Matharam memorial in Bhujodi, maintained by the Ashapura Group, is a journey through India's freedom movement and has superb recreations of the Parliament building, India Gate, Red Fort and a huge statue of Mahatma Gandhi. 

The 1971 memorial in Bhuj is a tribute to the valiant civilians of the city who helped repair the runway of Bhuj airport in the aftermath of carpet bombing by Pakistan in 1971.

Kalo Dungar is the highest point in the Kutch region. The presence of BSF is palpable almost everywhere you go in the region because of its proximity to Pakistan, the air base and other sensitive detachments. From the highest point of the mountain, one gets a panoramic view of the Rann of Kutch. Selfie takers defy jutting rocks and steep falls to capture the beauty of the surroundings and themselves.

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vande mataram statue The massive statue of the Mahatma in the Vande Matharam memorial in Bhujodi

Day 5

The Tent City in Dhodro has been popularised by Gujarat Tourism with Amitabh Bachchan as its ambassador. The salt flats are open between November and February every year. This is the ninth year of its operation and the facilities provided are top-class. There are about 350 tents of different types in Phase 1 of Tent City. They arrange pick up and drop from Bhuj, organise cultural shows, sunset and sunrise experience trips, sightseeing to local attractions and provide lovely local food.

The drive from Tent City to salt flats was just a few minutes, after which we were transferred via a camel cart to the centre of the White Desert. Musicians and dancers entertain those who are in the mood. The glorious sunset was a feast for the eyes. 

The Tent City arranges sunrise visits to White Desert 0 Point for those who avail two-day packages. The 0 point is a five storied watch tower with multiple accesses to every level. While most people crowded at the top, I took a place a couple of levels lower for the 7:35am sunrise. The reflection of the changing colours on the salt flats was magical. The majesty of the sunrise and sunset there made me appreciate why our ancients worshiped the sun.

statue of unity The tallest statue in the world, Statue of Unity near Ahmedabad

Dholavira is in the Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary on Khadir Island in the Rann of Kutch. Widely considered as one of the most flourishing cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation, remains of a great city came to life after the archaeological digs by J.P. Joshi in 1968. A tour of the seven-layered city, built over by successive generations that lived between 5,000 and 3,500 years ago, was facilitated by a knowledgeable guide. The city was divided into three sections within the outside walls, of which the citadel and middle town were further walled. Therefore, it is inferred that inhabitants of the lower town were plebeians. The remains in Dholavira suggest an advanced water conservation system and the location of possibly the world's oldest signboard etched in the Indus script. Dholavira is almost entirely built in stone possibly because water conservation did not permit use of water for making bricks. In the Wood Fossil Park, a few kilometres away, one gets to see fossilised remains of trees and incredible views of Kutch. The fossil remains are believed to be of the Jurassic age.

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Dholavira-Statue of Unity-Surat 

(2 days; 775 km)

Day 6

The 597ft tall Statue of Unity, the tallest in the world, is a tribute to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. On the day of visit, the complex was closed and I could only take a short drive down a village road that took me as close as was possible to the statue and afforded excellent views of it from many angles.

Tent City 1 here is operated by the same company that operates Tent City Phase 1 in Dhordo. It is a scenically set 45 commodious cottages overlooking the Narmada River. Inside the wooden cottages, cotton fabric has been extensively used to give it the feel of a tent. A large common hall and restaurant support the facility. In addition, priceless paintings and other art work adorn walls of the cottages. 

The 150km to Surat took more than three hours to cover due to a combination of heavy traffic and poor road condition. 

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tent city Tent City in Dhordo has redefined tourism in the Rann of Kutch

Day 7

ferry from hazira to ghogha Socialising by the food and fun-loving Gujaratis aboard the ferry from Hazira to Ghogha

You cannot leave Surat without trying the delicacies the place is known for. Sagla Bagla is touted as Surat's baklava and Mohammadi bakery in Zampa Bazaar is the place to go for it. Shiv Shakti is an icon in Surat, from where I picked up soan papdi, flat chikki and ice halwa. The next on the list to buy was khari puff from Dotiwala. The main shop has a very interesting history. A warehouse had been established in Surat on Dutch Road by the Dutch during their reign in India. Five Surti Parsis had been engaged by them to bake their bread. When the Dutch packed their bags from India, one of them, Faramji Pestonji Dotivala, was handed over the ovens. That institution is now over two centuries old!

A new memorial was inaugurated by the PM on 30 January 2019 in Dandi as a tribute to the launch of Civil Disobedience movement against the British Raj. Gandhiji and his 80 followers walked 241 miles from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi between 12 March and 5 April 1930. The Saifee Villa at the entrance to the memorial is where Gandhiji stayed the day prior to the historic act. The journey has been vividly captured in sculptures and photographs all along the lovely memorial. Leaf shaped solar panel trees make this the first fully solar powered memorial.

somnath mahadev temple The magnificent Somnath Mahadev Temple is closed to devotees during aarti

Dumas beach is about 20 km from Surat and is infamously known as a haunted beach. Said to have been a burial site, coupled with the black sand of the beach, the place gained its notoriety. However, one needs binoculars now to see any vestiges of the Arabian Sea. The place is extremely popular for the shacks that serve snacks, particularly Lashkari Tomato Bhajiyas, and Indian and Chinese cuisine. The Morarji Circle has a giant statue of a monster made out of plastic disposable bottles to bring home the ecological ill effects of plastic. 

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