Out here at the perimeter of the Rann of Kutch, there’s just the soft light of the rising sun and desolate flatness as far as the eye can see. Driving a Jaguar XKR into this great brown open feels absolutely bizarre. The Jag is not supposed to be here – it’s a sportscar that belongs to the road that leads to the principality of Monaco or the paved boulevards of South Mumbai. And we’ve brought it to this starkly beautiful, utterly inhospitable place. We’ve brought it far from its regular high-octane drinking holes and into 48 degrees of blazing Indian sun. Why, you might wonder, would we take a Jaguar to the Rann of Kutch?
The simple answer is that Gujarat has some great roads – open, fast and almost devoid of traffic. You have to watch out for neelgai and the old buffalo, but that’s about it. Our chosen road is the sort of place where a Jaguar can roam unmolested by oblivious cyclists, crazy rickshaws and buffoon motorists. At least that’s what I thought.
Our story actually starts in Ahmedabad. The plan is to drive to the Rann Riders resort in Dasada 100km away, spend the night there, and head into the Little Rann of Kutch early in the morning for some spectacular photos and tremendous fun. After that, head towards Dholavira, 246km away, to the site of the ancient Harappan Civilisation through the inner road of Gujarat. I’d been on this road a couple of years ago on a motorcycle, and remember thinking how perfect it would be for a sportscar. And here I am, commander of over five hundred supercharged horses comfortably ensconced in the feline curves of a Jaguar SKR. Woohoo!
Before we can start though, there are two big questions – fuel quality and the current state of the road. A quick call to Jaguar confirmed the XKR will run just fine on regular unleaded (brilliant!) and another call to the Rann Riders (they know everything worth knowing about Kutch) confirmed the roads are generally excellent.
So we offload the car from the flatbed truck on the outskirts of Ahmedabad and use the 503bhp to demolish the beautiful four-laner to our first turnoff at Viramgam. Our route gives us an early insight into the Jag’s off-road abilities. The road that bypasses Viramgam is a narrow little ribbon that’s chock-full of traffic, has huge speed breakers and deep potholes, and is bordered by crumbling shanties. The Jag doesn’t get stuck or its belly scraped, and burbles through the village dragging a trail of dust and the gob-smacked expressions of onlookers behind it. We reach the resort in no time and tuck in for the night. Tomorrow is going to be epic.
As a gateway to the Little Rann of Kutch, the intricate stone arch at Jhinjhwada heightens anticipation like nothing else. Beyond this gate lies five thousand square kilometers of blue sky that meets brown earth at a hazy line far ahead of us. The road past the gate is a rollercoaster of hard-packed mud, but amazingly the Jag clears it without grounding out and we get to the flat-lands.
It’s the end of summer now, and the land is at its crispiest. That means the cracked earth you see is hard enough to drive on, and if you dig into it (like when there’s wheelspin), it crumples and turns into harmless dust. The bodywork is safe from chipping, then.
To drive on the Rann of Kutch, you need to have the traction control switched off completely. With it on, the XKR’s electronic brain simply decides that there isn’t enough grip and allows you to use what feels like only 100 of its 503bhp. Turn it off though and it all goes loopy. Turn it off and you will find yourself travelling straight with a quarter turn of opposite lock at 160kph – manic grin and all. Turn it off and you can power slide into the day after tomorrow. This place will let you live out your kinkiest automotive fantasies. Seriously.
Knowing that a cylist won’t jump in out of nowhere, knowing that there’s not a policeman around for miles and knowing that you can pretty much do what you want to do with 503bhp, is, I believe, the most liberating experience of my motoring life.
And the fun doesn’t stop even when I hand the car to Kartik, the Autocar Show anchor, for his cameras. Watching an XKR fly-by is something else – you first see the trail of dust in the distance, then a glint of xenon lights, and then, as the distant speck of XKR crosses your field of vision, sunlight catches the huge rooster tail as the haunting blare of eight cylinders recedes into the horizon. It’s like watching a land-speed record car at Bonneville, only this place is much bigger, browner and waaay more dramatic.
A word of caution here. Always recce the area you are on before trying anything – you just might find a lone rock on the Rann of Kutch. And never venture in without someone who knows the place – it’s very easy to get lost. Also, the Little Rann of Kutch is home to the Indian wild ass and countless other species of mammals and birds. Give them their due space. You are, after all, invading their territory.
Out next stop is Dholavira, 246km away. With an experienced guide on board, you can drive the much shorter route across the Little Rann to get to Dholavira, but we opted for the longer route via NH27, mainly because the Jag has quite an appetite for fuel and there are no fuel stations on the Rann.
So, Confident the coming monsoons will cover our tracks, we head back towards regular jag territory and the first fuel pump we can find. The fact that the XKR won’t grumble about its ‘regular unleaded’ diet makes it so much more India-friendly. It means you can actually take it to remote places as long as there are half-decent fuel pumps along the way.
Now, NH27 is a two-laner that has long straights, perfectly cambered corners and tarmac as smooth as the XKR’s V8. It’s here that I begin to appreciate how phenomenal the Jag is as a grand tourer. It’s not hard-edged like a Lamborghini or a Ferrari and, on these roads, is all the better for it. The suspension is complaint, so imperfections on the road are absorbed by the car, not your spine. The engine is a gem – it revs to a low-ish 6500rpm, but with the way it delivers power, 6500rpm is all you need. Thanks to the supercharger, there’s a great wallop of power almost from idle and because it pulls so hard low down in its rev band, you unconsciously upshift at 5000rpm Keep the throttle pinned though and you’ll discover a whole new definition of shove. The grunt it has between 5000 and 6500rpm is a little too ballistic for these roads, so I restrict myself to a few short blasts when the road is clear.
I do wish the quad exhaust pipes were a bit more vocal because even under hard acceleration, sounds in the cabin range from a refined purr to an extremely muted growl. I also wish the steering communicated a little more, and that the few layers of numbing assistance would peel away so you feel more connected.
Anyway, we’ve reached Radhanpur, and it’s a six-laner from here to our turn-off at Adesar. The XKR is simply sublime on roads like these. Its long-legged gait and tall sixth gear marking it feel absolutely relaxed and unruffled as we blast down the wide open highway. There’s one point on this road where you have the Little Rann on your left and the Great Rann on right, and for a brief moment I consider ditching the Dholavira plan and getting back into the loose surface again. But no, there are even better roads to be driven ahead.
We reach Adesar and both car and occupants need fuel, so it’s sev-ussal for us and unleaded for the Jag. From here it’s pure two-laner bordered by agricultural land and it rises and falls sharply giving you a great view of the stunning surroundings. We burble past people dressed in startlingly colourful garments waiting for the few buses that ply this lonely road, and we passs dry riverbeds that are apparently gushing full in the monsoons. I’m taking it easy, the Jag’s engine loping along at a mere 1600rpm, and taking in the beauty of Kutch. People here live hard lives – you can see it from the lines on their weathered faces – but they always seem to have a smile and are always ready to help if you happen to need some. We motor on past the next town of Rapar and then onto the stunning 8km-long land bridge that links the mainland to the island of Khadir Bet, where Dholavira is. On both sides of the bridge is the white salt of the Great Rann of Kutch and I was looking forward to driving on it. But the Rann has other plans – it’s still too wet and too soft for the Jaguar to venture onto.
It is around now that that I feel a long, long way from home. We haven’t seen another vehicle for two hours and there are signs of strong Border Security Force presence. In fact, if this car could drive across the salt flats, we would be in Pakistan in half an hour, maybe less – that’s how close we are to Gilani right now.
The end of our trip is a short blast away and we reach the excavation site at Dholavira a short while later. From here we load the Jag onto the truck and send it back to Mumbai, while we hotfoot it back in the support car.
In retrospect, we took the perfect car to an almost perfect road. At the start of this trip, we expected the Jag to be exciting, powerful and nimble, but had no idea it was so usable, fuss-free and comfortable as well. As for Kutch, even the Jag pales in comparison to the beauty of the land and its people.