The Wild Ass Sanctuary, home to the last of the Indian wild ass, is the largest wildlife sanctuary in India. It's spread over almost 5,000 square kilometers. The unusual, vast terrain is a salt marsh that features barren mudflats dotted with small islands (locally known as bets).
The sanctuary was set up in 1973 to protect the endangered wild ass. These creatures look like a cross between a donkey and a horse. They're slightly bigger than a donkey, and are fast and strong like a horse. How fast? They can run an average of 50 kilometers (30 miles) an hour over long distances!
You'll find many other kinds of wildlife at the sanctuary such as wolves, desert foxes, jackals, antelopes, and snakes. There are plenty of birds as well. Notably, the area is the largest breeding site in world for the the magnificent Lesser Flamingo.
In the Kutch region of Gujarat state, in the area known as the Little Rann of Kutch. It's located 130 kilometers (80 miles) northwest of Ahmedabad, 45 kilometers (28 miles) northwest of Viramgam, 175 kilometers (108 miles) north of Rajkot, and 265 kilometers (165 miles) east of Bhuj. There are two main entrances to the sanctuary -- Dhrangadhra and Bajana.
How to Get There
If you wish to enter from the Bajana range, the railway station at Viramgam is more convenient albeit still a distance away. The same trains stop there.
Alternatively, the sanctuary is easily accessible by bus from all over the state.
Travel time to Dhrangadhra by road from Ahmedabad is two to three hours. If you're heading to Bajana and surroundings, it's about the same. However, Dhrangadhra is more readily accessible by public transport, as it's situated on the Ahmedabad-Kutch National Highway. All buses from Ahmedabad to Kutch stop there.
When to Visit
Temperature-wise, the weather is coolest from December to March, which is the peak winter season. From April onward, the summer heat starts building and gets quite unbearable, so visiting isn't advisable then. During the monsoon season, from June to September, the Little Rann of Kutch fills with water.
One of the best times to visit the sanctuary is just after the monsoon and breeding season, in October to November. The grasslands are fresh and tender for grazing, and foals can often be seen out playing.
How to Visit
The sanctuary is open daily from dawn until dusk, except during the monsoon season. For the best chances of seeing wildlife, go on an early morning safari. Afternoon safaris are also possible.
Entry into the sanctuary is charged per vehicle of up to six people. During the week, from Monday to Friday, the rate is 600 rupees for Indians and 2,600 rupees for foreigners. It increases by 25% on Saturdays and Sundays, and 50% on holidays including Diwali, Navratri, Holi, Christmas, and New Year's Day. It's necessary for a sanctuary guide to accompany visitors on safaris. Expect to pay about 200-300 rupees for that. There's also a camera charge of 200 rupees for Indians and a costly 1,200 rupees for foreigners.
The cost of the jeep safari is additional and is often included as part of the packages offered by accommodations. Otherwise, you can expect to pay 2,000-3,000 rupees per vehicle.
It's possible to go on organized jeep and minibus safaris from Dhrangadhra, Patadi or Zainabad. There are also private jeeps for hire at these places. Dhrangadhra has the most options for transport and accommodations.
The Bajana range is close to the wetlands where migratory birds settle in winter. Many people who enter the sanctuary at Bajana stay in the towns of Zainabad or Dasada, 20 to 30 kilometers (12 to 18 miles) away. Accommodations in the vicinity all offer safaris. To really soak up the atmosphere, camp out for a night on the Little Rann of Kutch. Bespoke trips are possible.
What to See
In addition to wildlife, the salt pans on the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch near Dhrangadhra are an interesting attraction. India is the world's third largest producer of salt, and about 80% of it comes from Gujarat. The salt is harvested by local salt farmers known as Agariyas. They toil under the scorching sun every day from October to June.
There's an 18th century palace and darbargarh, plus some elegant colonial buildings, at Dhrangadhra. Colonial architecture also remains at Kalaghoda, where a British salt trading post once existed. Highlights include a cricket pavilion and bandstand.
Jhinjwada Fort sits on the edge of the Rann to the north of Zainabad and has some intricately carved gateways.
Where to Stay
At Dhrangadhra, if you want inexpensive but comfortable accommodations, don't pass up the opportunity to stay at the home of wildlife photographer and guide Devjibhai Dhamecha, and go on one of his exclusive safaris. He also offers stays in traditional kooba huts, as well as camping, on the edge of the Little Rann at Eco Tour Camp. Facilities are basic though.
Near Dasada, Rann Riders (read reviews) is popular. It's an ethnically designed eco-resort, set amidst wetlands and agricultural fields. All kinds of safaris are offered including horse, camel and jeep safaris. The resort also has a focus on sustainable tourism. It provides a place for local artisans, such as weavers, to sell their handicrafts and operates excursions to nearby villages.
Desert Coursers resort at Zainabad also accommodates guests in eco-friendly cottages by a lake. It's run by Dhanraj Malek, a scion of the royal family of Zainabad. Dhanraj is a passionate birder and knows the area, along with the local communities, intimately. Prices are reasonable and include room, jeep safari, and meals. Luxury camping trips are organized upon request, and you can go into the Little Rann on excursions lasting up to three days.
If you want to stay close to the Bajana entrance, The Royal Safari Camp is the place! It's relatively new and has the best facilities.
What Else to Do Nearby
It's worth setting aside some time to explore other parts of the Kutch region, especially the Great Rann of Kutch and its white salt desert.