We were not due to arrive before 7:35 A.M., but we awakened at dawn, waited expectantly for the sun to rise over the desert landscape and see it glint off the sandstone citadel of Jaisalmer. We had heard so much about the city, a vision from the Arabian Nights over the desert plains, that as the train chugged closer to our destination we started to feel a sense of apprehension that maybe we were in for an anticlimax. Finally the train pulled into the station and looming up before us was the Sonar Killa, the golden fortress of Jaisalmer. Mentally we congratulated the railway authorities for having scheduled the arrival of trains at the two best hours—dawn and dusk—when the citadel is most beautiful.
Indeed, there were four great kingdoms in the desert belt of India—Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Bikaner, and Kutch—the first three in Rajasthan and the other in Gujarat. Since all four were prosperous trading centers, linked by camel caravans routes to West Asia, Mongolia and Europe, they were impressively fortified to protect their riches. They also had a number of palaces for royalty, havelis and courtyard mansions for merchants and nobility and intricately carved temples for common subjects.
The great Indian desert may not match the vast seas of sand dunes and incredible wilderness of the Sahara or Namid, but more than compensates for this with some glorious citadels, princely architecture and colorful rural villages. An added advantage of the royal legacy is that camel safaris, recreating the days of the Maharajahs, spoil the traveler with the ultimate in camping luxury. Anything you ask for—even white glove service and black tie parties on the dunes, can be provided if you are ready to pay the price. Recalls Reggie Singh of Safari Club, whom we met at Jodhpur, “at our Camel Camp on a sand dune at Osiyan, we had a millennium party.”
We headed west for a camel ride in the desert. At 4 p.m., after gulping down a large cup of sweet tea we set out. The camels were seated so as to let us mount. Each one carried a comfortable cushioned saddle, sported a gorbandh or animal necklace with a tiny bell and was bedecked in festive colors. We were apprehensive as we approached these kneeling animals. In principle at least, camel riding is easy; you shake the noseline to make the animal rise, move it left turn left and right to turn right, pull it to come to a complete halt and a few whispered commands determine whether it walks, trots or gallops. In reality, however, these principles don’t always work for the camel is a large, and often stubborn beast.
As soon as we had mounted the camel, it rose; first on its hind legs so that we were pitched forward and looking at the ground from a precarious angle. As we caught our breath we were thrown back again as the animal rose on its fore legs. Swaying gently, we started out on our jaunt. Initially the swaying motion was disconcerting, a little similar to the sea, but soon we found ourselves getting used to the rhythm and started to enjoy the ride. Realizing this, the cameleers quickened the pace to a trot across the sandy planes and towards the dunes ahead.
The sun began to sink, painting the sand dunes in beautiful shades of golden yellow. Our mood was joyous as we began our ascent to the crest some 150 ft high. Though we had enjoyed the ride, we were glad to dismount and stretch our legs. The view from the apex of the dune was magnificent. Everywhere around us were waves of sand that extended as far as the eye could see. After a picnic, we opted to return to Khuri rather than spend the night on the dunes, for Bhagwan Singh had promised us a performance of “real” desert music and not the “commercial nonsense” we listened to in Jaisalmer.
We descended gradually to where the camels were sitting and climbed up onto their saddled backs once again. This time around we were more relaxed than when we had started out. Acclimatized to the rhythm of the beast, we started to enjoy the romance of the desert and realized why a camel safari around Jaisalamer has become one of the country’s best selling adventure holidays along with trekking and white water rafting in the Himalayas.
A full moon dispelled any apprehension about riding at night, rather it added to the magic of the journey; the tranquility of a moon-drenched desertscape can match the splendor of the dunes’ golden brown hues at sunset and sunrise. The cameleers, mainly Raikas, Rajputs, and Sindhis, broke into desert ballads and folk songs, singing as much to themselves and the camels as to us. And soon, the trotting of camels turned into a gallop as the beasts realized that they were at journey’s end and were impatient to get home.
We descended and walked into the compound of the desert camp where a fire blazed and dinner awaited us. Once we had finished our sumptuous meal, the manghiyars burst into song and music, which is an integral part of their desert lifestyle. “Beautiful, isn’t it,” observes a smiling German, “the music is so haunting, like nothing I had imagined.”
We retired for the night on charpoys. While some chose to retire for the day inside the huts, we opted for a night under the starry desert skies, watching the moon, constellations and shooting stars light up the velvet black dome overhead: a fitting finale to our desert camel safari. Did it really happen, or was it all a beautiful dream?
DECIDING YOUR ROUTE
Rajasthan offers an incredible range of routes for camel safaris, ranging from week-long camelback treks to short rides on the dunes. One of the most popular routes is the six-day Bikaner-Jaisalmer trail which begins at Kakoo, south of Bikaner, and ends at Phalodi, east of Jaisalmer. This route takes you through interesting Bishnoi and Raika villages, over sandy trails, past huge sand dunes, and, finally, Khichan with its ornately carved sandstone havelis, mustard fields and backdrop of dunes. From Phalodi it is possible to catch the train to Jaisalmer.
Another interesting route is from Jaisalmer towards Jodhpur ending near Pokaran, midway between the two desert cities. This safari is best done in four days via a number of Rajput and pastoral villages.
Shekhawati is another region that has become popular for camel and horse back safaris in the desert. This area offers a blend of rocky hills, arid plains, agricultural fields and dunes.
Khuri, near Jaisalmer, to Barmer is a seven-day trip through colorful villages and wildlife rich countryside.
A number of operators offer one day camel safaris with accommodations in the lap of camping luxury. Although each hotel and tour operator will tell you he gives the best safaris, the truth is that the camels do not belong to the hotels/tour operators and neither are the camel drivers their employees. It is not easy for them, therefore, to guarantee that you will have good riding camels or good drivers. However, some operators have their own accommodation infrastructure in the desert, which ensures they have to maintain their reputation.
PREPARING FOR YOUR SAFARI
There are certain items that you must carry on any camel safari. Climatic conditions are extreme in the desert, afternoons are hot and the temperatures at night often drops to below zero on the dunes. So carry both woolens and light cotton clothing. Shorts and skirts are comfortable but remember some of the villagers in the more remote reaches of the desert may look askance at women who do not wear ankle length skirts and men in shorts.
Sun hats with large rims or cotton caps that can be dipped into water are essential. Also carry a scarf to cover the neck and forehead. Sun protection creams, moisturizers and lip salve are a must as also is a water bottle that can be slung on the camel’s saddle.
If prone to sea-sickness, carry suitable medication as protection against the swaying gait of the camel. Unless you have joined a pre-arranged safari of a reputed tour organizer, carry along a sleeping bag as you do not know what you may get as way of bedding. A pen, knife, torch and essential cutlery are handy items to have on you.
Autumn (August-September) to spring (March) is the best time for a camel safari. However, if you are planning a long haul, schedule it for the cold months—November to February.
And finally, patience is an important ingredient on any camel safari especially when you consider the fact that a four-day safari can be covered by a jeep in four hours.