In a land where the camel is the main means of transportation, camel safaris are the ideal way to sample the true grandeur of regal Rajasthan and the surrounding desert.
In search of our own desert escape, my husband and I boarded a bus headed west to the vast Thar Desert of western India. We had our hearts set on embarking on a camel safari of our own. Stretching out along the remote borderland between India and Pakistan, the barren land is home to colonies of thorn trees, sweeping dunes of all shapes and sizes, and the medieval city of Jaisalmer.
Few cities in India rival the unspoiled beauty of Jaisalmer. The walled city sits in the heart of the Thar Desert and is crowned with an enormous hilltop fort. Dubbed "The Golden City," it's dotted with a labyrinth of cobblestone streets, honeycomb-colored temples and sandstone havelis (mansions). The city's golden beauty is best enjoyed at night against the backdrop of the setting sun.
Jaisalmer is also the jumping-off point for those looking to traverse the desert on a camel. Among the sari-clad women and oxcart-towing men, we found numerous camel safari agencies awaiting us. We spent an afternoon organizing the journey and soon learned itineraries vary greatly, ranging from one hour to up two weeks. With a low tolerance for bow-legs and a high tolerance for adventure, we thought an overnight trip through the desert on camel back would suit us just fine.
The following morning we boarded an open Jeep to head deep into the Thar Desert. Harsh yet beautiful, we passed villages of mud huts and deserted Hindu temples until we reached the middle of nowhere. Here, 25 miles from the Pakistan border, we met our wooly necked, wild-eyed friends. A cheeky 15-year old boy, who I soon learned would be our guide, lead me to Mabu, the 7-year-old hump-backed dromedary who would be my companion on this journey.
My experience with camels had been limited to cage views at a city zoo, so you can imagine my hesitation when I was told to mount the 900-pound, stick-legged monster towering eight feet above me. On command, all four of Mabu's twiggy legs gave way as he came crashing down to the desert floor. With no other choice, I climbed onto the lightly padded, wooden saddle and with a quick tug of the reins, Mabu stood up and off we went.
I immediately learned riding a camel is not like riding a horse. Camels are stubborn creatures and move like double pogo sticks bouncing on the ground. The left two legs move forward first, then the right two legs lazily follow suit. There's no kind of rhythmic cadence you might find on the back of a horse, and this can make for one painful journey.
On we bobbed over the swelling dunes as the camels walked leisurely in single file, nose to back end. Our guide led the way, walking barefoot in the sand, and broke into hypnotic traditional songs that even seemed to put my camel into a deep and peaceful trance. In the changing light of late afternoon, the melody echoed over the velvety dunes. As the sweltering heat began to lift, the shadows of prickly cacti revealed themselves in the sand, and the colors and textures of desert life came alive.
We arrived at camp just before sunset and ascended the tallest dune within view. As we made ourselves comfortable on the bed of sand, we could feel the temperature beginning to drop. Our dutiful guide must have heard our unspoken call, delivering hot chapati (bread) and sweet, milky tea in tin cups to our dune. While we watched the sun slip away, our guides prepared us a feast of vegetable curry and rice over a wood-burning fire at the foot of the dunes.
As fatigue began to set in from a day in the desert sun, we made the climb back up the dunes, this time with thick blankets in hand. The temperature was falling quickly and would drop below freezing by the middle of the night. Bellies full and faces sun-kissed, we cuddled under a mound of blankets as the dunes lit up under a full moon. Falling asleep under the twinkling stars, we were left wondering if there is anything in the world more romantic than desert life.
When morning broke so did our blissful night's sleep. By the time the sun crept past the horizon, the heat had drenched us in pools of sweat. We filled up on a hearty breakfast of banana porridge before departing camp. We mounted our camels one last time and began the journey back to civilization.
It was time to say adieu to my hump-backed friend and leave the Indian outback behind. Though my aching body thanked me it was over, the rawness, simplicity and breathtaking beauty of the journey through the Thar Desert brought me closer to the India I was searching for.
Camel treks can be organized in various cities throughout Rajasthan, India, including Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Pushkar. To reach Jaisalmer, fly to Udaipur via New Delhi or Mumbai. From Udaipur, board a bus direct to Jaisalmer; this is a 12-hour trip.
The best time to go on a camel safari in Rajasthan is from September through March, during India's cooler, drier months. The cost depends on the length and comfort of your itinerary, but you can expect to pay around $15 to $35 per day, including meals. Most of the hotels in Jaisalmer can organize the safari for you, but to ensure the best trekking experience, check out one of the following recommended agencies:
Ganesh Travels – Ph: 91-2992-250138, Email: email@example.com
Sahara Travels – Ph: 91-2992-252609, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Shahi Palace – Ph: 91-2992-255920, Email: email@example.com
Lindsay Clark and Chris Danner, STA Travel's 2009 World Traveler Interns, summarize their trip in India, with a quick guide on how to adjust to the culture shock, what you should do, and some haggling suggestions.
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