On a Camel With No Name

Exploring India’s Thar desert

I arrived in Jaisalmer at about 5 AM. It was one of the most surreal sights I’ve seen in India, a huge line of touts yelling and screaming, holding up placards for the various hotels in the area, kept at bay by the military police. The military police here always walk around with bamboo canes, but this was the first I’ve seen them brandish, though still not actually use, them to keep the touts under control.

Once again I had called ahead and avoided the mayhem, but it was still a bizarre sight to see when you stumble out of the station half asleep.

I found my driver amidst the mayhem and made it to my hotel without being accosted much. Once I was at the hotel, I promptly went back to sleep. Later in the afternoon I went exploring in the fort, which is actually still an occupied city and seems very much the same as it must have been in the middle ages except now it’s full of tourist shops rather than, well, I’m not sure what the shops would have been five hundred years ago.

The walls and indeed most everything in the fort is made of honey colored sandstone, some of which has been walked on so much it’s almost glassy smooth and the sunlight glints off its shiny surfaces.

After walking around for a while I started stopping in at various different camel safari operators to check out what was offered and how much it cost. Eventually I settled on one that offered a simple overnight trip since that’s really all the time I had.

Bright and early at eight o’clock the next morning I found myself in the back of a jeep bouncing down a dirt road toward some waiting camels.

There were only four of us on the trip, Thet, a girl from Burma who grew up in Namibia, but now lives in London, Ignacio a student from Lisbon who spoke flawless French English and Spanish, Casimir an aficionado of Cajun music who was from the south of France and didn’t speak much English, and myself. An interesting mix to say the least. Ignacio did his best to translate for Casimir.

Let me say right now before we go further, that camel is no way to travel if you can help it. Imagine being on a horse that’s twice as fat, stretching your legs until they feel like they’re being ripped out of your hip sockets. Now imagine that this horse walks about the same speed, possibly even slower, than a motivated hiker with a backpack — that’s camel travel in a nutshell.

Camels also tend to fart frequently and with odors like you’ve never wanted to smell. Luckily the camel I climbed on was sort of the stoic of the bunch and as such was always in the lead.

The only upside to camels is that they’re much easier to control than a horse. The reins are attached to what amounts to a nose piercing, little pegs inserted through the nostrils and attached to a rope, so with only the slightest tug they’ll go wherever you want. And then there’s the whole walking on sand thing, they are good at that. They also don’t need much water, which makes them good desert travelers.

The Thar Desert is a stark, bewitching place. It reminded me of the Great Basin desert between Las Vegas and St. George, Utah.

Twiggy, mesquite-like trees, bluish gray bushes resembling creosote, a very large bush that resembled a Palo Verde tree and grew in impenetrable clumps, and strangely only one species of cactus and not a whole lot of them, make up the sparse vegetation and support the village goats and cows that wander freely about grazing.

We rode past a few small villages where the children begged for chocolates and rupees.

We paused in the heat of the day to make lunch and sit in a dry riverbed in the shade of small tree. We quickly learned that the thistle covered grass in no good for sitting and spent most of our lunch break removing spiked prickles from our clothing.

As the heat began to subside a bit we mounted up again and after tanking up on water at the local well, we left civilization behind and headed into the dunes. Except that the dunes proved to be not more than a kilometer square at best and civilization remained visible as distant wind turbines slowly spinning on the horizon.

I was told that longer safaris head deeper into the wilderness and to far larger sand dunes, but the majority of the Thar desert lies in a sort of demilitarized zone north of Jaisalmer and stretches into Pakistan, unfortunately you need a special and difficult to obtain permit to enter that area and once you have entered it you must beware of armies and land mines on both sides of the border.

Our safari might have been short on wildness, but after the exhausting day on a camel, we sat facing to the north, looking away from any signs of civilization, and it was easy to imagine that we were in the middle nowhere. We sat a long time, just chatting. It was hours before we were willing to move our aching bones again so the illusion of isolation reinforced itself. And it was nice to camp out, it had been a while since I sat around a campfire.

The sun set over the dunes and the new moon rose as a glowing red sliver flanking a dusty grey disk. I’ve never been able to see the unlit portion of the moon so clearly before, but the spectacle was short lived and the moon set after only an hour.

But it was just as well that its brilliant light faded away, because when it did the stars came out filling the sky like tiny little diamonds, billions of them, I have never seen so many stars, for the first time in my life I saw the whole of Orion, not just the belt. There were so many stars it was difficult to locate the constellations I usually recognize.

I lay awake on the edge of the fire looking up at the stars. Whenever more wood was added to fire and it got brighter the stars faded out, cloaked in blackness and the radiance of the flames lighting up the nearby bushes. The sky looked then more like does over western Massachusetts. But as the flames turned to glowing coals again, and the bitter cold of the desert night fell over us, the rest of the stars would fade back in, as if the night sky were slowly revealing and concealing itself by turns.

It was cold. Cold enough that sleep was long in coming. Finally I managed to fall asleep for a while in spite of the temperature, but it was a short-lived and restless sleep spent curled in a ball huddling with my head beneath the blankets thinking of how hot I was just two weeks ago.

Our guides were up at dawn making chai, but none of us westerners stirred until the chai was ready and fire had been enlarged so a modicum of warm would entice us from under the blankets.

We watched the sunrise and ate a small breakfast of boiled eggs and toast with jelly and then it was back up on the camels for a long ride through the desert.

Because we had to cover about twice the ground we had covered the day before we had the camels at more of a trot, though I hesitate to say trot because a camel trotting is nothing like a horse trotting. Still we were moving significantly faster. My camel still led the pack.

I was about two hundred yards ahead of the others and did not see what happened, but I heard shouts to turn around so I came back to where they were all no dismounted and discovered that Thet had been thrown from her camel. Camels are quite tall so being thrown is roughly the same as falling off a roof backwards. Depending on how you land you could easily be paralyzed or killed. Fortunately Thet was mostly fine, a little bruised and shaken, but not broken. She was not, however, keen to keep going.

Luckily for Thet her camel decided to pitch her off right beside the only road in the area. After making sure that she did not break any bones, the guides called a jeep, which came and picked her up.

While we were waiting for the jeep I decided I had had enough safari and volunteered to ride back with Thet to the hotel. Neither Ignacio nor Casimir had ever really been in a desert whereas I’ve been in more than I care to remember so I let them continue on with the guides and after getting Thet back to her room I went to my own room and fell asleep for the better part of the afternoon, happy to be warm and thistle free.


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