KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Most people who come to Jaisalmer on the edge of the Great Thar Desert opt for the experience of a camel safari. Many just stay overnight to experience the sunset, the star strewn sky and the sunrise in the morning. It's possible to stay with a village family, to sleep in a tent or to go au naturel and sleep under the stars. Others venture farther into the desert on a three or four-day safari. I knew Anil would not be interested in an overnight trip; there are no flush toilets in the desert. He has always said that growing up in India was like camping for twenty years straight; he has never been willing to try the camping experience.
Instead, we joined four other travellers and piled into a Jeep for a sunset camel ride about forty miles from Jaisalmer. Our companions were a couple from Delhi (they told us they are television presenters for NDTV) and a mother and her doctor son from Ireland. It was great to be in a small group and the others were friendly and very excited about their first opportunity to ride camels. I wasn't planning to ride a camel; I have been on camels before and found it very uncomfortable. Anil was more willing than me to give it a go.
Our driver was a wonderful guide and made several stops along the way to point out wildlife and even some fossils. He was able to spot deer and eagles that we certainly would have missed. We were able to spot the goats, sheep, donkeys and camels ourselves; amazing naturalists for sure. After about an hour and a half, we arrived at a small group of huts; too small to be called a village. The children spotted us before we spotted them. I think they would have been excited at our arrival anyway, but they were particularly keen as we were carrying a new bike on the roof of the Jeep. A previous tourist had taken his promise of a bike seriously; two of the young boys have a very long walk to school each day and the tourist wanted to donate a bike to make their lives a little easier.
We were free to wander around the homes and photograph the buildings and most of the people. I snapped a wonderful shot of two girls peeping through the perimeter wall to look at us, just as we were watching their families. Their mother was more modest and pulled her veil down over her face in the manner of the Rajasthani women. The head veils are sheer; they disguise their faces but allow them to see clearly. The grandmother sitting in the courtyard was beyond worrying about covering her face. An elderly man posed for us so that we could admire his moustache. It was clear these people were used to tourists visiting them, in fact it is probably a major source of income for the families there. I was pleased that there were only six of us, it didn't feel too contrived. We had tea with the family before setting off on the camels. The couple from Delhi headed in a different direction as they were planning on spending the night in the desert so they had another short Jeep ride to where their camels were waiting.
As we walked to where our camels were tethered, we were swarmed by lots of children asking for 'school pens' or 'one rupee'. I quickly realized that if I wasn't going to ride the camels I would be at the mercy of these persistent children. Against my better judgment, I climbed on board a camel and followed the others off into the desert. Within a matter of meters, I knew I was in for a very uncomfortable ride. I'm sure the saddles are designed for men and not for women to sit astride. I starting complaining to see if the others were in pain too, but just got called a 'wimp' for my efforts. I didn't think that we would be going far or riding for long, but as we kept going up one hill and down another without appearing to circle back to the starting point, I decided that I would much rather walk than ride. I called to my driver to get the camel to sit so that I could get down.
The others gave me the gears but I didn't care, it hurt too much by that point. What a relief to climb down and stand up. I was prepared to walk along with my camel driver for as long as it took. What I wasn't prepared for was the pace the camels set. It seems pretty slow when you are riding, but they have long legs, take long strides and keep going whether they are heading up or down and are walking on packed or loose sand. If I stopped to take a picture, they were yards ahead of me before I knew it. It was a tough slog keeping up with them but I was happy to be on the ground and was able to take some great photographs from angles not possible if I was riding.
At last we reached the dunes. The Thar Desert is not at all like what we see in movies like Lawrence of Arabia and The English Patient. It is mostly flat and covered with low scrubby bushes and cacti. The camel safaris come to this area outside of Jaisalmer where there is an area of loose sand that has drifted into dunes. The camels were instructed to sit and we had a good laugh as they rocked first forward, then back and then forward again until the seat was level with the ground. If you don't hang on tightly, one had in front and one behind; you will surely be pitched to the sand.
We spent over an hour resting with the drivers and the camels waiting for the sun to set. It was wonderful talking with the two young boys and taking photographs of the surrounding dunes. Anil agreed to pose for a picture with the turban of one of the drivers and the boys had me take a series of photos of them posing, together and separately. It was amazingly quiet away from the buildings and the road and we enjoyed the breeze that kept us cool. The sky was overcast for the entire day and in the end, the clouds obscured the setting sun. We didn't mind, as the whole experience was more than we had hoped for. One camel became so relaxed that he rolled over onto his side and looked like he was in for the night. The driver quickly kicked him back into a kneeling position so his saddle wouldn't have to be retied.
I examined the saddles more closely while we rested and realized that there were two seats, one behind where I was seated. This rear seat looked like the frame was more widely spaced and there seemed to be more padding so I asked if it was possible for me to ride on the rear seat. The drivers didn't seem to be concerned so I thought I would give it a try. I didn't relish the long walk back to the Jeep. We all mounted our camels and I found the back seat much more to my liking. How I wish I had known about it in the first place. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride back. It was a little shorter and the Jeep came part way off the highway to meet us. We tipped the camel drivers generously and they were pleased to have the additional income to help support their families.
We couldn't believe how exhausted we were when we got back to our haveli. We couldn't even muster the energy to walk the short distance to the Shahi Hotel's terrace and asked for our meal to be delivered to our room at the Oasis. We showered the dust, sand and camel smell off our weary bodies, ate our meal and fell into a deep sleep. Our day in the desert was done.