We’d decided it was time for one of our rare ventures into the tourist mainstream, so we headed for Jaisalmer, on the edge of the Thar Desert, to book ourselves a camel ride. As we rode into the outskirts of the city we stopped by the roadside to check our guidebook and find a place to stay. This was a mistake. Everyone within eyeshot pegged us as tourists and in seconds we were surrounded. Bikes and jeeps boxed us in so that the owners could get through their sales pitch; inviting us to see their cheap rooms and eat at their restaurants. It was relentless. We managed to escape, and a high speed chase ensued, with more brochures and hard-sells being thrust in my face across lanes of busy traffic. I managed to loose our pursuers at a roundabout and we made it to a quieter part of town, where we parked on a side street outside a small hotel.
Hotel Renuka was a little more than the prices that had been screamed at me earlier, but the extra cost was fine. We weren’t willing to subject ourselves to that level of enthusiastic touting for the next few days, and it’s a common complaint that staying in a cheap hotel means you get hassled non-stop to pay for tours, souvenirs, and whatever else the owners can dig up. As it was we had a quiet little wood-panelled room, parking for the bikes, and a roof terrace restaurant with a view of the city’s fort, that served a decent paneer masala.
Our camel trek started early the following morning and would last for two days, so we’d get to spend the night sleeping under the stars. We joined another English couple and the four of us were driven out of the city to a collection of run-down stone buildings, where five camels decked out in shabby, but colourful blankets and saddles lounged around nibbling at the scrub and looking – as camels always do – bored.
Maria’s camel Hati (elephant)
As we climbed out of the jeep a horde of kids materialised out of nowhere, carrying bewildered looking lambs, surrounding us and asking for pens. Maria fished around in her bag and found a stash she carries for just such an occasion. As soon as she produced them she disappeared under a wave of grasping, shouting children. When the dust cleared she was penless, and the crowd had dissipated, obviously sensing that they’d stripped us clean.
Our guide, Delphar arrived and introduced himself as ‘Delboy’, complete with the necessary TV phrases. It all sells tickets I suppose. Already loaded up with water, food, and blankets, the camels were coaxed into sitting down so that we could climb aboard.
Clambering onto a camel is an acquired skill, and our first attempts were a bit wobbly but eventually we were up and with Delboy and his mate (Rodney, of course) leading the convoy on foot, we set off into the desert.
The sparse bushes and dusty tracks were something we’d already seen plenty of while looking for places to wild camp, but the perspective was definitely different, perched way up on a lumbering, snorting beast. We passed the time trying to photograph the occasional vulture watching us from a distance or antelope dashing between clumps of vegetation, passing banter back and forth along the convoy, or just gazing at the swaying horizon and listening to Delboy’s warbling desert song.
The heat was beating down on us and turning the distance into a shimmering silver glaze, and when we spotted a group of shepherds sheltering under a grove of thorny trees we decided to join them and have lunch.
As it turns out, Delboy is a genuine desert dweller, spending most of his time in semi-nomadic existence with the shepherds and only coming to the edge of town to pick up tourists. That meant he was fairly adept at rustling up firewood from the barren landscape and soon had a decent pot of dhal and chapatti on the go, while we sipped chai and cooled off in the shade.
We stopped twice more, to let the camels drink at a lake (after that they won’t need water for another three – four days) and to rest our sore legs in the shade of a rare tree. (Sitting on a camel hurts more than if we’d walked ourselves!)
As the day wore on the temperature cooled a bit and we gradually left behind the thorny vegetation, as well as any trace of civilisation. With evening approaching we dismounted at the start of a series of undulating sand dunes, stretching out to the west, and while or guide rustled up another fire for dinner we took the opportunity to sink our toes into the warm sand and get some pictures of the vast wilderness.
Our new friend that’d been following us.
The camels were let go for the night, feet tied together with a short rope so they wouldn’t get far, to find their own food.
The light started to fade and we were treated to a great view of the sun sinking over the dunes.
We sat in silence, absorbed in the sunset, when a figure in white appeared over the dunes. He approached us and started making introductions – obviously leading up to a sales pitch. I perked up when I noticed that the bag he had slung over his shoulder had a bottle opener attached. Sure enough, he’d walked from a village a few kilometers away with a sackful of beers that he’d kept cool with an ingenious double-bag system, and we got to enjoy the last of the sunset with a couple of cold kingfishers, just as nature intended.
Once the last rays had dwindled we took the rest of our beers down to the fire and sat eating, smoking and swapping stories with Delboy about life in the desert and the price of camels. All that was left to do was to roll out our blankets under the stars and lie back, listening to the crackling fire and the panting of a wild dog who’d hung around after dinner looking for scraps and was now patrolling the area, protecting his meal ticket.
We woke up to the familiar sound of Delboy singing. Breakfast was already started, and we sat down to a plate of boiled eggs, fruit, and sweet tea. The camels were nowhere to be seen; they’d wandered off in search of their own spot to sleep, so our hosts went off to round them up while we packed our bags and cleared up the empty beer bottles. The morning’s camel ride was a short one; an hours wobble back to the road where a jeep was waiting to take us to town.
En route they treated us to a little add-on; a stop at an abandoned village. The ruined buildings had been occupied by members of the Brahma caste. Two hundred years ago the king had taken a fancy to one of their female inhabitants and decided to marry her. Rather than give up one of their members to an inferior caste and knowing they couldn’t defy royal orders, they opted instead to just up and leave, abandoning their houses and temples for good.
A quick snoop around was enough before it was time to head back to the hotel to recuperate and rest our sore arses.