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Recently, I woke up slightly disoriented, mesmerized by the glow of the rising sun and a 360-degree panorama of wind-blown, amber-hued sands. Having gone to bed the night before in India’s Thar Desert, under nothing but a metaphoric blanket of stars, my first thought of the morning was, “Where are the camels?”
Camel safaris allow clients to explore India’s Thar Desert.// (C) 2009 Christina Tse
Treks through this arid ecosystem are one-of-a-kind experiences that support the livelihood of the desert people. From a single sightseeing daytrip or a weeklong stay at a tented resort campsite to a month-long immersion with local nomads, desert ecotourism is a popular attraction for visitors to Jaisalmer.
With my tight schedule, I opted for an overnight camel safari. Dressed in the recommended head-to-toe white attire to keep as cool as possible in the unforgiving desert heat, we made our first stop early in the morning to the small village of Barna. There, we met our camels and their drivers who would guide us for the rest of the journey. Noticing our bare heads, the grandfather of the camel driver family gestured toward me with a motion illustrating a big hat. I consequently pulled out a 20-foot-long strip of gauzy green cloth that I was given for the day. Smiling with approval, he took the cloth from me and artfully spun a huge turban around my head. Now, he signaled, we were ready to go.
Sitting complacently in front of the house were our camels. With their flirtatious eyelashes and pleasant, permanent smiles, I was immediately taken with these adorable — albeit smelly — creatures. The camel driver warned me to hang on and gave my camel the signal. With a rocking motion akin to riding on a mechanical bull, she rose to stand in a swift, three-step, joint-locking movement. Comfortably positioned six feet above ground, we made our way into the desert.
In the Thar Desert, there are numerous sightseeing destinations such as temple ruins, famous dunes, local villages, abandoned ghost towns and wildlife spots. On my short expedition, I wanted to visit a local village, see some desert animals and play in the dunes. To fulfill the first item on my checklist, we made a midmorning stop at a local community, where we were offered the ubiquitous cup of chai tea with a family. Entertainment was provided by the children of the village who sang, danced and posed for endless amounts of pictures.
Next, we headed for the Desert National Park. In this desert, often called “the oceans of sand,” there exists a surprising amount of wildlife, and the park is a prime example of a delicate ecosystem. Grass and shrubbery began to dot the golden landscape as we neared the borders of the reserve. Goats grazed on patches of grass, lizards crept into hiding spots and birds chirped in the trees. The most impressive sights, however, were the elegant gazelles, staring frozen from a distant hill and darting off on rapid runs over the dunes.
Approaching noon and a harsher sun, we stopped for lunch and a chance to rest under the shade of some trees. Our drivers unloaded the camels and loosely bound their two front legs together before letting them roam and munch on the foliage. While we sat lazily in the shade, the drivers set about gathering sticks for a fire and running around chasing, catching and milking wild goats. They prepared a delicious meal of curry vegetables, chapati and rice cooked in the fresh goat’s milk. The afternoon heat was too intense to continue riding, so I spent the afternoon drowsily reading on my mattress and admiring the continuous chewing of the camels.
In the midafternoon, we set off again, this time to the dunes where we would make camp. The Sam Sand Dunes are the most famous in Rajasthan, known for their endless stretches of vegetation-less sands. Having talked with our drivers earlier, they recommended a lesser-known location, the Kametadi Dunes. We ascended the top of one hill and, as we made our descent along the other side, appearing like something out of a movie, was a gorgeous landscape of golden dunes. Sweeping, uneven mounds with swirling designs that emerged and disappeared in the wind filled my line of vision.
We picked a camping site and, like an eager child, I scampered off to play. Running as fast as I could up a hill, and taking off in a jump over the edge, I landed in powder-soft sand and tumbled back down. Worn out from my overly youthful jaunt, I was famished and ready for the dinner that was waiting at camp.
Evenings are when the desert community’s traditions are best showcased. Music and dance are an important pastime and, at the campsite, a performance is usually organized. Even though I was camping in the desert and not at a tented campsite, I was still treated to some impromptu folk music. The two camel drivers and a friend who came to deliver water — desert dwellers still have mobile phones, after all — made instruments from dishes and bottles and sang traditional folk songs into the night. I fell asleep that night staring up at the immense, star-filled sky, trying to recall my elementary astronomy.
In the morning, it took the drivers an hour to find the camels, who had wandered away while we slept. I was reluctant to head back after only one night in the desert, but we had to leave before it became too hot. We loaded our camels and were ready to go, but not before reveling in one more jump off the dunes.
Commissionable camel safaris in the Thar Desert are available through the following tour operators:Rajasthan Desert Safariwww.desertsafarijaisalmer.comCommission: Varies, depending on package. Please contact directly for details.
Royal Desert Safarieswww.campsandsafaries.comCommission: Up to 15 percent