The main selling point of this desert getaway was its remote location. We headed West from Jaisalmer towards The Great Indian Desert, where India meets Pakistan. Myself and two friends, along with three other travellers, making us a crew of seven: Four Aussies, two Germans and our Indian driver. Somehow we all managed to squeeze into a five seater car along with our backpacks and provisions for the trip.
Our drop off destination wasn’t quite as remote as promised with desert retreat signs pinned up by the road side and an active village 200 meters to our left. I was beginning to feel a little apprehensive about riding a camel on flat ground between popular villages and a forest of wind turbines. Our driver handed us over to our guides and promptly took off back down the highway, I watched the car drive off into the distance and wondered if I too should have retreated back to the Golden City.
It was too late! I was handed two litres of water and assigned to my camel ‘Robert’ who wasn’t the friendliest of fellows, but perhaps he was sensing my uncertainty. We would have plenty of time on the ride ahead to come to an understanding, but it wasn’t looking too promising!
Firstly, I was finding it very hard to understand how anyone could consider this a comfortable mode of transport. Within the first ten minutes I was developing calluses in unpleasant places, and feeling an equal mix of dread and regret. Adding salt to my fresh saddle graze was the huge smile on my boyfriends face as he gracefully bobbed up and down like he was one of the guides, instructing me to “move with camel, go with the flow”. There was no fluidity in my body, it felt like pre-death rigor mortis had set in, feeling every unpleasant pound.
I learnt quickly in the desert there’s no measure of time, a short amount feels very very long, I was relieved when a lunch time announcement was called. After dismounting our camels we were all walking like duck footed cow boys. We sat, shaded, snacking on small fruits from the trees, obtained by throwing sticks up to the branches and hoping for a downpour of fruit. There was a solid few hours of leisure time for ourselves and the camels to lay around and postpone any further riding. It was a matinee performance, entertained by the camels sneakily disappearing behind dunes while the guides were distracted cooking a vegetable stew over a small fire. Then the inevitable happened, lunch time ended… I had to suck it up and get back on the…camel.
The next leg wasn’t such a struggle, we were finally treading on classic desert terrain – big sandy mounds making for a much softer ride. This was the authentic safari experience I signed up for. The ride was short, we had reached our camp for the night just in time to watch the sunset over the dunes while sipping on hot chai, I was warming to the trip.
After I stopped complaining to myself and gathered some clarity – there it was, tranquillity! no traffic, clear skies and fresh air! The fine sand slips through my fingers like an hourglass as the suns disappears and the stars gradually begin to glow.
A campfire dinner, sleeping on the sand, our German travel companion rightfully gave our accommodation a 5 Billion Star Rating, a very pleasant end to what started as a bumpy day.
I was woken by a dog row taking place a few meters from my sleepy head. A rogue desert dog was treading on Kiru’s territory. Kiru was our guide Ali’s dog, he looked like a cross between a Scottish Terrier and a Polar Bear. While progress with Robert was slow, I was forming quite the friendship with Kiru.
After I found a dune high enough to urinate behind, I was mentally ready – keen as mustard, couldn’t wait to get back on the camel tracks. What a vision, a line of camels plodding in sync through the sand. Well all except one; my boyfriend! It seemed he had mastered the art of camel handling overnight and decided to ride solo. While he had full control of his own camel Rocket, dressed in loose linen very much looking the part, I was quite happily hands free while Bolsa, our 15 year old guide, led Robert and I safely.
I was finally pushing through my physical discomforts and beginning to fully appreciate the surrounds. Passing by tiny huts and sighting antelopes speeding across far away ridges, perhaps three days wasn’t long enough?
Our guides made a stop at their home village to let the camels have a drink, and introduce us to their families. Kids came from everywhere wanting to hold our hands, getting our attention to ask for money and cigarettes. I told them I didn’t smoke, so with no tobacco exchanges we moved to more innocent activities -playing ball. The boys were all about cricket – The India verses Australia Desert Test began. After the match and with the camels re-hydrated it was time to saddle up, the village kids rushed to give us a nice send off and have one last attempt for rupees and cigarettes.
This next stretch was extremely barren, turning a few tumble weeds and animal caucuses into points of interest. I was starting to get a little hungry and feel the heat, but with no trees in sight it didn’t seem likely that we would be stopping anytime soon. Then what seemed like a desert hallucination came our refuge, a large hut in the centre of the open plains. The hut was cleared of fecal droppings, which were resourcefully pushed aside and recycled. The guides cooked our lunch on top of burning cow shit, a survival technique worth noting.
While waiting for lunch, a small boy about the age of ten appeared in the middle of no where selling us potato chips and pepsi from the bag over his shoulder. He claimed he lived in a village 10 kms away and had walked to meet us. Astounded we all pulled out our wallets and each purchased a bag of msg. Once he realised the shopping spree was over, he walked about 500 meters to the motorbike he had hidden by a small tree and rode off……..suckers!
We were well shaded and ate another delicious meal, which probably contained traces of shit, but you couldn’t tell! I looked forward to the afternoon stretch, it was heavenly, you are well fed, the sun is easing off and you know soon enough you’ll be by the campfire talking nonsense.
This time I didn’t have Robert piggy back me, I decided to go by foot to reach the campsite, which was great for mine and Robert’s relationship. I think he enjoyed the lighter load and being able to look down on me.
After sitting on my ass for most of my time in India, on buses, trains, lounges and camels humps, the exercise was doing me wonders and relieving my coccyx from permanent damage. I felt free and fierce like a seasoned desert dweller, no time to stop and pull out the thorns piecing into the bed of my feet. Its just me, Robert and Kiru against the elements (supervised by our guides with mobile phones in their pockets)
When we reached camp,the rest of the group settled in and began to relax. Not the three amigos – Robert, Kiru and I headed across the dunes to a nearby peak. The sky was a bright orange, triggering the classic lion king tune to play in my head, this was a moment of victory, had I conquered the desert? It was all getting very theatrical and Robert clearly wanted to clock off and hang out with his buddies rolling around in the sand.
Our ten year old friend was back with more snacks, sticking to his original story, with no mention of his stashed motorbike. This time he brings beer and chocolate to win over the crowd. As the fires sparks up, the group gets a little sentimental about our final day in the Thar. Caught up in the moment, I even suggested that a month long camel safari would be an epic adventure. It must have been the affects of the sun! We enjoyed a late night of silly games and macho competitions of who could hunt the most amount of fire wood, which in reality was who could get the most amount of prickles in their feet while trying.
The final day had come. The desert dream was over as our camels headed back towards the city taking a very direct route along the bitumen road, the hard surface was much less idyllic. Everyone was in pain and ready to say goodbye to the camels and ride a jeep back to civilisation.
The duration of the Safari was not long, we certainly didn’t cover much ground and the location was hardly remote, but it was just what I needed – Simplicity. It’s said that variety is that spice of life, well there’s plenty of spice in India, so eating the same basic meals for the past few days was refreshing. I had come full circle in a matter of days, there was plenty of time to reflect on Robert’s hump, strange memories were floating to the surface of my mind, as though I was sweating them out.
I remember my conversation in Australia with the Indian restaurant owner who claimed Rajasthan was haunted. The only haunt I experienced here was the evil corporations playing to my sugar addiction temping me with treats while I’m trying to detox in the desert. Surely there’s a universal code of conduct – No worldly influences while one is undergoing a vision quest! So apart from pepsi stalking me, I didn’t have any paranormal experiences to recount. Perhaps this lightness I was feeling was due to the desert shedding some of my demons. Poor Rajasthan gets stuck housing everyone’s shifted burdens.
I thanked Robert and the guides for our camel safari experience; took off a few layers of linen and began the journey home to Australia. If I’ve learnt anything from my partial dehydration in the Indian desert it’s that a lot can happen in a short time frame, mental shifts, friendships and becoming accustomed to saddle soreness. We humans often think of time as a currency, believing that by investing more we will receive a greater return, a more meaningful experience or a deeper relationship. If we stop watching the clock, get past these limiting beliefs and begin to think along the same lines of Albert Einstein “Time is an illusion”
We will be living each moment not calculating them. So don’t wait for a year long trip when you get annual leave when you have enough annual leave from work in three years time. Go camping on the weekend, three days may feel like three years, those three days could get you through the next three years.