Thursday, March 29, 2007

Desert Safari- Thar Desert, India

Exploring the Thar Desert in Northwest India

It was May 2006, the middle of the hot season a month or more before the Monsoons would arrive. Most travelers were up at hill stations like Simla and Darjeeling, far away to the north and east, in the mountains where they could stay cool. For me, the blistering sun and temperatures over 113 degrees greeted me the moment I stepped off the train in Jaisalmer, a small outpost located in the far eastern portion of the Indian state of Rajasthan. Jaisalmer is located a little more than 50 miles from the boarder with Pakistan, and is affectionately known as the golden city after the distinct golden color of the rocks mined in the surrounding desert and used in the construction of the town. I had traveled over 24 painful hours in steerage class on the Indian railway system, in order to be able to venture out into the more remote reaches of The Great Indian Desert also known as the Thar Desert. My plan was to accomplish this on a camel safari.

Before departing, I spent a day in town to recover from the overnight train ride, and get the safari organized. In Jaisalmer there are many people who want to sell you a safari, and it is easy to get ripped off, or even loose all your money to a “phantom” outfitter, who takes your cash and never shows up for the tour. The best thing to do is go off a recommendation from someone who has had a good experience, or visit an actual tourist office. The guys out in the street trying to pitch you are probably the worst way to get a camel safari organized. I went off advice given to me by some travelers from Sweden I had met a few weeks earlier up in Dharmasala, the home to the exiled Dalai Lama. So, when I first met Anil and sensed he was trustworthy, I knew I had arrived at the right place.

Anil was my guide for a four day camel safari, and he was honest, hardworking, and much to my delight- a very good cook. With three people in our party, three camels, supplies, and over 60 liters of bottled water, we got an early start from a location about 25 miles from Jaisalmer town, where the road ends and the sand begins! The safari turned out to exceed my expectations of an outdoor experience, and there was a real sense of adventure that came with the trip. Our little caravan wound through beautiful desert landscapes and traversed ridges and valleys that switched back and forth between rocky “moonscapes” with sparse vegetation to tall sand dunes and windswept barren plains. On infrequent occasions we would come upon small nomadic settlements consisting of a few dried mud houses, a few goats, perhaps a well, and not much more. The people that lived in these little hamlets were curious about our undertaking and at times followed us for over a mile as we proceeded on. Dressed in long white garments and colorful turbans, nomads herding small groups of scraggly, under nourished goats dotted the landscape from time to time as well. I always wondered to myself how far those men walked each day, and how they put up with the scalding heat carrying no more than a liter of water or even no water at all!

Morning was always a sandy affair, dusting off, changing, and loading up the gear on the camels after a hearty breakfast and a fresh chai cooked over an open fire by Anil. Daytime temperatures typically would get up to 115 degrees or more in the shade. Attempting to combat the heat in the middle of the day was accomplished by trying finding some sliver of shade and doing little more than sitting for a few hours, drinking lots of water, and waiting for the sun to dip a bit lower on the horizon to provide some relief. Late afternoons were usually spent trying to cover some distance to our evening camp either on camel back or on foot out in front of the animals. The nights actually got pleasant when the breeze blew, and sleeping out on a sand dune with nothing but a blanket set out on the sand was one of the most enjoyable aspects of this adventure. Gazing up at the millions of stars that lit up the desert sky each night was a truly intoxicating experience. A small cup of Indian chai made with goats milk, fresh homemade chapatti bread, and curried veggies made the whole thing uniquely Indian.

Some of the things that truly made an impact on me during this trip were sitting by a cooking fire sipping chai with a friendly nomad that wandered over by us who only had one eye. Since we couldn’t speak to each other because my Hindi language skills were close to non existent, we just sat there, contemplated the desert and enjoyed the chai. Another dramatic moment was getting stuck in a pretty heavy sandstorm which completely buried most of our gear, sent the camels running away, kept us up all night, and left me with sand in every conceivable spot imaginable. Getting to know Anil, who shared many stories about his life and experiences out in the desert, and having my hips so sore from sitting on my camel for such a long time were some of the other highlights that rounded out this camel safari.

I often think to myself, I went through all these hardships and discomforts for only about ten dollars a day! In reality, the camel safari was a great way to get intimate with this harsh and remote landscape, while seeing a unique culture of India that hasn’t change much in hundreds of years.

By: Erik Rasmussen
Erik’s Adventures LLC