Riding a camel. Every girl’s dream.
Well, at least it became my dream after reading about the famous Rajasthan camel safaris in my guidebook.
Golden sand dunes swirling all around, my turban flowing gently in the wind behind me, I immediately pictured myself as some exotic Arabian princess crossing the desert on my noble steed in my search for an oasis (so what if princesses don’t wear turbans and probably don’t actually have to find their own watering holes, my dream ok?). A Rajasthani camel safari shot right to the top of my India “must do” list.
Turns out, riding a camel is not as glamorous as it sounds.
Now, don’t get me wrong, riding a camel is pretty awesome, but like a camel itself, no ride would be complete without its ups and downs.
The program is quite simple. You and your group are led on a journey throughout the Thar Desert by local guides on a camel. Some trips are true multiple-day safaris, sometimes spanning over several weeks, where others may be as short as a half a day to just get the overall feel. Though most of the time is spent passing through dry terrain and shrubs, most trips include at least a visit to the more “desert-y” sand dunes.
In our case, my friend Gloria and I opted for the ever-popular, two-day safari that included a visit to several local villages and an overnight stay in the sand dunes. Joining us were three other travelers who were also staying at our guest house.
Day one was great.
Clear blue skies, bright, shining sun overhead, Gloria and I could hardly contain our excitement as five camels appeared in the distance. Decked in bright blue and red blankets, two days worth of food and water balancing on either side of their humps, our crew was ready for adventure.
Up close, camels are fascinating creatures. Though ours did not spit, they certainly liked to chew a lot, offering a brutish contrast to their beautiful Minnie Mouse-eyelashes above. And, turns out, some camels just have one hump. But the things I found most interesting about camels were their legs. With long limbs, flexible knees and just two toes, camels have a certain gait as they walk, and the padding in their feet makes it look as though they’re melting into the ground with every step.
As I slid on to Simon, my camel for the duration of the trip, I was also surprised at how tall camels actually are and how ungraceful they can be when standing up and sitting down. I learned to hold on tight real quick!
But as we glided throughout the desert, dry, open land for miles around, bars of “Alice the Camel” and “Jai Ho” alternating in my head, I found my stride. I even got to wear my turban.
Of course, one cannot travel across the desert alone, especially not five Westerners whose only experience with the desert has been through the likes of “Aladdin.”
Leading our team were three guides who not only served as our leaders, but as our cooks and camel caretakers along the way. One special guide in particular will stay in all of our hearts: Mr. Gaji Khan.
At the ripe age of 11, Gaji Khan could do more things as a child than many of the people I’ve met can do
as adults. Though by far the youngest member of our entourage, Gaji led the camels like a pro, keeping them in line when they got out of hand and even leading them across the desert back to camp alone in the early morning.
Gaji was also an accomplished chef. Along with his two co-guides (luckily, actual adults), Gaji would sit down with them before meal times, peeling vegetables with his knife, cooking bread over the open flames and helping prepare our simple meals of chapati and daal.
But for all his praises, there was one thing that Gaji never could figure out: most of our names. In fact, the only name he could remember was Gloria’s. After a half a dozen conversations to a few of us beginning with “What is your name?” he eventually gave up and began addressing all questions or announcements directly to her. Camp and meal times often went something like this:
“Gloria, lunch is ready.”
“Gloria, do you want some more tea?”
“Gloria, it’s time to go.”
“Look at this, Gloria!”
Though the rest of us would, at times, try to speak with Gaji directly, we often found our responses channeled through her, as she became our involuntary, though proud, group representative.
And though my “I’m Erica from America” trick usually worked to help people remember my name, even the two adult guides had trouble figuring me out. Soon, I gave up and conceded to being addressed in unison with my camel, simply as “Simon.”
Answering to “Simon,” speaking to Gaji through Gloria, the day carried on to be mostly uneventful. Our group traveled across the desert, admiring the peacefulness of the vast open space with only a few shrubs to break up miles of hard, dry ground.
And then we saw them. The sand dunes. The climax of the entire trip.
Large, calm and powdery, the dunes were every bit as beautiful as they look in pictures. But as both the sun and the temperature were going down, we only got a fleeting glimpse before it was time to make camp.
Our guides went to work preparing vegetables and chapati for dinner, as we helped unload the layers of mats and blankets from our camels, creating a little ring around the fire.
After dinner, as I lay tucked beneath my blankets, toasty and snug despite the cool night air, I looked up at the sky and was immediately fixated, enchanted by the magical dance above.
All around in endless blackness, no street lights or neon signs to dampen their glory, hundreds of stars shone proudly, proving to the distracted world below how insignificant they were in comparison. Vague memories of my eighth grade astronomy class came to mind as images of Hercules, Orion and all seven Pleiades sisters came into shape.
Together beneath the star-lit sky, my four companions and I relished in the calmness and the beauty of the night, amazed at how frequent shooting stars actually are, immersing ourselves in wish after wish.
Like a middle school campfire, we gathered round, sharing jokes and ghost stories. No phones, no Internet, no TV, just the sheer pleasure of natural beauty and human companionship.
I stared at the sky for what seemed like hours and never wanted to stop, but the day began to weigh on me, and I felt myself eyelids succumb to the pressures of sleep.
When I awoke the next morning, the soft light of the dawn transformed the dunes in a vast black sea of waves, silhouetted against the swirling pink, orange and purple sky. Still cozy under a weight of warmth, I admired the sunrise quietly in my makeshift bed as my friends continued to sleep.
As the sun changed from pink to yellow, my companions began to wake and the full glory of the desert shone before us. Mounds of swimmingly delicious golden sand dunes loomed around, begging us to climb them, jump in them, roll in them.
This was our chance.
Like children, five 20-somethings joined Gaji Khan in an all-out play-fest, running through the sand, jumping over faded yellow cliffs, landing into a massive pile of soft dust below. (“Gloria, look at me!”) Day two was looking good so far.
Three hours later we were finally ready to leave. As we prepared to continue our journey, some of the members of our group began to ask about seeing the Pakistani border, something that had apparently been promised them by our guest house owner. Gloria and I had known nothing about this, and since I had already been to the border in Amritsar, it wasn’t a huge priority for me. But after much insistence from others, we soon found ourselves trotting along in what appeared to be the direction of India’s estranged brother.
After about an hour or so, our guides pointed to a vast area of desert to our right, claiming this was the Pakistani border. No fence, no guards, no patrols, but this was it, they tried to convince us. Our group, however, wasn’t buying it. Again, after much insistence, we found ourselves heading toward “Pakistan.”
After another hour or so, we were told, once again, that we had reached the long-awaited border. This time, it seemed a bit more convincing. Rows of small white houses, barbed wire and even a road, suggested some sort of camp, maybe a patrol. But as we continued past, a large white sign bearing “Oasis India Camp” revealed we had been duped. As we would find out later, the Pakistani border is more than 80 km away from Jaisalmer, an unrealistic distance to attain on a two-day camel safari!
Now, as much as I wasn’t overly concerned about returning to the Pakistani border, I do care about being lied to, specifically, I don’t care for it. But as we still had half a day left on our tour, I tried to shake it off and make the most of it.
Off again we trotted, this time, however, through a menacing-looking area full of thorn bushes. I felt a bit like Prince Phillip as he cut through the bushes to reach Princess Aurora in the tower, but since one of our (adult) guides was holding the reins behind me, I figured I need not worry.
I was wrong. Despite my repeated requests to be careful, my guide allowed my camel to ride directly into a thorn bush, scratching up my foot and causing it to bleed.
While injuries were minor, the cut was quite painful, and as we headed to our final destination, another problem that had been growing steadily got pretty bad: turns out, even without scratching your foot, riding a camel hurts.
For anyone who has ever ridden a horse you know that, unless you’re a frequent rider, your butt and thigh muscles get quite sore after riding for just an hour, leaving you with the very attractive “squat-walk” when you get off.
Now, add a few feet, a hump and, like eight hours, and you’ve got yourself, not only sore thighs, but what Gloria and I like to call “butt chap.”
As you can imagine, butt chap is what happens when the constant friction between your cheeks causes the skin to come off, leaving you another reason to do the “squat-walk” after riding. Originally, I had been quite excited to trot the camels, but after a day and half, the “clop” “clop” “clop” turned into “ow!” “ow!” “ow!” In one of the few unanimous decisions of our group, all five of us decided we would rather sit under a tree and wait for the jeep to pick us up instead of riding the remaining few hours of our camel safari. We had all had our fill of the camel safari.
While perfect it was not, I will say the Jaisalmer camel safari was one of the most interesting and magical experiences of my life, and I will carry the memories with me always. But just in case they begin to fade, I’m sure the scars on my feet will remind me forever :).