Yes, I have a lot to learn about India, but I suspect there are a few of you out there who also have never heard of the Thar Desert.
There is nothing like an Intrepid tour to take you slightly off the beaten track and at the same time, open your eyes and your mind, to new places.
The Thar Desert is certainly one of those eye-opening spots.
The Thar Desert starts on the outskirts of Jaisalmer, around 837km west of Delhi, and only 120km from the India/Pakistan border. My tour group had rattled through the night on a sleeper train from Delhi. It was my first introduction to train travel in India, and it was a wonderful way to build the anticipation of our first major Rajasthan destination – Jaisalmer.
Slightly disoriented, and still jiggling from the train movement, we stepped out of the train, waded through the masses of tuk tuks and touts, and bundled ourselves into some rough and ready jeeps. The vehicles dropped us at the base of a soaring structure, and donning our backpacks, we commenced our climb up the steep cobbled road. In the heart of Jaisalmer is a magnificent fort. I was to quickly learn that forts are ‘a dime a dozen’ in India, but they never failed to take my breath away. Through narrow and twisting walkways we found our small homestay for a much needed shower and to reshuffle our bare necessities into smaller bags.
The Fort is a mini city in itself, but exploration would have to wait for another day as we had camels to ride!
Feeling human again in a fresh set of clothes, we strolled back down out of the Fort to clamber into the waiting jeeps. We bounced and bumped along dusty roads for about 45 minutes before leaving the road completely and heading cross country. The landscape had become progressively drier and more desolate, and yet farmers were optimistically working the land for a meagre living.
A bit like a car load of kids, ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’, our group was desperately peering into the surrounding landscape to see who would be the first to spy the sand dunes. No sand dunes yet, but a handful of lumps on the horizon materialised into ten camels and their handlers, patiently awaiting our arrival.
Camels would have to be the most awkwardly designed animal in nature. Everything is long, lumpy and lanky. Their body is all the wrong shape, or a weird shape at least, but obviously they have evolved for function, not beauty. As I was to be spending the next little while on the back of one, who was I to complain?
From the look of them, our camels had many ‘miles on their clocks’. They were scarred, moth-eaten, mangy and covered in flies. I thought they had seen better days, but I am no expert judge of camel flesh. What a life they must have carting tourists of all shapes and sizes. True beasts of burden.
After a bit of a briefing and reorganisation, our handlers, or the camel’s handlers at least, helped us scramble aboard and we loped off in search of the Thar Desert and their mystical sand dunes.
Over the next 90 minutes I found muscles that had long been forgotten in my dim, dark memories of pony club Sundays. Trying to remember all those shouted directions from frustrated horse riding instructors, I focused on ‘sitting tall, back straight and heels down’. I felt quite at home as our camels happily jogged, or walked, along. Their speed depending on the volume of complaints coming from the non-riders in the group.
At last the sand dunes loomed and we were all suitably excited and, a little awestruck, to be in a real, live desert. Our camels kneeled down at a dangerous angle and we inelegantly dismounted, and as a group, walked bow-legged as if we had been riding for a week and had just stepped out of a spaghetti-Western movie.
The golden colours and the graceful curves of the sand dunes soon made us forget any stiffness and soreness, and we trekked across the shifting sands to find our camp for the night. Ten stretcher beds were already set up, waiting our arrival, as our handlers morphed into chambermaids, chefs and barmen, ensuring all our basic needs were met. Hot curry and cold beers – we weren’t really roughing it.
As daylight fell, so did the temperature and it quickly reminded me that I hadn’t packed enough warm clothing for this Indian adventure. The only choice was to dive into my bed and bury myself beneath the small mountain of quilts. Literally, ‘as snug as a bug in a rug’. Although, I really didn’t want to know what bugs I was sharing my bedding with.
With total blackness we were treated to the most spectacular starry skies. How often do we have the luxury of time to pause and contemplate the heavens? To make our desert experience even more memorable, a breathtaking comet scorched across the whole sky – seeming to light its way from one horizon to the other. Later we learned that this comet was part of the Leonid meteor shower. How lucky were we to experience this in such a unique destination?
Cosily buried under our thick bedding, the excited chatter died away and we drifted off to sleep accompanied by the gentle ‘whump’ of the wind turbines on the far horizon.
In no time it was morning again and I peeked out of my warm nest to see a handful of the cameleers’ dogs had decided to cuddle up on our warm beds too. Again, it was not worth thinking too hard about where those dogs had been and what interesting bugs and other things they were carrying.
Over the sand dunes, our camels patiently waited to take us back to the vehicles and Jaisalmer itself. Striding back across the sand dunes, it was a true ‘pinch myself moment’, as here I was riding camels, across a desert, in India. Who would have thought?
What lesser known parts of India would you recommend?
What: The Thar Desert is also known as the Great Indian Desert. It covers around 200000sq km.
Where: Rajasthan, India.
When: We visited in mid-November, warm days and cold nights.
Why: To experience a completely different side of India.
How: By camel of course.
Who: Recommended for people with a reasonable level of fitness as you need to be able to safely mount and dismount a camel, and be prepared to sleep out under the stars.
Related Posts: To find out what to pack for a trip to India, have a look at my post that lists the bare necessities. Pack something warm!
Related Blogs: For a slightly more glamorous Thar Desert experience, check out the wildlife and glamping in Soul Travel blog.
Read About It: Don’t forget your Lonely Planet Rajasthan, available from Book Depository.