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Camel Safari – Riding Through Sand Dunes

After a delicious Rajasthani meal at the Lal Bagh Palace Hotel at Bikaner, we set off by bus for Naukh, a little village, about 13 kilometres off the main Bikaner – Jaisalmer highway. It was going to be my first visit through the desert, and I was already beginning to have a bit of an idea as to what I should expect in the next few days. As we drove along the highway, the land stretched out on either side, flat, vast and sandy. A few scrubby bushes seemed to struggle out of their sandy homes as if for a refreshing breath of air. Thinking back, this was probably one of the reasons why when the rest of the princely states (together, they make up the state of Rajasthan today) were engaged in fighting each other, the state of Bikaner never saw much action – the terrain was too forbidding to sustain an onslaught.

As we moved on, to the left, a sign board indicated the location of Gajner Sanctuary “keep an eye on the left.” Our tour guide, suggested the possibility of spotting some wildlife. Now there was a stir of excitement in our rather heterogenous group which comprised of seven Germans, a Welsh and two Indians besides the other two tour escorts who came from Jaipur. Luck seemed to be on our side. The bus stopped for us to “see and photograph” a herd of gazelle only 30 metres from the road. Those of us on the other side scrambled across, at the same time reaching out for binoculars and cameras. The chinkara, now alert by the sound of the halting bus, looked up in alarm, and before anybody was even able to focus his lens, took off in a graceful sprint towards the interior. So, we settled down to resume the journey, but it wasn’t too long before we again sighted the gazelle and the nilgai (blue bull) on the same stretch.

Naukh was a further seven kilometres away, the milestone informed us. The safari was to begin from there. As we approached our destination the sun was beginning to set. It had rained a short while ago – the sky was overcast and a cool breeze was blowing. Having disembarked, we strolled a couple of hundred metres up and down little sand dunes towards the camp site. The cameleers (all local people) had assembled there awaiting us. The camel carts were parked nearby, and the camels that were to take us on this week-long adventure sat huddled. The village children too had gathered around us by now, their eyes full of curiosisty. While we refreshed ourselves with a steaming cup of tea, tents were put up for us to sleep in. The camp fire was lit. The safari had begun.

Dinner was a four-course meal, delicious to the very last morsel. I decided to stroll to the kitchen in the hope of sharing Ayub’s (the cook) culinary secrets. The kitchen was a makeshift arrangement under two camel carts placed next to each other at right angles. Not quite tired from the long journey, I then decided to climb atop the nearest sand dune a few metres away, and savour the smells and sounds of the desert night rather than snuggle into my sleeping bag. The sky was now clear and millions of stars blinked from the inky expanse above. The temperature had dropped considerably, but it wasn’t an unpleasant kind of chill, though we were in the middle of February. Ayub, as if reading my thoughts, made me a cup of hot coffee. I lay back and began to picture the excitement the next few days had in store for us.

Surprisingly, there was a change in the weather the next morning. Sipping my morning tea, I surveyed the dark, overcast skies. A cool and pleasant breeze was blowing, just the kind of weather I enjoy.

There are basically two breeds of camels in Rajasthan. The ‘Bikaneri’, and the ‘Jaisalmeri’. As the name suggests, the former are from Bikaner. Bigger in build, these camels are used for lugging weight, while the latter being smaller, are more agile and so make good riding camels, at times covering 60 kilometres per hour. For obvious reasons, every one of us was relieved to know we’d be riding the Bikaneri camels on the safari. We walked alongside the camels for a few hundred metres before mounting. The animals needed warming up before taking the load of two persons on their backs.

The moment we skirted the dune and came out onto the windward side, the breeze that once seemed pleasant, was no longer so. It got more and more menacing. Fine particles of sand blasted onto my face, and almost immediately we got wiser. I wrapped a long white scarf around my head and pictured the scenes from film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

But we ignored the weather and got ready for the long ride. The camels were coaxed into sitting on all fours. The cameleer stood on foreleg which was bent inward so as to prevent the camel from suddenly rising. I quickly got onto the front seat of the saddle. The cameleer scrambled on behind me.

Mounting, next to dismounting, turned out to be the trickiest part of the entire riding lesson as the friskier of the camels have a tendency of suddenly rise while the rider is in the process of mounting, leaving him to fall flat. One of the members in our group learnt this lesson the hard way. However, the area being sandy and soft, there wasn’t any cause for worry, rather an amusing experience, at least for us spectators. Once firmly on the saddle the camel stands on his forelegs first and then the hind legs.

It was a grand feeling, placed 11 feet above the ground, I surveyed the surroundings. It was a lot like a mobile machan. The camels fell in line, moving slowly in a rhythm. However, I was finding the ride rather rough and jerky. “Saheb, relax, let you body loose,” advised Bhoom Singh, the cameleer. My hands were clenched tightly around the pommel and I tried to grip the camel tightly between my knees in an effort to convince the camel that it wasn’t my first ride and thus hopefully avoid tumbling over. I wondered as to what Bhoom Singh meant by “relax”. Anyway, I decided to heed Bhoom Singh’s advice. Slowly I relaxed my body, waist upwards, still gripping with my legs just in case. Yes, he was right. The ride felt smoother and soon I fell into the rhythm. In a few moments I let my legs loose to and rocked along. Bhoom Singh was right, of course.

All around me, spread miles and miles of undulating sand, dotted here and there by a scrubby bush or tree. The wind was blowing strong as we inched our way to Borana. It was one of the most charming sights I have come across. The village children were just as excited I suppose. They were expecting us, having got the news from the advance party. Scampering here and there, they begged to be photographed. Some of them had a request: ‘one pen’. Apparently, the last time a foreign group passed by their village, they distributed pens to all the kids. We now walked towards the village school building – the only concrete structure in the area – to refresh ourselves.

The weather improved by the evening, and some of us decided to stroll through this little place. The people of Borana are a very hospitable lot. Insisting that we be their guests, tea was brewed especially for us. The women mostly shy and orthodox did not mind the curious glances they got. On the contrary, they were too eager to display the intricate silver jewellery that adorned their arms, hair, fingers and toes. Thick bands, called haslis, fitted close round the neck and assorted necklaces added colour to the dress. It seemed the women were just as curious about the lives of the angrez (the foreigner). Kay and Barbara exchanged notes as far as family and household matters were concerned; Kay, gesticulating rapidly in an attempt to get her point across. The men sat together, preferring to talk about more serious matters.

The next morning the sun in all its glory rose from behind the dunes. Mercifully, the wind had died down, as if in answer to our prayers the night before. After a quick breakfast, we moved on to Badlda. By the side of Rajasthan Canal is Choti Chinnu, a very typical village. We were onto the second day of the safari.

There were 14 kilometres to go before Badla. Drowsy after the midday meal and the effect of the hot sun, I nearly dozed off atop the camel. I was quite content. And to think that only yesterday I didn’t think the safari was worth it at all. But soon I was alert. Amongst the few scrubs were two dogs chasing a frightened gazelle. The chase lasted about 200 metres, when the gazelle disappeared into the thick shrubs, in a few graceful leaps. Incidentally it is one of the best known animals of the desert. Quiet and always alert. Feeling rather enthused, I hoped to come across the Great Indian Bustard, a species almost on the verge of extinction until a few years ago. But I had no luck.

Rohla, our next destination was only a short while away. So I opted for a ride on one of the camel carats. Shaping a mattress into a deck chair, stripping down to my shorts, I soaked in the warmth of the winter sun as I sipped from a can of beer. Lulled by the slow rocking motion of the cart as it ambled along, I slipped into a pleasant reverie. My attention was drawn towards the shrill voices of a group of women, trooping together, the brass pots filled with water delicately balanced on their heads and glinting in the sunlight.

Women, in colourful clothes with cows, camels and members of our group converged at a place near a tree in what seemed to be the village square. A camel tugged at a rope, coaxed by a handsome villager wearing a red turban and broke free from the gathering. I realized that the centre of the activity was the village well. Rohla seemed to be a p5rosperous village. It boasted of four concrete houses and was spread over nearly 200 square metres.

The next morning, we were up early and reached Baru having stopped by at Hamire Ki Dhani for a quick lunch. ‘Dhani’ looked more like a farm house. Baru was indeed fascinating. To approach the village we had to traverse big and sand dunes for abut a kilometre. That was what one always imagined the real desert to be like. We set up camp far from the village amidst the dunes and to complete the desert romance had a camp fire with the village bard singing traditional folk songs accompanied by the typical desert instruments like the khartal, dhol and pipni.

The folk music of Rajasthan is very diverse. Usually the entire lifestyle of the villagers is extolled in the theme. They may be songs of separation or songs of union, some are addressed to the crow and camel, while others talk to neem and tulsi trees. Many are devotional inviting the gods to a ceremony that is to take place, and others extol the triumph and virtues of heroic warriors of the past and it is particularly in these desert areas of Rajasthan that the Folk tradition is so rich, and often one finds entire communities of professional singers. The music being very catchy, some of us also joined in much to the amusement of the villagers.

The safari was nearing its end. From Tota now to Askandra. The 15 kilometres to Askandra proved to be eventful – we spotted two herds of gazelle and the imperial sandgrouse. But is till hoped to meet the Indian bustard.

At Askandra, the village pradhan welcomed us in the traditional way offering us garlands of marigolds, and the red mark of tilak on our forehead which symbolized friendship and hospitality. The beat of the drums lent a festive air as we were led to his home where the women had prepared a simple yet delicious meal. Taking part in the traditional opium-drinking ceremony, we left, not forgetting to pose for photographs with our kind hosts.

As I climbed onto the waiting bus, I though to myself, give me the camel, any day.