After our few days in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, Bruno and I were keen on renewing the desert experience. This time we decided to go on a camel trek in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan. We reached Jaisalmer for the Desert Festival (highly recommended!), making the “Golden City” the perfect starting point for this adventure. Since camels are the traditional means of transport, we decided to explore the desert animals.
The arid region of the Thar Desert mostly sits in India though a smaller portion stands in Pakistan. Composed of sand dunes, rocky valleys, and thorny bushes, the Thar is one of the most densely populated deserts on the planet. Local villages support themselves through livestock and agriculture, though the latter part is made hard by the limited rainfalls.
Knowledge of the desert is, of course, the key to ensuring that the environment and local culture are respected. We also wanted to make sure animals were treated well. After a quick research, we signed up for a 3-Day Camel Trek with Trotters Independent Tours and Travel. The local tour operator had raving reviews about their organization and the respect to their staff included the four-legged ones. One crucial element was that Delboy, the founder of the company, came himself a village and was supportive of the local community.
Day 1 – Starting our Camel Trek
We met our pickup at the Trotters Tours and Travels office by the Jaisalmer Fort entrance, centrally located and easy to find. We left our bigger backpacks with them and kept the small ones for the trip. Given we would sleep under the stars in the Desert in February, we packed a few jackets, beanies, and scarves for the colder temperatures. The company offered us to take a tent, but we passed on the option. Blankets were at our disposal, but I knew I would get cold quickly and took our sleeping bags. Nothing could prevent us from that night-under-the-stars experience!
We left town quickly with our driver in the 4WD and everything still quiet at the wee hours. After about 30 minutes we reached a small village. Our driver picked up some supplies from our trip while we sipped hot cups of fresh chai offered while waiting. Upon resuming our journey, we soon reached a small dune where we met Punja and Madan, our guide and cook for the trip. Punja was a senior guide, Madan a high school student replacing his father for the weekend.
Close by stood Big Kona, Lalou, and Papou – my camel, Bruno’s and the pack camel. Another couple from Brazil was with us and would be our partners for the next day. Madan was already busy gathering the wood for the boiling the water for another chai and preparing our breakfast. As it would be the case for the rest of the trip, Punja made everything from scratch, the dough of the chapati, the dhal, the vegetables – everything!
We ate under the rising sun, enjoying the scenery tremendously and appreciating the silence after the town street noise. Punja went on gathering the cooking set and utensils and packing the camels with our food for the next two days. And then it was time. Time to go on our camels.
Approaching Big Kona from the left side like a horse, I tried to jump on the saddle. It was somewhat harder than expected because of the lack of stirrups. Punja held onto my camel, and said, “Lean back. Hold strong”. I would hear these words many times over in the coming days! Big Kona’s head would rise first and give a gentle nudge. But when his back would raise, and you better be holding tight indeed! Imagine a sharp push up as if you were standing vertically instead of seating. Up, back, and sharp. Then the final front push where the camel finally stands up.
Punja attached Lalou, Bruno’s camel, to mine, and grabbed the rope to lead my camel. I asked whether we could manage our camels by ourselves. Punja shook his head in an energic no, half-kind laughing, half-serious, as in “you don’t know what you would get yourself into.” I was somewhat disappointed, being an experienced horse rider, but I quickly realized how wise for Punja lead the way. The camel neck is wholly flexible and trying to put any pressure to navigate pointlessly. At some point we would see Punja trying to make his camel turn – the whole neck and head twisted and bent, but the camel did not turn.
My small bag hung from the front of the saddle, and I tugged my legs to the side, trying to find a way to stabilize my position. Talking about bags, the smaller, the better. Too big and it might not allow you to get your legs in place or stretch time to time. Some items like our sleeping bags traveled with the rest of the groceries and food on the back of the camels.
Village Life in the Desert
The next two hours passed quickly as we familiarized ourselves with our camels, asked Punja questions after questions about village life. The landscape reflected some urban developments: windmill set by the Army, dirt roads, herds of goats, electrical posts, plowed fields, and scattered villages. We stopped by one of these. A cluster of small houses, livestock parks, kids running around, women carrying water on their head or their hips.
Several of the women invited us to their homes – plural – as most of the families have a summer and a winter house. The winter houses are built of our stones or concrete, the summer houses of mud-walls and breezy thatched roofs. Neat ochre and white designs decorated the outside walls of the summer houses. The one-room small building contained an earth oven as well as a gas stove, a couple of utensils, and a niche for a few products and grains.
Kids and women were giggling and eager to show us around. We shared small contributions to the houses we visited though the kids were persistent in getting money as well. In retrospect, I would have loved to share with the village elders instead of the individual persons as to make sure the whole village benefits and not just the ones with the brightest houses that knew how to interact with foreigners.
We soon stopped for lunch in an open field. Punja tied the legs of the camels to prevent them from disappearing. This shocked me at first, but then I saw the camels wandering around, snacking as they went, laying down and resting. Yes, the ropes limit their movements, and they had a weird hop, but they could roam as they wished. Too often the animals are just tied to a tree or branch with such a short rope that they can’t move their heads, feed on the grass, or rest properly.
This gave me pause. Granted tying an animal is never great, and one can think about animal abuse as we see unfortunately too often in animal tourism. Now I saw Punja treat his animals with respect. They were well fed and showed no sign of physical abuse. We carried feed for them for the evenings and stopped on the second day to water them. He checked on each animal before saddling them, cleaning and clearing around the stomp before putting the blankets and saddles.
Camels have been part of the desert life for centuries if not millennia. While these animals are exotic for Westerners, they are part of the desert lifelike dogs and horses are for us. And we do tie up our dogs and horses to some extent. Camels are a source of revenue through breeding and tourism. Each animal costs a small fortune for the villagers – between 30,000 to 40,000 INR (460 to 620 US$) for a 2 or 3-year-old animal – and owners usually take care of them accordingly.
Punja told us a story about a customer wanting to try camel meat one of the evenings on safari. No beef or sheep – camel. Punja sought to discourage the client, but following the customer’s insistence and a show of knife, he contacted the tour management who interrupted the customer’s journey, away from the camels. As I asked him whether he never ate camels, Punja looked shocked, shook his head and said “never!”. So while we Westerners might not agree with the whole treatment of the camels, and unfortunately not all guides or tour operators treat their animals properly, I was glad we chose Trotters Tours and Travels.
Back to our lunch preparation, Punja fixed everything from scratch. Cutting fresh produce, working the dough for the chapati, crunching the fresh cardamom before preparing the hot chai. All cooked on an open fire, desert-style. It was incredible to watch him create a delicious meal out of simple items and with a limited kitchen. As trekkers, we use freeze-dried meals, so we don’t have to cook on the trail. Kudos to our desert chef!
We rested for another hour or so after lunch – a welcome break and an excellent way to stay in the cool shades during the hot noon sun.
Thar Desert Sand Dunes
Following a routine similar to the morning, we were back in the saddle in no time. Our journey continued through the rocky plains and by military windmills until we reached the first dunes. Trotters warned us that the Thar Desert is no Sahara with endless dunes. As I kept this in mind, the numbers of dunes I saw during our three-day trek surprised me. We stopped and went for a walk through the Kadar dunes, admiring the scenery and feeling the hot sand. The afternoon sun shaped the shadows of the dunes and gave a warm glow to the horizon.
Our camp for the night at the Digi sand dunes came soon after, where we joined other groups from Trotters. Punja set his kitchen corner close to a thatched cabana, where we could spend the night if we so chose. In the meantime, Bruno and I set to watch our first Thar Desert sunset. The colors reddened, the sun glowing starkly against the darkened sky. We felt so small and at the same time, in unity with our environment. Exceptional moments.
Dinner was another perfect desert meal, even complete with sweet rice for dessert. We enjoyed the evening campfire and even got Punja and Madan to sing a few traditional desert songs – lovely. The presence of the other tourist groups nearby took away some of the remote feels though, as the more significant groups rejoiced around jokes and music.
Bruno and I set our blankets further up the dunes, soon alone in the world. The noise of the group fainted away, apart from the occasional burst of laughter. We settled for the night, nestled under a pile of blankets. Our warm sleeping bags made the night even cozier. We had watched the sunset before dinner and watched as the full moon rose shortly after, illuminating the camp the whole night. It was still visible as the sunrise caught up in the early hours – a complete cycle of sun and moon!
This 3-day camel trek was in partnership with Trotters Independent Tours & Travels. Thank you for the terrific opportunity! Our opinion is our own and is not impacted by this partnership.
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