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Getting the hump in Rajasthan
Riding a camel is one of those things you think you should tick off your life to do list. Riding a camel into the Rajasthani desert and spending a night sleeping under the stars sounds like an even more attractive prospect, right? That’s what we, and every other tourist on their way to Jaisalmer, had in mind. When we arrived at what is known as ‘the golden city’, nestling in a dusty corner of India near the Pakistani border, it quickly became apparent that the place has a very unique charm of its own. The heart of this curious settlement is the crumbling s andstone fort resembling an oversized sandcastle. Inside the fort are wonderfully derelict hotels that look as if they are literally falling apart around your ears. Further enquiries revealed that in actual fact, they are – the Lonely Planet even carries an official warning not to stay there in case you’re knocked out in the middle if the night by a falling chunk of the ceiling.
We wisely opted for a more modern guesthouse, just outside the walls of the fort, and were woken at sunrise the next morning for a welcome breakfast of toast and an unidentified jam that had clearly never even seen a piece of fruit.
A 30 minute jeep journey took us into the desert where our new forms of transport were waiting. Loaded up with blankets, food and water for the next 2 days, the prospect of mounting these ungainly beasts was starting to seem a little intimidating. Rather than expecting you to pole vault onto your new steed, the camel is made to sit down, and once you’re holding on for dear life, is made to stand up – back legs first, then front legs, so for a few seconds you feel like you’re on some sort of slow motion, roller coaster that’s gone arwy.
Some of the local kids came to see us off, with the customary demands for sweets and money. For such young children, they had strangely old, wise faces. Perhaps you grow up faster in the desert.
The camel train set off, and things were off to a promising start. Once you’ve got over the fear of how far off the ground you are, it’s not that difficult to stay on. Our camel drivers strolled ahead cracking dirty jokes, as we perched atop our humps and gazed across the dusty, empty landscape, broken up by scrubs and the occasional tree.
As the sun rose, so did the heat, and by midday the rising temperatures were getting to us all. The boys were given rather dashing Rajasthani style turbans to wear by our camel drivers…
… whereas the girls were left grappling with granny chic. When under a baking hot desert sky, what else to do but put as many clothes on as possible to protect yourself from the ball of fire overhead?
After a couple of hours, we stopped at a desert village. Although we had a chosen a camel safari that was off the usual tourist trail, and we didn’t see any other groups on our trip, this village clearly got plenty of visitors. The rather splendid looking fellow below was quick to demands rupees in return for us taking his picture.
Although happily this affable goat posed for free.
After we left the village, The Pain started to kick in. There is something they never tell you when you’re handing over your wad of cash for a camel safari. Camels are NOT designed to be sat on. On retrospect, it should be (literally) painfully obvious. Why would you choose to sit on something that has a small mountain on its back? Who was responsible for deciding that it would be a good idea to use these creatures as a mode of transport? By the time we stopped for lunch under the welcome shade of a tree, I think my feelings can be aptly summed up by the picture below…
Thankfully, our multi-talented camel drivers knocked us up a tasty desert curry with freshly made naan bread.
After a quick post lunch nap, and it was time to get back on the camel wagon. However, within half an hour, The Pain had become unbearable. As well as the fact that you’re sitting on what’s effectively a hard, hairy hill, the way the camels lurch drunkenly from side to side as they walk means you’re constantly being thrown around in the saddle, each step shooting a new pain across your backside. It was time for drastic action…
… operation abandon camel! Yes, my posterior was so painful that the option of trudging through the desert, leading my camel, was actually more appealing than riding my flea-ridden friend. As we went on, more and more of our party decided to abandon ship, until we were a line of sorry figures, heads bowed under the baking sun, feeling less and less like Lawrence of Arabia by the second. Our spirits didn’t rise until we could see our goal – the beautiful sand dunes where we were set to spend the night appeared in the distance like a wonderful mirage.
Still, it took me a while to come round even once we set up camp. At this stage I felt like I would be truly happy never to see another camel ever again.
My recovery was aided by the miraculous appearance of some cold beers. Our hero was a man from a desert village, who had walked through the desert for over an hour with a stash of cold drinks to sell us. The price was inflated to almost five times what we’d normally pay, but given the circumstances in which they were delivered, I think we would have handed over our entire week’s budget if he’d asked for it. We took our sweet malty medicine up to the top of the dunes to watch the sun set.
What better than a bit of desert aerobics as the sun goes down?
And of course, a spot of desert lunging.
Followed by a good roll down the dunes.
As the last ray of sunlight dropped below the sandy horizon we headed back to camp for for desert chicken curry. Any concerns about it not being fresh were quickly allayed by the squawking coming from inside a brown sack.
After food and chat around the fire, it was time to settle down for the night. Tucked up inside piles of blankets out in the desert, staring up at a sky with a thousand wishes sparkling in it, all the day’s pain started to ease away. There was only one nagging doubt preventing us from dozing off. Our camels were loose and wandering around nearby – what was to stop them from lolloping over and inadvertently sitting on our faces whilst we slept? Despite the reassurances of our camel drivers that this wouldn’t happen, we couldn’t help flicking on the torch every few minutes to scan the desert. And sure enough, glaring back at us from the darkness were two gleaming yellow eyes, no more than 20 metres away. Every time we flashed the light on, the eyes had moved a little closer, until our humpbacked friend was only a few metres away. Luckily, physical exhaustion soon overtook camel related paranoia, and the next thing we knew we were being woken to the sound of breakfast cooking. A pile of hard boiled eggs and toast (with the same nondescript jam) cooked over a campfire tasted truly like a Michelin starred banquet. Sometimes great food is more about the context than the actual food itself
But of course we weren’t the only ones getting fed – our trusty steeds were chowing down on their own gourmet delights.
Happily we only had a couple of hours camel riding in the morning before we were being rescued and driven back to civilisation, and after a good night’s sleep the rear end pain had lulled a little so that it was almost bearable. I had actually become rather fond of my camel, despite the fact that when she released gas (which was frequently) it smelt like rotten cauliflowers. There’s something strangely beautiful about these lumbering desert creatures – maybe it’s their long eyelashes, or maybe it’s the constantly peaceful expression on their faces, so they always look like they’re smiling. Maybe it’s the way they plod serenely through the desert, uncomplaining and and unphased by their burden.
What do you mean she has a face that not even a mother could love?
After a final desert meal and a quick snooze under a tree, it was time to say goodbye to our camels and our camel drivers. It was certainly an unforgettable experience, for both good and bad reasons. Like all memories, over time we tend to make things rosier than they actually were. Like I imagine the experience of bungy jumping or sky diving would be, it’s something I’m glad I did, but I can’t say I’d rush back to do it again. However, as time passes and the memory of a chaffed behind and the scent of camel farts wafts away, who knows, I may find myself signing up for desert sojourn once again…