“Are you strong?”
When our guide squinted through the fierce mid-afternoon sun to greet me with this question, I could feel my heart sink to my shoes. Behind him, three camels sat in a languid, nonchalant row, chewing the regurgitated cud. The implication that I, the sole man in our British-Canadian trio, was about to have my resolve tested by one of them did not fill me with excitement.
We had come here, the Great Thar Desert, via the nearby desert fort of Jaisalmer, an imposing citadel that trumps just about all of Rajasthan’s beautiful palaces for its dramatic atmosphere and sheer sandscape wonder. Perched atop a hill that overlooks the sandy-hued town below, the fort becomes even more wondrous when you realise that it is a living, breathing complex: people actually live inside its walls, alongside the many tourist-oriented establishments clamouring for your rupees.
All this is surrounded by the walls of the fort, of course, and a walk along its inner ramparts to get some close-up views of the sandcastle bastions that buttress the main walls is definitely recommended. You also get distant views of the desert on the horizon, of course, and few people come here without booking a desert safari, which is how I found myself there with two lovely Canadian ladies, who were staying at the same hostel as me within the fort…
Riding a camel is a lot of fun, undoubtedly, and the view from its back as you trudge through rolling dunes and scrub-dotted terrain is great. But if you get a temperamental camel who (a) isn’t great with new people and (b) is more used to competitive racing than plodding through the desert then it really can make for an, ahem, interesting experience.
Mounting my camel was little short of terrifying, as he would give me the old buckaroo treatment while our guide struggled to keep him under control. Those of you who’ve ever been on a camel will know that it’s a long drop to the ground…thankfully, the ground underfoot was soft, and on the two occasions I was thrown off, I managed to emerge (physically) unhurt. Eventually, my camel and I came to an understanding, but boy did it take time!
The rolling dunes and scrub-dotted shrub land of this area of the desert doesn’t quite resemble the grand and barren terrains of the world’s great deserts. The proximity of human inhabitants makes sure of that. But, with the occasional antelope skipping through the sandscape and the distant fringes on the horizon, backlit by the blue sky sun, there is still remote beauty to be found.
But the real highlight of the trip comes when night falls. Sleeping under the starriest of night skies, sans tent, is a wonderful affirmation of the sublimity of nature. The simple pleasure to be found in watching shooting stars zip between crystal-clear constellations, with the simultaneous lightshow of a soundless thunderstorm flickering 50 miles away on the horizon in neighbouring Pakistan, is profoundly moving. To top things off, we were blessed with a light, brief smattering of rain – with scarcely a cloud overhead. This was the ultimate blessing in this most spell-binding of destinations!