Waddling through the Desert
The Indian Thar Desert
India is home to more than 1.3 billion people. Not all of them live in crowded cities with millions of people, however. In north-western Rajasthan we mount camels and head off into the Thar Desert. Course set for simplicity, tranquility and contentment.
My one-humped camel, Mellah, slowly carries me into the Thar Desert, in search of life in the dry. On a dromedary in front of me sits 13-year-old Jerad with his uncle, Dadiya, both born here in the Great Indian Desert. The wrinkled face of the older man is masked by a white turban and beard. Every time he turns around to tell me something, he looks at me with a serious and penetrating expression: “It’s not looking good. We have to hurry up.” By this I imagine he is referring to the mounting sandstorm and the clouds that have driven away the sun. I have no idea where we are heading, and how you pick up the pace when riding a camel is a mystery to me.
From the back of my beast of burden, some three metres above the ground, I look out over the shrubs and the lonely trees that grow on the plateau. This dessert may well be one of the driest places in the world, but there is more to see here than just grains of sand. The few drops of rain that the desert gets per year seem to be enough for the plants that grow here.
Here and there the sand triumphs over the vegetation, and sand drifts have created a hilly landscape that has such fine waves that it seems as if it has been raked by hand. A magical sight indeed, and in that soft sand the camels leave the traces of the caravan. The trail isn’t a lonely place; occasionally a desert fox scurries across or a herd of antelope bounds past. No matter how extreme the desert is, it is far from inhospitable.
Dadiya turns to me once again and says proudly: “This is where we live. Welcome!”
After an hour or two of listening to the two their songs, I spy a handful of huts in a valley. They are round mud huts with funnel-shaped roofs made of branches. Dadiya turns to me once again and says proudly: “This is where we live. Welcome!” The closer we get the more animals I see around the three huts. At least a hundred goats, sheep, chickens, cows, dogs and dromedary camels freely wander about, leaving their droppings where they please.
Three women, dressed in red robes and with golden nose rings, can’t seem to scurry back quickly enough into the huts as soon as they see us. Are they shy, or scared of the attention?
Jerad takes me inside. There on the ground sits his older sister next to the wood fire, which is also the hut’s only light. On a tray in front of her lies a supply of camel dung which she uses to stoke the fire. On the wall behind her is a wooden beam, adorned with pots and various spices. Jerad’s sister avoids any eye contact and busies herself with making roti dough and cooking rice. As she places one blackened pan after another on the fire, the wind starts to pick up.
Strong squalls of wind howl through the gaps in the walls, bringing smoke and sand into the hut. Dust and soot particles from the ceiling fly through the kitchen like snowflakes. Althoughwe are in the middle of the dry season, I can hear thunder in the distance. The goats begin to bleat, pushing themselves into the hut and trampling over everything. In no time it is raining almost as hard inside as it is outside.
As quickly as the storm clouds arrive they move on once more. Later on we sit and eat the roti with rice and vegetables by the light of the setting sun, as if nothing has happened. The selection of herbs and spices gives the vegetable curry an unusually rich taste. As soon as the sun disappears behind the sand dunes it quickly grows dark. These people have no electricity or torches. “We always sleep outside,” Dadiya says, when to my surprise I see him laying out some sheets on a concrete block next to the hut. A metal bed frame, with bicycle tyres as slats, is to be my bed for tonight. There I lay down, between two ruminating camels, somewhere in the Indian desert.
There are still stars in the sky when the chickens begin to cackle and crow. Moments later the women are milking the goats and the men are stirring their camels. After a breakfast of overly sweet milk tea and some bananas, we mount our ships of the desert once more. This is a very easy procedure: the camels sit on their legs, meaning the saddle comes down lower than that of a bicycle. Only once you’ve mounted the saddle will the camel stand up, but because they stretch out their hind legs first this is done in a single, graceful swoop.
Early in the morning, the sand still golden, we set off through a landscape that during the rainy season around June would be underwater. Many hobbled steps later we come to a well. Using an enormous rope we haul bucket after bucket of water to the surface, a sweaty task in this heat, the animals drinking every bucket dry as if their lives depend on it. “They can go a month without water if absolutely necessary, but we let them have a drink every couple of days,” Jerad tells me. Refuelled and ready to go, we defy the sand and set course for the horizon.
We trudge through seemingly endless hills. Life here carries on at the pace at which our travelling companions put one foot in front of the other. We pass stationary seas of sand, where millions of grains are collectively blown together into ripples over the desert. All that I can hear is the wind blowing past my ears, as, apart from some flatulence escaping from my camel, all is quiet here. Never would I have expected India to be like this.
He is preparing the drink that every Indian loves: masala chai, or spiced milk tea
At midday the sun is high in the sky. I feel the scorching heat rising up from the sand, although this is tempered somewhat by the constant breeze blowing, wafting around us. We stop in the shadow cast by abubur,a desert tree with umbrella-like foliage. We unsaddle the camels, who patiently begin to munch on the surrounding plants.
We spread the blankets that lay over the saddles on the ground, then Jerad digs a slit in the sand and with a handful of dry sticks gets a fire going. He places cups of milk powder, sugar, black tea and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and black pepper into a pan of water. He is preparing the drink that every Indian loves: masala chai, or spiced milk tea.
After the cup of aromatic tea, Dadiya fetches a bag containing some vegetables. With his gnarled fingers, he begins peeling cloves of garlic while Jerad peels potatoes. The fire is soon ready and into another pan of water go the ingredients: paprika, turmeric, garlic, yellow lentils, potatoesand some salt. Afterthe secondcup of tea and further talking, thedhal, or lentil curry, is ready. On a metal plate we bake roti, flatbreads madeonlywith flour, water and salt, which we eat with the dhal. Eating with our hands, we talk about life in the desert. Jerad already knows how to start a fire and how to cook with one.
He speaks better English than I did at his age but he cannot write hisname, and he has never seen a town, village or city, let alone a laptop or a video camera.With the knowledge, he is gaining from his experienced uncle, he can survive in these vast deserts. I would not. Educationis all relative here.
Many sand dunes and sand drifts later, still very much in no man’s land, the sun slowly begins to set, and so just like at lunch we sit and preparechai,lentil curry and roti over a wood fire.
Hundreds of stars quickly cover the whole sky
When the pots and plates have been cleaned with sand, we sit and watch the sun go down from the top of the tallest hill, feeling the heat evaporating around us as we do so. Hundreds of stars quickly cover the whole sky. Lying on the mattress, everything is suddenly very quiet. The only sound to be heard is a cricket in a shrub a little further along, chirping every now and then. Otherwise I hear nothing but the sound of my breathing and the beating of my heart.
The next afternoon, a hill seems to shine on the horizon, like a mirage. Yet the closer we get, the clearer the towers of the fort at Jaisalmer seem to appear against the sky. We trade the camels and the Thar Desert for an ancient city, which seems like an oasis in the desert. Narrow streets, with vegetables and clothing on display, bring me to the entrance of the fort that has stood here for nearly 900 years.
During the last hour of sunlight I wander through the walled city. Cows and calves also wander nonchalantly through the streets. Traditional townhouses, havelis, have a richly decorated façade. Their decorative edges and sandstone adornments cause me to stop and stare in awe. Sitting in the doorways of their houses, dressed in colourful saris, women watch vigilantly over the streets. At twilight I find myself on the roof terrace of a guesthouse. As evening falls over India the stones of Jaisalmer are coloured gold by the sun as it descends into the desert.
Later on, as if it’s my karma, I pass by a sign that says “Ayurvedic massages”. A young man with a moustache takes me to a room with a low ceiling, from which a pear is hanging. Along the wall, under a rack of bottles, is a massage table with a towel which has evidently already witnessed a lot of Ayurveda. The man mixes oils from several bottles in a small bowl, then rolls his head and with a smile cries out, “Ayurveda!” The scent of jasmine and sesame fills the room as he massages my spine in just the right place. Certainly not the most refined of massages, but after several days of bumpy trails on a swaying camel I feel reborn.
Go into the desert yourself?
You can arrange a desert safari in Jaisalmer, at a cost of €30 per person per day, including food and drink. We booked ours online via Sahara Travels and slept out in the open. There is also the option to stay in a tent camp with toilets. Because some travel organisations work with underage guides, make sure that when you book your trip you get an experienced, adult guide. The temperature is most pleasant between October and March.
You can fly from Amsterdam, with a change in Delhi or Mumbai, to Jodhpur (€ 500,- all-in, return). From there it’s another 300km by train, bus or taxi to Jaisalmer.
Best travel time
The temperature is most pleasant between October and March.
Visit a travel doctor well in advance and apply for a visa in person or online weeks before your departure, Indian bureaucracy takes an exceptionally long time. Both the Dutch-language ‘Rough Guide India’ (ISBN: 9789047518860) and the ‘Dominicus India’ (ISBN: 9789025750282) contain practical information about Jaisalmer and dromedary trips through the Thar desert.