I was hesitant about going on a safari through Jaisalmer’s desert on the back of camel. I am no animal activist, but after what I had seen in Thailand with the elephants, I really didn’t want to contribute to the harming of animals for tourism.
So I did my research before committing to the safari and came to the conclusion riding camels outside their natural environment and on hard surfaces such as asphalt is not recommended. We have witnessed plenty of this throughout our travels in India and many of the camels appeared to be underweight and slightly depressed.
Camel racing also gets a negative wrap, not that we have a great interest in this spectacle and of course riding on camels showing signs of harm, abuse or malnutrition.
Armed with a little knowledge, we decided to commit to an afternoon safari to see the sunset in the desert and enjoy a camp style meal. We had agreed, if we felt in anyway the camels were not properly looked after, we would not continue with the safari.
Together with two guys and a girl from Spain and a lonely Swiss man we headed out of town in a beaten up Jeep. About 40mins into our journey we slowed down and came to a stop outside a group of clay houses. Our driver stopped to have a short conversation with a man and his three camels before we were told we can get out and walk around the gypsy village.
We didn’t know the visit here was part of the safari, but we were intrigued and followed our group into the village. As we walked Chris said to me “here we go, we are about to get mobbed”. Sure enough kids had surrounded us and in particular Chris who was carrying Jack. They were all fascinated by this little white boy and began touching him, his clothes and playing with his hair.
All of us had cameras around our neck and at first the kids wanted their photos taken, loving seeing themselves on the screen. But then we were asked for money, food or the clothes we were wearing, in particular our scarves. A woman with a baby no more than 3 months old asked for my scarf to cover her head from the sun. It’s hard to say no, but you are warned when you travel to India not to support the begging and poverty. It is recommended if you wish to donate, to do so direct with organisations such as orphanages and women’s homes.
As we were leaving the village the women and children started grabbing at our bags and cameras trying to rip our scarves off. It was a strange situation and I was perplexed as to why a tour company would take tourists there without prior warning. It we had known, perhaps we would have been better prepared, taking some food or supplies as an offering.
After 30 minutes we all jumped back into the bus and continued the journey with the kids running behind the car. Another 30 minutes later we arrived at a small homestead where six camels sat all saddled up ready for our journey.
We met the camel owner and his two offsiders before being shown to our individual camels. Chris and Jack were appointed the docile Mr. Johnny and I to Papaya. The camels looked healthy and well fed and had no sign of injury or wounds. Now I’m no camel expert, but they appeared to be in good condition and well looked after.
So on we got and in a matter of seconds, I was hanging on for dear life as Papaya stood up. It’s at this point you really realise just how long the legs of camels really are. Now for Jack’s turn and I knew this might scare the bejeezus out of him and sure enough it did! But within a couple of minutes he became excited that he was riding a camel.
Once we were all on, we set off with Papaya and I taking the lead with our 12 year old camel handler, and Chris, Jack and Mr Johnny bringing up the rear. We had no idea how long the journey was going to be, but for those who haven’t ridden a camel after about 10 minutes you are ready to get off. I grew up riding horses and although its been over 10 years since I last rode, I distinctly remember it being more pleasant than this. Everything was hurting and when my Swiss friend travelling behind asked me how long we were to ride for, I knew it was not only me feeling the pain.
The 12 year old boy who was leading my camel with a rope slung over his shoulder told me he lived at the homestead where the camels are kept. He spends the day at school before working with his uncle taking tourists on camel safaris. We chatted throughout the ride with him telling me about his school and the lovely Madame teacher he has. It was nice to hear he loved all six classes he attended and that he also enjoyed working with his uncle.
His uncle owns the camels and trains them to carry tourists into the desert, forming a close bond with the animals. Later when I ask about the process of the camels being broken in, his uncle told me it is a long process. For a year they just get used to being led around, before having a saddle on their back. After a few months, they are ridden for the first time for just a short period of time. This is gradually increased over a year before they are ready to take longer journeys through the desert.
I asked the uncle whether the camels required any force or whipping in order to train them. He shook his head and to my relief, he said no. Whether that is true or not, I’m not sure, but it does seem a longer more calm process than that of breaking in horses.
I regularly looked back at Mr Johnny and was happy to see Jack enjoying the ride with Chris. After about an hour of walking through the desert, up and down slopes and dodging cacti, we arrived at the foot of some sand dunes.
Up until then, the landscape had been pretty much the same – small shrubs and large cacti planted in a dusty, sandy but firm surface. In the background stood several wind turbines powering in the breeze. It was also surprisingly cool compared to being in the city.
The guides and camel handlers set up and started a campfire nestled in behind some small native shrubs protecting themselves against the wind. Us stupid foreigners sat in an area where the wind funnelled through bringing the sand with it. The plate of homemade Indian chips was covered in sand within seconds, not that Jack minded.
So our entrée was ruined but the main was yet to come and after a little wait we were served a delicious potato curry with rice and nann bread. It was great to watch the cook make the dough right there, although as we have learnt it is not natural for Indians to ask you to join them or tell you what is going on. So we had to invite ourselves for a look.
Sunset was a bit of a non-event, but the peace and quiet was pure bliss. No horns, no rubbish, no beggers or store men asking us to have a look in their shop. No one else was in sight except for our guides, the camels and the six of us tourists. The camels freely roamed the area eating the leaves of the trees and shrubs while we relaxed.
After wandering the area and playing with Jack running up and down the dunes it was time to go. Whilst the others stayed to sleep on the sand under the stars we made the trek back in the Jeep for town. Pitch black on a very rocky road we slowly drove to the main road. With the windows down and a cool breeze on our face, it was nice to get a good look at the remote area. That was until we experienced the randomness of Indian driving as we hurtled towards another car both flashing their head lights until just in the nick of time one veered to the side.
I was relieved when we made it back into the Fort. Another day in India down.