Camel Trekking India

Desert Adventures Astride Surprisingly Charming Beasts
  |  Gorp.com

Camels belch and pass gas shamelessly. Even so, they are endearing.

A few days in the desert, and you begin relating to one like a tag-along younger sibling. Sometimes they're obnoxious, like when they fart. They look stupid, only as a camel can. They don't listen, except when it suits them — or if food is involved. And like all younger siblings, they smell. But camels have personality, which goes a long way. So when you're about to cuff one, like a little brother, he senses it and does something cute. Like kiss you.

"That is disgusting."

It happened the second day of the camel trek, during lunch, and it didn't impress Jo Steevens. Her friend, Englishman Mark Henderson, had been shamelessly flirting with the animal for a few minutes, pouring on mouthfuls of gratuitous flattery in hopes of a tiny display of affection. He got it. A slow, wet, sloppy lick. Quite affectionate - and followed by a show of flatulence that sent us reeling back to the shade tree for lunch where Ramadan, our camel driver, stood laughing. "Good Mark, very good. He likes you."

And Henderson liked his camel, a.k.a. "Droopy Lips." They connected, and he had few problems with his new best friend. The rest of us, however, had to put down frequent mutinies from our ships of the desert during the three-day safari. We just couldn't go to Henderson's lengths to kiss up.

The Thar desert stretches silently and flat to claim the remote borderland between Jaisalmer, India, and Pakistan. Colonies of scrub, prickly thorn trees and tall, spindly clumps of multi-fingered cacti crowd the acrid landscape, which sometimes resembles the desert terrain of southern Nevada or Arizona. Camel and goat trails crisscross-cross the sandy floor, winding around fields of millet and tiny villages forcing out a temporary existence in the shadow of oases.

It is spare and harsh, but beautiful. The stillness is occasionally broken by the lilting sound of goat bells or a camel driver's cry and is a respite to the eat-you-alive pace of urban India. Camels are still the preferred way to leisurely explore the dunes and villages of this remote frontier. Safaris leave from Jaisalmer, a medieval fortress in the Indian state of Rajasthan with an undeniable "Arabian Nights" feel to it. Built in 1156 by a feudal chief, it is often called the "Golden City,'' for the color given its sandstone ramparts by the setting sun. There are few cities in India as unspoiled and princely as this one and its narrow, cobblestone streets are a labyrinth in which it's a pleasure to get lost.

Most visitors come to western Rajasthan to explore Jaisalmer and to experience a camel trek. The trekking game is a cut-throat business with just about every hotel, cheap or expensive, pitchingsome kind of trekking or "safari" package. The more popular routes stop in Mool Sagar, Bada Bagh, Amar Sagar and the wildly popular Sam, famous for its huge sand dunes. Some camel agents and hotels also promote "non-tourist'' areas, where there's a less circus-like atmosphere. The dunes are a bit smaller, but the terrain is still beautiful.

Two days into our trek, we drove the camels west through dry heat, trying to reach a third set of these smaller dunes to set up camp for our final night. Earlier, we had made lunch near large, Sahara-like dunes, the spot where Henderson romanced his camel. These dunes, like most, are impressive because they are simple. Nothing but sand and wind form their sweeping curves, deep troughs and massive swells, and it's only the wind that constantly reshapes and pushes them steadily forward like a desert glacier. We wandered the dunes, thankful for a chance to stretch. I walked a bit bowlegged, moaning and rubbing my thighs and butt as if I'd just survived a caning.

This humored Ramadan, who sat nearby cooking dhal bhat and chapatis — a lentil, rice and vegetable dish served with Indian bread, common trekking fare.

"Ramadan?"

"Yes, babu." (He liked calling us "babu," as did many Indians. Harmless, until I later learned it's a derogatory term for a clerical worker.)

"How long have you been doing camel treks?," I asked.

"A long time, many years. I am out every day during busy season [from October to February]."

"I notice you don't ride that much."

"No."

He handed me a warm chapati. I thought he would offer me a reason with it, but he just kept cooking.

After a few bites, I asked: "Why not?"

"What, babu?"

"Why don't you ride that much?"

"It is not so comfortable. To ride so much."

I chewed on this tidbit of irony while finishing my chapati. Here we had a camel driver — a professional — who rarely straddled the saddle. I wondered if he thought we were fools, riding these camels for fun. Maybe "babu" was appropriate.

After lunch we rode some more, except Ramadan, who walked as usual. The camels drifted apart as we crept westward, a change in their usual behavior. Till then, our camels kept close. Real close. Nose to butt. I often jockeyed for position at the front of the line because, as mentioned, camels fart, and I don't like being downwind of that. Makes for a long day.

Henderson and Droopy Lips pulled away from me and Pepto. (I started calling my camel Pepto because I popped a few Pepto-Bismol pills each time I rode.) I steered him into a clearing at the forefront of an oasis, with a barren millet field to the north and a maze of low-lying desert flora to the south. There was room to run.

And I made the mistake of doing it.

My heels dug into Pepto and he stretched his lanky legs across the desert floor. "Huuyah. Huuyah," I croaked — the Indian version of "giddy up"— and whacked him with the reins. Pepto took off, but not in the direction I wanted, which was across the clearing. He preferred the maze of scrub, dotted by the occasional thorn tree.

"WhoooOoOoOOOOoa! Whoooooa!"

"Babu, babu. Don't go too fast."

Too late. "#$%$!! Whoa! WHOA!" Stupid animal.

"Babuuu!"

My camel had control, and I didn't like that. He motored across the desert at a decent clip with Ramadan in pursuit — on foot, of course. Camels, despite their clumsy appearance, are quite coordinated animals. And old Pepto deftly pranced through an obstacle course of scrub and thicket, ignoring my pathetic pleas for him to stop.

Hmmm, that cactus came a little too close, I thought, while surveying some fast-approaching trees. About eight feet of clearance, enough for the camel, not me. Maybe Pepto deduced this as well, or sensed my fear, or maybe he was just hungry — he's a camel who eats like a horse — because he slowed, then stopped, then started munching on some dry grass.

Ramadan caught up a few minutes later, panting and rambling incoherently; cursing, I presumed. My Arabian fantasy had been trampled by reality. And it hurts. Just like bouncing in the saddle when you gallop on a camel hurts. It's a pain, right ... there, that makes you wince. And if you had lunch recently, it upsets the stomach.

Instead of racing the wind like a medieval Rajput clansman, I squatted in some prickly scrub. Galloping on a camel is not advised for amateurs. And it does nothing to please the camel driver who has to chase after you.

That last night, we wandered the dunes and marveled at the sunset and the quick coolness of twilight. We fell asleep, and awoke periodically to sit silently. I've never seen stars so abundant and clear as that final night in the desert. A few meters away, I could make out Pepto's outline. I thanked him for bringing me here. He burped.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 4 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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