Humps and Lumps—Our Camel Safari in an Indian Desert.
Relax, don't hold on so tight, my camel handler advises me. Easier said than done.
I’m white-knuckled and stiff as a board; gravity is working against me as my camel abruptly stands up to its full height. Deep breaths now—it’s the camels we’ve to Rajasthan and the Thar desert to see.
Fuelled by visions of Lawrence of Arabia galloping across the desert, an Indian camel safari seemed like a romantic idea as we planned our trip. I envisioned gently, if not gracefully, plodding through sand dunes and wind-sculpted cliffs.
From our hotel in Bikaner—the aptly named Camel Man Vijay Paying Guest House—we had arranged an overnight camel excursion to the desert. It's off-season and we're the only ones at the hotel, but the hotel’s namesake, Vijay, assures us that all is possible.
And it is—except that I feel like I’m clutching onto a ship’s rail in choppy waters rather than riding off into a triumphant Indian sunset.
Eventually, I get into the rhythm of it; sort of. At least until we hit the sand dunes. “Trust your camel,” the handler reminds me as I sway precipitously with each step the animal takes.
Several hours in, I'm comfortable enough in the saddle to enjoy the desolateness of the landscape’s thorn trees and tumbleweeds, juxtaposed against the vibrant blue of the desert sky.
Fading light undulates across the dunes as we reach our desert camp; a washroom, a table, two chairs and two cots on a raised platform.
Divested of its burden, my camel, seems as delighted as I am to have reached camp and rolls around playfully in the sand.
Noel helps unload the camel cart and our guide-cum-cook is soon whipping up our evening meal of vegetable curry, palak paneer—Indian spinach and cottage cheese—rice and naan, while we sip tea in our dining room under the orange sky.
Later, lying in bed in the still solitude of the desert, staring at our starry sky for a roof I contemplate the vastness of the universe. To my surprise, I actually fall asleep at some point.
I dream of a church bells, but awake to the tinkling of cowbells; a holy cow and her comrades are meandering the camp in search of food. I wonder how they find enough to eat in this barren desert, but suspect the camel stays help them in their search for sustenance.
Swinging my feet over the edge of the cot alerts me to my stiffness. My back is actually bruised where the saddle rubbed against me all day, but it’s part of the experience.
A quick survey reveals our guide is still sound asleep in the camel cart, and that one of our three camels seems to have vanished in the night. Turns out we’ll take turns riding the camel and riding in the cart—a rough and bumpy conveyance—but a welcome break from the discomfort of a camel’s back.
Arriving back at Vjay’s, we’re only slightly worse for wear. Yes, we’ve lost a little skin a long the way, but we’ve gained a new found admiration for the hearty souls that ride these beasts of burden.