APRIL 3RD 2000 - THE NORTH SHORE NEWS
GOING CAMEL CRAZY IN THE RAJASTHAN SUN
The bus rattled through endless desert scrubland. I finish my last banana and look suspiciously at the yellowed greasy newsprint holding a stuffed rolled chapati. “A very tasting sandwich” the roadside vendor in Jodphur had assured me some 5 hours earlier. The Dutch couple in the front seats were the first to see it. A mirage? The ancient walled city rose into the flat desert sky like a floating castle straight from “A Thousand and one nights”.
Jaisalmer, known as the golden city, is the most Easterly outpost of Rajasthan, and easily the most visually dramatic in a State filled with palaces forts and surprises. It’s location around 100kms from the Pakistani border ensures the distant roar of Indian Air Force jets is ever present. The 1000 year old fort city is still remarkably in tact despite much plundering of the stone walls over the years. Once through the massive gates, the narrow alleys conceal a wealth of intricate Hindu and Jain temples, a variety of Guest Houses and Tourist Restaurants, not to forget the ubiquitous sacred cows.
The city has long since expanded beyond its walls. Being on the camel train trade route, merchants grew rich, trading opium for everything including Dutch tiles and Belgium mirrors to decorate their magnificent mansions known as Havelis. In the alleys around the outer walls are a wondrous collection of tiny open fronted stalls. Merchants sell clothing, freshly stitched on pedal driven sewing machines. Pekoras and samosas sizzle tantalisingly in vast wok shaped pans over tiny charcoal fires. Bedspreads cobbled together from ancient wedding dresses are a speciality here.
As a tourist the word Jaisalmer is synonymous with camel trekking. A fact quickly endorsed by the squads of wily touts and hoteliers anxious to pad their profit margins from the myriad of hapless foreigners who enter the city walls. Camel Treks can be purchased at any level of luxury and for any price and seemingly anywhere. The super- deluxe promises dancing girls and fully furnished tents fit for – you guessed it – a Maharajah!
Opting for the econo version of around $20 a day we climb in a jeep. The driver seems to prefer ear splitting heavy metal to the gentle strings of the sitar. We leave the wondrous walls of the city far behind in the early morning mist. A couple of hundred yards from the main highway and there they are, our ships of the desert.
Rajah relaxes on his haunches while our cameleer Hussein, a short cheerful chap, ties the essentials to the wooden padded saddle. He sings happy songs until the last remaining plastic water jug is finally in place. No dipping out now! I follow the sage advice of a previous trekker. I unpack my fleece jacket and fold it carefully onto the small area remaining for a rider’s rear. I walk to the front of my steed. I look him in the eye, half threatening, half entreating. He maintains a disinterested stare. I check my camel with more than subtle curiosity, looking for the endowments that justify such a, well, masculine name. None exist! My Rajah is a girl!!!
I straddle my grounded animal wearing the half grin that tries to project confidence over fear. Hussein hands me the reins. They are attached to a short pointed wooden peg that protrudes from either side of Rajah’s nostrils. On the command of “neh neh neh” his back legs begin to slowly straighten, propelling me into a tricky angle until the front ones follow and my stance is evened up.
Riding a camel is akin to riding a horse with five legs. The gait is decidedly uneven! Hussein makes stirrups from pieces of twine. A good way to spread the load from the lumpy saddle. This isn’t so bad! We pass through dry river beds. Cactus, sage brush and wispy trees are all that survive under the hot desert sun. We explore small neat villages. The dome shaped houses are finished in dung and whitewashed. A few goats and camels are tethered nearby. We water our animals at a trough fed by a government built pipeline. A necessity in this drought prone state. Goatherders and shepherds have beaten us to it.
“MUNGAL AAAH AAAH AAAH” rings through the desert peace. This, followed by short sucking sounds like a child’s rubber boot being repeatedly pulled from a deep bog. Hussein’s signal to start trotting. I hang on and pray to any god who may be out there. My friends? – Well he has taken to this like a duck to water and streaks ahead with irritating blood curdling yells of joy. She is having trouble and starts to slide from her saddle. “Madam you have very jumping bottom” remarked Hussein, delightedly.
Our campsite, a collection of perfect wind rippled sand dunes, was on the horizon. Hussein resumed his happy songs about Allah. He was an abstaining Muslim until he wanted one of our precious bottles of beer, then he conveniently became a Hindu! We reached our goal as the sun set and the dunes turned a deep red. Hussein scooped a hollow in the sand and lit a fire. From his single pan came spicy pekoras followed by chillied vegetables and chips. All this accompanied by more verses of the same song.
I could almost touch the stars as I settled down beside the dying embers of the campfire. We had been serenaded by two visiting cameleers who somehow appeared out of the pitch black night. Their songs, accompanied by frenzied drumming on the empty water containers, had become more melancholy as the night wore on. Out there in the desert peace, all was well with the world.
IF YOU GO:
VISAS: It is necessary to get one before you leave home.
WHEN TO GO: To avoid the rainy and hot summer seasons, recommended time to visit is mid Sept – mid March.
NECESSITY TO PRE BOOK: No, unless your time is really tight. Ask other tourists on arrival in Jaisalmer or book through a good hotel. Remember you (generally) get what you pay for.
HOW TO GET THERE: Most visitors to Rajasthan fly to Delhi. Planes usually arrive in the middle of the night for some reason. Take a prepaid cab to a prebooked hotel. I booked longstanding and trustworthy 3 star Nirulas Hotel near Connaught Square by email email@example.com fax(91)11335 3957 tel(91)11332 2419 – approx $60 for a single. Air India flies direct to Jaisalmer or it’s possible to take a non-direct bus or train.
NOTE: Most people include a trip to Jaisalmer as part of a tour of Rajasthan
.USEFUL WEBSITE ETC: www.rajasthan-india.com/desertsafari.html Useful Guidebook - Lonely Planet Rajasthan ( Many others)
SECURITY: For overnight trains or buses take a padlock and chain for your luggage as the locals do.
WOMEN TRAVELLERS: Avoid seductive clothing and deal firmly with male testosterone. Your admirers will back off.