Round the World Travel Guide
Your One-stop Source to Plan & Book Around-the-World Trips
#4: 27th May 2001
Sand-Storm in the Thar Desert
We missed Jaisalmer because of the heat reported there. But if you come at a more agreeable time of year, do not miss this town, it is like nowhere else in the world, let alone India. We are regretting the decision now as we have met old friends who did go there, and they were amazed by the place, but it was VERY hot.
So on to Bikaner from Mt Abu. North of Jodhpur, it’s an industrialised desert town, often likened to Jaisalmer but I can’t see the similarity. It does have an impressive old town and fort but our main purpose was a camel safari. Eddie has long wished to ride a camel into the desert, and this is where we were to do it…
Initially we stayed at the Hotel Marudhar Heritage; it’s an average hotel, with clean rooms at set rates, although we managed to barter 75Rs off the price due to the low season. The advantage is that it is within five minutes walk from the station, and is centrally located. We arranged our safari through the Hotel Harasar Haveli, where we also stayed our last night. A comfortable hotel a bit out of the way, but a better quality hotel with cheap beer and a double with air cooler (you’ll need it) and attached bath for 250Rs, cheaper than the more centrally located “budget” accommodation we found.
We left at 0900 after a free breakfast at the Harasar Haveli with a fellow Englishman in a jeep leaving Bikaner heading south into the Thar Desert via Deshnok, where the Karni Mata Temple is situated. By the time you have spent a few weeks in India, you can seriously get “Templed-out”, one temple merges into another and they cease to hold a fascination after a while, unless you have a specific interest in the religion. (Which we do not!!!)
However, if you pass through Bikaner it is worth a look. It houses literally thousands of rats, for these are holy rats and are treated with reverence being fed daily with fruits, grain and milk. Pilgrims worship them and offer gifts to them. And they are everywhere, crawling out of specially made holes in the walls, sitting in groups, sleeping on the railings etc. You have to watch where you step, because like all temples in India footwear is forbidden. If you are squeamish though, don’t go, as the likelihood is that you will have the experience of rats scampering across your feet, and you can’t show any repulsion or aggression against these creatures.
Onwards and outwards into the desert, we stopped at a small village where we were to pick up our camels and carts. We sat in a rough hut which served as a home to a family of seven, although news spread fast that we were in town, and the room filled with kids and interested onlookers. Chai was offered and we in turn handed out Eddie’s supply of sweets to the kids. Some were shy and couldn’t take the sweets themselves, others had no such problems and I am sure we handed out many more sweets than there were kids. The sweets are swiftly hidden in pockets or folds of grubby sari’s and then they dodge around the crowd to get another sweet as if they had been missed out.
You can have a camel each, or share one as Eddie and I did, and also a cart drawn by a second camel as this comes cheaper. We paid 400Rs per person per day. Our fellow traveller, Richard from Brum, had a cart and a camel to ride himself and paid 750Rs per day, but was offered a discount for his hotel on his return.
The cart is essential, as Eddie found out within an hour of leaving the village. Saddle sores, big ones. There is no similarity between riding a horse and riding a camel, so if you are a horse rider, forget everything you have learnt. The slow plodding movement is more a forward to back arc in slow motion, (until it breaks into a trot which accentuates the saddle sores together with being incredibly jolty to the body) which certainly rubs the places where the sun don’t shine!!! After an hour of riding Eddie had had enough, and here is where the cart comes in. Not only does it carry your supplies, food for the trip, cooking facilities (a couple of pans and a Roti cooking pan), a couple of cases of bottled water and firewood collected along the way, but it also can carry you after you have had enough of the camel riding. I managed about 45 minutes before I had had enough, but ol’ brummy Richard carried on for most of the day, thus Eddie and I getting the nickname “Southern Softies” but secretly I reckon he was nursing some blisters that could impede walking for a few days if you know what I mean…(Ol’ bow legs)
Food was freshly cooked by the local guides/camel drivers – fresh curry with onions, potato, onions, Roti, onions and more onions. Not the best ingredient for a trip without a loo. At least we would be sleeping open-air style, under the stars, so the effects of the onions could be blown away on a gentle night breeze. If only… Lunch was in a small deserted hut next to a large dry water tank, the camels were lead to shade and we slept for a couple of hours after lunch through the heat of the desert day.
The Thar Desert is an arid landscape, dotted with small groups of huts and dead scrub and trees. There is no agriculture out there (obviously, after all it is a desert), so the villages are very poor, surviving on their camels for trade routes and tourism, and brick making “factories”. These involve men and women digging dirt, mixing it with what little water they can spare, moulding it into bricks and drying them out again in the scorching sun. Hard labour, hot days, the two must be a very hard and miserable life. There is a surprising amount of wildlife out there; bird life varies from brightly coloured green sparrows to vultures with hooked beaks and white head feathers, and groups of wild antelope prancing away from the oncoming camels.
The evening came and we camped in the dip of sand dunes, we sat up on a ridge to watch the sun set behind a cloud of haze on the horizon. Food was cooked (with onions) and as we watched the sky turn pink, we waited for the stars. It became apparent that it was getting very dark, we had picked a night of a new moon, and so we huddled around the light of the fire to see what we were eating. A lot of onions, this time with cabbage… stomachs started bubbling later that night.
The meagre beam of a pencil Maglite was the camp’s only light source, so straw mattresses were put out one by one, and we lay watching the stars listening to the guides and camel drivers chatting and singing into the night. We bagged the back of our cart as our bed, Richard chose the dunes. I managed to come up with a couple of new star constellations, a standing bowman somearcherto the right of the plough, and a prancing horse, which later changed to a fat billy goat. I guess you needed a little imagination to see them but they are there, honest.
Far off thunder woke me, I looked at my watch, it glowed 01:50. It was getting a bit chilly so I threw a blanket over myself and a sleeping Eddie. I lay back and looked at the stars, the night sky above us was still clear, and there was a gentle breeze. The far off thunder continued, and since I could see a clear sky I drifted off… for about five minutes until a huge flash penetrated my closed eyelids. This was followed closely by thunderous crack of thunder, Eddie woke startled, I stared at the sky to see in a matter of seconds huge clouds cover the stars in blackness.
Simultaneously the wind started blowing, really blowing. I arranged the blanket so we were cocooned, tucking all the edges around us as the sand whipped up around us. We could hear the Indians shouting and Richard’s voice above the noise of the wind and sand blowing against our flapping blanket capsule. Eddie and I could feel stray sand seeping in around the cracks in our cover, the cart bumped as the Indians and Richard took cover below us under the cart. We felt quite comfortable in our position, not cold, and as we relented to the storm I felt as if I could drift off again. Then the rain came. Huge droplets pounded, driven by the wind, within a few seconds the blanket that was our saviour became sodden and clingy to us. The decision was made, we had to vacate the cart and retreat to the shelter below.
As soon as we lifted the blanket the wind caught the opening like a sail, blowing it hard. The wet sand stung on the face, every open orifice was instantly filled. We had to see where we were going but it stung to open your eyes just a slit. It was pitch black, you couldn’t see a thing, the torch was useless, so we clambered down the backside of the cart. By now we were completely drenched through, and covered with flying sand. We fumbled around the cart and one of the Indians grabbed Eddie’s arms and pulled us below the cart. They had rigged up a makeshift storm break on the windward side of the cart out of a sheet of plastic which afforded mild protection. We still had our blanket and bag, and another Indian retrieved our drenched mattress and we used the blanket to huddle in with the five Indians and Richard.
We sat there grouped in a circle covered with layers of blankets, each person doing their bit to hold the protection of the blankets together in a rough shelter supported by our bodies. The Indians laughed and chatted, Richard, Eddie and I exchanged experiences; we gathered that the storm could last for an undetermined time, but usually from 1-2 hours. Although we were wet, warmth from the bodies filled the capsule, and we grinned and put up with it. After all, what else was there to do? If the rain hadn’t come, I felt sure we (Eddie and I) could have survived up on top on the cart in our blanket cocoon and possibly got some fitful sleep. Actually after a while we saw the funny side of it all, after all it’s an experience that not everybody can say they have had.
After about an hour and a half of clinging to each other, maintaining the integrity of our shelter, the wind eased and the rain stopped. The Indians guys broke the camp and quickly assembled a more rugged shelter with a large tarpaulin stretched over the two carts. They laid out the dryer mattresses and blankets and made makeshift beds. We all shared a common bed, eight of us cramped together, and sleep came surprisingly easily. Eddie was up first, followed closely by the Indian guys who were up and assessing the camp. The wind had passed, the rain had stopped, and what was undulating rippled dunes was now replaced by a speckled landscape of rain-pitted sand. A completely different scene to the almost sexy, smooth mounds of sand dunes from the night before.
The sand was wet under foot but if you dug down with your foot the sand became dry and warm. Beetles were out re-digging their holes in the sand, bringing up fresh dry sand from underground in little landslides spreading from the opening of their holes. Virgin footprints stretched out from the camp as one by one people found a private spot. A fire was made, chai was brewed, and toast and jam was served (no onions, thank god). We had only booked two days, with one overnight stop while Richard had another night in the desert. We joked about what it would bring, and reminded him that we would be in a comfortable hotel with cold beer and food that didn’t contain onions.
We left Richard after lunch (guess what was on the menu), and we set off with our camel, cart and camel driver for a 2-hour trip back to the village. Our butts were too sore to ride the camel, and so he had an easy day. We lay out on the cart, reading books. The day was clear and cool in the morning after the rain the night before, but the afternoon was getting hot. Sarongs were used as head-covers from the heat, made more intense by the clarity of the day. And so, we were dropped by the roadside and stayed with until a bus came that was going Bikaner way. We looked a little strange, a bit bedraggled, hair full of sand, clothes so grubby from the storm, and we were a little amusement for the locals on the bus.
Back at the hotel, a couple of negotiated cold beers each, a serious shower, and a bit of plain food later, we were feeling revived and clean. The next day we left early on the train back to Jaipur. We met with our favourite rickshaw man, and stayed free of charge at the Jaipur Inn due to the help we had given them on our previous stay. Ali the Rickshaw driver was glad to see us, and asked if we minded if he named his rickshaw after us.
The day we left for Mumbai after a few days rest in the Jaipur Inn, we saw our rickshaw, it had Eddie & Jake emblazoned across the back of it in big bold white script against the black background. We left Jaipur knowing that we had left our mark in Rajasthan.
We are now in Mumbai (formally Bombay), home of movie stars and Bollywood, the world’s largest producer of films, and also home of Asia’s largest slums known as India’s infamous Red Light District, Kamathipura. We are here only for one night enroute down to Goa, just in time for the Monsoon. Why? Well several reasons really, wherever you are in India, you will have to go through the Monsoon season that covers the mid part of July through to mid September. You have to be somewhere, and we chose Goa. It’s also Eddie’s birthday on the 14th June and it’s as good a place as any to relax and chill, even if it does rain for a few hours of the day.
Last time I was in Goa back in December/January 1989/90, the package tour deals hadn’t arrived, there was no International Airport, and it was a quiet and peaceful place. I am interested in seeing the change package tourism has had on the state. We are heading for South Goa, going back to Benaulim, just 2km south of Clova which is now a developed tourist center with hotel complexes, but well away from Calangute in North Goa which was the hippie epicentre 10 years ago, but now is transformed to the centre of the package tour market. Calangute has huge hotel complexes; water sports and a lively nightlife including the full moon rave beach parties. Although there are quieter places in the North, Southern Goa is where the most peaceful and quiet beaches can be found.
The next travelogue I will write will be after Goa, and dependant on the Monsoon that will be maybe a few weeks away. Remember our mail address, email@example.com, and write us sometime.