Desert Safari -Rajasthan, India
Rajasthan, India’s westernmost state, is the very essence of exotic India- barren desert and drifting sand dunes. Monotonous and dull- but only at first sight. Step in deeper, and you’ll be overwhelmed by sounds and sights, colours and fragrances which will stay with you long after. The vivid orange and green skirts of local women on the way to a distant well; the bright blue houses of an entire town; the beautifully folksy sound of a village musician playing on a four-stringed sarangi. The aroma of good, home-cooked food, redolent with pure ghee; the comforting warmth of a blazing bonfire on a chill desert night…
You can see Rajasthan on a jeep safari. Or, if you’ve a penchant for the high life, aboard the Palace on Wheels, Rajasthan’s luxury train. But to really get a hands-on feel of the desert state, there’s no beating a camel safari. Clamber up on one of these seemingly ungainly beasts, hang on for dear life, and let the good times roll- literally, for the Ship of the Desert walks in a way which would certainly remind any sailor of a rolling, pitching deck in turbulent waters!
When to go
Most camel safaris are organised in the winter, when the weather’s good. Rajasthan’s summers are almost unbearably hot and dry, so going on a camel safari during this time is virtually impossible. November to March, when days are cool (and nights cold!) is when most camel safaris are organised.
What to bring
You’ll almost certainly be doing your camel safari in the winter, when woollens are a necessary part of your packing. Desert nights, especially, can get very cold, so it’s essential to take along plenty of warm sweaters and jackets when on a camel safari. Although mattresses are usually provided by whoever’s organising the camel safari, you’ll need to carry bedding- a warm sleeping bag is recommended, and an additional blanket or two can always be used.
During the daytime, the sun can be blistering, so make sure you’ve got along your sun hat, a pair of sun glasses, and suntan lotion. Carry a first aid kit along with you, as well as any other essentials you might need- out there in the desert, trying to find a shop which will sell you your favourite brand of soap can be a problem.
It’s a good idea to carry along extra blankets to cover the wooden saddle which you’ll probably be sitting on. Blankets are excellent padding, and can protect you from a sore bottom after a hard day’s riding.
Most camel safaris start from Jaisalmer, which is connected by air, train and road to the rest of India. Rajasthan’s capital, Jaipur, is also a convenient base for exploring the state, whether on camel or otherwise. Jaipur has a well-connected airport, as well as regular train and bus links to a number of cities across India. All camel-safari towns in Rajasthan, such as Bikaner and Mandawa, are connected by road to Jaipur. Buses run between all the major towns of the state, and private cars or taxis can be hired to do the trip.
Do’s and don’ts
It’s important to check, when you’re booking a place on a camel safari, what is included in the price you’re paying. Find out what arrangements are being made for accommodation, food and drink and other essentials. In some camel safaris, mineral water is not a part of the package, in which case you’ll have to bring your own. Find out for sure what you’re getting before you book.
When you do start on the camel safari, keep a few things in mind. Remember that you’re travelling through the desert- it’s dry, and if you’re not careful, you could get dehydrated. Drink plenty of water- at least 2 to 4 litres a day- and keep yourself well covered, to prevent sunburn. Wear a sunhat and sun glasses and slap on the suntan lotion if you don’t want your skin to start peeling.
Rajasthan, although it’s fast getting as commercialised as any other part of India, still is pretty unspoilt- especially as far as the desert is concerned. Keep it that way; please don’t leave a trail of junk behind you or harm the ecology and culture of this beautiful region.
A large number of travel agents and tour operators in Rajasthan organise camel safaris. Most of these are in the vicinity of Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Osian and Khimsar, and stretch from anywhere between 2 to 7 days, with longer ones of up to a month. Shorter, day-long camel safaris which just about give you a glimpse of the desert are also organised. The majority of camel safaris start from the desert fort town of Jaisalmer.
In most cases, one camel is provided per person, and a camel cart accompanies the entourage, laden with food, utensils and other supplies; it’s also an option for anyone who gets sick of sitting on a lurching camel. Tents, food, mineral water, mattresses and an escort are invariably provided, and most operators will also make sure you get a full dose of local entertainment in the evenings. For longer camel safaris, which cover a few days, camps are usually set up at night in the vicinity of villages.
Among the more popular circuits for camel safaris are:
1. Jaisalmer-Badabagh- Baisakhai- Ramkunda- Roopsi- Ludharva- Chatrayil- Salkha- Beri of Kanoi- Masooradi- Jeseiri- Dedha- Deegasar- Kuldhara- Moolsagar- Amarsagar- Jaisalmer:
Jaisalmer, India’s westernmost town, seems at first glance to be caught in a time warp. Dominated by one of India’s most impressive forts- which is, incidentally, home to a quarter of the town’s population- Jaisalmer is a city of cobbled streets, medieval architecture- and the desert. Golden sand dunes surround Jaisalmer, and this is where the camel reigns supreme- if you can call it that.
From Jaisalmer, a camel sfari of a few hours takes you to Badabagh, where the tombs of the Bhatti Rajput kings (erstwhile rulers of Jaisalmer) are worth visiting. Close to Badabagh is the village of Baisakhai, with an interesting old Hindu temple. A brief halt at Baisakhai is followed up with a ride to Ramkunda, known both for its picturesque location and for its Hindu temples. Most camel safaris will halt for the night at Ramkunda, and carry on the next day to the village of Roopsi, with its wattle-and-daub houses, straight out of antiquity.
Further on from Roopsi, the camel safari wends its way to the village of Ludharva, which is dominated by a Jain temple. Chatrayil, a typical Muslim village, complete with a mosque, is the next halt, and is a nice place to spend the night before carrying on the following day to the Rajput village of Salkha, which is in close proximity to the sand dunes of Beri of Kanoi. When you get to this point, make sure you’ve got your camera handy. Beri of Kanoi has lots of traditional Rajasthani wells, and you’ll invariably find village women, in colourful lehengas, fetching water. Kanoi itself is a village of carpenters, and produces excellent handcarved wooden items- perfect for that `souvenir from Rajasthan’ for folks back home.
From Kanoi, the camel safari proceeds to Masooradi village, and then on to the oasis of Jeseiri. After a wash-and-change at Jeseiri (that’s what oases are for!), the camels move on to the Rajput village of Dedha and then to Deegasar, a lakeside hamlet which is picture-perfect.
After Deegasar, the next halt is the village of Kuldhara, where excavations have revealed ancient settlements dating back many centuries. From Kuldhara, the safari heads back to Jaisalmer, passing through the hamlets of Moolsagar and Amarsagar on the way. Amarsagar is home to a finely carved Jain temple, and is worth a halt.
This route is really one of the longest camel safaris in the state; a number of shorter versions of it are available, if you don’t have the time or the inclination to go the whole hog.
2. Jaisalmer- Moolsagar- Kuldhara- Masooradi- Padiyari- Moondardi- Jaisalmer:
An abridged version of the first camel safari, this one starts from Jaisalmer, and passes through Moolsagar, Kuldhara and Masooradi, before proceeding to Padiyari and then to the hamlet of Moondardi. From Moondardi, the safari heads back to Jaisalmer. A short trip, but enjoyable enough, especially for someone who doesn’t have the time to spare for a longer expedition.
1.Bikaner- Naukh- Kanasar- Baru- Chayan- Sataya- Tadana- Mohangarh- Dungri-Jaisalmer:
333 km north-east of Jaisalmer lies the desert town of Bikaner, established towards the end of the 15th century and named after its founder, Bika. For many decades a busy market town which throbbed with activity, Bikaner still manages to preserve an aura of medieval bustle- although its economic structure has changed somewhat. Camel caravans from West Asia do not pass through Bikaner any more, but the town produces some of the best sweets, savoury snacks and rugs in India.
This route starts at Bikaner, where you can see the magnificent old Junagarh fort and the lovely Lalgarh Palace, before you get on to your camel and set off. The camel safari works its way southwards, passing through the hamlets of Naukh, Kansar, Baru, Chayan, Sataya and Tadana to Mohangarh. Mohangarh, although a small town, is dominated by an imposing sandstone fortress which deserves a visit. From the town, the trail continues to Dungri and then onto Jaisalmer, where it ends.
2. Bikaner- Charkhada- Teliyan ki Dhani- Kanasar- Baru Bhala- Bungri- Telansar- Chaku- Bharaiya- Jambo- Jaisalmer:
Another of the Bikaner-Jaisalmer camel safaris, but one which follows a different route. This one starts at Bikaner, and instead of heading directly south to Jaisalmer, makes a detour eastward into the neighbouring district of Jodhpur. Passing through the villages of Charkhada, Teliyan ki Dhani, Kanasar, Baru Bhala, Telansar, Chaku and Bharaiya along the way, the camel safari reaches the hamlet of Jambo, in Jodhpur district. From Jambo, it turns westward and goes to Jaisalmer, where it ends.
Mandawa, just a few hours’ drive from Delhi, is known primarily for its wonderful old havelis, opulent mansions constructed by rich Marwari merchants who had amassed huge fortunes from trade. The havelis of Mandawa, decorated with colourful frescoes, are worth a visit before you set off on the camel safari.
From Mandawa, a camel safari of about six hours takes you to the hamlet of Dhakas, around 18 km from Mandawa. Dhakas lies amidst the dunes of the Thar, and its nearby villages, also in the middle of the desert, make for good exploring.
Most camel safaris halt for the night at Dhakas, then continue the next day to the hamlet of Khotia, a further six hours from Dhakas. A brief halt at Khotia is followed by a ride back to Mandawa.
This camel safari is one of the shortest offered and though it’s not full of exotica, it allows you a brief but enlightening glimpse of life in one of India’s harshest but loveliest terrains.
These are just a few of the more popular routes; other camel safaris are organised throughout Rajasthan. Some, like the ones above, originate in Jaisalmer, Bikaner or Mandawa, while others `do’ the area around Jodhpur and Shekhavati, the latter rich with fresco-decorated havelis. Camel safaris like the ones in the vicinity of Jaisalmer and Shekhavati offer plenty of scope for touring medieval forts, visiting ancient temples and photographing some of Rajasthan’s most imposing monuments. The ones around Bikaner are, on the contrary, more suited for a glimpse of typical village life. You probably won’t see too many famous forts or palaces on these circuits, but it’s a grand opportunity to get a taste- often literally- of rural Rajasthan.