Through the Desert on Camelback

There’s a certain romanticism associated with the desert. Perhaps it’s because of ancient stories of explorers crossing the desert in camel trains, the silk route winding its way through the sandy landscapes of the east. Maybe it’s the vastness–of the desert underfoot and the sky overhead–that ignites the imagination. Perhaps it’s the harshness of it, the incredulousness that anything or anyone can survive here.

Whatever it is, it has spawned stories and songs. The Eagles sang of their desire to sleep in the desert with a million stars overhead, and America romanticizes the escapism of being a nameless person crossing a desert on a nameless horse.

But friends, I’m here to tell you that neither crossing the desert or sleeping in the desert is all that it’s cracked up to be. It’s an adventure—a hot, sweaty, sandy, dirty, adventure—but it’s one of those that you can put on the list of “I’m glad I did it once, but I don’t ever need to do it again” adventures.

From the town of Jaisalmer, a small city crowned by an incredible fort, on the eastern edges of India, where the temperature hit a lovely 42 degrees Celsius, we set out by jeep for the sands of the Thar desert.

About 40 kilometers from the city, we were greeted by a group of local camel herders and their charges. Before we could have a long enough look at the camels to register just how ugly they are, we were sitting in a saddle on top of them, leaning back, and holding on, as these awkward animals clammered to their feet.

Then, forming a train, we were off. Though I didn’t see any of the camels spit, as they are well known to do, I did get to hear more than a few farts. For not eating or drinking that much, these animals sure do produce a lot of gas. It wasn’t quite the soundtrack I had in mind for the trip. But the desert itself also wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I pictured high rolling dunes, a vastness empty of anything but sand. I think I was picturing the Namib desert. What we got instead was a scrubby desert, low and flat with lots of thorny shrubs, punctuated every once in a while by a nice dune.

The sun blazed overhead, but a constant wind blew making it seem not as blistering. The camels rocked back and forth, and for most of the two hours that we rode, it was, while not romantic, still fun. At least it was for me until my camel decided he’d had enough and tried to buck me off. Maybe I should have been a cowgirl, because I hung on and rode it out for what seemed like a good eight seconds, until the herders got him under control. I was a bit uneasy after that and when he showed signs of a second round of misbehaving, I opted to hop down and walk. Luckily we were just a bit shy of our destination, one of the few dunes of the Thar desert, from which we watched the sun disappear.

Then, with me sharing a camel with Jeff this time, we continued on a short bit to our campsite, where we had a very tasty dinner and watched the sky light up with stars. This was my favorite part of the trip, the sky a diamond studded blanket complete with shooting stars. I should have just stayed up watching the stars, because sleeping in the desert is just flat out not romantic. The wind that had kept things bearable during the day, blew all night, sending sand onto our beds and into our blankets. The heat disappeared and a wetness moved in, leaving our pillow and blankets damp, and us feeling sticky and gross.

I was happy to see the sun rise and to bid the desert good morning. I think a family who started the trip with us had the right idea when they opted for a one-day safari, returning to Jaisalmer and a hotel room with a bed and a shower, around 10 p.m.–long enough to enjoy a camel ride and see the magnificent sky but not endure a long, uncomfortable night.

Around 9 a.m., after breakfast, I gladly hopped up onto my camel–not the same one as yesterday, but a calmer camel–knowing that a shower was only a few hours away. I felt pretty disgusting. We again rode for about two hours.

The scenery for the most part was the same as the day before, although this time we did come across a village with a well where women in brightly colored clothes from all over the area gathered to collect water and carry it home on their heads. I admired them. I’m not sure what inspires them to live in the desert, but they must be tough people. One night in this most unforgiving of landscapes was plenty for me.

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