On the way to Jaisalmer, our driver told us that unless we went on a camel safari there was not much point in us being there. So,taking heed of his advice, we asked him to arrange an overnight safari in the desert for us the following day.
With the heat of the day delaying our departure until the late afternoon, we still had time to visit yet another fort. On the wide spectrum of North Indian forts and palaces I would say that Jaisalmer’s offering was somewhere inbetween Jaipur's sorry effort and Jodhpur's impressive one. It was interesting, provided good views but, unfortunately, had never been in a Batman movie.
After a slight delay our driver was taking us deep into the desert, where our camel adventure would take place. I was starting to feel nervous. Not because I found the prospect of camel riding particularly scary. But rather because, due to my inability to get my head round practical things, I was anticipating an inevitable fail. If driving, skiing and ice skating had taught me anything, this was going to be an uphill struggle. Sadly, I was right. Quite literally as it turned out.
When we arrived at the safari park, where a small oval of basic cabins was fenced off from the wide expanse of dusty ground and sandy desert, we were given a cup of chai and introduced to the other drivers who had taken their respective tourists to the resort. They were all from Delhi and they were all friends. Banter was rife. The drivers were forever teasing one another, shouting over one another, playfully punching one another, laughing at one another. They laughed loud and they laughed long. Even when the joker of the pack told us foreigners some of what were clearly his most tried and tested stories, his fellow drivers eagerly awaited the punchline, pointing and giggling in anticipation, before finally bursting into a roar of laughter when it was delivered, as if they were hearing it for the first time. And as soon as the drivers learned I was not only half Indian, or a mixed masala, but originally from Delhi as well,I found myself engulfed in this torrent of hi fives, slaps on the back and raucous laughter for the rest of the trip.
Eventually I was led from the carnival to the camels. And as soon as one of the workers gestured to a vacant animal that had just bent down on its hind legs to expose an uncomfortable looking seat, my spirit were sobred immediately. Ah, s***. I climbed up and after doing so was given three clear instructions: 1) sit back, 2) sit up straight and 3) hold on to the part of the saddle that sat in front. From that point I do believe that no camel trainer can claim to have ever seen a straighter, more reclined back, nor a tighter grip than mine. In fact, my body sweated profusely with the effort of carrying out these instructions to the best of my ability. And I refused to break my rigid pose for anyone or anything. Not to take a photo, not even to look around. Nothing. Unfortunately, such rigidity meant I was unable to go with the natural bumps and turns of the camel’s movement so I actually made it harder for myself.
Last in line and staring straight ahead at the camels in front of me, I watched with incredulity at how the other riders seemed to be carrying on so effortlessly, swivelling around to take pictures and even taking their hands off the saddle seat whilst I clung hopelessly onto mine. Overthinking the situation had been my downfall once again. And in fact, falling down was becoming an increasingly realistic prospect until one of the instructors informed me that, in my effort to stay as rigid as possible I suppose, I had spent the entire journey so far perched on the right hand side of the saddle that I was basically hanging off. Finally, daring to move, I readjusted my position and sat more centrally. And lo, it was actually pretty easy after that. Plum.
Now that I had settled into the ride, I could look around and enjoy what a unique experience this was. For moving up the steep sand dunes that dotted our path we were exposed to glorious views of far expanding desert which shimmered under the light of the steady setting sun. After being permitted some time to watch the sun go down and take pictures of the striking scene, we returned to the cabins where we sat, relaxed and awaited the night's entertainment. This entailed some classic Rajahatani music and dancing which we were all eventually roped into. Having watched some Indian movies and been to a few Indian events I felt I had the upper hand when it came to producing at least a half decent dancing performance. And so, channelling my inner Sharak Khan,I shook my shoulders and pointed my fingers for all they were worth. The drivers certainly seemed to like it as they cheered and gestured wildly at the sight of me. Though as I was their fellow Delhi native, they would probably have reacted exactly the same if I had pulled out the robot.
After the dancing was over we all, driver and tourist alike, sat in a circle and continued eating, joking and drinking. But the Indians drank a lot. So the joking soon became the insistent repetition of a single line that, no matter how often it was stated, was always delivered with the same intense force. ‘They call me Gandhi’ said one bald headed driver. ‘Gandhi, Hahahah.’ ‘Hey Gandhi!’ Another said. ‘Hahaha. See, they call me Gandhi.’ ‘You know Gandhi? Great man, that's what they call me. But I'm not Gandhi, hahaha'. Whiskey was being guzzled, weed was being smoked, eyes were starting to squint, heads were starting to droop, words were becoming inaudible. Time for bed, said our less inebriated driver. It had been a good laugh but it was time to go.
Our sleeping arrangements were yet to be settled. There was the option of sleeping in the desert but we had been a bit reluctant to take it up because simply laying in a tent on a pile of sand didnt sound all that exciting. However, in the end we decided to go for it, thinking we might as well see what happened. After driving us into the desert, Alice and I were led around a steep sand dune and shown our accommodation for the night. There was no tent. There was a bed and a duvet. That was it. The clear night sky was all the shelter we would be getting.
I can't say it was a great sleep but it was a surreal one. Waking up to a gentle breeze, with the moon dipping and the sun rising, surrounded by nothing but desert sand and a few trees, was like nothing I'd experienced before. Initial jitters aside, the camel safari was definitely one of our best experiences in India and one I won't forget.