Notwithstanding the subtle mantle of high-hovering clouds webbing the east, it was a brilliant morning. A soft quietude and a caressing breeze were prevailing in the air. A fat gray ox with erected horns was walking idly the sandy street down the rooftop I was drinking my coffee at. A slender woman covered by a filmy, pink scarf was hanging the laundry on a stretched cord some few rooftops ahead. All the stone houses around that bulky rock and the massive fortress atop it were really shining like gold in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan’s golden city. A cluster of eucalypti was shading a group of house yards somewhere there, by the verge of the town. And out there, was lying sand, sand, and rock. Out there was extending the vast land occupied by Thar, the Great Indian Desert.
It was about 8.30 am when all was ready to venture out for the desert. We had all our supplies loaded in the car and, me, a French guy and our eagle-faced local driver, we were leaving the westernmost town of Rajasthan behind, aiming further west.
The town, very small as it is, soon gave out, and there was naught but hot desolateness for the most part. It was about 10 km after the town when we made our first stop. That was a small village, named something like Mulchager – if I got the spelling of the driver well. It was a tiny, rectangular, walled village, no more than 200 m2, amidst sand and parched shrub. Some 10-12 scattered clay huts were constituting the housing of its dwellers. A few scarf-covered women were scurrying up and down the village performing various works. A few children were following us with their palms open, uttering “rupee rupee” between intervals of quiet staring. A bunch of men was sitting complacently round a table in the middle of the village yard drinking chai, smoking beedies and curiously examining us strolling around their village.
Our next stop was only a couple of kilometers after. A gypsy settlement, where tents and sketchy stone shacks were loosely agglomerated within a large, open area. I found the people there much more amiable. A man was squatting on an unshaded spot, toilsomely cutting some big pieces of rock. He greeted gently. Another man, further away, invited me for a cup of chai in his small yard. His English was surprisingly good. So we got to have a very interesting conversation about their nomadic lifestyles, while his eight children were aggregated around us smiling shyly.
We continued further. The sun, by then, had risen a good deal in the dim, blue sky. The heat would be inexorably violent, if it wasn’t for that relieving breeze blowing above the derelict land, forcing the sand granules to roam through the air, and putting in rhythmic motion an array of wind generators atop those rocky hills we were driving by.
We drove some 5 km west, some 5 more on a dirt road leading south thereafter, and we arrived at the ruins of an abandoned village, named by our driver as the ghost village. He narrated a story of a gorgeously beautiful daughter of that village’s chief who lived there some 800 years ago. A grand, opulent Maharaja was dazzled by the young girl’s charms, so he demanded her being sent to his harem. The father refused to be rived from his beloved daughter. So, to avoid the consequences, they, together with the entire population, deserted the village overnight, setting off to wander in the world – Maybe, who knows, after generations, ending up in Europe, thus having begotten a portion of the modern day European Gypsies.
The village was left to decay ever since. Rough desert shrubs have occupied the interiors of the roof-bereft walls of the aforetime houses. Only a temple and a couple of other important buildings, much higher than everything else, have remained intact to remind that people had once thrived there. Only lizards and jackdaws are now inhabiting that place in a constant basis, some cows and cadger-gypsies occasionally passing by. Like that father-and-daughter gypsy duet we found squatting in a shady, narrow lane. The old man ready to play virtuous tunes in the flute and the girl cradle her body erotically, upon the receiving of some copper.
Further south, we encountered an oasis. That little lake, no more than 30 meters from side to side, is the only water source within a 30 – at least – km radius around it. Some kind of religious building was standing by its shore. Probably to grace whatever sort of divine power responsible for that most valuable gift. A team of some 30-40 women was carrying sand and stones up a slope, on large trays balanced upon their heads, apparently working on some water-saving project, while a few men were superintending the works, sitting and smoking phlegmatically under the wide foliage of an acacia.
Nearby, we also visited an abandoned stronghold amidst yet another deserted village, known as Khaba fortress. The quietude was profound. I saw nothing moving, let aside a small squirrel carrying a twig in his mouth, who vanished in an instance, climbing up a wall as soon as he took notice of me, and a noble peacock, who appeared all of a sudden in front of me, walking clumsily yet illustriously, and slowly, so as to show himself off.
There was our last stop. We then drove straight for some 30-40 km till we reached the outskirts of Khuri village. That was as far as the road could get us. From there on we’d have to continue by other means.
It was a bit past midday. The sun had reached its zenith. We had just stopped by the side of the road outside Khuri village, where we met our guide and our camels. The guide was a young local man from the village named Anil, who will rather be referred to in this story as Maharaj. We got three camels, one female named Lakshi and two males named Disco and Michael Jackson. Disco, being apparently the weaker one, got the greatest bulk of our supplies. While the other two were to bear us together with some fewer things. We tied them all together in a caravan, the French guy rode Lakshi, I rode Micheal, everything was ready and Maharaj started ambling in front, leading the small caravan into the desert.
Micheal Jackson raised his front legs to the point of kneeling. Then lifted the back portion of his body on his two-meter-long hinder legs. And, finally, with a swift movement, leaped on all his four and started on a forward-moon-walking-like pace. The noon in the desert was of a profoundly serene character. Only the wind, whipping the immense, flat, sandy landscape, and the occasional songs of the above-passing birds were interrupting the silence. That was so, until, a while only later, that faint, dull, metallic sound started tinkling from somewhere behind. In the beginning, I didn’t pay much attention to it, hearing it was there, behind us, but only in a musing-minded state. It was only when I took that sound for a cowbell, it approaching steadily closer, that I turned my head back. I saw that quadruped, resembling in all but size a camel and bearing an erected hair-tuft right on top of its hump, running hastily towards us. It was Lakshi’s calf, the baby camel. He was just two months old, fresh in life, but already as tall as me and quite heavier. He was to follow us for all the rest of the trip.
At about 1.30 am we stopped for lunch under the fair, relieving shade of a khejri tree (Prosopis Cineraria). We ridded the camels of their burden. Maharaj tied their front legs with rope, so reducing their strides’ length to some only 30 centimeters, and they were left to roam and graze freely. We started to work on our lunch. We collected a few stones and firewood, lit the fire and got to pick up some of the fruits and vegetables our food supplies were comprised of, while Maharaj got to knead flour, water, salt and a bit of oil into dough for chapatis.
It was an exquisite lunch and an exhilarating digesting-nap we had at that unknown piece of land within the Thar Desert. The day had progressed some good deal when Maharaj quit the comfort of the shade and set out to fetch the camels. Me, meanwhile, I decided to head for a short stroll on that dune nearby. As soon as I reached the purview by its top, I found myself confronting a small gazelle some 20 meters away. She stayed staring at me for some few seconds, till she got over her wonderment, turned around in something even less than an instance, and started bouncing briskly towards other lands.
We rode the camels and advanced some way further into the desert, till, almost by sunrise, we were standing atop that other tall dune. Besides the vast desert with its numerous other dunes, there was a tiny cattle ranch down in the valley to the east. I discerned the figure of what I soon got for a young boy advancing slowly towards our part. He came to greet and offer a bottle of milk. After a cup of chai, made after the boy’s contribution, a fat dinner and the uplifting meditation one necessarily experiences when witnessing such a rare, unique desert sunset, it was time for bed – metaphorically of course. We laid a rug each for mattress down-sand, got yet another rug for a blanket and fell prostrated watching the boundless black sky overhead.
It was just about the time the first glimpses of dreams had started to infiltrate into my consciousness when I took one of them: a strong wind hissing furiously and blowing ample loads of sand onto my face, for not being a piece of unconscious sensation, but physical reality rather. I opened my eyes and saw a blacker than the black sky, mushroom-shaped cloud mass heading straight towards us from the east, periodically releasing its wrath in form of electrostatic discharge, diffusing the night sky with light. I had my tent with me, and that was the only tent we had. We got up, all the three of us, and, struggling a good deal against the sand-whipping wind, we managed to set it up. We then placed inside all the water-sensitive material we had and waited to get wet ourselves. The wind’s fury grew steadily stronger. The edge of the clouds passed nearly 90 degrees upon our heads. A few drops fell. And, it just by-passed us scratchingly and kept its way drawing away from us.
One who hasn’t slept in the desert cannot conjecture what a delight sleep may be. Feeling perfectly rested and having attended series upon series of pleasant dreams, I got up that morning, as soon as the first dawn-light hit against my eyes, and the various birds started chirping happily, flying from one to the next of the few trees of the place. It’d be soon time to go.
Having had breakfast and packed everything, we set off walking. We held the reins of one camel each and started striding forward, while our huge friends followed promptly. We walked down south the dune and a couple of kilometers into the valley, and we soon approached that tiny, clay farmhouse there situated. We tied the camels – or we actually let them believe they are tied, as their reins passed around a sprig does generally suffice to keep them in place – and we proceeded into the hut’s yard, where an old lady welcomed us with a hot cup of chai. I took my place squatting among the pieces of pottery scattered all over the yard, and I focused myself on my cup and cigarette. A whole gang of children accumulated themselves around us and got to attend us shyly yet curiously. A yeanling kept hanging about the yard-door, showing clearly his intention to walk inside, but that little girl was standing guard by the door and was driving him out in every attempt to enter.
We thanked for the hospitality and got prepared to leave. That was the time I got to ride a camel independently for the first time in my life. I got to know the commands and the operations from Maharaj, and we were ready to move. I gave a kick with my heel to Micheal Jackson’s belly, and in no time he was erect and moving forward. I found Michael to be a very cooperative camel. I could very easily direct him with just a slight twitch of the reins. With the slightest, also, kick or the hearing of that “ch-ch” sound I’d made slapping my tongue against the hard palate of my mouth, he was eagerly accelerating. And, without needing to beat him at all, only lifting that withe in the air and swaying it a couple of times through it, he would start running front spryly, my body bouncing up and down the saddle up to 20 cm.
“Jiuuu!”, I shouted to Micheal, while at the same time pulling his neck back, and he responsively kneeled to let me dismount. It was time for lunch. There was that 4 m2 thatch shed, placed upon four thick branches pegged into the sand, with a plastic bottle hanging from one of them and producing the only sound to be heard around as the wind was hitting it rhythmically against the wood. There was a man sitting there, apparently some acquaintance of Maharaj. That’s where we’d have our lunch that day.
After food and the so rejoicing desert siesta, it was time to farewell our French comrade. He would head back to town accompanied by that man we found there, while I and Maharaj were to venture further into the desert. We proceeded on foot for the rest of the day. We made a stop at another hut for a cup of chai, where an old man was sitting by the entrance and smoking one beedi after another, and a little girl was squatting down some distance away from us, washing the dishes, rubbing them with sand.
Sunset was imminent by the time we had made it to the top of that dune we were to spend the night. Before anything else, I went for a short exploration around the area and found a great spot where to enjoy the sunset from. There was that moment when I discerned a fox, some 30-40 meters in front of me. She was moving slowly, stealthily, with great caution, facing always the opposite way than the one I was standing at. It seemed like she had a candidate victim spotted, but, then, she was forgetting about it and was stopping to just wonder at the descending sun, pretty much the same thing I was doing. So it was, until I decided to let her know of my presence. I released a loud whistling. She instantaneously turned towards my part, looked at me bewildered for a few brief moments, and ran like crazy, disappearing from my sight in a matter of a few seconds.
The following morning was one of glorious placidity. The sky was transparent as nothingness, and the sun, a perfect rounded fire sphere, was slowly rising in it. A herd of cows was moving slowly across the valley, munching whatever grass was to be found along the way. While a flustered calf was running around and crashing on the rest like crazy. A fat collared dove passed above the dune, screeching out his “kookookoo” calls, while approaching speedily some mates of his far out there, high up in the sky. A daw landed mutely some 10 meters away from our food sack, and stayed skirting it thoughtfully for some time. A cloudy swarm of louse-flies was giving suffering to Lakshi, who was sitting nearby growling and struggling with that nemesis of hers, while dung beetles were coming and going carrying away the products of her excretion.
We spent the rest of that day no much differently than the previous ones: Wandering around the desert. I got to ride Lakshi that day. I didn’t find Lakshi a particularly obedient camel compared to Micheal Jackson. She was, basically, not giving a shit of what my will was. I never managed to make her run. I’d try to kick her or whip her, but she would only keep the same pace stoically. At times, also, the baby camel was taking his place walking right in front of us, at which times Lakshi would listen to nothing but only follow her calf.
That day also passed, and we found ourselves squatting on yet another dune. That would also be my last night out there in the desert. We had dinner with some mushrooms Maharaj had found earlier down there in the bush. And then we stayed up till late looking one time at the fire and the other at the unending starry sky. While at times giving an audience to the heavy silence, and at other times to each other.
Last day in the desert, we woke up early, had breakfast, and started on our way back to Khuri village. About midways thither we stopped for lunch at a friend’s of Maharaj. That guy maintained there, in the middle of the desert, a small, fenced farm. The whole thing was some 250 square meters, and he was using it to crop lentils, wheat, and watermelons. At one side he had made a minimal straw shelter to be finding retreat during the hottest hours of the day, taking a break from his horticultural business.
That’s exactly where we nested, the three of us, and started working on some lunch. There was that flask of whiskey I’d been carrying with me throughout the trip, but I hadn’t yet touched it as Maharaj was not drinking at all, and I didn’t feel like emptying the whole thing myself. That old guy over there prove himself an avid drinker, though. He was also a very interesting talking companion. His English was excellent. He had been working as a tourist guide in the desert for 35 entire years, till he decided to retire and make this small farm to spend his old age in peace. We talked about lots of curious stuff, as gazelle hunting and illegal opium cultivation in the desert, till the whiskey flask was empty and both of us fell in a refreshing siesta.
By the time I opened my eyes, Maharaj had fetched the camels back and we were ready to go. A couple of hours later we were waiting by the side of that desolate road outside Khuri. In a while more, that same eagle-faced driver had shown back and we were heading back towards civilization.
Maharaj, or Anil – as his real name is – is a man of 29 years of age from Khuri village. He has been working as a desert guide since the age of 13, having led multitudes of people through the Thar desert. His English is very decent (in fact much better than of the most of the agency spokesmen you find in Jaisalmer). He bears quite a volume of knowledge concerning the desert, its peoples, and its ecosystem. He is a genuinely honest and kind man – something very rare, I found, with people working with tourists in this country. He is the father of three school-aged children, whom he supports by the means of two cows and two goats he maintains at his village and his guiding job. He mainly works for one company, being paid scantily in proportion to what those people usually make out of tourists – which, I witnessed, might be outrageous. He may well help anybody in arranging a more independent desert tour with fewer costs – excluding the useless intermediary agencies. I would like herewith to recommend him unreservedly to anybody who may be contemplating a tour in the Thar Desert. +91 (0)9929720636 is his private telephone number.