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The Essence Safaries in India
The Essence of the Safari
Safaris can be jeeps or the mounted ones on camels and horseback. It is in winter that the desert state of Rajasthan offers an exotic encounter with the outdoors in the form of camel safaris. The Thar desert in western Rajasthan is the locale for an age-old adventure in which the camel is used as an unique form of sightseeing. These safaris can last a day or can be undertaken over a period of several days; in these cases camping equipment is necessary.
Developing on the same lines, horse safaris have become enormously popular in part of Rajasthan, especially Udaipur and its surrounding areas. In this part of the state, the erstwhile feudal chiefs built lavish castles and imposing forts in the villages that they ruled. These have now become the destinations of these horse safaris. You are taken through thickly wooden hills and colourful villages into stately homes of the former chieftains.
Safaris are available on jeeps too, in the verdant hills of Arunachal Pradesh, in the open bleak desert cape of Ladakh and the Zanskar valley is a particularly challenging area where even a casual visit to a monastery or a remote village settlement involves a rewarding safaris.
Thar Desert Camel Safaris are now one of Asia’s fastest selling adventure holidays. These include camel treks ranging from short rides around Jaisalmer to extensive trips that remind you of Lawrence of Arabia on his epic journey across the Sahara, Marco Polo, on the historic silk route, a medieval trader leading his caravan through the hostile spice route or a royal caravan serai heading for one of the medieval kingdoms of the Thar desert-without many of the hardships of course! They are a great way to see the desert and to enjoy a novel and adventurous holiday. With mechanisation the camel’s role in society, even at the grassroots level, is going to diminish. And so it would have been, but for some pioneering journeys a decade or so back that have recreated the camel caravan journeys of yore, bringing back the romance of desert travel in the form of camel safaris.
The camels are back traversing the sands of the desert, accompanied by bands of travellers for whom the escape into a wilderness where literally nothing but sand makes up the horizon. It is a rare opportunity to escape from the tamed world to one that has rough edges, and takes you squarely into the lap of nature. Back are the camel drivers, those men who know how to navigate across the desert using the stars. Back are the splendid tents where weary travellers can rest their weary bodies after being atop a camel the whole day. Back too are the people who were essential on any caravan-the cooks and attendants, to set camp and serve hot piping meals. And yes, back again are the entertainers, those minstrels who once accompanied such journeys into the desert, to sing a plaintivelament under moonlight, or a robust, soulstirring tune that seems to capture within its simple notes, the mystery and the magic of the desert. Camel safaris are the new, exciting way of casting one’s footprints across the shifting sands of Rajasthan. What’s more interesting, however, is the control one has over an adventure activity, so that it can be tailored to suit every modern traveller. Whether you want a safari that takes only a few hours, or one that is perfect for a weekend, or a longer one to take you travelling from city to city by this unconventional method, you have it all. It’s certainly an experience no visitor to Rajasthan should do without.
For most, of course, getting used to the camel is the most important thing. To begin with, there is the animal itself, tall and ungainly, with the habit of sneering (or so it seems). The colour could range from a light tan to the more usual tawny to a dusky black. Almost invariably, caught in its coat will be desert thorns (so it’s best for you to wear trousers on the journey) that can prick you awkwardly. The camel simply is not a social animal, and can on occasions even display its temper. It’s best to leave him to the ministrations of its keeper and avoid developing a relationship with it.
Then there is its peculiar gait. A camel sits on its haunches, so you may mount it. It may have a leather saddle for two slung across its hump (best for long journeys), or sometimes a wooden cradle that allows you to sit sideways (making it look affected). To get up, the camel first raises its front feet into a kneeling position (so you lurch forward), then its back (so you are thrown back). The procedure is repeated again when the camel stands up at full height. The swaying gait thrust forward and back. A trifle alarming at first, it is easy to get lulled into the gentle rhythm of the motion. One has the option of hitching a cart on to the camel, though it does lack somewhat in the spirit of adventure. It is best to get in long stretches of your safari in the early morning and in the late afternoon, for the sun can get fairly hot even during the winter months after noon (a hat and dark glasses should be mandatory). In any case, your muscles, unused to the camel’s movement and the girth of the saddle, are going to ache on the initial runs, so its best to divide up your riding time into short stretches to get used to the safari.
Most safari operators route journeys through the desert so you are close to villages, but remain hidden from them. In the afternoons, trips to the villages can be planned. An advance group moves ahead to set the evening’s camp-usually self-sustained, with its own kitchen (food is cooked over wood-fire), and tented accommodation. Baths are prepared for the travellers, and kerosene lamps used for lighting. A bonfire is organised around which evening cocktails and dinner is served. Here, in this enchanted setting with the stars looming large under the dark sky, village balladeers and minstrels are invited to sing, dance, play a musical instrument or two. It goes without saying that winter is the season for such safaris. In the cold months, the dry climate and the reflection of the sun’s heart on the sand can make the day under the sun warm, and the nights bitterly cold. It is advisable, therefore, to carry a mix of woollens and lighter clothing, and to have suntan lotion and moisturisers for the skin.
Most meals will be Rajasthani affairs with vegetables and, usually, chicken and mutton cooked in fiery spices (after a while you get addicted to the chillies). Buttermilk and yoghurt accompaniments are best to cool ( and calm) the palate. So what’s a good place to go on a camel safari? These days, almost anywhere in Rajasthan is fine, so it will depend on your schedule and plans. Those adventurous can take Jaisalmer which is the heart of the desert with a beautiful fort which is inhabited, and which is known for its carved, sandstone mansions. Bikaner has a camel farm, the only one of its kind in the country, and along with Jodhpur, forms two ends of a route which has several other interesting settlements along its route. These include Khimsar and Nagaur. From Bikaner, one can head for Shekhawati where the attraction is a number of fierce castles with a bristling history, and the painted mansions of the merchants who once lived here.
However, those who would prefer a smaller safari ( a night or two in the desert), should plan a journey so that they move out of the town into the desert, and choose a route devoid of sightseeing options. This way, they can feel the essence of the desert, and the loneliness of the landscape, while being in close distance to modern conveniences. Shorter safaris still would merely be in the nature of rides, stretching to a full day for those so inclined, or merely a few hours with a meal thrown in. However, to be able to spend at least one night in the desert would be an unique experience, and should be built in if at all it is possible. The quality of the camps, the size, and the accompanying attendants can make the safari more comfortable, but even on a Spartan budget ( and it can be an inexpensive activity), a camel safari can be a memorable experience.
Rajasthan’s Thar is the only desert in world which is rich in colour and culture ( in most other deserts. These find a reflection in to camel safaris too. And the splendour of the desert combined with the experience of camping and riding in truly makes one of the most impressive activities for travellers. It also bring alive an era when this was the way any brave race conquered the harse elements to create a romantic kingdom in the desert.
Khuri has a wide range of routes for tourists to choose from. The best safari is from Jaisalmer to Barmer with a jeep transfer from Jaisalmer to the saddle up point at Khuri and from the last village to Barmer. The seven day, six night trek takes you through an incredible range of countryside-sand dunes, salt flats, dry river beds, grasslands, thorn scrub, rocky terrain-interspersed with villages and crisscrossed by roads. A camel cart carries the baggage and lodging and boarding are organized at the villages on the way. Those who cannot complete the safari can pull out on the highway at Shiv, the mid-way point. Foreigners require a permit from the District Collector or Magistrate.
For those interested in wildlife, another interesting five day, four night trek is from Khuri to Samm through the Desert National Park. Connecting two of the most famous sand dunes in Rajasthan, the camel safari takes you through some fertile wildlife areas. Indian gazelle, Great Indian bustard, Houbara bustard, quails, desert lark, desert fox, desert cat and desert hare are often seen in the Sewan grasslands; eagles and vultures on the acacia trees and in the evenings you can see falcons and harriers coming to roost on the dunes. On the way you can see some really colourful hamlets where even Hindi is unknown, a real change from Jaisalmer where locals understand even French and Italian and the principal languages are Sindhi and Marwari. For a true desert adventure however,we would recommend the four day, three night camel safari from the DESERT HERMITAGE at SHERGADH, two hours south west from Jodhpur, to Sovalia, two hours south east before. Jaisalmer, crossing one of India’s greatest stretches of rolling sand dunes up to 200 feet or more at places.
On the first day of the safari you get acclimatized to camel travel with a short ride and evening entertainment programme. The next day you bypass the Tendu village and spend the afternoon at Raison village. On the third day you are on the highest sand dune in the area and in the fourth day you descend to the highway in the morning from where a jeep can take you to Jaisalmer or Khuri. The safari can be extended either to Pokaran on the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer highway or to Shiv on the Jaisalmer-Barmer highway, You hardly encounter any roads, villages or civilization on the way and rarely descend below 100 feet from sea level. Dunes change shape from barren seas of sand to patches of drought resisting green vegetation covered dunes and hours pass between signs of life broken by an occasional Indian gazelle or a caravan of nomadic cameleers. The remaining nights are spent in army surplus tents with camp style toilet tents, a mess tent and other camping arrangements on the dunes. For those who especially ask for it, the caravan can descend to one of the dhannis (desert hamlets) for a night camp in more ethnic surroundings.
The basic principle of camel riding is easy. Because they are cud chewers and have a tooth structure different from that of a horse, the camel does not carry a bit but has a metallic peg in the nose connected to a long rope the camel saddle is made from wood with iron frames and, for tourists from the city or for long nomadic treks, it is softened with cushioned quilts. You shake the nose line to make the camel rise, move the nose line left to turn left and right to turn right and pull it to come to a complete halt. Whispered commands and shakes of the nose-line will decide whether the camel walks, trots or gallops. In reality these principles are not very easy to follow -the camel is large and stubborn and apt to run away from the rest of the caravan, gets up before you are properly seated and tries to inflict strong and powerful bites. The cameleers who ride behind or lead the camel from the front can, however, control even this powerful ship of the desert quite effectively and it is best to let them do the maneuvering until you are more confident. As soon all are mounted in ones, twos and three on the camel saddle, the camels gracefully rose up pulling up their hind legs first and then throwing you backward by suddenly lifting the front, swayed gently and started off on the jaunt. The camel, one can notice has a locomotion similar to that of the cat family i.e. the left front and left back and the right front and right hind at the same time. The result, a swaying gait at first caused discomfort similar to sea sickness but minutes later one gets used to the rhythm. Sensing this the cameleers will quicken the pace until one is almost trotting across the sandy plains.
When the sun begins to sink , turning the sand dunes to a beautiful golden yellow. Gradually the ascent will begin from here to the crest of the dune that must have been over 150 feet above the plains. It is interesting to note that the camels did not climb the dunes steeply but spiral up finally halting just below the apex of the dune. Though one enjoys the ride it must be admitted it is a relief when the cameleer allows to dismount and stretch out legs once again. The view here is nothing less than magnificent and all around were waves of sand that extended southward as far as the eye could see. Another option is to return to Khuri rather than sleep out on the dunes . An authentic desert musical performance can be availed of here.
One returned to the camels, climbed into their saddled backs once again and felt more relaxed than one did when one had at Khuri at the start of the journey. Acclimatized by now to the pace of the camel, one can start for the first time to really feel the romance of a desert journey and realize why the camel safaris around Jaisalmer have become one of the country’s fastest selling adventure holidays alongside trekking and white water rafting in the Himalayas. A full moon dispelled apprehensions about riding at night and can add to the pleasure of the journey making one realize the tranquillity of a moon drenched desert landscape can match for splendour the golden brown hues of sunrise and sunset on the dunes. The cameleers, tend to break into their respective desert ballads and folk songs, singing as much to themselves and the camels as to adventurers and soon, the trotting of the camels turned into a gallop as the journey’s end was close at hand.
One finally dismounts at Khuri and walks into the courtyard of spotless thatched huts where a fire is blazing and dinner is being served. After a sumptuous meal the Mangniyars strike up their music. Music is an integral part of life in the desert-it is imperative for nomads to while away their time on their long and arduous journeys by singing and for shepherds to keep themselves awake while tending sheep and goats in their wolf threatened countryside by playing on simple musical instruments. But unlike the tribes in the Aravalli mountains of Rajasthan, desert communities do not have much to offer by way of folk music but rely on professional entertainers like the Mangniyar and Langa musicians. One can retire for the night on charpoys (rope beds) in picturesque huts. One can opt for a night under the limpid starry desert sky, watching the moon, constellations and the occasional shooting stars. Memories of the camel safari will tend to linger in minds as one awakens next morning but one has to move on to next destination and one can only hope for another chance to come back soon.
A camel safari is a great way to see the desert - visiting the villages, seeing wildlife, riding across the open desert sands. Typical camel safaris organized around Jaisalmer take in the architectural ruins of Lodurva which was the former capital of the Bhatti Rajput desert kingdom before the founding of Jaisalmer, the oasis garden of Bada Bagh, the Amarsagar oasis ,the sand dumes of Samm and the water source of Moolsagar where village women gather with pitchers at dusk-in a five day four night circuit north and west of Jaisalmer. But it is only on the second or third day that you get to see the ‘real’ desert of sand dunes at Samm, considered so typical of Beau Geste desert countryside. The rest of the three days are spent crossing featureless lunar plains and empty scrubland, the monotony broken by villages of Sodha Rajputs sporting cavalier moustaches and masculine earrings, settlements of gaily turbaned Sindhi Muslim cameleers, painted huts selling fizzy soft drinks, fields being tilled by bullock carts and girls picking berries. Night halts on basis safaris are at villages on the way or temporary bivouac camp in the desert scrub where camels are hobbled and let out to browse.
Whichever kit one selects ,there are some reqisites to be taken along.The climate is extreme in the desert- afternoons may seem much hotter than the 26-30 degree temperature might suggest.Night temperatures might drop below zero on the dunes.It is essential to stock both woollen as well as cotton clothing.Shorts and skirts are comfortable wear for camel safaris but remember some of the off beat routes visit villages that have not seen many tourists and locals and may look askance at ladies who do not wear ankle length clothing and men in shorts.Sun hats with large rims or cotton hats that can be dipped in water when it gets too hot around midday , are essential preferably with a balaclava or scarf for covering the neck and forehead.At Jodhpur one can buy umbrellas that are quite convenient for camel safaris. Sun screen cream, moisturizers and lip salve area must.
A water bottle can be comfortably slung on the camel saddle and it is pratical also to carry tangerines as even on a deluxe safari. It may not be practical to dismount each time to drink from the carted water supply. Bottled mineral water is available at Jodhpur and Jaislamer. Find out if the baggage is being transffered by camel cart or vehicle. In case of the letter, a small handbag can carry the essentials you are likely to need on the way. If prone to sickness carry suitable mediaction against the swaying gait of the camel. Unless you have joined a prearranged safari programme of a tour organizer, carry along clean sheets and foam matteresses or a sleeping bag as you cannot predict what you may get by way of a bedding. A torch, pen knife and even cutlery will be required. Finally patience is an important piece of baggage on a camel safari as it takes time to get to grips with camel travel and to reach the destinations that may be on your travel priorities. Otherwise ask for a jeep safari which could do the route in next to no time - the 4 day Jaisalmer to Samm and back safari via Lodurva, desert villages and oasis gardens cab be cut down to 4 or 5 hours by jeep !
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