India: Desert Trekking in Jaisalmer

I hate the term ‘must do’ when I visit a place. I don’t really like people telling me I ‘must do’ this or ‘must see’ that when I go somewhere because travelling is such a personal thing. However, when I was in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan earlier this year, I indulged in one of these must-dos – a camel ride through the Thar Desert.

This is the epitome of Jaisalmer where tourists are concerned. On the whole, it’s quite a laidback, chilled city, but with it being on the cusp of the desert, it’s ridden with salesman arguing that their desert tour is the best (which I found very odd – it’s all the same sand – how much better can one tour be?) and offering extortionate prices left, right and centre. We were apalled (but not altogether surprised) by the quote given to us by our guesthouse owner who was very reluctant to take no for an answer. It’s certainly something to consider – some hotel owners will treat you very differently if you decide not to take a tour with them. We ended up moving from the Hotel Deep Mahal to another place due to the owner’s sudden lack of manners as a result of our decision.

In the end, we put our faith in good ol’ Lonely Planet and opted for Trotters, which has a name about as touristy as it comes (and is run by Del Boy, no less!). Their office was well-located near the entrance to Jaisalmer fort, their prices were reasonable and it seemed like a pretty decent tour. We were a ragtag bunch of travellers, having met one another at various stages, but they were able to put us in a group together too which was good. I had at first wanted to do a 2 or 3 nights in the desert but the majority of the group wanted to stick with 1, so I decided to play it safe. As magical as the whole experience was, I was very glad I did.

Rocket and his mate
Rocket and his mate

After a stressful morning which involved getting bolted inside my hotel with no way out, I finally made it to the Trotters office, dressed in my specially purchased desert gear, where I met up with the other group members and we headed off in a jeep to the desert. It was early in the morning and they laid on a simple breakfast for us before we met the camels. Some of them seemed quite highly-strung, whilst others were chilled. Obviously, I ended up on a highly-strung one, who was rather worryingly named Rocket.

I had heard stories about ‘techniques’ for getting on a camel but I’d say the best advice I could impart is just to hold on for dear life. Camels’ legs are long, and it stands on its front and back legs separately, so its front legs go up, sending you surging backwards (and, the first time I naively thought that was it) before you’re flung forwards as its back legs go up. With just a tiny holster to cling onto (and incredibly sweaty palms because of the July heat), I was very surprised nobody fell off, but we managed it and were soon on our way.

The novelty of sitting on a camel lasts all of about 30 minutes and this is why I’m glad I didn’t opt for anything longer than 2 days. Camels are not comfy. No matter how much padding and soft blankets they place between your backside and the camel, they are not comfortable at all. Your legs ache, your bum aches, your hands go numb. They don’t tell you any of this hwen they advertise the splendour of a camel ride through the desert. Throughout the day, our numbers depleted as various people in our group either tired of the riding or fell ill from the heat.

Having said that, there was something about it which was satisfying. I’m not sure if it was just the achievement of managing to sit through the pain. What we all agreed was that, actually, it was a very tranquil experience. Sitting on top of a camel in the ocean of sand and trying to block out your aching limbs, you let your mind wander onto all manner of things. I never would have thought it, but the saddle of a camel is a prime spot for reflection.

Even so, it was still a relief when we arrived at the sand dune for the evening to set up camp. We’d been fed and watered throughout the day with simple but filling meals and loads of water (sometimes even cold). At the campsite, the man selling cold beers may not have reflected the authenticity of the vast and empty desert, but he was a welcome sight all the same. It was quite nice that our group was separated away from other tour groups who had come out too. It was the closest we would get to being alone in the desert.

Sand dune
Sand dune

The sand dune itself was incredible, and the photo doesn’t do it justice. Looking as though it had been lifted directly out of Star Wars, or a Windows desktop background, the sand was soft, smooth and untouched, with a perfect sunset behind it. It was the perfect antidote to the hours of camel riding and is one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever seen.

After admiring this view for a good while, we ate and then set up camp for the night. We were to sleep under the stars which sounds like such a romantic proposition. It’s not. We had thin mattresses laid out in some tarpaulin which was slightly raised to stop the gusty winds blowing sand in our faces, with limited success. The camels seemed perfectly relaxed sleeping nearby to us, whilst the majority of us got very little sleep and plenty of sand. But, again, it was a necessary sacrifice for the dazzling sight above us – hundreds upon hundreds of stars. I’m gutted I didn’t get a picture as I’ve never seen so many. The sky was so clear and it was truly awe-inspiring. A couple of people in our group were lucky enough to see a shooting star fly overhead at one point in the night too.

The next morning, we opted to ride our camels just half of the way and then jeep it for the rest, as we were tired and aching. It wasn’t the romantic, relaxing trip I thought it would be, but it was still truly incredible. The starry sky and the CGI-esque sand will stick in my mind as two of my best sights for a very long time to come. And my backside got its best workout in a very long time!

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