Thar Desert : The Little Maharaja and the Desert
Jaisalmer Travel Blog› entry 220 of 268 › view all entries
October 15th, 2009 – by: Stevie_Wes
Under the Gumbat tree he breaks the stem of the small bunch of flowers he's picked. He teases out the plant's milky white sap. Detaches the purple-tipped, five pointed corona of the flower's head from the bud, daubs the white sap onto his creased brown finger and then onto the petal backs - natural glue - and presses the flower to my 'World Trip Book # 6' notepad.
Lunch over. The diligent desert boys - Sararm, Sawai and Kim Singh - squat ingeniously scouring the pans and plates clean with sand. Time to remount our knock-kneed, hairy transports. The camels. This is the beginning of a two day so-called 'deep desert' safari.
Yes. Finally. Into the desert. Or a return I suppose? There was the Wadi Rum in Jordan, one night with the Bedouin and a brief time amongst the small spread of sand dunes in Mui Ne, South Vietnam.
A large part of my desire to 'get lost' in the desert can be put down to my love for the writings of the pioneering French pilot and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Sand and stars. Two of the man’s many obsessions. The Sahara desert the setting for his most widely read and loved work The Little Prince. The mysterious visitor from the stars. The tale's crash-landed pilot itself a story drawn from his own experience of being stranded with his navigator in the Libyan Sahara after a mid-flight crash en route from Paris to Saigon in 1935. They were rescued after days of dehydration and delirium by a passing Bedouin on a camel; these events recounted in the haunting Wind, Sand and Stars ( 'Terres des Hommes' ).
'Bugarh!!!' Berra calls my mind back. He leads Debs' camel, trudging through the sand below. I'd drifted away. Rocked to daydreaming by the jolty cruising of my ship of the sands; my trusty steed Pappu.
Ahhh, yes! Life on camel back. Something most people feel they have to try at least once but having done so almost universally renounce ever after.
Another thing to deal with. The heat. It's hot out here. Shade is rare is one of India's driest regions. Far North West Rajasthan. Life is hard and life is hard to sustain here sometimes. That said, the Thar seems to me a surprisingly green desert in appearance. At least the parts we are led through over the next 48 hours. Plenty of scrub bushes. Various lush green species of cacti. Flowers, low level grasses and the occasional cluster of Gumbat trees and their like. This despite the fact that according to Berra the region has suffered from five years of exceptionally poor rainfall.
The rhythm of one of these desert safaris (aside from all the camel jolts) is very relaxing. An hour or so out into the desert. A brief visit to a small desert village where four boys chase steel hoops with wooden sticks along the dusty surface of the earth. A little Victorian diorama in the heat and dust of Rajasthan. The kids are amused by my appearance. A foreigner with a fiery red beard and a peacock blue turban wreathed about his head; this latter item having garnered me the nickname Maharaja or Little Maharaja after I had purchased it, donned it and ambled around the bazaars of Jaisalmer yesterday.
Back on the camels and heading further out. Some of them roped together. An often painful looking process of push, tug and follow caused by the leader ropes pegged through the camels' noses. Other camels strike away from the pack. Jeremy boldly driving his own camel, Mr India, who seems intent on stopping and eating any vegetation the desert has to offer. We all dismount under the Gumbat tree for an extended lunch break-cum-siesta. Three hours or so. The boys prepare an impromptu desert oven by digging out a hole in the sands, a second canal dug to feed it with ventilation and fuel : dead wood foraged by Asha and Co. A lunch of mildly spiced potatoes and herbs with freshly kneaded and baked chapattis.
Every stop requires the complete dismount of the camels, so they too can have a break. Higgledy-piggledy stacks of supplies, equipment, water butts, bags and blankets patiently untied and laid upon the ground. The process to be laboriously reversed after each rest we take. The camels are hobbled. This requires a rope loop to be ringed around and between their front ankles, with an extension running to one of the back legs too. Also the moori ropes - those that are used for 'steering' the camels - are un-looped from the naak; the deeply uncomfortable looking conical metal studs that are pierced through the roof of the camels' noses to 'encourage' the steering process.
Camels have always been of paramount importance to many of the world's desert communities. Their strength and resilience to the harshest of terrains and climates a keystone of nomadic life and the trade routes of Africa and Arabia. The transports of the famous Bedouin caravans. Their commercial importance remains for the local communities of today's Thar Desert where, increasingly difficult conditions for sustainable agrarian livelihoods are again forcing an unfortunate over-dependence upon tourism. Rajasthan has long been one of the poorest per-capita states in India and camel safaris are a chief tourism income for the residents of Jaisalmer and its surrounding villages.
Whatever the sums of money involved for the safaris, they are not huge ( Rs650 / £8 per person per day for us with everything included) and you can bet your bottom dollar that very little makes it to the friends who will look after and entertain you for your two or however many days in the desert. And you can bet your bottom cent that probably even less goes to the upkeep and care of the camels, despite their value. (Sorry Pappu!). Tip generously people! In conversation with Berra he says that as the 'English speaking guide and group leader' he might average about 2,000 Rupees a month ( £25).
Our furry-humped friends eventually bring us to a majestic spread of sand dunes, these to be the setting; our open air hotel for our night amidst the sand and stars. Pappu & Co's work done for the day, their partially-at-liberty bells tinkle off into the dunes.
Following lots of games of 'Shithead' (cards), an absolutely knockout desert sunset taken in by all lying upon the crest of the dunes with a few cups of Indian rum and coke to celebrate our exertions and another satisfying meal, it's time to settle down around the campfire for the evening. Asha's done a sterling job of bringing in the firewood and we all huddle and chatter away whilst the fire sends its own little flight of bright orange stars up into the night sky.
Such a favour must apparently be returned so a 'traditional song' from each of our own countries is requested. A pleasant Argentinean duet from Marcela and Gaston. A well known Korean song much loved by children from Gray and... um?... err?... the usual English bashfulness around such requests... and then at Jeremy's instigation the Brit trio launch into a loud, enthusiastic and frankly quite spectacular full-length rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody (minus guitar solo and head-banging you may be disappointed/ relieved to learn).
Time to bed down for the night. Blankets laid out for us upon the desert floor. The fire dead now. With not a single halo of an earthbound light in sight in any direction the stars are free to blossom bright above and play to our imaginations. Out in the desert one of the best, clearest places on Earth to observe these, our quiet and constant companions. A glittering trail of our Milky Way glides with near imperceptible movement across our field of vision as we lie upon our backs praying for our pupils to dilate that much more that we might better perceive the lights of the celestial garden above.
Dark gray patches of cloud - just visible against night black - having created such a perfect sunset canvas earlier in the evening now slightly impede our collection of shooting stars - 'LOOK! There goes another!'. Whoooosh! But when Gray and I curiously find ourselves both awake at the same time, some time in the middle of the night the clouds have all gone and the sky is a true and unimpeded starlight symphony. A most beautiful vision. An incredibly rare glimpse of the universe upon our doorstep for people such as us; 21st Century town and city dwellers. Such treasures usually withheld from our lives by the bi-products of Progress.
'Goodnight World, wherever you are.' - Midnight Scrawler
[ Afterword : My attention was caught by a tiny cover article of The Times of India two weeks after my time with Pappu and friends and some days after I wrote the above entry.
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