Thar Desert : The Little Maharaja and the Desert

Jaisalmer Travel Blog

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Camel Crew with Pappu at their helm :)
Berra sits upon the sand.  His eyes glimmer with the flecks of light that make it through the canopy of our shade giving Gumbat tree.  His eyes have been absorbing the Thar Desert sun for 39 years now, 26 of those as a camel driver - though he looks a sprightly mid-fifties to Debs and I.  So much sun will do that to you.  His eyes continue to glimmer this way after dark has fallen.  A light full of life.  All that daylight recycled into little constellations that glitter in his pupils.  

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.
Bringing the TB love to the desert :)
  And another and one more.  Little white stars.  And then clamps it all tight shut.  'What is the flower called?'  'It is a Berra flower Bugarh! Ha ha ha!' laughs Berra.  He only gives up the flower's real identity the following day.  An Arkh flower apparently.  These little desert mementos, stars of the sands, will later fall from between the leaves of my notebook, back to the deserts embrace.

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.
Ginger & Blue
  My fellow travellers : Gray (my long standing Korean travel pal) and couples Jeremy and Deborah from England and Gaston and Marcela from Argentina.  A nice little mix.  The rest of our caravan comprises seven camels (amongst them my desert legs Pappu with his purple circles of identifying die and rather garish fork-shaped branding iron scar upon his neck; Pappu Number 2, Junior, the ever-grumpy but powerful Kalo and Mr India) and six well-weathered Rajasthani boys from the sands.  Berra their leader and our guide.  Asha, blind in his left eye and nicknamed 'Army Man' for his black beret chic - also Pappu's (and so my) carer.  

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.
Debs & Marcela in the desert


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' ).
Gray is thrilled and amazed that he can still pick up a mobile call in the desert (and is officially branded a "sad b*stard" by me for doing so!) ;D
  I love the beautiful philosophical reflections on what it is to be alive; to have humanity and humility and love in this life, that course through all of the few autobiographical works he published in his relatively short lifetime (he was shot down in World War II at the age of 44) and culminating in the evocative though unfinished desert tale The Wisdom of the Sands ( 'Citadelle' ).  A passion for the skies and the stars (and our place and roles beneath them) infuse many of his visions.  

'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.
Boys and their Toys
  I'm not quite used to responding to my new moniker yet.  Bugarh.  Pronounced 'boogaar'.  No, not 'booger' or 'bugger' you cheeky scamps!  Bugarh.  The name of his little brother that he has honoured me with for our brief time together amongst the earth, sand and stars.  'Everything okay Bugarh my brother?!'  'Acha!' ( 'Good!').  Everything except my numb arse, pulverised testicles ( 'No great grandchildren from me Nanny.  Soz luv!' ) and the occasional smell of camel fart.  There's nowt quite like it to wrinkle the nose.

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.
The Little Maharaja and his coterie of play chums :)
  The consequent process of recovering feeling to one's backside and learning how to walk straight again can be an undignified one.  I'd come to Jaisalmer prepared.  Following a 'top tip' from a fellow traveller I'd bought a length of rope in Udaipur for the bank breaking sum of Rs20 (£0.25p) to turn into makeshift stirrups.  Supposedly these can make all the difference by aiding weight distribution blah, blah, blah.  But having asked trip organiser Prem (of The Peacock Hotel) four times 'Are there definitely going to be stirrups on the camels?' and having received four emphatic confirmations that there would be, I left it at the hotel.
Jeremy and his ever-munching steed Mr India :)
  50 kilometres by jeep later out into the Thar Desert, of course, there are no stirrups.  Sorry arse.  Sorry genitals.  Y'all are just gonna have to deal with it!  'Groooan!'

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.
'Reach'
  Even by desert standards.  We'd had an early indicator of this as we set out.  The defeated, leathery-stretched form of a camel's corpse.  They can go up to four days without water Berra says.  Not long enough.  Skin drawn taught by the sun across bones.  Lost in search of food?  Fallen.  Back to the desert's embrace.    

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.
Main man, leader of the Gang : Berra
  I am encouraged to have a go at stick 'n' hoop, but after several attempts, The Little Maharaja is officially useless at this game!  

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.
My guide Asha (aka 'Army Man') sits by our impromptu desert cooker.
  Sweet chai first of course!  Berra chats, makes jokes, provokes laughter by wearing Deborah's aviator shades and reaches up to pluck the stars.  The arkh flowers he will then stick into my notebook.
 
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.
Lunch under the Gumbat Tree
  The sight and use of these can be quite unsettling for those of animal rights sensitivities.  So with heavily chafed ankles the camels wander off, a partial freedom of the sands, to find their own lunch, the tinkling of their little neck bells indicative of their later whereabouts.

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.
'Face Off' desert stylee :)
  Accommodation in Jaisalmer can easily be found as cheap as RS50-100 per night for a double room with private bathroom ( barely over £1 max ), the hope or implicit understanding being that you will choose your particular hotel's safari package.

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).
Into the desert
  Less to the others.  And that's in high season.  They do not have the means to own their own camels.  These are all collectively owned by the large hotel operations in town.  Not even Prem and The Peacock Hotel though.  There are middlemen upon middlemen in this business.  Formerly a complete and quite crushing monopoly of one Ganesh Travels (mentioned in LP), but now Berra says thankfully open to a little more competition.  If you're curious a 'nice camel' will set you back about Rs25,000 ( just over £300) and can be hoped to ferry tourists around for 12 - 15 years of its life span. 

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.
Camel Shadows in the Sands
  We scamper up and down the large main drift like excitable little children, although I always feel a little fleeting sadness to see the aesthetic perfection of flowing sands broken by too many footprints.  Jeremy does a kamikaze roll all the way down though regrets this afterwards as he is excavating the Thar desert from his nasal cavity for the next two days (and probably beyond). 

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.
The 'moori' guide rope attached to the painful looking 'naak' metal nose studs : this system used to 'steer' one's camel.
  Berra sits between the flames and I, a perfect silhouette, even the cheeky bristling arc of his moustache visible in the dark as he grins and sings into the night for us with Sararm doing a great dohl drum accompaniment upon an empty water canister. 

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).
Gray conquers the sand dune!
  Quite possibly the strangest thing ever heard by the quiet legion of little black scarab-like dung beetles that skitter across the sand from time to time, muscular, tiny and alone in search of their curious treasures.

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.
The Little Maharaja (portrait)
  I wonder if Berra's eyes absorb the light of the stars like they do that of the desert sun? 

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.
  Stars.  The obsession of many a human imagination (not just You, Me and Mr Exupéry), but to all intents and purposes actually little more than a figment of it, it sometimes seems.  My friend Gray, harkening from the megalopolis of Seoul pipes up 'You know I have not seen the stars in over twenty years!  This is soooo beautiful!' 'It's true enough for me too aside from the odd glimpse in Nepal and China' the Little Maharaja muses.  'There are not many stars in Birmingham or Brighton or Britain for that matter.'  It's nice to have found them again he thinks. 

'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.
Berra & his desert 2
  Dated 02/11/2009 the article titled 'Farmers to abandon camels at Pushkar' deserves mention here as a fitting coda to a couple of the issues touched on in my most recent entries.  High attendance at this years annual Camel Fair in Pushkar is apparently 'mainly because Rajasthan's farmers can't afford to feed their animals anymore.'  One such farmer, Ganesh Shekhawat, who has reared his two camels 'like his own children' for 22 years we are told, can no longer afford to do so.  He is quoted as follows : "There has been no rain in our village and the price of fodder has reached Rs6-8 per Kg (8-10 pence).
(L-R) Debs, Jeremy, Marcela & Gaston besides the fire
  How can I buy 30 Kg of fodder for them every day?"  The article observes 'the drought has cast a long shadow over the fair' and Shekhawat claims 'he will abandon the animals at the fair ground if he is unable to sell them.'  "Let someone take them for free and feed them so that they live" his final quoted words.  The article concludes 'A young, healthy camel, which sold for anything between Rs 25,000 - 40,000 ( £312 - £500) till last year, will now go for Rs 10,000 - 22,000' ( £125 - £275).  That's assuming any buyer can be found with the impending glut on the market.
Desert Rats : (L-R) Jeremy, Debs, Gray, Stevie, Gaston, Marcela... & camel! :)
  Hard times. ]
hummingbird50 says:
Holy Moly Steve...awesome blog...thanks:) It has been a long while since I have come here to visit you blog...you have been on some journey dear Steve...:):) It is awesome :):)
Posted on: Nov 28, 2009
sylviandavid says:
Wonderful, moving and interesting. Thanks. sylvia
Posted on: Nov 14, 2009
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Camel Crew with Pappu at their hel…
Camel Crew with Pappu at their he…
Bringing the TB love to the desert…
Bringing the TB love to the deser…
Ginger & Blue
Ginger & Blue
Debs & Marcela in the desert
Debs & Marcela in the desert
Gray is thrilled and amazed that h…
Gray is thrilled and amazed that …
Boys and their Toys
Boys and their Toys
The Little Maharaja and his coteri…
The Little Maharaja and his coter…
Jeremy and his ever-munching steed…
Jeremy and his ever-munching stee…
Reach
'Reach'
Main man, leader of the Gang : Ber…
Main man, leader of the Gang : Be…
My guide Asha (aka Army Man) sit…
My guide Asha (aka 'Army Man') si…
Lunch under the Gumbat Tree
Lunch under the Gumbat Tree
Face Off desert stylee :)
'Face Off' desert stylee :)
Into the desert
Into the desert
Camel Shadows in the Sands
Camel Shadows in the Sands
The moori guide rope attached to…
The 'moori' guide rope attached t…
Gray conquers the sand dune!
Gray conquers the sand dune!
The Little Maharaja (portrait)
The Little Maharaja (portrait)
Berra & his desert 2
Berra & his desert 2
(L-R) Debs, Jeremy, Marcela & Gast…
(L-R) Debs, Jeremy, Marcela & Gas…
Desert Rats : (L-R) Jeremy, Debs, …
Desert Rats : (L-R) Jeremy, Debs,…
Okay, okay so its a f**k-up shot …
Okay, okay so it's a f**k-up shot…
The dye spots and branded scar o…
The 'dye spots' and branded scar …
Cacti
Cacti
Camel Tear
Camel Tear
Asha and Pappu, by trusty team in …
Asha and Pappu, by trusty team in…
Gaston mounts his hump.
Gaston mounts his hump.
The Thar Desert : west Rajasthan
The Thar Desert : west Rajasthan
Shes got curves
'She's got curves'
Old travel buddies : Stevie & Gray…
Old travel buddies : Stevie & Gra…
Berra & his desert 1
Berra & his desert 1
Desert sundown
Desert sundown
Sararm (portrait)
Sararm (portrait)
Berra by firelight
Berra by firelight
Desert Fire
Desert Fire
Marcela & friend :)
Marcela & friend :)
Arkh flowers pressed into my noteb…
Arkh flowers pressed into my note…
Thar Desert (Tree Print)
Thar Desert ('Tree Print')
Jaisalmer
photo by: lrecht