December 08, 2004

Adventures In The Thar Desert

The Last Sunset Of The 20th Century, The Thar Desert, India
Photography By El-Branden Brazil

In hindsight, it seems ridiculous now, how much fuss was made about the coming of the new millennium in 1999. While massive events were being planned for the celebrations, there were also many Doomsday prophecies dominating people’s minds. Nerves were heightened more so than ever, with threats of terrorism, the Y2K computer glitch and the omnipresent couplets of Nostradamus, foreseeing fire from the skies and the birth of the Antichrist.

And yet, in reality, this date had no relevancy to the cosmological order of time. Rather, it was just a human calendrical construct, appropriated from the Christian chronology. Even so, most people failed to understand that the actual start of the millennium would not be for another year.

Like so many though, I wanted to celebrate in the most unique way possible. My friend, Jason, and I were in India, and so we decided that it would be exotic to ride out on camels into the Thar Desert, on the Indian-Pakistan border in Rajasthan, for three days. A fabulous idea that became more exciting the more it was discussed.

Arriving in the desert town of Jaisalmer, we immediately went about organizing our excursion. As much as I would like to claim that we were the first foreigners to do such a trip, unfortunately, the reality is quite different.

Everywhere in Jaisalmer, touts try to sell their varying quality camel treks to accosted travellers. The guesthouse where we were staying, insisted that we look at their brochures, before we even had a chance to drop off our backpacks, after just arriving! However, with promise of alcohol being provided on New Year’s Day, we were quickly trapped into accepting their camel trek.

Photography By El-Branden Brazil

The last day before heading out into the desert, was spent exploring the romantic town of Jaisalmer. It is a beautiful place, with an old fortress city perched on a parched rocky hill. The ambience of the place instantly makes one imagine that they have been taken back to the time of the Arabian Knights.

The next day, we arose early and packed what we needed for the coming days. A jeep waited for us outside, which would take us to our camel caravan. Our small group consisted of Dutch, British, Japanese, Canadian and German travellers – all of whom were a delight to share time with.

The camels that we would ride were the one hump variety. Camels look like such graceful beasts as they traipse across deserts, but mounting a camel is anything but. Unlike a horse, where the rider climbs up using stirrups, camels require a mighty leap to get on, which is then followed by body-shattering jolts as the animal rises to its feet. Also, camels are somewhat wider in girth, making the rider’s legs spread out in a far more uncomfortable posture. On top of this, there were no supporting stirrups, so my legs were left to dangle, which only further enhanced the suffering; suffering that quickly manifested within the first twenty-minutes of our three day journey!

During the first day, we slowly straddled across a large stony expanse that had various hardy trees and dry grasses growing out from the infertile soil. It was not the kind of desert one imagines with rolling sand dunes, but it was a barren place. At one point, we stopped off at a small village, where children raced out to greet us. It was fascinating to see people living in such an isolated, bleak environment. The Rajasthan people are a vibrant contrast, dressed in their brightly coloured garments.

As the day progressed, my legs received further abuse. The prospect of walking the rest of the journey seemed like a more pleasant way to pass the days, especially since flatulence was the pastime of every camel that walked in front of mine.

The evening was approaching, and to my legs’ relief, we arrived at the Sam Sand Dunes – an area of the desert that shares a closer resemblance to the clich├ęd desert scene I had expected. As Jason and I explored the dunes, we were surprised to find a man selling beer and soft drinks in an ice-filled basket at the top of a dune! Without flinching for a second, two thirst-quenching beers were rapidly being gulped down, as we watched the last sunset of the year fade beyond the horizon.

Jason In The Sam Sand Dunes
Photography By El-Branden Brazil

Everyone assembled for supper, which consisted of cauliflower, carrot and potato curry, with Nan bread. It was extremely basic, but adequate for our first day, bar the sand that was mixed into it, that grated against our teeth.

Pleasant conversation passed the hours by, as we learnt more about our fellow travellers. Petra and John were a delightful German-British couple, who had been on the road for years, visiting every country you could possibly name. For days, we joked about Charlie Sheen for some unknown reason!

There was also a Japanese lady, who had lived in Kathmandu for two years, doing voluntary services. Throughout the trip, the poor lady was either harassed by the sex-craving camel men, or barraged by hours and hours of “Arigato, ne!” from a young desert boy, who accompanied me sometimes on my camel, but who knew only one word of Japanese. The Japanese lady begged him to stop, as did I. However, I discovered that introducing him to Elvis Presley songs was one way to distract him!

Night time came, and the stars speckled the sky in breathtaking intensity and clarity. At ten o’clock, our camel drivers came to us and informed that it was time to go to bed! We explained that this was the millennium evening, but they could not care less. Stubbornly, we told them that we would go to sleep when we had finished our modest celebrations. The camel drivers seemed annoyed, and told us that almost all the wood for the fire had been used; something very hard to replenish in a desert. Also, the alcohol that had been promised in large supply did not manifest, so we sparingly consumed the few bottles of beer provided.

El-Branden Brazil Riding High
Photography By Jason Quigley

Slowly, time crept closer to the New Year. We skillfully kept our fire alive, until we were left with only hot orange embers. As the clock struck twelve, I was in mid-flow of telling a true story about how Canadians discard of beached whale carcasses by using dynamite. The remnants of which are eaten by seagulls. This was my final word in the 20th Century!

After all the hype of the Millennium, there was something very sobering about being in the desert. As the New Year came in, there were no fireworks, glitzy television shows, drunken louts, Big Ben chimes or ‘Auld Lang Syne’. There was just absolute silence, occasionally broken by the grunts and sighs of the camels.

We said our goodnights, all feeling deflated by the realisation of what a folly the Millennium was. Some of us joked about returning from the desert to find civilization in absolute chaos, with cars and buildings burning and wars breaking out everywhere. Of course, no such reality greeted us. That was to start the following year.

The desert is extremely hot during the day, but the temperatures drop to freezing at night. In preparation, Jason and I bought sleeping bags in Pathankot for $2 each - great value, but hardly high enough quality for sleeping outside in the desert. We froze as cold air and icy sand crept through the unprotected layers. I envied Petra and John, who slept in their warm professional North Face bags! This mistake was not repeated again on my future journeys.

For breakfast, we ate…cauliflower, carrot and potato curry, with sand and Nan, once again. The day passed by as it had done the day before, with my legs getting ever more damaged. The highlight came when a German comrade’s camel suddenly decided to bolt. The poor German clung on the best he could, but was thrown off the beast, falling a great distance before his bum made contact with the ground. Luckily, he was fine.

As the day progressed, it became apparent that Jason had now developed influenza, and was feeling very uncomfortable and low in spirits. Unfortunately, lunch was no consolation, as the usual menu choice of cauliflower, carrot and potato curry, with sand and Nan, was once again served. The smell was starting to get intolerable, and to this day, I cannot bear to eat anything resembling it.

When we arrived at our spot for the evening, and after “enjoying” another serving of cauliflower, carrot and potato curry, with sand and Nan, some of our group were picked up by jeep, because they had paid for a shorter (and wiser) camel trek. Only Petra, John, Jason, Klaus (the German camel rider extraordinaire) and I remained……stupidly!

The night was once again unbearably cold, and Jason was really suffering with his illness. I was also beginning to feel sick and rundown, fearing that I too had contracted the flu. By the next morning, my fears were confirmed, and I felt the worst I have ever been. I was shaking, with a very high fever, and in no way could I consume yet another serving of cauliflower, carrot and potato curry, with sand and Nan for breakfast.

Our camel drivers were concerned that I was not eating, and insisted that I take a little food, but even the look of it had me wanting to throw-up. It was not their fault, and I know they were just doing their best for us. I liked those people very much, and I respected their resilience to live in such a harsh place. They had a very noble quality about them.

Goodbye To Our Desert Companions
Photography By El-Branden Brazil

Finally, by lunchtime, our jeep came to pick us up. Both Jason and I were now in a wretched state, and desperately in need of a wash and a warm bed. When we returned to the hotel, we discovered that our new room did not have a shower, so we faced having to wash with a bucket. It was certainly more energy than I wanted to expend in my flu-ridden state.

The next morning, after a long feverish night, I felt slightly better. I opened the window shutters to let in some fresh air, only to discover several smiling faces, with blankets over their heads staring in. It was just another one of those surreal moments on the road.

The flu continued to burden me for several more days, until we reached Jaipur. I appreciated the lazy days spent on the trains, because they allowed me time to recover my strength.

The camel experience was far less fun than I had anticipated, due mainly to my illness. But, I have absolutely no regrets about it. I met excellent people on the journey, and I was allowed to see a way of life that is very distant from my own. Will I ride camels in the future? Absolutely, but it will be for a better reason than just to celebrate a festival.

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