Getting a desert Safari in Jaisalmer is not difficult. There are plenty of places all existing to part you from your money and just about every man and his dog will happily bang you out in the desert on a camel for a fee. With that in mind the standards of safari’s vary greatly and I have heard some awful stories, such as tourists being taken miles out to desert and then being told their price was one way only, being forced to pay massively over the odds to return. People have had their bags stolen, been promised food/beds etc and literally been given a spot on the sand and then charged a hundred rupees for a bottle of water (it should be about 15) Given that I had kids and didn’t really want to be kicking Indian ass out in the desert I trawled forums on Thorn Tree (Lonely Planet) for tour operators that were tried and tested. One name kept cropping up over and over again – Mr Desert, the owner of Sahara Travels.
We hunted the place down – It is right at the First Fort gate and so easy to find. Instantly I noticed something unfamiliar, there was no hard sell, nothing; Just a guy standing about six feet tall, a true desert man, well built wearing full desert dress sporting a twisted moustache, full beard and skin that had been worn by the sand and power of the sun extenuated by his cutting, deep green eyes, he was 53 years old, but looked about 70. I told him what we wanted and he gave us the price. I didn’t have the cash and so I said I’d go to the ATM and return, usually this prompts furore and deposits must be left, or they will give you a lift to the ATM etc all to ensure your business is not lost. Mr Desert simply said “Ok, see you soon” It was completely foreign to me not just in India but throughout the whole of Asia. Such a lessez’ faire attitude is simply unheard of.
We arrived at the office at 3.15pm and were greeted by Mr Desert, he said he would meet us out at the campsite later for our evening meal but for now left us in the hands of his good friend. We jumped in the jeep and sped off into the desert. About an hour later we arrived at a tree with a few camels sat chilling out. Abi and I shared a huge camel and there was a mini camel for Charlie to ride alone. This was perfect, I had wondered whether he would get his own freedom or whether he would have to sit with the guide. Though I say the camel was mini, I’m talking about in comparison to ours, Camels aren’t even born mini I accept that.
It was the first time any of us had rode on a camel and so I wasn’t sure what to expect, they are amongst the ugliest animals the good Lord ever invented, but they have this cuteness about them and when combined with their gentle, unassuming, gracious demeanour they seem almost beautiful.
We were told to sit back and before we realised why the camel stood up with great force. I heard this “arrrgggggh”…..Thud. I looked round and Charlie was splatted on the floor, as his camel had stood up Charlie had thought himself a bit of a ninja and had not held on, he was catapulted off the back and learnt a valuable lesson. Even the camels were laughing and after Charlie had brushed off his ego we set off. I was given the rope for the camel and thought I was skilled, obviously the guide thought I was that good I didn’t even need a lesson. I soon realised that actually the camels have amazing memories and remember the way to walk. They just plod along, without a care in the world.
I looked at Charlie who had a huge grin across his face, he had his own camel and was in his element – All young boys love independence and for Charlie, he was in control (so he thought) of a camel that was making its way through the desert. Abi was euphoric too and I realised the night was going to be very special, something we would remember for years to come.
Abi was wearing her headscarf, Charlie was still smiling and I had my IPod on listening to Foo Fighters, and as we strolled through the desert, across sand dunes and into the seemingly infinite horizon it was perfect. There is no other word for it. It was perfect.
We walked for a good few hours and as the sun set we were shadowed against the sand beneath us that had by now turned into a deep amber colour. We have been lucky enough to watch the sun set in some of the most amazing places on earth, but here we felt part of that sun set. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as we looked into the horizon of nothing but sand dunes and the intimacy in which we shared – I just wish Jack could have been there with us.
Suddenly I heard this “arrrrrrghhhhhh” and looked to the left of me. Charlie speeds past, his camel running as fast as it can. I looked at Abi and we were crying from laughing as Charlie disappeared into the distance. When we eventually caught up with him we were still crying with laughter. Turns out Charlie was seeing if he could make the camel run – It worked.
After some time we arrived at a collection of three small circular mud huts. Here a small campfire was burning away and as we approached I could smell Indian food cooking away. We sat around the fire and were soon served thali, which is basically a veg curry, dal bhat, rice and chapatti. It was by now almost pitch black, the stars illuminated the clear sky and gave us some light from above. As we sat by the bonfire Mr Desert told us how he got his name (which was actually given by the government of Rajasthan) I won’t tell his tale for him, he tells it with such enthusiasm and is completely captivating and I would be doing him a great injustice if I told it nonchalantly in this blog. If ever you find yourself in Rajasthan go see the man himself. It’s a great tale and one which really lent to the atmosphere of the evening.
Around 11pm we went to bed. There were three beds side by side completely out in the open, they had pillows and blankets and it was still quite warm so the blankets weren’t needed. Abi had decided she was going to get kidnapped and so was a little worried despite my assurances. This was contagious and before long Charlie too felt like he was marked for kidnap. In the end it was agreed that I would hold Abi’s hand, and she would hold Charlie’s – So there we lay, deep in the desert all holding hands looking up at the stars.
I remember as a child living on a farm and looking up at the stars with my dad. He would tell stories of which star was which and would have me spellbound by tales of astronomy. He was a great story teller and getting time with him alone was rare and so perhaps it was the alone time, as much as the stories.
As a father I try hard to give my kids alone time, I know how much them having me to themselves means. I haven’t mentioned it to anyone but for the previous few days I have been very ill. Sickness, diarrhoea (I went 62 times in 24 hours) high fever, shakes, insomnia and complete loss of appetite. In 48 hours I ate not a single thing. As I lay covered in sweat with agonising stomach pains both kids had made me a get well card and they asked if I wanted a massage to help make me feel better. I sort of shrugged it off, and Charlie assured me they knew how to do it. I laughed a little – They had put the wifi on Abi’s IPod Touch and googled ‘how to give a massage’ I was touched by their caring attitude. Yet another example of how close of a unit and family we are.
Looking for shooting stars was tiring and Abi was soon asleep, Charlie followed not long after. Abi still gripped my hand and Charlie still gripped hers.
Despite the snoring of the camels it wasn’t long before I too succumbed to the night and fell asleep too.
We awoke around 5.30am as the sun was still rising. The fire was still smouldering and I was surprised at how well we had slept. My thoughts were interrupted by Abi proclaiming “Dad, we didn’t get robbed” as I was shaking my head I heard Charlie pipe up “Nice one”
We ate a breakfast of toast, bananas and chi. Charlie decided to go stroke the camels. Abi and I were finishing up breakfast and we hear this “Arrrgggghhhhh” as Charlie comes running round to where we were, holding his face. I jumped up and asked what was up, he moved his hand to show slime all over his face. His camel didn’t take too much to being stroked and so did the world’s biggest greeny in his face. He said it was like getting punched in the side of the head – I looked at Abi and we just started crying with laughter. Charlie didn’t really see the funny side and dared Abi to go stroke his camel – She has her father’s brains and politely declined.
We mounted the camels to liaise with the jeep some three hours away. The novelty of being on the camels was not lost and the time flew by. We stopped off along the way at a remote mud hut where we saw children playing. Abi was keen to meet the little girl and it was interesting to see how people live and survive in the desert.
As we approached the Jeep I was sad that this little chapter was over, not just the camels, but the whole closeness and serenity we had had.
Racing back through the desert we did so with a regret, but happiness. Abi decided she wants to be a camel rider when she is older and Charlie was still grinning from ear to ear.
We arrived back at Mr Deserts who gave us a signed photo – Which sort of gives a little bit away about his history http://www.mrdesertemeritus.com/index.html
By 11.30am we were on the bus to Jodhpur – Our last port of call in Rajasthan. As we pulled away from Jaisalmer I told the kids to remember the name. They would be reminiscing on what we did there for years to come.
I would too.