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the-south-asian.com                         7  August   2000

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Cutting-Edge Safari

by K.K. Bhaskaran




The Desert Circuit, as it is known, is a triangle made up of the cities of Jodhpur, Bikaner and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, India. The three cities are surrounded by sand dunes and picturesque Thanis [small hamlets of no more than half a dozen houses] – making it an ideal area for a camel safari. Time and budget permitting, one can either take an entire trail combining these three cities or travel around just one of the cities.


A camel safari from Jaisalmer is a surrealistic experience. Nothing can really prepare you for the sheer magic of this desert city of Rajasthan. The majestic yellow Jaisalmer Fort seems to rise out of the desert haze. The small market located just outside the Jaisalmer Fort is a treasure haven of local crafts. The narrow streets are a pedestrian’s dream - no traffic, no crowds and surprisingly clean. Exquisitely ornamental havelis [residences of the wealthy] built in stone line the narrow cobbled streets. 

The Bhatti Rajputs of this city used to live off the levies imposed on caravans, which crossed Jaisalmer en route to Delhi and central India. The levies brought immense prosperity to the city and the locals built these havelis - dream-like visions in stone. Many have survived the ravages of time. The intricately latticed Nathmalji Ki Haveli, the five-storied Patwon Ki Haveli and the blue cupola-roofed Salim Singh Ki Haveli are reminders of a glorious past of this remote citadel also famous for its Jain Temples.

Parts of the Shekhawati region, which is popularly known as India's open art gallery because of its frescoes, painted havelis, temples and bazaars, can also be included in a customised safari.

Most safaris start at 9 a.m. in groups of 10 to 12 camels. Camel carts loaded with supplies and tents accompany the safari. The local musicians and the cooking staff form an important part of the caravan. By noon both man and animal take a break for food followed by an afternoon siesta. The caravan re-starts at around 3.30 p.m. with the accompanying musicians regaling you with their high-pitched singing, at others times acting as tourist guides. Wading through sand dunes, one might spot some of Rajasthan's unique wildlife such as the Chinkara and the desert fox. On a more fortunate day, one might catch a glimpse of the Great Indian Bustard. One of the most stunning sights of the desert is the setting sun. Few scenic outbursts could rival the magnificence of the burning orange sun descending into the desert. A camel safari covers around 20 kilometres a day.

Dusk is fast and swift in the desert. By around 6 p.m. the safari usually stops at a Thani (small village). Curious villagers come out to greet the tourists who are no longer a surprise or an encroachment on their privacy. They are welcome here as their presence means money and prosperity.

By 6.30 p.m. tents are pitched and preparations for the evening commence. The night brings to life a crystal clean sky with stars shining through like gems. With log fires burning to drive away the desert cold, the musicians take over with songs and folktales of valour, courage and romance of these sands, while the safari chefs prepare an ethnic meal.

The musicians with their harmoniums and dholkis [local drums] bring to life the very essence of the desert. Their rasp voices melodiously mingle with the stillness of the night, which in winter can become bitterly cold in sharp contrast to the high day temperatures.

Rustic folk songs bring to life the tales of Rajasthan. Most of these songs and dances are woven around mythology and history of this colourful land.

The best season for a camel safari is from November to March. There are packages available from Rs. 1,000 [approximately $25] per person per day to Rs. 5,000 [$90] a day. The safari can just be a daylong affair with the desert or can be stretched to a seven-day adventure. A costlier package doesn't necessarily offer more to see - it only offers a little more comfort. You still have to camp in the desert, eat the food cooked on campfires, the music is the same and so are the local dances and the surrounding sands.


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