India

The Final Tale from Karnataka and Rajasthan – Jaisalmer and Mumbai

By Nick Goslett
Safari Owner's kids
Camel Safari Owner's kids, Jaisalmer

I am now in Mumbai on the final leg of this amazing trip. I have to say that the thought of a rainy Hove after seven weeks of almost continuous sunshine is not appealing but it will be wonderful to see you all again.

Four things that have really surprised me (and I am desperately touching wood with three days to go): since leaving Kovalam I have not lost one single thing, which you will find hard to believe; I have been bitten only about five times by mozzies and never at night; I have not used my mozzie net once; have yet to have to use an Indian-style loo, (excluding the desert).

The desert … ignore Lonely Planet’s advice about being conned at your peril! I caught the 05:15 bus from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer and by 11:30 was in a taxi being taken to Sahara Travels which LP recommends as did Jonathan (and LP tell you to be careful about hotel safaris). However, the taxi driver suggested that I look into their safari then compare it with Sahara. So, coffee in hand and a good spin doctor the other side of the table I say that I want two nights in the desert but there must be other people – I do not wish to be alone in the middle of nowhere with a camel driver who doesn’t speak good English. Of course … David is there already and three more will be joining you tomorrow. The cost was high so I bargained it down a bit. Off we went in a rackety old jeep into the Great Thar Desert. In fact it should be renamed the Great Thar Wind Farm: there are thousands of turbines and according to the Palace audio guide they are only used to power the fence and lights on the nearby border with Pakistan. Certainly, none of the villages have power.

Jaisalmer Fort


When we tracked down my “guide”, the fact that he had but two camels gave the game away. Him and me. Vilal, a diminutive chap dressed in a flowing grubby black robe and a white turban. His English was basic. His cooking proved to be the same, the lowlight being a cabbage soup with the odd chilly. Off we went on our camels and walked for a couple of hours, stopping on the way to look at some “wonderful pictures of the animals that live in the desert” which I thought would be a quirky place that happened to have stunning photographs of the gazelles, turkey vultures, desert foxes, etc. Quite ghastly: a Woolworths picture of ducks in an English pond was the highlight. The only person around in the village (apart from the children who always wave, shout and yell) was the owner of the house who of course wanted money. Vilal then offered to show me his house but what he actually wanted to show me was his field of some crop which had been completely ruined because this year the rains had failed. There in the field was his wife, two boys (who do go to school) and his daughter (who will not and she was bright as a button , if not brighter). Mrs Vilal was feeling poorly so I gave her my paracetamol (for which no thanks) and they then proceeded to have a domestic. Very jolly! I asked him later if life was ok “No, life is bad … but life is life”.

Jain statue in Jain Temple in Jaisalmer Fort


We arrived at a sand dune (there are few of them; Thar is mostly scrub vegetation). He went to hobble the camels (of which more later), I to the top of the dune to watch the sun set then he to make the supper. Except … he had forgotten the matches and I, no longer being a smoker, had none. The poor little scrap had to run to the village which was a good distance away and there I was in the middle of nowhere and by now it was nearly dark. Eventually I spotted the little white turban bobbing along and he arrived with the matches, breathless and not in good shape (of which more later). He did not have a torch so was grovelling around in his scruffy food bags trying to find the ingredients, but I had a torch for which we were both truly thankful.

Lake with …..


thousands of catfish


Vilal and the camels


There are no mozzies in this desert but there are plenty of dung beetles; if we slept at the bottom of the dune they wouldn’t disturb us .. and they didn’t. One of the things I most wanted to see was the stars which I remembered from the Moroccan desert. By the time we had finished out meal the full moon had risen and the Milky Way was a thing of the past. (I forgot to mention that the Jodhpur Music Festival is timed to coincide with the full moon so as the music plays the moon rises up over the ramparts.) 21:00 and lights out … thank God again for the Kindle. At 3 am I awoke in considerable discomfort (a mattress would have been most acceptable) and right next to me, not three feet away, was a bloody great camel chewing serenely away. I woke again at 4 am and now there was no camel … and no Vilal. I was completely alone but felt quite safe since I knew a village was not far off. More looking at the stars since the moon had gone past the zenith, and some reading and at 6 am I climbed the dune to watch the sunrise. It is hard to imagine just how enormous and red the sun looks when it sets and rises in the desert, and how quickly it does both.

At this point I found that my camera had finally given up the ghost, the eye-pieces of my new binoculars would not come out and then Vilal appeared asking me if I had seen the camels (one of which I could see browsing just below me)! The poor guy had been out since 4 am looking for them. It took me some time to work out why he (and all the other camel guides) spend so much time looking for their camels after each stop. The camel has a metal spike pushed through its nose to which is attached the rope which keeps them under control and is used for steering. If they tied this rope to a tree the camel would rip it out; if they tied the rope round the camel’s neck it would snap it with ease. So they hobble the two front feet together and just have to follow the footprints when they need to find them. They can wander many kilometres.

Well, by now I was wondering what the hell I was doing here and getting rather cross about it all when in the distance I saw a herd of cows making its ever so slow exit from the village out to the scrub for the day. Then Vilal made me some delicious boiled eggs (no water was used, just a hot frying pan) and he went to track down the camels. Sitting there and beginning to feel rather happy a flock of goats ambled through our dining area with bells tinkling, then a flock of sheet with more bells and finally about 300 camels (“the owner a very rich man” – camels costing about 250 quid each). I felt totally at piece with my little camel driver (who had returned with the camels), our camels and the desert.

My camel driver told me a gruesome story about his dad. He had been out hunting a few years ago with three friends and they killed a deer. They roasted half of it and ate it. Vilal said that a turkey vulture took some up into a tree. The next morning they bar-b-queued the rest. In 20 minutes the first friend had died; in 40 minutes the second; in an hour the third; Vilal’s dad made it to Jaisalmer hospital and lasted five more days. They think that a ghost got into the deer’s body. My money would be on an infection from the turkey vulture.

Vilal


Watering hole


I saw him jump onto his camel and asked him why. His knee was bad, and he showed me four medicines to prove it. He looked 50 but was only 30. I don’t fancy his future. After the lack of rains they will eat chapatis, and occasionally rice, What a tough life.

We ambled off for a few hours, viewing an old Hindu cemetery – many years ago a Muslim Government official had wanted the daughter of a Hind Brahman. The father had refused but the official said he would do it anyway. Overnight, 80 villages (yes, villages, not villagers) of Hindus upped sticks and left. The cemetery had been desecrated by the Muslims. We stopped for lunch and local goatherds and shepherds stopped by for a chat, one boy to share our food and use my binoculars. Another slow trek and then it was suppertime and being early we had the stars in the dark for some hours before the moon rose. Glorious. Some large dung beetles wandered over me but nothing I couldn’t handle. The next day passed peacefully and I was very sad when the trip ended. It seems that other people saw far more animals and I suspect went much further out, but I had loved it.

Breakfast


Safari Owner’s kids


The Great Thar Turbine Farm


That didn’t stop me storming into the organiser’s hotel and demanding some money back for lying to me. He paid up, much to my surprise.

I spent a day in Jaisalmer, a glorious sandstone fort which still has 3,000 people living there and hotels .. which created havoc with the foundations because when it was built there was no running water and now there is!

Pleasant bus journey back to Jodhpur, a tuk-tuk drive to the airport .. and he got lost! .. and a flight to Mumbai where I was met by Radhika with whom I worked in India in 2010. The Slum Tour, the 6th century carving of Shiva in the Elephanta Cave, and “Blame it on Yashrag” were the high points.

I fly in two hours.

Adios from India.

Nick

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