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Felix the camel in Rajasthan, India. photos by Michael BrittonFelix the camel in Rajasthan, India. photos by Michael Britton

A Pillar of Wisdom Aboard a Camel in Rajasthan, India

Mike of Thar ... okay, so it doesn't quite have the cachet of Lawrence of Arabia

In Jaisalmer, India I signed up for a six day camel safari into the Thar Desert bordering tripadvisorPakistan.

Feeling as lonesome as a soggy Brussels sprout exiled to the outer rim of a dinner plate I opted for the camaraderie of a group tour.

The group must have gotten wind that I signed up and cancelled at the last moment choosing to forsake their safari fees rather than enjoy six exhilarating days of my company.

It would be me and Babalu, an overworked and savagely underpaid guide, and our camels whom I deigned to call Joe and Felix. Joe was the dominant beast propelled by machine gun bursts of flatulence. Felix and I, being the lowly tethered subordinates, bore the odious brunt.  

Village chores include fetching water in the parched desert.Village chores include fetching water in the parched desert.The landscape of the Thar Desert is mostly thorny scrub with a few sand dunes strategically placed en route like Motel 6's where we would bed and gaze marvelling at the cold starry, starry night. A satellite hovered far above us clapping a baleful eye on Pakistan, I suppose, and reminding me that this border region is one of the world's nuclear trigger happy hot spots.

How to Mount a Camel. Or a Lover

Mounting a camel is very unlike mounting a horse or a lover. There are no stirrups to brace your feet but there is a small wooden stub on the saddle's prow that threatens painful evisceration should you fall forward. The stub is where you fix your day pack for easy access to water and surgical supplies.

A camel rises to its feet in three parts. The first part bucks you forward menacingly close to the stub; the second part tosses you backward like a flippantly littered banana peel; I always forgot about the third part and it always caught me off guard. Fully risen on a camel your eye level is about nine feet from the ground.


Having spent the bulk of my life in New York and Vancouver my closest contact with livestock was tearing the cellophane wrapping from economy sized packets of chicken bits. It never really entered my day-to-day consciousness that animals shit a lot.

From my nine foot vantage cow shit, goat scat and camel dung carpeted the desiccated terrain far into the horizon like cluster bombs or joyous bundles of nitrogen, depending on your world view of such things.

Hollywood neglects to mention these little details in Western movies. I wonder how many gunslingers took an unscheduled trip into eternity because they didn't watch where they stepped. And the Great Plains where billions of bison once roamed ... I digress. Many apologies.

At the water hole.At the water hole.Shit is the natural order of things and I had better get used to it.

Black Tea, Mother Earth 

The day starts early on safari. Before the rose colored fingers of dawn claw their way forward, Babalu has brewed a pot of sweet black tea and delivered it to the sand dune that served as my bed for the night.

Sipping tea swaddled in heavy blankets (the desert night is freezing) I wonder where Joe and Felix have wandered off to.

They couldn't have gone far. Their front legs are hobbled with a short rope allowing them to take only small steps like an elderly aunt fetching home baked cookies.

We ride until noon. Bumpity bump. And break until three for lunch and a long snooze in the shade of an adequate-for-our-needs sized tree.

Cows and goats have also lounged here and their scattered memories are kicked aside to make room for ours. This, too, is the natural order of things.

Into the second day I have fallen into the lilting embrace of Mother Earth's bountiful bosom. Platoons of windmills, turbines (or whatever they are called—I am in the desert and out of Google's reach otherwise I would look it up) No-Pens-No-Chocolate-No-RupeesThe local kids demanded pen, rupees, or dollars.occupy the landscape like mute, alien mercenaries. This is not the natural order of things and I resent their presence.

Village People

It is polite to dismount and walk your camel into a village. An Indian desert village has got to be the most boring hell on earth save for a suburban strip mall. The only apparent entertainment is the Muezzin's call to prayer or, if it is a Jain village, a sing-songsy chant with a tinkling bell which quiets my anxieties as the primal spirits of the land are summoned and beseeched.

Village life is staffed with the never ending chores of fetching water, shepherding goats and gathering dried camel dung, an excellent and very renewable source of energy. Well, it won't get your car very far but it works just fine for cooking.

The local industry is the back breaking work of hammering the ochre hued rock that lies just below the desert sand into building blocks. I would rather have the women's work.

One can think about things while gathering balls of scat but it would result in awkward social relations with the guys. Still, it beats being shunted into an office cubicle or behind an espresso counter with a smiley face hung on a disappointed and debt ravaged mug for the bulk of a lifetime.

Village life has marked the cadence of human existence since we fell out of the trees, rudely waking us from our naps, until the industrial revolution lured us into the dark capitalist maw of unholy work with the siren call of a regular pay check.

Safari sunrise.Safari sunrise.The disconnect between me and Mother Earth is fully manifested here. But this life would not be for me. There is no wifi, no cable TV. However cell phones are ubiquitous. Except for me. I have no one to call.

In every village I am besieged by dusty urchins demanding school pens ... nope, no pens ... chocolate? ... sorry ... Rupees? ... no.

Aahh, there's the connect with the contemporary world—the tourist trade and what little of it that comes this way—the visiting ATM machine (only this one is a stingy bastard).

I am part of the contamination that pricks the village bubble. Despite my utmost desire to keep a low profile my presence is as noticeable as I stand out like a sore thumb.

A Pillar of Wisdom

T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, wrote in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom that the desert solitude scours the spirit clean.

That first night alone in the desert opened the trap door to my tender psyche allowing ancient wounds and anxieties to creep out of their long sealed crypts and torment me one last time before fleeing doing somersaults and cartwheels into the wild.

That's the thing about solitary travel. Alone on a sand dune—Village life in Thar.Village life in Thar.Babalu is tending to the camels—with no distractions the void in my chest below my heart throbs like a dull toothache. Doubt suffocates me.

I have been travelling alone for far too long and I fear it has warped me. People smell it and shy away. On this sand dune I desperately want to crawl out of my skin and become someone else.

By the fourth night I am relieved of my toxic burdens. My mind is cleared and I ponder the cruel brevity of life.

A few hardy souls trek for twenty, even thirty and forty days in the desert and risk returning as prophets of enlightenment to wonder why they are no longer invited to dinner parties.

Six days astride a loping camel's gait is all that my sorely abused thighs can endure and the salubrious delights of a hot soapy shower can no longer be resisted. 

I bid and tip Babalu adieu and return via motorcycle to the comforts of my budget hotel to nurse my tender physical afflictions and contemplate unworldly things.

Mike Britton

Michael Britton is a perpetual travelling painter and writer. He can be contacted at

Read more about India and stories by Michael Britton on GoNOMAD

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