India: The Beginner's Guide to Camel Trekking and Venomous Snakes
The Beginner's Guide to Camel Trekking and Venomous Snakes
By Marika Hill
The last thing you want to see on an overnight camel safari is a six-foot (2m) long, highly poisonous cobra slithering in front of your camel, especially if you will be spending the night under the stars with only a warm sleeping-bag separating you and the desert sand.
A group of five of us had decided to do an overnight camel safari in the Thar desert, within the state of Rajasthan, India.
For only 600 rupees each ($15) we received cooked meals, guides and the imperative camel-riding lesson. The journey began with a bumpy jeep ride into the desert. After one hour we pulled up to our four-legged transportation, all slightly apprehensive about these gawky looking beasts.
First Obstacle: The Ascent
Camels offer numerous complications to their domestication, the first of these is getting up top. For one thing it has a large hump sticking out the prime saddle position.
Secondly, a camel is an extremely tall animal. Finally there were no fancy leather saddles; the locals generally throw a few makeshift blankets across, all tied down with a single rope strap. These factors canceled all romantic riding fantasies from Indiana Jones.
Our guides clicked their tongue signaling the beasts to sit, shrinking their frame to a mere meter tall. This bit was easy, all you have to do was sit on top.
Step two got far more technical: the camel stretched out its hind legs first, leaving the front of its body (along with the rider) lurching precariously forward.
Just when you catch your balance the camel unfolds its front legs, leaning awkwardly backwards, leaving a novice like me disorientated and scrambling forward to counter the balance.
Finally the camel straightens both legs and you find yourself ten feet (3m) in the air wondering how the hell you get off this beast. This is when the nerves really kick in.
I asked my guide, Gamara, whether there is many people seriously injured by falling off camels.
“Yes, we have some, especially when snakes or sudden sounds startle the animals.”
This wasn't the reassurance I needed.
“But have people died?” I nervously inquire.
“Yes, yes some serious accidents.” I immediately tensed up.
“Don't worry, it won't happen here. You will be fine.”
I am not so sure. “But what about snakes?”
He took a little more time to consider his answer, “No snakes, it is too cold, now in summer, many, many snakes. But no, no snakes now, far too cold.”
If it's so cold wouldn't a dopey tourist's sleeping bag be the ideal resting point for a snake? Quieting my anxieties, I decide to focus on the exhilaration of camel riding!
Second Obstacle: Momentum
Just my luck that I chose the stoner-type camel. No matter how much I tugged it and groaned, and whistled, and hit it and made funny mouth signals it seemed to just want to lag behind, scoffing down shrubbery and staring into space.
Some pushy girl was not going to deter its need to chew and chill. Eventually the camel trekkers got fed up with me looming in the distance and tied my camel to another, meaning I could effectively sit back and admire the views.
Contrary to what one might think of Aladdin's magical world, the desert is not all dry, perfect sandy dunes stretching through the distance. There's actually a lot of bleak dry shrub, dust and dirt mixed in with the sand, ultimately redefining my glossed-over perspective of desert. Within a few hours the constant sight of shrub and sand lent my mind to thoughts of tea and curry.
Third Obstacle: Privacy
The first break allowed us all to do something we had always wanted to do. Pee in the sand. I suspect it's some faded memories from the childhood sandbox that lead us to each chose a desert shrub, grinning nervously and crouching low. All was going well until the local school children began giggling at us about 100 yards (100m away). It turns out we had stopped near Gamara's village.
Our guides lived within a remote desert village, and conducted these tours as it offered a better paid alternative to subsistence living.
Gamara was extremely laid-back and spoke fluent English. Our second guide was his apprentice son, all of nine years old and able to ride camels ten times his size without even flinching.
Our third guide, Bemar, looked well past fifty and was often rapt up in serious conversations with himself. He had 15 children and was never without a cigarette, nor his chewable opium. It crossed my mind that these facts were inter-related.
Fourth Obstacle: Deadly Snakes
After a nice hot curry it was back on the camels and further into the desert. With my scarf tied round my face like true desert explorer, I felt unbeatable. That is when the deadly cobra stopped us in our tracks. We all waited nervously as it gingerly wriggled past, undeterred by terrified Westerners. The guides seemed quite experienced with these situations, allowing it to quietly pass before we continued. We were later warned not to have toilet stops too close to the shrubs.
Another four hours riding and we reached our camping spot: miles of remote and unspoilt desert sand dunes. The rippled texture image seemed conceived by a squadron of top graphic designers using the latest digital technology.
With no buildings or trees, you can enjoy the exceptional light show, with varying oranges, peaches and yellows melting away in the sand. These views certainly made the chaffing and risk of death by snake-bite worth it.
Once darkness fell, a communal fire was lit and Gamara and Bemar shared stories and songs. Zipping up tightly in our sleeping-bags, with blankets over our heads – we felt semi-secure against snake attacks.
We woke the next morning, alive and with exquisite views of the glowing sun reaching over the infinite sand dunes.
Soon we were back on our camels, grudgingly making our way back to the jeep that would take us back to civilization.
We all agreed camel trekking was the highlight of our India trip – the desert's vastness offered the perfect vehicle to explore less trodden paths and an opportunity to interact with remote villages, while also offering us city kids some sense of adventure.
How to book
The best way to book a safari is to turn up a night or two before and prepare to haggle between various operators to get the best price. Ensure you all understand what is included in the price before starting off. Alternatively, there are numerous online tourist operators that offer group tour options.
Overnight camel treks begin at £5 for a basic 24 hour came trek including vegetarian food, camels, guides and a few extra blankets. From here the price goes up depending on your choice of food, length of trek and opting for luxuries such as desert huts and portable beds.
Departure Cities (within the state of Rajasthan)
Jaisalmer has by far the most camel safari tourist offices in Rajasthan. Bikaner is also seeing a rise of camel safari operators and offers a greater chance to get off the beaten track.
What to take
Water, toilet paper and warm clothes to sleep in (Temperatures drop dramatically at night.)
When to go
The cooler months of October – February are ideal. The summer months of March – September can see temperatures rising above 104 degrees (40 C), making trekking extremely uncomfortable.
Tourist Operators and further information:
Marika Hill grew up in New Zealand, where geographical isolation and travel fanaticism has driven her to numerous overseas adventures.
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