The close second on our Indian bucket list after visiting the Taj Mahal was a camel safari into the desert. Sand dunes stretching as far as the eye could see. Riding camels in the middle of nowhere, nothing but us and a guide. Watching the sun set, colours of orange, pink and purple filling both the sky and the silence. A roaring campfire in the middle of the dunes, sharing stories of our lives with our guide – learning about his culture, and he learning about ours. Staring into the night sky, the stars twinkling overhead as we nodded off to sleep.
This is what we had in mind when we made our way to Jaisalmer, often the last stop here in Rajasthan, India. Just 130km from the Pakistan border, travellers make the long journey here to visit the famed Thar Desert and its rolling sand dunes. The most popular way to do that is by camel safari – and every single person in Jaisalmer knows someone who runs one, and will do their best to get you on their tour the moment you arrive in town.
Having read several horror stories of the experiences of others, we were determined to ensure we did our homework in picking a credible safari. We were stoked when a few weeks back we met an Australian lady on one of our trains – a tour owner and operator here in India over the last 20 years – who better to make some great recommendations to us? We enquired about camel safaris here in Jaisalmer, and sure enough she had both name and contact details of a guesthouse here in Jaisalmer who ran camel safaris that she highly recommended – and that it was owned and operated by a lady from New Zealand.
“It might cost a little more than average”, she said, “but at least you know you’ll be getting what you paid for.”
Firing off an email, we contacted the operator and asked all the relevant questions, exchanging emails over the next few days before locking in the tour – it promised everything we were wanting, and with the backing of the tour guide we’d met earlier, we knew we’d be in good hands.
From the moment we were picked up in a jeep by our guide Karim, we knew something was up. We had barely exchanged pleasantries before we were hurried into the jeep, making a beeline for the desert. We managed to only get one question in between his phone conversations, asking if he was our guide for the safari – “Yes yes, guide, driver, cook, I do everything!” he exclaimed, before picking up his phone again. Mike and I looked at each other, shrugged and sat back in silence.
Barely passing the ‘Welcome to the Thar Desert’ signpost, Karim pulled the jeep up onto the side of the road, where there were two camels – and two men – waiting for us.
“This here is your camels, you take camel ride through dunes to campsite and I meet you there!” Karim explained to us, ushering us out of the vehicle. We had no idea there were other people involved in the experience, but did as we were told and jumped atop a camel each as Karim took off.
“We take you on 10 kilometre safari” one of the camel men told us, as we leant back into the saddle as the camels stood up. It was already 3.45PM by this time – ten kilometres being led by a guide on foot was going to take hours – we knew we’d miss the sun set if this was the case.
We needn’t worry – our safari was nowhere near 10 kilometres. We spent a total of 45 minutes and MAYBE 3 kilometres on the camels, spending the entire ride in silence – that is, apart from the jeeps. We must have been taken off the ‘path’ to make way for jeeps at least a dozen times during our ride – they were noisy, disruptive and spooked the camels – mine took off twice in the time I was on it. I can’t quite describe how scary it is to be sitting so high up with barely anything to hold on to when the camel is just walking, let alone when it decides to take off!
At the conclusion of our ‘safari’ – pushing through the crowds on the dunes to a small campsite set on a dirt path beside the dunes – the camel guides asked for tips or gifts. We said no – as far as we are concerned, the camel safari was included in our package, and there’d been no mention of additional staff to run this. If the service had been above and beyond the standard – that is, leading the camel through the dunes – then perhaps we may have considered giving a small tip. But the matter of fact is that these guides simply did their job, as they are paid to do – we weren’t spoken to throughout the trip or were given information about the camels, our location, where we were and the local people – there was nothing special about their service. Despite saying no, we were petitioned incessantly for half an hour for extra money – but we didn’t give in.
We hurried off into the nearby dunes, wanting to catch the sunset before it went down. There were at least 100 other people on the dunes, plus camels and jeeps dune-bashing scarily close to us. Locals tried to sell us everything from beer to more camel rides – it was not the idyllic sunset experience we’d hoped for. We had specifically asked if our trip was off the tourist path, and had been assured it was – but it wasn’t the case.
Feeling very disappointed in the day so far, we headed back to camp where Karim served us plenty, albeit cold, food. He asked the mandatory “Where are you from? What do you do?” before taking the remainder of the food and heating it up behind the little shed for himself and the camel guide, who’d decided to stay the night. It certainly wasn’t the conversation we were looking forward to, and as we grabbed the camera and tripod to head back into the dunes he informed us that he was ‘going to bed’ and to ‘wake me if you need anything’ – it was 8.00PM.
Hoping that we’d get some incredible night sky shots to make up for the lack of photos throughout the day – we didn’t get to stop for any during the camel ride and the dunes had been so busy at sunset – we were yet again disappointed to realise that there was a village nearby. A village, in the middle of the ‘desert’ that had floodlights illuminating their houses. Not only that, but jeeps and their headlights were still going, riding around in the sand. There was too much light pollution to take anything decent.
We settled in for the night at 9.00PM – not before having to re-tie our tent, which had been set up with 30cm gaps on all sides. The zip didn’t work either, defeating the entire purpose of sleeping in a tent – letting in the cold and exposing us to whoever and whatever was out in the dark. We found this out a little past midnight, when two wild dogs found their way inside the tent and were having a go at each other. It was a long, cold night – followed by a short, cold morning – we were packed up and back in the jeep headed for Jaisalmer within an hour of waking.
It was a fairly sombre mood when we returned. Both of us had such high hopes for this experience, and were completely let down. We came to the conclusion that perhaps it was just one of those cliche experiences that everyone does – and that camel safaris in Jaisalmer are not what they used to be.
We packed our bags before dinner, ahead of our 21.5 hour train to Delhi, departing at midnight. We’d come such a long way, with such a long way to go back, without achieving what we’d set out to do. We were pretty miserable, and as another couple staying at the same guesthouse came up for dinner we asked them how their safari was – they’d taken one the same day with the company that owns the guesthouse – we hoped they’d had a similar experience so we’d have someone to grizzle with…
They’d had a magical time. One of the best nights of their well-travelled lives, they said. Everything we’d been wanting from our trip – ample time trekking on camels, an education about the desert people and their life, the environment, empty sand dunes, photo opportunities, a hot fire, tales of each other’s countries and more – is what they had experienced on their trip. We were so incredibly happy for them, and at the same time – incredibly frustrated by our own trip, coming to the realisation that we’d been exploited for what we’d paid, and what we’d received in return.
So, just three hours before our train was due to depart – we cancelled it. Our train, and our plans for the following week – we cancelled everything and made a decision to remain in Jaisalmer and give the camel safari another go with our own guesthouse. We hadn’t come this far to not take a special memory away from our visit here.
We’ll be heading off on Camel Safari #2 tomorrow, and hope to have a much more positive experience to share with you all.