We set off into The Great Thar desert to escape what is probably the most beautiful shopping mall in the world. Jaisalmer fort, founded in the twelve century, yet another genuine spectacle in this ancient land, is astonishing. A gigantic yellow sandcastle that has stood up against countless marauders, and the test of time, yet has now become more of a ‘Jaisalmart.’
Once through the formidable sandstone outer walls, the visitor is bombarded with seller after seller plying their wares. Shops, cafes, even hotels combine with the temples and palaces within the crumbling antique stonework, creating a medieval Portobello Road Market.
A Jaisalmall !
It’s impossible to avoid bartering amongst this bombastic brickwork. Andrew and I were cornered by the most charming, middle-aged Hindu lady improbably called ‘Bobby’, whose sales-pitch was all around helping the women of Rajasthan. The divorced and the widowed. Ladies who had sadly only managed to produce female children in this still patriarchal society. Bobby helped these unfortunates, by selling their handicraft in a small establishment within the fort. She was incredibly tenacious.
We swallowed it, hook, line and sinker! Due mainly to the colourful snaps she showed us of the girls at their spinning wheels, plus the fact that she could talk the hind legs off a camel and it was forty two degrees! We sunk far deeper into our wallet than we usually would, to purchase two quite ordinary trinkets that would surely have cost less in ‘Harrods’ – but hey, it was for charity. Hopefully! And I’m not completely sure that the aforementioned Knightsbridge retailer would stock such exotica as a decorated massage ball made from a Dromedary’s kneecap!
I’m sure it’ll come in handy at some stage.
So it was, after spending several baking days in this fascinating city, that we decided to make our way into the desert proper.
I’ve always had a ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’ fantasy, considering myself a slightly plainer Peter O’Toole, and Andrew has always had a whiff of Omar Sharif, especially after a chicken Jalfrezi. Therefore turbaned up, we set out for a two day desert safari, with David Lean’s masterpiece being our only real experience of the wilderness, and Andrew never having seen that all the way through!
Leaving the golden city, we sped west towards Pakistan, in a four by four driven by the handsome Nanu. A Rajasthani with an impressive handlebar moustache, yet slightly less impressive skills on the handlebars, or rather, steering wheel. We sped further and further into the treeless landscape, dodging goats and the odd nomad by a whisker!
Eventually we came to a piece of sand he, inexplicably recognised, and we drew to a halt. We bade goodbye to Nanu, and were introduced to our guides and our camelid friends, the latter laying impassive on the hot sand, not at all impressed with our arrival. We were soon taken to meet our camel in person, so to speak, mine was named ‘Robert’ apparently.
With hardly a cough and a spit, we were up and in the saddle. Well – sort of!
Nine feet up and rocking like a dodgy Brittany ferry. I now see why these creatures are known as the ships of the desert, however, I had no idea one would feel so seasick.
After a while, I began to get my ‘camel-legs’ and the rocking became almost soothing. The chafing, on the other hand, did not. My buttocks have not seen such action in a long while, if ever! Even Andrew looked like he could do with some extra padding.
As we rode further away from civilisation, our chief guide, Tripolis, would shout back occasionally from the front, making sure our small group was ok. After an hour and a half of trekking through blazing sunlight we were all sporting blazing saddles, and were more than ready to dismount on reaching camp.
The dismounting of this animal is even more precarious than the going up in the first place. The rider is flung violently forward and backwards as the creature makes it’s way into a laying position. Then, one must attempt to climb off of the beast without kicking it in the gob therefore giving it the right hump. It’s not at all easy. I fell from mine in as dignified a fashion as I could manage.
Andrew just slumped into the sand.
Our lodgings for the night were truly extraordinary.
Dunes of such a pristine nature, it looked as if we’d come upon them for the first time.
Our small group sat, recovering from the desert crossing, as our transport lay nearby, eyeing us all with a haughty disinterest. It felt comforting to have them with us though, like we were in it together. This desert lark. One seems to make friends terribly quickly.
As night came, quick as a light-switch, our guides set a small fire, and we sat around chatting and sharing beer, as they prepared dinner. A simple feast of vegetables, rice, chapatis and dal, cooked on iron skillets over the flames. It was delicious, if not a touch mysterious, as in the dim light we had to hazard a guess as to what we were swallowing. Mind you, that’s not a first for either of us and so we managed manfully.
Later, we sang and danced around the campfire. I say we, but it was mostly Andrew and I that provided the physical entertainment. The Lola Boys, live from the sands, as it were. I nearly set fire to myself at least twice, much to Andrew’s chagrin, but it was great fun. Our guides clapped out of time and sang so disharmoniously that it must have been correct, tribal perhaps! Although to us it sounded like a camels’chorus!
When it was time for bed we were each given a mattress, spotless I might add, and were able to position ourselves wherever we liked amid the dunes.
Andrew and I chose a spot not to far from the campfire, and not too far from a thorn-bush, should we need to decamp in the night.
We held hands briefly, gazing at the celestial ceiling which was ours for the night. It was a rare moment of romance after twenty-five years together – and it didn’t last long. But I shall remember it forever.
In the morning we were woken by the yellow noise of the sun. We’d both slept well. Andrew coming off slightly better than me, by missing out on the Bactrian nightmares I’d so enjoyed. On seeing how near the fresh camel dung was on waking, I did wonder if absolutely all of it had been a dream. But I thought it best not to dwell on such things, especially as they were our only way home.
After a breakfast fit for a camel herder, we set off back through the ‘Marwar’, or Land Of Death, in search of the living. It had been an exhilarating experience and we were both full of life, if not a touch saddle sore.
Desert mice and antelope peered from behind the scrub to check out the strange caravan as we passed. We felt like a band of brothers, completely at ease with each other, in sync. Perhaps friends are easier to make in the desert.
It’s very bareness lays people bare.
The landscape engulfed us, but we didn’t feel small. We felt at one with each other. Perhaps more so, as the struggle to exist here is so precarious and implausible, that breath seems even more precious. Life itself, miraculous. We adored the entire journey – both the physical and the spiritual.
Sadly, our ride tonight is less poetic. The beast we are riding is The Delhi Express. We are second class, not a first, and are packed into carriage S2, like curried sardines!
The elderly couple in the berths beneath ours could be Indian cousins of ‘The Adams Family’. He bears a striking resemblance to a very tanned ‘Lurch’, and his wife has two and a half teeth. All of them orange!
They have taken to their beds terribly early. It is just six-thirty and the ‘Mrs’ is making more bestial noises than our entire troupe of camels put together. The husband, who has knocked back more pills than Amy Winehouse on a night out, is silent as the grave. I only hope they shan’t need to dig him one when he doesn’t alight at Delhi Central.
Andrew and I are suffering a little from our ‘camelcade’ as we rattle along precariously on the tiny top bunks. But our butts will just have to take it.
It’s only eighteen hours after all !
And as we are lulled to sleep by the heavy growling of Morticia Patel beneath, I shall be reminded of our night in the dreamy dunes, drifting off under The Milky Way. I shall imagine it is those majestic ships of the desert making themselves known through the blackness. Groaning, snorting and winnowing loudly as they keep watch over us.
And if it get’s too much, and that fantasy begins to fail, I shall just have to take Bobby’s camel bone ball from it’s wrapping, and massage the poor, snoring, woman’s larynx. Firmly, as recommended. Perhaps then, she’ll become as peaceful as her husband!
I’m sure Bobby would approve. After all, it’s quite obvious the wretched woman needs putting out of her misery!
It would be a charitable act, and using a charitable gift!
I just knew it would come in handy sometime!