Twenty miles or so out of Bikaner, in a small, dusty village on the edge of the Thar Desert, we met our two camels. A third was hitched up to a cart pulling some provisions for our journey. Each camel had his master/owner, who knows him best and responds to his commands (more or less). After a short walk to get acquainted, and to let the camels have a big drink before the journey, we mounted and set off. The guys rode in the cart most of the time, while we rode.
Amidst a great deal of farting, bubbling and grabbing at twigs on the side of the path (mostly by the camels), we made our way out into the desert. The land here is mostly scrub, with a few taller, thorny trees and intermittent dunes. Soon, we passed through two small villages, where children came out to wave and yell, “Tata,” a common hello. After an hour or so we stopped for a delicious lunch: curried cauliflower, a cooked cucumber dish, daal, rice and rotis. Desert foxes trotted along the ridge, looking inquisitively, and we heard the loud Hoot Hoot of a desert owl. A big Blue Bull seemed unperturbed by our presence, while the smaller antelope sauntered away as we approached.
Several hours’ ride later we arrived at camp for the night. Low clouds made for a colorful sunset, and a hot pot of chai was perfect as the sun went down. There was a brick building at the site, with a family there as caretakers. They had our tent set up and a table laid for dinner. The father and two sons, aged seven and three, entertained us that evening by the fire with Rajasthani songs. The father performed a series of blessing, touching ears and murmuring a prayer before he began playing on his box accordion and singing tunes passed down through the generations. Having donned a red turban, his older son played a drum while the younger soaked it all in, clearly learning.
Of course the iPhone came out at some point later to entertain the kids with some animal sounds (and enable us to learn a few more words in Hindi). Not surprisingly, the dad immediately identified the recorded camel as not local, but the one with two humps from further north.
Dinner was as tasty as lunch. On the menu: spicy tomato soup, papad, more rice and rotis, a differently spiced daal…one of the best we’ve had), aloo mutter (potato and peas), and gobi (cabbage). Overnight was desert chilly, but we were nice and warm in our tent, covered with thick, if slightly smelly blankets. It was so quiet, with only the sound of an occasional owl. Morning sunrise was beautiful, and we ended our experience with a ride back to the village of Raisar by camel cart.
After a thorough shower back at the guesthouse to wash off our eau de camel (including an extra spritz we got when a rival camel passed ours and he expressed his manhood by peeing and slapping it around with his tail, precisely in our direction behind him.) Another fascinating yet disgusting camel habit is a gurgling, percolating sort of noise they make. It seems to happen when they feel threatened or annoyed, but we read that it’s actually more tied into the mating ritual. There is an organ in the males’ throats that they inflate like a bubble and then suck back in, accompanied by various amounts of spit and foam, and this crazy noise. It looks like the side of their mouth is turned inside out. Lovely.
To keep with the theme, in the afternoon we visited the Bikaner Camel Research Center, where we saw tons of camels, learned about conservation programs, the differences between species, what you can do with hair and milk (make some tasty ice cream) and the hopes for the future of this amazing animal.
The videos below are from YouTube, but capture better than still photos the full camel action. The first two feature the camel’s throat organ flapping.
This one is someone’s footage of the Bikaner Camel Festival a few years ago, but gives a nice sense of the area.