A rather hairy road trip later, including a flat tyre and a near miss with a goat, Sophie, Sophia, Tom and I arrived at a small village and were ushered into a rustic courtyard. We were given four mountain dews (a fizzy drink that I’d become quite partial to) and then left to our own devices.
“So where exactly are the camels?” Tom joked, though there was definitely a touch of anxiety in his voice.
We were soon beckoned however, by a small boy with piercing green eyes. He led us through the various thatched huts and out into the open and most importantly to an abundance of camels. Turbaned men stood huddled in a group smoking beedis, but jumped up on our arrival and headed towards the stationary and seated camels.
Our Jeep driver appeared and told us to pick a camel – with an overwhelming variety and not being a connoisseur on what attributes make the best steed, I settled on one with the nicest patch-
work quilt. Hoisted up by a youngish, turban-less man, he told me to lean back and as a severe gravitational pull took its hold over me (which took all my might to avoid plummeting to the sand below), I also realised that I had picked by far the largest camel.
A horse rider back in England (well back in the day) the size of animal I was used to was about 15.2, this beast was a giant and I was so high up that altitude sickness could have been on the cards – a slight exaggeration but it’s a good job I don’t suffer from vertigo, put it that way.
Like a pea on a drum, I turned to see the others mount their rides. Sophia and Sophie (both fellow pony club veterans) were fairly calm and collected, Tom on the other hand, had a facial expression that looked like defecation was a serious probability, I laughed. All mounted, we were led off by our individual guides and set off into the depths of the Thar desert, stopping at a large pool (a sort of natural oasis), the camels quenched their thirst and filled their humps.
The three girls were all wearing trousers, not only due to strict cultural regulations, but also due to the well-known fact (for riders anyhow) that bare leg and leather results in serious chaffing. Though we had warned Tom, he failed to heed our advice and soon his awe at being on a camel in the desert dwindled and was replaced with the pain of a raw inner thigh. His shorts, on ground level just below the knee had also morphed into a set of tight hot pants wedged firmly between his buttocks; Tom was in pain.
It wasn’t until twenty minutes later that his smile returned – when we’d dismounted on the side of a rather picturesque sand-dune and were presented with a cold kingfishers. Sipping on our cold beers, two local musicians (another instance of companies and locals being in cahoots – all determined to make their bit of cash from the tourists) approached over the nearest dune, sat next to us, asked our names, and the proceeded to sing the same song four times, only taking a quick inhalation between each to change from Alice to Tom, then from Sophie to Sophia.
‘Embrace it,’ I thought, ‘just embrace it.’ So we paid them 10 rupees each (though they were trying to get 100) and they sauntered off, with decidedly different expressions than when they had arrived. Before they had encroached on our area of peace and tranquillity. Unfortunately a rather obtrusive cirrus stratus obstructed the magical sunset that we’d anticipated, so we set off a bit early to where we’d spend the night, but nonetheless we were all very happy.
After remounting the camels – mine apparently was called Bob Marley – we set off at rather a faster speed, relaxing the pelvic muscles and adjusting to the motion (and having flash backs of the copious riding lessons and ‘sitting trot’) I managed to maintain balance and felt secure in the seat. Then Tom galloped past, clenching his buttocks and bouncing erratically up and down and using one hand in an attempt to protect his scrotum – it looked like a scene from Mr Bean. Sophie and Sophia caught up with Bob and the laughter started and it continued steadily until we reached our camp site fifteen minutes later.
Bob and an elderly green-turbaned man remained and the other camels and guides left us – when I said camp site, this was rather an exaggeration – there were four metal mesh beds saddled together with pillows and individual thick blankets. Rajn (the name of the elderly guide) set up his plastic sheet a few feet from us and tethered Bob to a near-by tree, said goodnight, unwrapped his turban to reveal a bald weathered scalp and quickly fell to sleep.
Described as a night under the glinting stars, again the cirrus stratus defied us – we saw just the two stars, one of which, considering its erratic movements could very likely have been a flaying satellite of some description. But: we were in the desert, under the sky, together and it was really, really amazing. A situation, in the words of Tom, where: ‘you need to take a step back and really think about where you are, who you’re with and what you’re doing.’ Surreal.