Donna and Joe have finished their assignment in India. Occasionally they still travel somewhere.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Camel Safari

Planes, trains and automobiles are all more comfortable ways to travel around India than riding a camel. But then we didn’t ride the camels to get anywhere; just for the experience. For the record Donna says she was pretty comfortable sitting on the camel. My first problem was that the stirrups were too narrow for my shoes. When I got my shoes stuffed into the stirrups they pinched my feet. After I took my shoes off my feet were more comfortable but I still felt squeezed between the saddle in the back and the camel’s hump in the front. All the time we rode them the camels were walking with a gait and a feel very much like a horse, except that a camel has a much longer stride and takes fewer steps per minute.

Camels kneel down to let a person get on their back, then stand up. In fact it has callused pads on its knees and its chest where it rests on the ground. Here is Donna's camel getting up with Donna on it's back. We were the only paying guests on the safari, which also included 4 crew members and 3 camels. Donna & I each rode a camel and each of these camels had a handler. Most of the time the handler rode on the camel cart and loosely held the camel’s reins. The camels knew the program and mostly followed the cart anyway. Also riding on the cart was the driver and the guide. The cart carried a tent, folding table, cook stoves, gas cylinder, food, bedding, etc. So the one camel pulling that had a much harder job than the two we were riding. Donna asked if they switched the camels around but apparently the camels are specialists. The camels and their handlers are also paired long term, just like elephants and their mahouts.

We met our camels and crew in small village south of Bikaner. This is the view as we head out from the village on the road to the desert. We were there in the dry season and the land was mostly empty of people. Later in the year , during the monsoons, people will return to the empty huts to raise muskmelons and other crops.

Here's a view of the land a little further out. Out here there really isn't a road, although in places you could see we were following a track where other camel carts had gone before us. We rode for a couple of hours then stopped for some lunch at a spot where several small trees offered some shade. A camel travels about 6 km/hr so by then we were out of sight of any signs of civilization. They unsaddled the camels who immediately rolled in the sand.

The crew brought along two gas cook stoves. They made chapatis (flat bread) on one and heated rice and vegetables in sauce on the other. They also sliced some fresh vegetables and had a variety of cold drinks in a cooler. It was hot in the mid-day sun so we all took a break after lunch.

While we were resting we couple of shepherds came through driving a herd of sheep and goats.
Here you can see the white sheep and black goats spread out over the land eating whatever green they can find. If you click on the picture to enlarge it you see that the dot in the upper right is one of the shepherds. As they went by we noticed that the second shepherd was carrying a tool with looked like a small hatchet with a four foot handle. Later in the afternoon we passed him standing in a tree using that tool to chop the high branches out of the tree. He was throwing them to the ground where some of his flock was happily eating the leaves.

In the middle of the afternoon we started off again and traveled another couple of hours to a campsite where there was a concrete building and a couple of huts built of sticks and thatched with straw. The concrete building was used to store equipment like a dining table. The huts seemed to be of use only to the birds who had built nests inside and liked to sit up on the roof.

The camel handlers rode home on the two camels we had ridden, leaving the third camel to bring the remaining four people and all the gear back in the camel cart. Here he is eating his dinner. I have boosted the contrast a little so you can see the patterns cut into his fur. These serve as identifying marks so the owner can always identify him.

Donna and I went over a small rise to watch the sunset over the desert. When we came back these two musicians were waiting for us.

The one on the left played the double flute on some songs and the harmonium on others. He plays the melody on the right hand flute by covering and uncovering various holes. On the other flute he plays a single note. The box in front of him is a harmonium which is not an instrument native to India but is now widely used, especially in north India. It is similar to an accordion with a keyboard and a bellows to pump air through reeds to make the sound. The bellow comprises the whole side facing away from him, which hinges at the bottom. While playing he used his right hand to work the bellows and his left hand to play the keyboard.

Although you cannot see anything on this video you can hear what they sounded like. After the concert the musicians walked off into the darkness so civilization can't have been too far away. But is was far enough away you could not see any buildings or road. You could not hear it either although after it was dark you could see the glow of lights over the horizon.
The crew pitched a white, 2-person tent for us and put a thick pad on the floor of the tent for us to sleep on. I slept pretty well but Donna found that the noise of the wind flapping the tent kept her awake. She considered moving outside but noticed that the crew was also sleeping up off the ground and decided that might be necessary to avoid unwanted critters sharing your bed.
In the morning we headed back to village where we started.

I actually took this picture of a youth heading out into the desert with his camel cart the previous morning. But it seems a fitting way to end this post. A reminder that there are still many different people in this world and for some the rhythm of daily life is very different from that of an urban office worker like me.


Bill Eddy said...


This reminds me of when I rode a camel at the Pyramids in Egypt some years ago. I remember the bellow that one of them made before we started. Also we were told that camels are very sensitive around the nose and mouth.

Karen said...

Another amazing post!! What a great way to see another area of India and to appreciate their fascinating culture. Thanks for doing all the travel for us so we can live vicariously through you at very little expense! I will really miss your posts when you come home. South Burlington is just not this interesting! love ya, Karen

Anonymous said...

I did what Bill did in 1986. That was my last camel ride.
I loved that music. Did you leave a tip?


Joe said...

Yes we gave the musicians a tip, and the camel drivers and the guide, etc. Donna keeps saying her job is to be Dolly--In the musical "Hello Dolly" Dolly says money is only good if you spread it around.