“Hmmmmphhhhh,” said the camel in a low guttural sound. What followed shocked us- a “blurrbada-blurrbada-blurrbada” noise accompanied by a bulbous purple mass the size of a softball protruding from the side of the camel’s mouth. The camel seemed matter-of-fact about the whole business, as camels do about nearly everything, while it burbled then slurped the thing back inside its mouth. We learned it was a balloon type organ used to attract the ladies during mating season. Sexy!
We were learning a lot about camels in Bikaner, a city in the Thar desert of northwest India towards the border with Pakistan. We went on an overnight camel trek (photo below) and also spent an afternoon at the Bikaner center for camel research (photo above). I grew very fond of the animals, who seem unperturbed and regal, or maybe arrogant, regardless of their circumstances. They always have their nose in the air and a kind of sneer on their face. I love this. We had been seeing camels since we entered Rajasthan state, usually pulling carts and occasionally for tourist rides. We spent some time with a camel at Gulab’s farm, petting it and marveling up close at its strange shape, soft fur, luxurious eyelashes, and unimpressed expression. They looked to me like dinosaurs or imaginary creatures, not a living, moving, real animal. I just couldn’t get enough of staring at these odd denizens of the desert.
I remembered that back in my 20’s I had read books by Australian Robyn Davidson. As a young woman in the 1970’s, she decided to walk across the width of her country, 1700 miles, with the help of camels. She began the adventure by capturing wild camels in the outback and spending two years training them. Then over the course of nine months, she went on her own, with her dog and camels, on this ambitious journey. I mention the woman to Australians whenever we meet them traveling, and recently one of them told me Davidson’s book had been made into a movie called ‘Tracks’ after one of her books. I looked it up and watched the trailer, I definitely would like to see it and even more than that I want to read her books again. For now, I was camel gazing the real thing to my heart’s content.
The ‘National Research Centre on Camel (sic)’ in Bikaner is about 10 kms outside of town. There are corrals and baby camels, a museum, shops with ‘Camel Charisma’ products, and a dairy with camel milk products. I could have just stared at the camels all day, especially the babies. We got to feed a six-day-old baby with a bottle and pet its soft wooly fur. It already had all the attitude of a fully grown camel, but was only about half the height of one. Apparently, camels walk about two hours after birth, following a thirteen-month gestation, yikes!
We saw a large group of camels being moved from pasture to corral by staff. The animals all have one hump but are of several breeds, notably the Bikanari with its furry ears and eyelashes and the indentation behind the eyes, and the Jaisalameri, also named for a Rajasthan city. In fact, I had been hoping to visit Jaisalamer and go on a camel safari there; it is well-known for this, but Bikaner did not disappoint. The museum was interesting, showing us the evolution of camels and the history of camels in the area.
Jitu, the owner of the guest house where we stayed works at the center, has a high degree in biology, and helped us understand the animal even more. As a biology nerd myself, I was thrilled to know more about the physiology of camels. I won’t get too detailed for fear of boring most people, but for just one example: camels have different kidneys and distinctly shaped red blood cells to help them cope with long absences and sudden deluges of water in their systems. Humans would die of dehydration and water poisoning if we experienced much milder extremes. Fascinating, but I’ll let you research for yourselves. If you ever want to discuss, I’m available! Anyway, between Jitu and the museum itself, we were informed about different camel breeds, the uses of hair, hide, milk, bone, and even the urine of camels. I just loved the place.
We set up a jeep safari followed by a camel safari with Jitu. He is an accomplished and enthusiastic specialist on the local flora and fauna. He offers jeep safaris led by himself, and he arranges camel treks with his team of camel owners. We had a really wonderful experience with both adventures.
First we hopped into Jitu’s safari vehicle and headed out of town. He started pointing things out right away. Acacia bushes were everywhere, invasives from Africa introduced by the British and now, sadly, inhibiting indigenous plants. Then we saw a baby monitor lizard, a desert version of the creature we had seen in Bangkok in ponds. Jitu was excited because it was one of the first of the season. He pointed out Rajasthan’s state tree and flower and explained medicinal uses for them. Then another exciting sight: a flock of rare yellow-eye pigeons that come from far away Mongolia. And then another sad thing- small piles of plastic trash seemingly in a pattern, which are all that remain of cow stomachs from bovine carcasses left there for disposal. Jitu actually helped make a documentary about city cows in India, which I’d love to see. As we continued in the jeep safari, we saw many birds, notably a crowd of griffin vultures enjoying a cow carcass. We drove to a village where we were to meet up with the camels and their handlers for the overnight trek.
We arrived at the meeting point, and there was a bit of a crowd. Seven camels, one for each of us and one to pull a cart with gear. Each camel had an attendant who would lead and control the camel if needed. The thing we all noticed at first was that each camel was decorated. Mine was a light color and had paint or henna on its neck. The camel pulling the cart had shaven designs on its hips. In fact, all of the other camels were shaved in neat patterns and looked rather handsome. How their owners were able to get the animals to sit still for such elaborate hair styles is beyond me, but they looked recent and nicely done. The camels had saddles and were ready for us, so we got on up there. We had seen camels get up and sit down before, two of the kids had done this bareback, so we were not too surprised by the process. “Get on quickly,” said Jitu as I fumbled with the stirrups before swinging a leg over. I guess you don’t want to be caught halfway on if the camel decides to get up too soon. There was no problem though, and we all got on our camels without incident. Next, we were led through some scrub desert to a small village with a cow statue in a center plaza. Nearby was a watering trough and our camels had a drink. ‘Slurpy’, as Cleverly dubbed her camel, was taking advantage of the unstructured time and performing his attractive mouth-balloon hobby. After a little of that and a drink, we ambled off into the desert.
The Thar desert is a scrub desert with occasional dunes. A type of tree grows here, the state tree of Rajasthan, locally known as the Khejri and able to survive eight years without water. There were paths through the land with a fenced-in farm here and there. We saw cattle, sheep, and goats at the farms, hopefully special breeds for this environment. The sun was hot overhead; it must have been near noon. Still we saw birds, lizards, and a type of antelope, all of which we recognized from the jeep safari. We covered our heads against the heat, me with a scarf and sunglasses. Despite how much I love Rajasthan, the camels and the desert, I am primarily a shade-loving creature and usually avoid direct sun. I had new respect for turbans and veils from the local culture going back through the ages.
It was hot but not unpleasant there on the camel. Several travelers had warned us about the discomfort of riding a camel, but we were all enjoying it. We rode for a couple of hours, some of the camel men sitting on the gear cart and some leading the camels. I had the reins in my hands and my camel was well-behaved, mostly following the others.
We stopped by a Khejri tree and lounged on a mat in the shade while the team unsaddled the camels and made lunch for us. What luxury! We pretended to be royals visiting another kingdom. The shade was very pleasant with breezes and a comfortable temperature. We were served freshly made chapatis and curries, and water- cold water! Jitu had met our caravan at one point and brought a block of ice to chill our water, unbelievable! Nothing had ever tasted so good. I was so content just lying in the shade, watching the camels. The kids played a little, exploring the strange landscape. We were there for a long while, passing the heat of the day. At some point, the men started re-saddling the camels and we got ready to ride some more.
We rode further into the desert. We continued to see wildlife and plants we had learned about. It was slow, peaceful going, with beautiful views of all that desert around us. The camels kept a steady pace and the cart trundled on as the shadows lengthened. We arrived at the camping area after a few hours.
We were camping on some dunes with sandy tops. Really got right to work and tried sliding down one head first like a desert snake, with questionable success. All of us explored the area and walked barefoot on the soft sand. The camels rested and the team unloaded sleeping mats and cooking gear. We hung out with our camels because we knew they were leaving soon. We watched them go when it was time and I wished we were riding again tomorrow. The gear cart camel stayed and became the most photographed member of the group.
The rest of the evening, we watched the sun set and walked around the area. Kaydo, the team leader and only member who stayed overnight with us, cooked a wonderful dinner and also made chai- the sweet milky black tea and spice concoction we have had nearly every day in India. The stars came out as the sky became darker. I decided to sleep outside with Truly and DH, while the others slept in nylon tents. It was so quiet and dark, we fell asleep easily. I woke up during the night and saw even more stars, along with a crescent moon over the desert land, the camel resting nearby. What a magical time!
Morning came with the moon still visible in the sky. We had chai, a leisurely breakfast and we slowly packed the gear back on the cart. I spent a lot of time watching the camel, who wasn’t particularly friendly with me but tolerated up to seven crows standing on his back. We had hoped to ride in the cart back to the village, but Jitu’s safari jeep came to get us instead. It worked out well since we had a train to catch. I was sad to be leaving Bikaner, though, and all of those camels. Hopefully we will get a little more camel time before leaving Rajasthan, but for now we were headed to Jodhpur!