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Just Deserts The desert may seem empty, but it is teeming with life Text and Photographs By Neelima Vallangi
t was a strange place to be. The breeze was too cold to make me want to stay in the shade, and the sun was too hot to make me want to step out from under the canopy of the huge khejri tree that I was leaning against. I was in the Thar Desert, on the first day of a five-day trek that had started that morning in a village called Khaba, near Jaisalmer, and would end 40 km away at Bharna. Every day had brought a range of discoveries: stark landscapes, pristine dunes, rosy sunsets, starry nights, and the realisation that an amazing variety of life could flourish in an unforgiving environment.Each new morning had also brought intriguing stories. On the very first
day, our group of three found ourselves in Kuldhara, an abandoned village 17 km from Jaisalmer. No one has been able to explain why its inhabitants fled, but it has been suggested that the Paliwal Brahmins who lived there migrated elsewhere in the 19th century either to escape the atrocities of the ruler or because their water sources ran dry. They left behind crumbling walls, a temple, and a curse that the village would never be inhabited again. Seen through the arches of the derelict Khaba Fort, the ruins of the village were bathed eerily in the colours of sunset while the plains beyond were carpeted with green fields. Khaba seems to blend effortlessly into the barren landscape. It seldom sees
tourists. We set up camp in the village school for the night. Village girls came to the well to fill up water while the smaller children played in the sand. Their smiles were genuine and their eyes curious. They had questions about life in the city. Why did I wear my hair loose instead of having a dupatta wrapped around my head? Would I choose my own husband? How was I allowed to travel so far without a man to accompany me? I took photographs that I promised to send them soon. Our route had been designed to seek out maximum shade under the region’s sparse foliage. Even though the mercury rose mercilessly, the winter winds made the sun more bearable. On the very first
At first glance the desert seems bare. It takes a deeper look to discover the variety of life this barren landscape holds. 114 national Geographic Traveller INDIA | january 2013
On the second day of the trek, a bumpy yet fun camel ride took the writer from the popular Sam sand dunes to near the Desert National Park, from where she walked three kilometres into the park to spend the night there.
day of the trek, resting under one of the trees mid-afternoon, we saw women in the far distance walking with vessels to collect water. Later, at the campsite, porters brought us barrels of water. Though it was murky, we added purification tablets to the liquid and gulped it down. It was a hard lesson in how judiciously we needed to use water in the desert. Though the days were hot, the nights would get bitterly cold. We would spend the evenings huddled in our shelters. One night, while camping in a hut in the Desert National Park at Sudasari, three of us came out to make a wish upon shooting stars. The hut was situated just on the fringes of the National Park and on one side, the endless grasslands extended all the way to the horizon. It was a moonless night and the sky was so clear that I probably saw more stars in that one evening than I’d seen in the city all of the previous year.
The Desert National Park in Sudasari is one of the country’s biggest nature reserves and supports a variety of species ranging from the endangered Great Indian Bustard to the abundant chinkara. We saw little gazelles everywhere we went. Having done most of my previous treks in the Himalayas and Western Ghats, the desert landscape was unfamiliar to me. In the mountains, something always blocked the view. But here, the landscapes stretched on unimpeded. Watching the sunrise and sunset became a ritual for me. I made it a point to wake up every morning to see the red ball of fire come up over the horizon and settled down every evening to watch the scorching sun rest for the day. Though the desert appeared barren, it wasn’t lifeless—the chirping birds, the swaying leaves, and the footprints of sneaky animals made that clear. On the last day of the trek, we trudged
up several sand dunes, but none were as perfectly shaped as the ones I had in my mind. Then, just an hour before sunset, when we were completely worn out, we were confronted with another dune. Everyone else walked to the right of the sand bar but I decided to head left. This, it turned out, was the pristine dune I had in mind all through the trip—it had dramatic, wind-sculpted patterns, unspoilt by footsteps. The setting sun cast an ochre light as well as dark shadows on the sand. I walked carefully to avoid trampling the beautiful patterns. There was no one else around. In my tent that night, my dreams were filled with chinkaras running towards the distant horizon. I dreamt of wishing upon shooting stars and riding a camel. I also dreamt of spectacular sunsets and solitary trees. When I woke up, I realised I had actually lived that precious dream. n
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Rajasthan THE GUIDE Route Jaisalmer-Khaba-Sam-Sudasari-Bharna-Jaisalmer Duration 5 days Season December-January Grade Easy. It’s a walk on flat ground for 6-7 hours a day Cost `2,100 Day 1: Jaisalmer-Khaba After a short tour of Jaisalmer in the morning, we were driven to a small village called Khaba in the afternoon. We camped there for the night. In the evening, we visited the ghost town of Kuldhara nearby and the Khaba fort. Day 2: Khaba-Sam Sand Dunes The day started with a brilliant sunrise and much speculation about what the 14-km trek through the desert that day would feel like. The initial part of the journey was along a road,
though we later veered into barren land. A guide on a camel led the way, and a cool breeze made the heat bearable. We ate lunch under a huge khejri tree. Around 4 p.m., we reached a popular tourist spot called Sam sand dunes. Day 3: Sam-Sudasari Camels waited for us at the camp. We rode them through thorny bushes for 10 km before walking 3 km to the fence of the Desert National Park. We camped in one of the huts inside the park.
Day 4: Sudasari-Bharna We finally saw the pristine dunes of the Thar. It was a rather short trek through thorny grasslands before we hit the dunes. The icing on the cake was that the camp at Bharna was situated right next to huge dunes. Day 5: Bharna-Jaisalmer I went back again in the morning to take in the sight of the dunes one last time. Then we all sat on the roof of a bus and reached Jaisalmer that afternoon.
Good to know Youth Hostels Association of India organises this desert trek in the months of December and January every couple of years. The event, if planned, is announced on their website (www.yhaindia.org). Only YHAI members can participate but membership can be obtained for a nominal fee. Remember that temperatures dip very low after dusk, so pack some warm wear. Carry water purification tablets, a good pair of walking shoes and do not forget strong sunblock.
Red turbans, white dhotis, and bushy moustaches are characteristic of the camel herders of the Thar desert.
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mike powles/oxford scientific/getty images (chinkara)
The remains of Khaba Fort (top) stand on a hill next to the deserted village of Kuldhara; The chinkara (left), or Indian gazelle can live without water for days. They survive on dew and fluids from plants; To the hardy residents (bottom) of Khaba village the harsh desert landscape is home.
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