The tale of Mr Desert is the stuff of modern legend in Jaisalmer. You may have seen his picture, all piercing light eyes beneath a russet coloured turban, his signature moustache and beard curling over the curve of his jaw. Bollywood star, model, face of Coca Cola; and founder of Sahara Travels, the company I was headed for to arrange a camel trek into the desert for the following day. Mr Desert has been taking travellers into the dunes since the 1990’s, cooking traditional food for them and telling stories under the stars. Word of his tours have passed between the tongues of travellers for years.
Sadly, Mr Desert died of cancer last year. His business is now run by his sons and his brother, who occupy the same small office by the fort gates that Mr Desert sat in for many years, waiting for the tourists to come. They were friendly and polite, and I signed up for a two day tour leaving the next day.
The next morning we sped out of the city in a battered truck, kicking up clouds of dust, Bhangra pouring in crackling waves from the broken radio. We finally pulled up alongside Ali, our guide, and his son, standing patiently beside several pale golden camels in the sparse shade of a tree. The camels wore woven brightly coloured blankets, their legs and necks painted with symbols and patterns, tiny bells jingling around their temples.
‘This your camel’, Ali said, pushing me towards the nearest, and biggest camel. ‘Name Babalu’.
Babalu turned his regal head, snorted gently and batted his impossibly long eyelashes at me, and I fell instantly in love. Clambering onto his back inelegantly, I perched there like a bird whilst Ali tugged on the ropes attached to Babalu’s bridle and he rose first onto his hind legs, then his front.
We rode for several hours that day, crossing dunes and flat plains, stopping for lunch in a clearing under the shade of an overhanging tree. As the late afternoon shadows lengthened across the sand we rode through sweeping golden dunes to our camp site for the night, the camels quickening their pace as they recognised their surroundings. Ali and his helpers made camp and cooked dinner for us on an open fire, and we sat around talking and eating as the sun fell below the horizon. As the fire died to embers, I made for my bed.
With our camp quiet and still, nestled amongst the dunes, I settled onto my mattress and heaped a pile of blankets over myself, feeling the clear night air chill my fingertips and the tip of my nose. I curled around my hot water bottle and flexed my bare toes, playing Bon Iver’s ‘Holocene’ through my headphones. The enormity of the night sky spread above me; an inky bowl flooded with petrol black, glittering with the ancient light of a million stars, stretching clear to the distant horizon. I stared into infinity and thought that this must be what it would be like to stand on the edge of the earth, gazing out into the vastness of space.
The certainty of my own tiny insignificance is never more pronounced than when confronted with the improbable beauty of our world, and the freedom that comes with that perspective was a gift that night. I left behind my fears and loneliness and the stresses of being in India alone, and allowed the wonder of that sky to sink through my bones, flooding my veins and flushing my cheeks with joy; until my limbs were lead and my eyelids fluttered and drooped. It was just perfectly, indescribably beautiful, and I lay there for most of the night, wide awake and washed in complete peace, watching the skies change as the earth turned and safe in the knowledge that for that moment at least, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
I awoke at sunrise, a golden wash of light just cresting the waving dunes. Rolling from my sleeping mat, I scrambled up the nearest dune to gaze in wonder at the blaze of pink and blue and amber flooding the sky and falling rosy across my cheeks. Beneath me, the camels stirred, whickering softly, and the sound of laughter and clanking pots drifted over from the breakfast cook fire. The sand stretched cool beneath my feet and off into the distance, a single plodding camel silhouetted against the blazing sky, and after the ringing clamour of Jaisalmer the silence was booming. I stood for a moment, saying a silent thank you to India, then turned and headed back to the fire, ready to throw myself back into the fray.
The magic of Mr Desert survives him, remaining in the shadows of a campfire dancing across the dunes, the breathtaking clarity of the desert night sky, and the gentle kindness of the camel handlers. Another side of endlessly faceted India can be found here, a rare moment of solitude and untarnished beauty that allows for a deep breath, and a moment to remember why you came.