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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

India: The Thar Desert

Sagra and Ali cooking
Sagra (left) and Ali cooking up a desert meal of vegetable curry

A lot of people come to Jaisalmer for the amazing fortress, and plenty of them come for the wonderful desert atmosphere, but it feels as if the majority of tourists come for the camel safaris on offer.

Ali on a camel
Ali taking the lead
A tree with a flat bottom
Trees in the Thar Desert have flat bottoms where camels graze them

Desert Life

Desert dunes
The desert dunes look like yellow versions of snowdrifts

As far as deserts go, the Thar is somewhere between the Sahara and the bush. There are dunes, but they don't stretch all the way to the horizon; you can see bush beyond the dunes, but they're large enough to get a feel for the desert. Out trip was for three days and two nights, both of which we spent sleeping under the stars, but I found I wanted to go for longer. Just like in Australia, the call of the desert is still strong.

Sunset over the dunes
Sunset over the rolling dunes

The Dunes

Desert dunes with interesting texture
The wind blows the dunes into some very strange textures

Perhaps the most romantic and evocative aspect of the desert is the amazing sight of the dunes. We spent two nights sleeping on their gentle slopes, an experience that is unforgettable not just for the thrill of the outdoors, but because it is far from the idyllic image it suggests. If the wind is blowing you wake up with sand in your mouth, sand in your eyes, sand in your nose, sand in your ears, sand in your hair, sand in your toes, sand in your crotch, sand in your armpits, sand in your fingernails and, after you've eaten, sand in your stomach. And sand isn't the soft surface you'd expect from all that sunbathing down on the beach; sand is just hard rock in little bits, and after a few hours of tossing and turning on a dune, you find that it's just as comfortable. But the stars are unforgettable – as are the satellites; for the first time I saw two in the sky at one time – and drifting off to sleep under the whole universe is a sight to behold. One night I woke up to see the silhouette of my camel against the starry horizon, and I couldn't help but start; this was a scene straight out of the books of Joan Aiken (and specifically the illustrations of Jan Pienkowski), a classic silhouetted scene of the type I grew up with in my imagination, and here it was, in the flesh. After an experience like that, it's a wonderful feeling to wake up to a cup of sweet chai and a pale blue sky, with Mercury rising as the mercury rises.

Desert dunes that look like a beach
Despite the lack of water, some dunes look like sand on a beach
Footprints in the sand
Footprints in the sand create a classic picture

Desert Villages

Mark in the desert
Wandering aimlessly and blissfully in the heat of the desert

More obvious signs of life dominate the far horizon: villages, dotted throughout the area, are easy to spot in this flat landscape. In this part of India, some 60km from the Pakistan border, the villages are mainly mixed caste, with all the Hindu castes living together with Muslims in one place. In the middle of the desert the people are simply stunned to see you; one day I skipped the midday nap and followed Noel Coward's advice, wandering off into the barren wasteland for an after-lunch stroll. As I emerged out of the heat haze like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter and entered a lonely four-house village in the middle of nowhere, people came out of their front doors and stared as if I was a visitor from another planet, which in a sense I was; the desert is like nowhere else on earth, an inhospitable land made bearable by the construction of mud huts and wells. Some villages have water fed to them by pipelines, some have dug very deep wells to the waterline, and some even have the water flown in by aeroplane, but whatever the source, it's the water that provides a grip on the environment.

A house in the desert
A typical desert dwelling
Children of the desert
Children of the desert

1 A turban is just a piece of thin material, about 1m wide and around 5m long. As Public Enemy will tell you, it's all in the wrapping.