My trip starts with a question. What could possibly be in common between a former Dubai-based race horse trainer and an exporter/investment banker, besides being cousins, I wondered? Complemented by an enormous love for life outdoors, you recognise a singular enthusiasm in the fervour with which they speak about the hinterland of Rajasthan and its people.
Ajit Rana and Uday Bhan Singh have translated their shared passions into a unique venture that offers road trips on offbeat paths of Rajasthan, very different from the splendour of palaces, forts and temples, that it is known for. The boy within me, however, was virtually leaping for the more glamorous part of their business; the adrenaline rush of 4x4 off-road drives across sand dunes and riverbeds!
Along with four others, the trip started at Jodhpur. We quickly passed through the city, and before I knew it, the landscape changed dramatically. In the desert I have noticed, contrary to impressions, the scene changes enormously every few miles. Flourishing farms sit adjacent to fallow patches of overgrown shrubs, vast flatlands intermingle with rocky terrain and wildlife is plentiful.
We started southwards of Jodhpur and then swung westwards, cutting across several villages and 'dhanis' in this part of western Rajasthan. A dhani is a small hutment of a single large family. My first thrill of adventure came the moment we left the main track to drive across the riverbed of Luni River. The off-roading had begun!
It's a deceptive topography, which may seem hard on the surface but in reality is just a thin crust covered with treacherous sand. Our vehicles kept getting stuck, but then, Uday, Ajit and their scouts are experienced in these matters and we would be out of scrapes in virtually no time. Engines gunning full throttle, we raced across the riverbed to our first destination, a dhani of the Bishnois. The Bishnois are a rural community who adhere to 29 rules and hence the term Bees Noi meaning 29, from where the community's name is derived.
These rules allude to establishing a symbiotic, clean and self-sufficient ecosystem, conserving ecology, living simply and nurturing local wildlife. Game abounds in this area, and I sighted herds of antelope--chinkara, black buck and blue bull (neelgai) as well as peacocks, partridges, eagles, cranes and several other rare migratory birds.
We visited several dhanis of various communities--the Bishnois, Pittals and Choudharys, including stopping at one for a scrumptious picnic lunch. It is amazing to interact with these warm, friendly and welcoming people. The women in particular, I was pleasantly surprised to find, were confident and forthcoming. In this water scarce land of frugal and hard living, these people possess cheerful dispositions and are very hospitable. Their gleaming white smiles and vibrantly colourful attire make them no less majestic than the famous forts of the state.
Close to sunset, after more off-road driving, we reached our mobile camp site. The tents were pitched amidst a vast open tract of land. I found an amazing sense of peace in the region punctuated by the musical chirping of birds. Tired after the long drive, I freshened up and relaxed. Standing out in the open and looking far beyond, I realised I had left the city and my worries far behind.
I had always pictured the Thar Desert as a desolate and stark canvas painting an exceedingly hard life. This journey was teaching me so much more about the bounty of the desert, the cheerful resilience of its people and most particularly the incredible beauty of this land.
Darkness sets in suddenly and soon we had a bonfire lit under the starry night sky. The setting was perfect for witty and intelligent conversations that carried on till late into the night. After the day's drive, my stomach was rumbling and in reply Ajit, a brilliant cook, assisted by Uday and their excellent staff whipped up one of the best meals I have ever had. Needless to say, I overate.
Next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we headed northwards cutting across tar roads, dirt and camel cart tracks, and through bushy and shrubby terrain for about 115 km. Driving through the twists and turns, at times drifting, sand flying in the vehicle's wake, I was reminded of wild-west movies with the heroes riding mustangs.
Eventually, we hit the sand trails and shortly thereafter the dunes. The first tip off a dune literally caught my breath as we hurtled downwards from an absolute precipice. My lack of outward reaction which I only just managed to hold on to, was offset by a very vocal reaction by my other co-passenger, whereas seemingly possessing nerves of steel, Uday coursed through the dune.
Excitement and thrill soon won over any vestiges of fear and I was then hooked, glued and later addicted, to what we were coursing through: Miles and miles of sand dunes, high and undulating, traversable in areas and requiring course alteration in others. The vegetation in itself was remarkable and I came across unique sights such as cultivated dunes.
Finally, I got the chance I was itching for. Uday suggested, I take over the wheel, after instructions on negotiating the terrain and issuing do's and don'ts. He is a tough task master and did not let me drive until I had filled up the fuel tank, checked the systems and readings, the engine under the hood and maintained an optimum tire pressure.
Gingerly, I took over the steering and Ajit sat next to me; then off I was! All ideas of being a hotshot driver from the city were wiped out 30 seconds into the drive when I got stuck mid-way uphill. To add to my horror, the engine sputtered and died. Ajit, sitting next to me, was more relaxed and confident about me than I could possibly be at that moment. I took a moment to calm myself, then reversed and charged using a slightly less steep gradient.
Finally I was up! A few times more, I sputtered and stuttered but by then the confidence was back. Uday and Ajit gave plenty of leeway as they expected me to be perceptive in negotiating tracks and trails. For the brief moments when I charged up steep inclines and hurtled down impossible terrain, I forgot all else save sheer ecstasy and much as I tried not to, I just couldn't help pumping my fist and screaming out aloud.
Sunset though beautiful, I impatiently felt, for once could wait. That night we stayed at the desert safari camp Osian about 65 km north of Jodhpur. We had traversed nearly 300 km of wild territory to reach it. The owner of the camp, a hospitable gentleman, came personally to greet us and ensure our comfort.
Late in the night, sitting by the bonfire, enjoying the melody of local folk songs, my mind was still stuck on the dunes. I couldn't wait to surf over them yet again. The next morning across the expanse of the desert I drove with a swagger, by then used to making a mistake and getting a reality check. Nothing, nonetheless, could dent the thrill for me!
Almost too soon our time was up and we were back in Jodhpur. I caught my train back to the usual grind and returned home with stunning images of the Thar Desert in my mind. For me the desert would no longer be the same again. This was one journey I wasn't going to forget in a very long time.
At a Glance
When to go
This is an all season activity. But do remember that summer months can get unusually hot in Rajasthan.
Overlander plans trips and provide stays in luxury Swiss tents pitched camps, heritage hotels and Desert Safari Camps. Meals are included.
Cost: Rs. 12,500 per person per day. www.overlanderindia.com
Good to know