This story appeared in the January 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller India
|On the second day of the trek, we rode on camels for a while.|
It 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.
|The ghost town of Kuldhara seen from the ruins of the Khaba fort|
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 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.
|Desert National Park|
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.
|One of the beautiful sunsets during the trek|
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.
|At last, pristine sand dunes. If you have been to Rajasthan, you'd know how difficult it is to find one untrampled.|
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.