A Trek through the Thar Desert

Monday, February 11, 2013

This story appeared in the January 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller India

Man with turban standing next to his camels
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. 

Ruins of Kuldhara Ghost Town
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, Sudasari
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. 

Beatiful sunset in the desert
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.

Pristine Sanddunes of Thar Desert
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. 

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36 comments

  1. Wonderful Neelima! A great narration, and of course great pictures! It seems like an unusual holiday!

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    1. Thanks Renuka! :)
      Yup, it was very unusual. This trek was the sole reason I even decided to go to Rajasthan.

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  2. the second snap and the sunset is simply superb.. thanks for sharing your experience through beautiful snaps..

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    1. Thank you! The sunsets and sunrises were special in the desert.

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  3. Great pictures! Specially sand dunes photograph and rightly said:
    "If you have been to Rajasthan, you'd know how difficult it is to find one untrampled"

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  4. Wonderful!!,the photo/Snap on moonless night shd have added more glitter to ur blog here and we would be the less fortunes ones to see it only in photos.I still remember the opposite ( full moon ) of which we saw on leh -manali road year back.Its once in a lifetime moment.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=1948270303337&set=vb.1139961949&type=3&theater

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    1. I know. By then I wasn't very comfortable with low-light photography. I can imagine how beautiful it must have been, have seen some moon rises in the mountains too. :)

      The link you gave doesn't seem to be working btw.

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    2. Sorry this wasn't public,now it is

      https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=1948275023455

      BTW this trip was a flashback is it?

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    3. Saw the video, must've been a beautiful evening. Yep, I went for this trek almost two years ago.

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  5. Excellent narration and great pictures!!!!

    MANUPONNAPPA.BLOGSPOT.IN

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  6. What a beautiful trek this must have been...brought back memories of my trip to the desert. I've been following your blog for a while now and really enjoy your writing & images; keep them coming!

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    1. Thank you Raji. Very glad to know this! :))

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  7. Nice write up and photos. Wonderful work!

    http://rajniranjandas.blogspot.in/2013/02/welcome-to-benares.html

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  8. Beautiful post Neelima.... the desert looks dead when you see from far, but once you get close it is full of life..

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    1. I share the same sentiment. Never thought deserts could so beautiful and so full of life wonderfully adapting to the harsh environment. Thanks. :)

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  9. Neelima..always trekking word brings the never ending mountains, forest infront of our eyes..But this trekking in the desert is just awesome as any other. Super narration..awesome pictures..the pic of the picture being the last one..Sand dunes..!..

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    1. Yes, exactly. It was very different to the view till the horizon. Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.

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  10. Excellent clicks! I like the way you write.

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  11. As usual, very beautiful! :)

    Do remember to send those photos to those kids! :)

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    1. Thanks! :) Yes, I finally did send them the pictures, a year late. :-| And I hope they got it and remembered me.

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  12. Interesting Story! One day we hope to visit your country...

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    1. Thank you. Welcome to my blog. Hope you find my posts useful when you plan to visit India. :)

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  13. Hi Neelima, very interesting. It will be great if you can provide some practical details of this trek - such as how you arranged it and costs? Thanks!

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  14. Hi Neelima..This is an awesome experience..Can you give me details of who arrange this kind of treks?

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    1. Hi Amrita, all those details can be found in this guide section of this article - https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B5I-jEGoZYR9aWhVQnlRYVFHdk0

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  15. great pictures, greater depiction.. I rode from Jodhpur to Ramgarh (65km from Jaisalmer) on 2 wheels and back to Jaisalmer and then to Barmer and back to Jodhpur, that was in 2006. Kuldhara is beautiful, if anybody could identify, Milan Lutharia showed it in his flick 'Kachhe Dhaage' (Saif, Ajay Devgaan, Manisha Koirala).
    I sincerely hope to ride into the desert once more on my Classic RE 350. Keeping my fingers crossed !!

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  16. hi Neelima ,
    nice photographs and nice detailed article too..and congrats for publishing in nat geo..
    i am also planning for desert trek..so can u suggest any contacts for that trip? my email address is : namesphotographics@gmail.com or u can find me in facebook too.

    regards,
    Shayan

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  17. This year (2014) I did the same trek and I could recall and enjoy each moment of my trek by reading your write-up. Excellent narration (not like a travelogue) and photography.

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  18. Dear Neelima, I was visiting Jaisalmer and Jodhpur during winters of 2013 , probably around the same time when you also visited this place. Kuldhara village was a weird experience . Infact Media Channels like Start News, Z News also made a documentary on this village few months back . Reporters spend entire night there waiting for something unusual to appear.

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