Let’s put it out there – you don’t know what to expect when you’re in the desert. I went with The Arab and His Camel situation in mind. But a baby goat came charging into the makeshift toilet inside my tent and looked me right in the eye as I sat there doing my business. I honestly didn’t know what to do! As the goat inched closer to me, I screamed at the top of my lungs and the goat ran back out. As far as the camels are concerned, most of them here are busy shipping people across the Thar for either domestic or commercial purposes. My desert camping experience is as odd and adventurous as they come!

The Sam Sand Dunes are where most of the camping activity in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan takes place. Several private organisations run desert camps here and try to wrap an entire desert-life experience into a neat little 24-hour package – bumpy camel safaris, colourful Rajasthani folk dances, mesmerising music performances, delectable local food, they’re all a part of the great Indian desert experience. But there was one problem I faced during my journey here – safety. We were two female travellers taking a trip across Rajasthan and, in a way, reaching Jaisalmer felt like going to the end of the world. If cities such as Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur are lively, vibrant and brimming with people, Jaisalmer is brown, laid-back and quiet – almost dystopian.

Madhu Kapparath
Riding across the duvnes
Riding across the dunes

The journey to Jaisalmer is an experience in itself. We took a train from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer and witnessed some interesting sights en route. The train briefly halts at Pokhran, the testing site of India’s first underground nuclear weapon, which was carried out under the leadership of former prime minister Indira Gandhi some time in the 1970s. After the successful detonation, the procedure has been referred to as Operation Smiling Buddha. A few decades later, another nuclear test was conducted at this site around the time of the Kargil War, which was fought between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir in 1999. The Pokhran Railway Station, today, is filled with army personnel going about their daily activities – running from one goods’ train to another, transferring mysterious boxes. This is when the fact that you are only 230km and 4 hours away from Pakistan truly hits you. Going to the Thar Desert is adventurous for two reasons – the desert camping and being in close proximity to our not-so-friendly neighbouring country.

After the train reaches Pokhran, you really don’t know where you are headed. Some of the railway stations don’t even have platforms! The train just stops at a signal and people get off directly onto desert sand. Several heritage hotels are located around this area. Just when you start fearing the end of civilisation, the train halts at Jaisalmer. Many residents of Jaisalmer warned us against staying the night and camping in the Thar due to safety issues. But we decided to stay at the camp irrespective, because what’s life without a little off-the-beaten-track, Indiana Jones-like adventure?

Children from Ganga village come out to greet visitors
Children from Ganga village come out to greet visitors

We reached Sam, which is at the edge of Rajasthan and right next to Pakistan, and headed for the camel safari first. Sitting on a camel at a fair in Indian cities and holding on while it leisurely strolls across the road and taking a camel ride in the desert are two entirely different experiences. In the latter, you’re in the camel’s turf, and it’s a bumpy ride! Sitting on a camel in the desert is almost like rafting in the river rapids, and I found myself yelping in fear! That kind of explains why a camel is called the ship of the desert, I thought. Most camels here have peculiar names, and mine was called Hrithik Roshan. After the camel ride, don’t miss an opportunity to see the beautiful sunset when you’re here. Considering Sam is on the extreme west of the country, the sun tends to look bigger and closer to you as it disappears into the sandy horizon.

At night, we grabbed a couple of beers at the camp as local women performed some Rajasthani folk dances to the tune of traditional music. The dinner spread was the local cuisine, of course – dal batti churma, rogan josh, and the like. In pitch darkness, we went back into our tent and covered ourselves with thick blankets to protect our bodies from the biting cold of the desert as best we could.

Sleeping in the pin-drop silence of the desert was comforting, yet scary. We are so used to the sounds of our cities – the night traffic, the howling dogs, the rustling trees – that absolute silence like what you encounter in the desert can be extremely disconcerting. Despite this, we managed to get a few hours of sound sleep.

If camping with people around is not something that you’d like, you can carry your own tent, talk to one of the camel owners and go into the desert with them for a few days. This activity is not all that

Lasya Nadimpally
A Pakistani tanker from the 1971 Indo-Pak War on display at Longewala
A Pakistani tanker from the 1971 Indo-Pak War on display at Longewala

uncommon and you can talk to the friendly camel owners to learn more. However, as you make your way through the desert, just make sure you’re not entering no-man’s land.

Camping in the desert might not be the kind of adrenaline-inducing, insane activity that you imagine most adventure sports to be. Instead, it is a series of slow surprises. For me, camping in the Thar was about the rawness of nature and its deep, almost menacing, silence that made my heart skip a beat. I discovered a different side to nature that we rarely get to see in broad daylight – and that itself was an adventure worth undertaking.

Trips around Sam

When you are staying in Sam, there are a few trips that you need to take to complete your experience in the desert. En route to Sam from Jaisalmer is an abandoned village named Kuldhara, which is a must-visit. The once prosperous village, which was established in the 13th century, was abandoned in the 19th century for unknown reasons. One theory suggests that this was because of dwindling water supply. Another legend says that a local minister Salim Singh, who levied heavy taxes on the village, wanted to marry a village girl and forced the villagers to hand her over to his guards. The villagers packed their belongings and fled overnight in order to protect the girl. Today, Kuldhara has gained a reputation of being a ‘haunted site’ and the Rajasthan state government has developed it as a tourist attraction.

A dancer at the Oasis camp in Sam
A dancer at the Oasis camp in Sam

You can also visit a small town called Longewala where the Battle of Longewala took place between India and Pakistan during the 1971 war over Bangladesh. India managed to inflict heavy damage to Pakistan’s armed forces during this battle, which resulted in India winning the war. On display here are a captured Pakistani tanker and a few boards describing the war, which will create a great sense of patriotism in you.

Another trip to take while you’re here is to the India-Pakistan border. You need to drive past the temple of Tanot Mata to reach the Line of Control. However, prior permissions need to be acquired (two days in advance, in Jaisalmer itself) to visit the border.

Most of the roads here run through the Thar Desert and pass by small villages, where you will see women dressed in colourful attire and bullock carts parked along roadsides. The sights are perfect for photography enthusiasts. Remember that there is going to be hardly any phone signal in most parts of the desert. But this will be a great opportunity to put your devices away and look up to see countless stars dotting the night sky.

Where to Stay & Eat

Many travel companies offer half-day to 3N/ 4D packages at the Sam and Khuri dunes during the season from October to February. These packages include transport, camel ride, bonfire with local Manganiyar singers and Kalbeliya dancers, and dinner. You can also choose to spend a night in a tent in Sam or a thatched mud hut in Khuri, with sunrise and breakfast thrown in.

Ganesh Travels (Tel: 02992-250138, Cell: 09929280777; ganesh-travels.com), located near the City Palace inside the fort in Jaisalmer, run by ‘camel drivers’, Sahara Travels (Tel: 252609, Cell: 09414319921; saharatravelsjaisalmer.com), owned by ‘Mr Desert’ outside the fort near Akhayprol; and DDS Holidays (Ahmedabad Tel: 079-26574743; ddsholidays.com), are the most popular travel agencies. The RTDC Tourist Reception Centre can also help you find a good agent for a safari to match your pocket.

You may also opt to stay at the numerous resorts and guest houses that have come up near the Sam sand dunes. Dune Safari Camp (Delhi Tel: 011-29521317, Cell: 09899101554; Tariff: ₹6,500, with meals); Royal Desert View Resort (Cell: 09694977715, 09772117086; Tariff: ₹9,500, with two meals); RTDC’s Sam Dhani (Cell: 09414253299; Tariff: ₹2,000–4,000, with meals); Chokhi Dhani Desert Camp (Cell: 08003057000; Tariff: ₹6,500, with two meals) and Camp e Khas (Cell: 09289074666, 09828344691; Tariff: ₹5,500–8,200, with two meals) are some excellent options to stay.

Khuri offers Gangaur Desert Resort (Cell: 09929296900, 07742547711; Tariff: ₹850–2,500, with meals and camel safari) and Pal Rajah Resort (Cell: 09829762275, 09461112695; Tariff: ₹4,200–8,200), both of which are equipped with cottages and tents.

The desert lacks restaurants, but food is provided at every camp.

Getting There

Air Nearest airport: Jodhpur (280km/ 5hrs). Taxis charge ₹5,500 approx return fare

Rail Jaisalmer Station has connections to Jaipur, Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Jodhpur. Good options are the Delhi-Jaisalmer Express, Jodhpur-Jais­almer Express and Surya Mail linking Mumbai and Ahemedabad

Road Bus Luxury buses from Jodhpur, Jaipur and Bikaner serve Jaisalmer daily