Camels: Ships of the Desert
Taking a camel ride in the Thar desert is one of the most unforgettable experiences of a trip to India. If you can, start off before sunrise, so that you can watch the sun come up over the sand dunes.
Camels are an indispensable part of the local landscape and economy in Rajasthan, and you'll see them wherever you go in the state—approximately half a million camels live here. Apart from pulling loads (and that includes tourists on safaris), camels are also highly valued for their milk, meat, hair, leather, and even their droppings (used for fertilizer and dried for cooking fuel).
Camel owners usually dress their animals with flair: red, green, and gold saddle covers and tasseled bridles are signs of the well-dressed camel. They're also rather gentle creatures—contrary to popular belief—and you'll no doubt form a bond with yours.
Camel milk is rich in nutrients, and is a common food source for desert people worldwide. In India's desert regions the milk is consumed regularly, and a few enterprising people—Saras Dairy, for instance—even create camel-milk ice cream. Fans claim that it's easier to digest than cow's milk, but some travelers have reported tummy aches after consuming camel-milk products.
Where to go on safari?
It's easy to book a camel safari once you're in Rajasthan: Jaisalmer is the most popular place to take a safari, but other destinations like Pushkar and Jodhpur are good, too. You can choose to go for anything from several hours to several days, or even several weeks. On a day trip, your guide will probably take you through a local village, maybe stopping for something to eat.
Simple or luxury
Overnight safaris range from simple and inexpensive—a one-night trip to a local campsite—to luxury glamping ("glamorous" plus "camping") excursions. A lower-end, one-night safari will cost from around Rs.1,500, which includes a camel, a guide, a cot under the stars, and a basic dinner of dal and rice. Higher-end tours cost at least twice as much, and include more comfortable tented accommodations, multicourse meals, and even a jeep service to carry supplies and luggage between campsites. Water is not always included, so check to see if you need to pack your own.
What to bring?
It's important to come prepared, be it a day trip or a longer safari. The desert sun is very strong, so wear sunglasses, a brimmed hat, and high-power sunscreen (ideally one that doubles as an insect/mosquito repellent) even if you don't generally get sunburned. Long-sleeved shirts and full-length trousers are also a must—both for sun protection and to stop your legs from chafing. Wear solid shoes or boots with socks to avoid bites from small insects that live in the sand. Pack a scarf to protect your face in case of a sandstorm.
Overnight camel safaris typically run from late August to mid-April; in May, June, and July temperatures in the Thar Desert peak above 120 degrees, which is dangerously hot for anyone from outside the desert to make such a venture. Only male camels are used during the winter mating season, as adding females into the mix can cause the animals to bolt or even attempt mating, regardless of whether there's a rider on their back.
Learning to ride
Although learning to ride a camel is easier than learning to ride a horse, it still takes a bit of getting used to. On short trips you might be tied to your guide's camel; on a longer trip, you will be taught to "drive" the camel yourself. Camel bridles are attached to pegs in the camel's nose, and camels are steered with reins. Camels have remarkably sensitive flanks, so you won't need to kick the way you would with a stubborn horse—a little practice and a few nudges with your legs is usually enough to get your steed to pick up the pace.