The winter sun was setting as we waited for the Delhi-Jaisalmer Express at Gurgaon railway station. No one seemed to know exactly where and when the train would stop. After a few false alarms the train rolled in and, though we almost didn’t make it, all fifteen of us managed to climb aboard.
The journey’s chaotic start only confirmed my scepticism about the trip, which a friend had planned, to a campsite under the stars in the Thar Desert. From the sound of it, it didn’t seem like much more than a charpoy on the sand at the end of a two-hour camel ride. But once we got off the train, there was no time for second thoughts. After freshening up quickly at a guest house, a friend and I found ourselves astride “John Abraham”, a colourfully bedecked camel who suffered, like most others of his kind, from severe flatulence.
John Abraham turned out to be a moody animal, who stopped occasionally to soak in the absolutely breathtaking surroundings while he ruminated silently over some mystery only he was privy to. His owner kept the conversation going, telling us stories about the desert, his journeys in it, and having to look for an alternative livelihood every summer when the landscape turns hostile.
A couple of hours later, we reached the sand dunes and were welcomed with hot pakoras and strange-smelling tea (I was told it was made with camel’s milk). As the sun set spectacularly, almost lazily, into the sand, the incessant chatter and photo-clicking came to a halt. The undulating layers of the desert seemed to hide an enigma in their folds. It seemed as though the sand held secrets from another time.
It was a new moon that night, but the sky was soon sprinkled with millions of stars. The mood was set, the bonfire lit, and the drinks poured. A local troupe of folk performers stepped into our circle and began to play their instruments. One song led to another, and soon we were all dancing to the traditional melodies.
Once we’d built up an appetite, our tour guides appeared with large canisters, from which they served us an excellent Rajasthani thali meal: I can still taste the spicy garlic chutney. Visiting the loo afterwards was tricky. In the pitch dark, the bushes were hard to find, and the jokes about stray animals impossible to forget. I had to enlist a loo partner to keep watch, while I relieved myself.
Sitting around a bonfire in the desert on a moonless night, it wasn’t long before the ghost stories began. After several chilling tales, and imagined footsteps that turned out to be scampering dogs, we called it a night, retiring to our respective charpoys, layered with quilts to cut the biting cold. Sleep took long to come. Not because we weren’t comfortable, but because we didn’t want to miss a single moment. Lying on our backs, gazing at the stars as they slowly moved across the sky, we knew we were witnessing magic.
At dawn, we were all up and unusually energetic, eager to see the sky change colour and catch the sunrise. With fresh tea in our hands, we watched as the sun rose from the sand, leaving us speechless once again—and just a little sad at the thought of leaving so soon. Shaking the sand out of our shoes and clothes, we said our goodbyes to the desert. But just before leaving, we all whispered our own little secrets for the dunes to keep.
Appeared in the April 2015 issue as “Sleepless on Sand”.
A low-key night in the desert can be booked through one of the smaller hotels or guest houses near Jaisalmer Fort and costs about ₹2,000 per head per night.