Thar Desert, situated in the north west part of Rajasthan is the smallest but most densely populated desert of the World. It is a unique place only one of its kind and displays amazing bio diversity. In 1980, Govt of India declared most of the Jaisalmer and Barmer district as Desert National Park to protect the fragile eco system as it constantly facing challenges from urbanization, population explosion and irresponsible tourism. Sandy areas dominate the western parts of Jaisalmer district, while gravelly and rocky areas are scattered throughout central, southern and eastern areas. It is barren with several sand dunes and few hills in the north-western region.The vegetation is quite sparse with open grassland, thorny bushes, plantation and dunes as the broad habitat types. There are 73 villages and also settlements or Dhanis existing within the park. These communities have inhabited this area for hundreds of years and with their rich culture and tradition they are an integral part of this ecosystem.
It is extremely arid and receives very sparse rainfall meaning searingly hot most of the year. November to February is the season when it becomes favorable for traveling with bearable heat in the day and cold yet usual nights. The Great Indian Desert is visited by thousands in these months especially during the last week of December from all over the World.Jaisalmer is the town where visitors mostly set up their base and explore the area on excursions or safaris.Several Swiss Tents/Mud Huts based resorts come up during the season mostly in the periphery of the Desert National Park near Sam or Khuri dunes.People generally stay one night in these camps, enjoy folk music, camel safari and numerous other activities.As Sam is flocked by thousands,being scared about the scenes of strewn garbage, screams of touts, overpriced low quality services and swarms of selfie hunters ruining the perfect snap as well as the peace what I look for, I zeroed on the lesser known Khuri area for my tryst with the desert in last fortnight(Dec, 2016). Being a solo backpacker I enjoy a lot of convenience of being hassle free but also face impairment when it comes to visit desolate areas where public transport infrastructure is limited or non existent. Still India or might be the World does not bother about single or solo travelers.All infrastructure and facilities are meant to suit the couples or families meaning either I have to pay for a entire car or double bed though that I do not require or simply shun the fun.
Khuri is about 40 kms south west from Jaisalmer.I took the local privately operated bus in the morning which turned out to be quite nice and gave the chance to travel like a local, travel with the locals which a hired cab could not. Perhaps, I was the only odd person in the bus carrying a smartphone, a backpack, a camera and in urban attire. As soon as the bus left Jaisalmer town, undulating rocky terrain started to appear. Shrubs, cactus and Khejri trees could be sighted sparsely among sandy, dusty landscape. Most of the mounds are crowned by giant windmills which majestically rotate in the backdrop of clear azure sky.
The bus dropped me at a desolate roadside in midst of almost barren locality.I could spot few school buildings and resorts but very few people.Actually, the school was closed due to winter vacation and resorts mostly come alive around late after noon when tourists arrive from Jaisalmer and goes back by next morning.The huts were nice, brightly painted but I could not get the very “Deserted” feeling on a roadside and so many concrete structures.
On further querying, I found a guy, who told me the actual accommodation is somewhere else deeper inside the desert.I was flabbergasted on hearing this as there is no road, neither any transport nor a guide. He called someone and arranged a pick up on an Enfield. The person reached after a while and introduced himself as Shaitaan Singh. I was in a peculiar position, either I had to cancel my plans and head back or had to trust a man named after the Satan riding to an undisclosed unnamed location got the in midst of nothing.I got the real feel of a desert adventure, as I decided to move on.
Soon, we left the settlement and rode through the barren fields of sand and dunes in the horizon. Cool and pure breeze replenished my lungs, as we continued to ride through bewildering beauty of the Thar with no human or any living being anywhere nearby. After riding about 8 kms, we found another vehicle who were going to the same resort and stopped for parasailing(sailing or flying?). Serendipitously I got a chance to experience the fun of flying. They were pulling the parachute attached to a SUV and the wind pulling the person attached to the parachute up like the same is done in many water sports center by a speed boat. Couple of short strides forward and I was airborne. It was an experience of lifetime, flying like a bird weightless, seeing the stark beauty of the desert as the bird sees. After overcoming the initial anxiety and apprehension, soon I even released my hands from the winch and even managed to use a DSLR with both hands engaged from above while flying.
After the adventure sports, soon reached the resort. Finally,it turned out to be very nice as it offered the serene atmosphere what I was looking for away from the highway, settlements right amidst the desert.Swiss Tents and Mud huts arranged in a circular shape with the alter for the bonfire in the center. The silence here was so soothing for a ear exhausted with cacophony of urban traffic.
In the dusk, people go for the sunset over the dunes on camels. This is a touristy activity that can be missed if not interested as riding on a camel is not a very comfortable experience. The distance they cover is hardly a km that can be easily done by walking but the camel shepherds live on the meager income generated during the tourist seasons. So, thinking from humanitarian angle, one can have a camel ride and a bit of tipping is not a bad idea considering the poverty of the villagers.The evening was spent around a fire listening to the folk music and sumptuous dinner.
Next day, before getting back to Jaisalmer, I had a pre planned jeep safari with Exotic Jeep Safari in the morning. Jeep safari is a newer concept getting popularity as camels offer only a riding experience but people whose appetite of exploration is not satiated with this outer periphery of the Desert go for the jeep safari. Some go for arduous camel trek or desert trek on foot but those take days. Thus jeeps can take one deep inside the desert in no time and introduce with the rich flora and fauna far from the crowd. There are even deeper core areas but those trips can be organised customized and curated for enthusiasts.
The Jeep took me to an area full of huge dunes almost untouched. This area also has Savanna type arid grasslands between the parallel dunes where variety of wildlife can be spotted. I found few blackbucks,chinkaras and peacocks roaming free and fearless in the untouched wilderness. As the four wheel driven jeep climbed and dived over the steep dunes, it was pure adrenaline rush. I liked this very jeep tour and the proprietor Dashrath Singh is an young energetic guy who is promoting responsible tourism in this area in a different way from the countless agencies offering overpriced camel safari in Sam dunes.
Soon both of us thought alike and started plans of future explorations deeper up to Munabao frontier in Barmer district or spending a night stargazing in the summers in core areas. He was generous too drop me up to Jaisalmer as he was going there also for his work. En route he took me to picturesque spots where I could find amazing shots of the windmills, the landscape. He also took me to fossil spotting where the fossilized rocks bear the signs of aquatic creatures supporting the hypothesis of the now extinct Saraswati river which used to flow through this area during the Vedic era. Drying up of Saraswati due to a mega earthquake or diversion towards the Indus and lack of rain turned these areas into arid desert over millennia . Ubiquitous tour agencies might not provide such kind of local unknown spots and wonders that we managed to discover.
Desert National Park is a paradise little explored. It is vast and endless and it deserves attention of the responsible travelers who can immerse its bountiful charm without stressing its fragile eco system.