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Desert Trek (Rajasthan)

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Desert Trek (Rajasthan) 2004

A team of ten exuberant trekkers after undergoing a week-long and rigorous physical training undertook the challenge of trekking in the Great Thar Desert of Rajasthan. After completing all the necessary preparations the team set out on the night of 23 January 2004 from the JNU campus. Sanjeev and Avinash, old Club loyalists assisted the group in boarding the Mandore Express to Jodhpur from Old Delhi Railway Station and saw the group off. From Jodhpur to Jaiselmer, is a bus journey of about six hours passing through various landscapes, amidst the Aravali mountain range - one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world and comprising spectacular views of near-flat rocky hills that resemble more or less the colossal forts of Rajasthan. When the plains stretch across endlessly remaining visible till the horizon, vegetation becomes scanty on both sides of the road and increasingly fewer human settlements greet you, your arrival into the desert is confirmed. Pokhran - famous for India's nuclear tests - is the major halt for motorists plying this route to have chai and mirchi pokoras.

Jaisalmer, could not detain us for long as we had to reach the starting point of the trek - the forlorn village of Hasua. Reaching by jeep and arranging for a guide and camels in the dark of the desert night we spent the night in an abandoned part of the village school building. The villagers, especially the children, were kind enough to provide us water. Three foreign students in the group - Robert, Joel and Anna - were cause for attracting major attention toward the group while Raju the youngest in the team soon endeared himself to the kids. With cries of "Raju gahne khayo kaju" (Raju you'd enough of cashew nuts), raised by the children, the group set off the next morning for the sand dunes of Bhutwa tibba.

Narayanji, thin but with a big moustache and in his late forties, was our guide with young Mathar Khan of the innocent smile, assisting him. Trekking in desert on sandy soil and sand dunes is a different affair altogether compared to the trekking in the hills. While walking in ankle deep snow or on sand dunes may have some similarities, there are also differences between the two. For one, there is the sand in the shoes and for another; blisters are also perhaps a lot more common. And while the panoramic view soothes all your pain and trekking in the desert in winter is certainly more pleasurable, it is also the mating season for camels and they can turn dangerous, especially the younger ones. Involving up to six hours of trekking a day, water was also a constant problem.

At Bhutwa tibba, the group saw the first sand dunes and the first of the spectacular sunsets that Rajasthan boasts of. Spread over one and half square kilometres, these sand dunes are less frequented by tourists though we had some companions that day that came for camel safari and camped nearby. With the day still young we had plenty of time to spend and there was plenty of jumping and rolling down over the sand. Abhay and Robert-wa, the Austrian, are two guys who probably will never grow up. The child within them compelled them to do all the gymnastics and aerobics their skills and physical capacity allowed. We had campfire and long rounds of singing with Anna and Joel's Swedish songs and Pushkar and Pusp Ranjan's Hindi and Bihari songs, as well as songs those by Robert in German and Jacob in Latin. A deep blue sky, turning fiery red and pink and thence on to beautiful night with bright twinkling stars, and not a trace of clouds, was like an out-of-the-world experience. What else can one wish for? Two of us decided to sleep outside under the starry sky, while the rest of the group slept inside the tent. Narayanji and Mathar Khan too slept under the open sky enjoying the warmth of their comfortable Jaipuri quilts and mattresses, which they carried on the saddles mounted on the camels - not being used to or requiring tents. It rarely rains here that wass why we were quite comfortable outside.

Sunrise and sunset in the desert pulls people from all over the world - may be due to the crystal clear sky or different hues reflecting different moods of the sun playing with the earth before it finally vanishes leaving behind bright colours arranged in different layers. Not exactly the same as a rainbow but in no sense less than it.

It is s always advisable to start early in the morning, whether in the desert or the mountains. On the second day, we reached Khuri, the targeted destination much earlier than expected and so decided to move on to another place called Barana. Its always better to stay away from habitations so that the villagers are not disturbed. We once again camped near sand dunes, roamed around the place and saw the sun setting over the horizon, took photographs, and collected wood for camp fire. Luckily, one local chap brought some local performers who sang for us several famous numbers from Hindi movies as well as local songs. Water was not a problem like the previous day when we had to ration it and was available only at a distance of half a kilometer. We did not pitch tent that night and slept in the open. Our sleeping bags were cozy enough to keep us warm, during that cold night.

Unlike the last two days the third day's trek was mainly on the tarred road or not very far from it. The previous days we had trekked on sandy trails with some rocks on the side of it - small shrubs, dried grass, very few trees, and animals like sheep, camels and chinkara are the things one can see while trekking in such a region. Vegetation in the desert is thinly scattered, only a limited range of very slow-growing thorny tress and shrubs and grasses that have adapted to the hostile conditions grow there. Khejri (prosopis cineraria) and various strains of acacia can be found everywhere in the desert. Ak (calotropis procera) is a shrub that prospers in sandy soil and can be seen on the sand dunes.

After reaching Sudasiri, famous for its Desert National Park established in 1980 and spread over 3162 sq.kms. We had trouble in convincing the authorities that foreigners within the group were bonafide students of our university. Somehow, we managed to convince the officials there and camped away from the main road and their office. They were kind enough to allow us to take the "sweet water" from their wells - "sweet" since water at most of places is brackish. The park is home for black bucks, chinkaras, nilgais, wolves, desert foxes, desert cats and crested porcupines.

We were told that the Pakistan border was not far away and one can also see and hear fighters flying over the area. We pitched tent and cooked lunch for the first time during these days - usually, in order to save time, we carry a packed lunch. Dinner as usual was delicious, and again, a lot of talking, sharing our day's experiences. Apart from Joel's upset stomach on the first day and Pushkar's blistered feet, nobody had any problems so far. Meanwhile, Intekhab, the oldest member of the group (the Brahmaputra influence, probably) was beginning to get increasingly younger!

As soon as the briefing got over next morning all the trekkers seemed to be in good shape and spirit to take on the final day of trekking. We started off with the energy check with leader asking, "group how do you feel?" and the group in return rotating their hips first clockwise and then anti-clockwise replying back, "We feel good, we feel so good, yeah" Most of that day's trek was on the road before we reached a village passing through which we were finally able to reach the final destination, the dunes of Sam, a very popular tourist destination. On the way to Sam and on the previous days also everybody enjoyed camel safari in turns. Anna being the only girl in the whole group was privileged to enjoy camel safari more than the others. It was a most tiring final day. People were exhausted and though it was a prominent tourist spot, we could not find suitable drinking water. We finally had to get it from the village of Sam, situated further away by camel cart. The whole place meanwhile was full of camels and tourists from all over the world come to see the sunset and enjoy local folk music and dance. Some tourists huts owned by private entrepreneurs provided a package of dinner and dance at exorbitant rates (for us students!) ranging from Rs.500/- to Rs. 5000/-.

Arranging water, cooking and having food consumed all our time for the day. Once again we did not pitch tents and had our feedback session around campfire with Jacob winding it up.

The next morning was time to part with our friends, Narayanji and Mathar Khan, we saw them off with their rewards. As soon as the team finished with breakfast, and cleaned up the campsite, we discussed our plans for sightseeing in Jaiselmer and Jodhpur. Finally shifting from our feet to wheels, we traveled from Sam to Jaiselmer on the top of a local bus - a great experience with the desert wind whipping our faces and a first for many in the group.

Jaiselmer, the Golden City, finally demanded its due from us and we did not disappoint. After leaving our luggage at the railway station locker, we hired two autorickshaws - another unique mode of sightseeing! - and travelled to every major spot of interest in and around Jaisalmer till darkness fell. Jaisalmer fort oozed history even as its outer walls crumbled and rampant tourist money-spinning wore off some of its sheen. We also visited some beautiful and quiet temples on the outskirts of the desert citabdel.

Catching the night train to Jodhpur, we arrived to a welcome hosted by an old JNUMC member and Summer Trek 2002 member, Om Prakash who took us around the sights of the famous desert city that day. From the posh splendour of Umaid Bhavan to the Mandore Gardens colonised by an army of monkeys, we saw everything the Blue City had to offer, including its splendid fort.

Time passed quickly and soon we were back on the Mandore Express, this time headed back to Delhi and JNU with memories in gold, red and blue. (Contributed By: Rajesh Kapoor, Leader)

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