AN INDIAN SAFARI: 2 DAYS IN JAISALMER AND THE THAR DESERT
THE SAFARI DEFINITION AND STYLE
Safari is a Swahili word derived from the Arabic language and is used to describe any type of overland journey. During the first half of the 19th century, English explorers altered its meaning. At some point, its definition was narrowed to indicate a trip organized and taken with the purpose of observing, photographing, and sometimes hunting wild animals in their natural environment. Aligning with more of the original definition of the word, a safari style of traveling was soon established to start at early dawn and included day walking (today this consists of mainly driving) to explore and track wildlife, followed by an afternoon rest, and then a formal dinner. The adventure concluded around a campfire with drinks and tobacco as the explorers shared their stories.
For me, even before I lived in Africa, the word “safari” always conjured an allure of adventure and exploration, of glamour and style, and of reconnection with nature. This attraction was like a magnet, drawing me in. The appeal grew stronger after I participated in an East African safari. It was then that I couldn’t resist falling in love with the safari way. It came to a point that I decided to try to turn a “safari” into a profession and I lived the life of a bush traveller for several years. I was a true coup de coeur, as the French would say.
AN INDIAN SAFARI
I also always thought the unique charm of a safari could be found only in Africa. I assumed that there was nowhere else in the world you could experience the exquisite mix of rawness and sophistication, adventure and luxury, nature and civilization, or refined simplicity and complete timelessness found during a proper African safari.
Stepping into The Serai Camp just outside the city of Jaisalmer and right in the heart of the Thar desert was a surprising and mystical experience. It had a dejà vu feel, reminiscent of my African safari days.
There is something very special happening when you reach an oasis after you have traveled dirty, dusty roads. Your hair is stiff from the windswept soil, your body overheated and you skin plastered in wind-dried dust that seems to have sealed your every pore and coated you in a powdery cloud. The refreshment of wiping your face with a cold, wet and scented towel. The lemony mint iced water served on golden trays by a waiter, immaculately dressed, who welcomes you with a warm and polite smile. The shaded area promising uncompromised comfort and rejuvenation…, they are sensations hard to put into words, but that live so vividly in your memory from that moment on. Much to my surprise, I suddenly understood that this venture in India encompassed the unique charm of the safari experience I had in Africa.
INTO THE THAR DESERT
TRAVELING FROM JODHPUR
We travelled from Jodhpur to The Serai Camp Relais & Châteaux via the local train. Because the train was crowded and without air conditioning it wasn’t the most comfortable means of transportation. But we wanted to experience the train and to photograph while in transit. This would have been a hard task to accomplish through the shaded glass of an air-conditioned vehicle. The voyage allowed us to admire the bare landscape that was scattered with sparse and withered vegetation. This frequently made me think we were just speeding along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway in Kenya. It was such a powerful reminder of the familiar landscape where my African safari lodge was, where my life used to exist, and where I once felt I belonged.
As we approached The Serai Camp, it was hard to overlook the central tented structure. Its plinth was carved in honey colored sandstone and its white tented top seemed to effortlessly float in the blue sky. The shelter gave the impression that it had risen spontaneously from the desert. It fit perfectly with its surrounding environment, as if it knew since the beginning of time that it was always supposed to exist, despite its contemporary elegance and minimalistic design.
Inside the camp, the extensive details took us back in time. There was charming colonial décor that had been curated down to the tiniest details. The atmosphere was so authentic and full of rich history. It was only enriched by the fact that the service was exquisite. I was captivated entirely and found myself easily transported into a dream land where my imagination would fly over the plains and the dunes of the desert.
THE SERAI CAMP RELAIS & CHÂTEAUX: LUXURY IN THE DESERT
After refreshing and settling into our tents, we sat under the larger tent for one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten. The meal was a native recipe and used local organic produce. It consisted of the typical spiciness of Indian food, combined with extra heat and a more robust flavor. Its sweetness came from dairy products, probably yogurt or ghee. It was a meal crafted to give you sustenance for a long trip or restore your health after a very challenging one. You could taste the preparation for a desert crossing. Days of restriction and hardship came in every delicious bite and built a memory that motivates you for weeks in the expectation of the rewarding meal awaiting you at your destination. Postprandial, we were actually able to explore the garden where the produce was grown in the arid and unforgiving land.
We spent the rest of our afternoon relaxing around the pool indulging in spa treatments and massages. Soon after we were admiring the cameleers who treated us to a parade of fully adorned camels and camel carts that were to take us deeper into the desert for a surprise dinner. We spent our evening meal under the vast expanse of the desert sky soaking in ancient melodies of Manganiar folk musicians whose songs have haunted the dunes for centuries.
ADVENTURING INTO NATURE: EXPLORING THE THAR DESERT
Early the next day we ventured into the desert and followed the camel shepherds. We took some time to see how they move as a group. We watched as baby camels stopped to drink their mother’s milk while skillfully keeping an eye out for blackbucks, chinkaras or a lonely eagle scanning the plains from the sky.
By midmorning, we stopped to have brunch in the desert.
JAISALMER: CIVILIZATION IN THE DESERT
Later, we headed to the ancient fortress city of Jaisalmer. This city dates back to the 12th century and was an important cross road on trade routes throughout the Thar Desert. Jaisalmer was well known for hosting Indian caravans that were plying the subsidiary routes of the great Silk Road between China, Asia, and Europe. The city is characterized by its very narrow streets where you can marvel at the private havelis (mansions) and the Jain temples built of finely sculpted yellow sandstone and full of intricate and splendid wall decorations. If you are on a path to see the colored cities of India, make the Golden City a must see after the Pink City of Jaipur and the Blue City of Jodhpur.
The famous “Golden Fortress”, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2013, was given its nickname because of the yellow sandstone that it is built with. It was easily reached by walking through Jaisalmer.
Walking through the old town and its bazaar was surreal. If you ever venture down the streets of the Jaisalmer, be sure to look up, because beauty is all around. The buildings are decorated all over and have intricately carved balconies that are not second in loveliness to the adorned walls. The marketplace had a rich atmosphere that was very different than the markets you find in many other Rajasthani towns. It was filled with little family owned shops selling camel leather bags, camel bone treasure boxes, and other items that make exceptional collectables. It is like you can taste the frontier “feel” that exists in Jaisalmer. You know you’re hedging on the last stretch of human civilization before stepping into the unknown and mysterious desert patch of land that divides India from Pakistan.
Finally, after a sunset with a magnificent view of the ancient town, we headed back to our sanctuary at Serai Camp where our luxurious honey and cream tents welcomed us for another restful night. Its Rajasthani vividly colored carpets, throws, and cushions created a strong contrast with the neutral colors of the land and the tent. The next morning, we enjoyed our delicious breakfast before moving on, but not without great regret, to our next destination.
WHOM TO TRAVEL WITH: