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An empty bit of India: the Thar

We were deserters. Every single one of us. Bouncing along the arrow-straight and surprisingly smooth road between the spectacular fortress city of Jaisalmer and the poverty-swept village of Kadoi, it was hard to believe that we were driving through the heart of the Thar Desert in the rough direction of the India-Pakistan border. ‘Five years ago,’ mumbled our driver, ‘all of what you see was desert in the truest sense, but recent rains have meant that vegetation has been able to find a way through.’ Indeed, the desertscape at our disposal failed to represent the type of scene we’d expected to see. While far-off sand dunes promised a certain degree of photogenic romanticism from the landscape, much of the terrain over which we sped consisted of scrubland and rock.

I’d booked myself on to a safari tour of the area through ‘Sahara’, an ironic name for a company if ever there was one in light of the fact we were in the northwest of India. Owned and operated by ‘Mr Desert’ himself, the company has been escorting travellers through The Thar for the best part of twenty years. ‘Mr Desert’ was awarded his prestigious title as a direct result of winning the ‘Mr Desert Competition’ for four successive years. Essentially a male beauty pageant in which competitors get dressed up in all their Rajasthani finery, the competition continues to this day.

Poised to spend two days and one night in the desert, I’d brought enough layers to keep me warm through what could potentially be an extremely cold evening beneath the stars.

We stopped a few kilometres beyond Kadoi, in front of a school. Immediately, every child in the village sprinted towards our jeep, thrusting out their hands in unison, praying for pens and sweets. Lessons were scheduled to begin at ten a.m. every morning, but their teacher was late. Come a quarter to eleven as we prepared to saddle up, the teacher bounced into frame on his motorbike, a chequered scarf wrapped tightly around his neck and over his mouth in order to stave off the throat-attacking evils of dust.

Steve Rudd's new book

Ten minutes later we found ourselves waving back at the children as we made our first tentative steps on camel-back. Tears were already welling in my eyes. The poverty was extreme, yet every child appeared to be incredibly happy and confident, totally unafraid to run after us, waving and calling out as though the conditions in which they were living didn’t bother them one bit. At the end of the day, they’d probably never known anything else to the extent that they couldn’t compare their lives to other people’s lives that were being lived elsewhere in the region, let alone in the world at large.

On we stamped. Not a single oasis reared its head. At just after midday, the camels were reined in and laid to rest, thankfully failing in their collective effort to throw us off their backs before we’d had chance to climb off them with as much dignity as we could muster given our lack of experience in the saddle. Dinner came in the mouthwatering form of a plate of potato-based curry and rice, served with a freshly-made chapati which helped to mop up every last trace of curry within a matter of minutes.

Our guides were happy to chat amongst themselves as they led us to our camp for the night. En-route, we alighted in a village where one of the youngest guides lived. It transpired that he was desperate for a shower. Perhaps he’d been away from home for longer than he dared to admit.

The bright and cheer-filled village behind us, we struck out for the achingly alluring contours of the golden dunes on the far horizon, finally stamping upon them an hour later. We’d timed it perfectly: the sun was poised to set, and the sky threatened to turn pink then red before succumbing to black. In the shadow of a dune, our guides set a fire raging in order to cook as the individuals in our group bounded up and over the dunes, sheer excitement manifesting itself on each of our faces in turn. In the distance, a lone dog howled as stars began to brighten above. The UK couldn’t have felt any further away.

We were in the middle of the beautiful Thar Desert, and its tranquil essence couldn’t help but make it feel like a suitable home from home until such a time that we felt inclined to return to civilisation… if indeed we ever did.

Steve Rudd’s excellent collection of travel writing has now been published and is available through Amazon or direct from his publisher.

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