Tighten your seat belts and get ready for a heady ride in the Thar Desert. Dune-bashing is here, at the Sam Dunes near Jaisalmer…
Zip, roar, lurch, slide, rock …our world tilted crazily; straightened and got skewed again. It was like riding a berserk camel that was high on steroids.
The soft sand rose in spirals and the dunes seemed to move as the wind whistled over them, ruffling them like fingers running through a woman's thick tresses. All was illusion as we sat in our 4x4 vehicles imagining a line of caparisoned camels swaying past in the distance, the hot sun shimmering on the heaving sea of sand. Mirages are the easiest things to come by in the desert, inspiring wannabe painters and poets to give vent to their emotions on canvas or in words.
We were enjoying a spell of dune bashing, Dubai-style, on the Sam sand dunes, 30 km from Jaisalmer in the midst of the Thar desert. Three kilometers long and one kilometer wide, these dunes were the site of the first ever international-style desert safari introduced recently by the Dubai-based Lama Tours.
Rock and roll
Initially, the tyres of the Toyota Fortuners (luxury SUVs replete with cutting-edge technology) were deflated to increase traction and then half a dozen 4x4s gunned into the desert and started to careen over the soft dunes, zig-zagged across the sandy wasteland like drunks who had one too many, slithered down the dunes sideways, spun around and often got stuck. For us, the world shrank and got reduced to the immeasurable sandy ocean around us … We could think of little else barring holding on to our seats, as our vehicle swung and swivelled like a beast in torment, and our seat belt grazed and cut into our necks.
Yet, we had the time of our lives, knowing that at the wheel was a seasoned Filipino driver from Dubai who barrelled down the half-a-kilometer-high dunes with consummate skill. From time to time, the soft sand churned up by the spinning wheels would spray the windshield and make it resemble a Rorschach test.
After that rush of adrenaline, we stopped to admire the desert around us, absorbing the palpable serenity, feeling overwhelmed by the echoing vastness of the blue sky streaked with the myriad colours of the setting sun. We swilled huge gulps of water to soothe parched throats and headed back to the Lama Heritage Village located close by in a dreamy setting.
Here, like oriental potentates, we puffed on hookahs, listened to melodious Rajasthani music, rode a camel and were briefly distressed when our cameleer broke the spell by taking out his cell phone and started on a text messaging spree. Quad bikes and buggy rides were on offer too but we chose to savour a buffet dinner against the backdrop of a landscape drenched in post-sunset colours.
Indeed, dune bashing and other desert safari frills are new reasons to visit the former princely bastion of Jaisalmer. However, the next morning, we were unlocking the historic mysteries of this golden fort, the oldest inhabited citadel in the world, at a leisurely pace — on foot. The fort rose before us in all its honey-gold glory while a couple of Jaisalmer's much-loved cows blocked our way into it. We used the time to take some photographs till the bovines thought it appropriate to move.
The Arabian-nights style vision of towers, turrets and battlements that we had seen from afar turned out to be a labyrinth of narrow streets over which havelis and palaces rose in all their finely carved glory, seemingly etched from lace rather than honey-coloured sandstone. Here, highly made up and bedecked local women in colourful swirling skirts sold delicate silver jewellery in a multiplicity of tongues to foreign tourists.
“Buy my jewellery. I have a small business,” they appealed in dulcet tones, their kohl-lined eyes flashing, briefly resembling the princesses of yore who might have looked down at the busy streets of the fort from behind fretted screens. Even for the male vendors, sporting hot-pink, turmeric-yellow and blinding white turbans, the 12th century fort was their stage and they were but actors playing bit roles.
Wall hangings, patchwork quilts, brocades, paintings, mirror-work skirts and rugs were strung against the walls and blazed with colour even as tourists stopped to gaze and sometimes caressed the fabric in wonderment. Men with bristling moustaches and multi-hued turbans played the ravanhatta, a local instrument, and asked us to buy their CDs, claiming in the same breath that they were famous musicians. A wizened old man with a bunch of peacock feathers approached us even as a cow (at times, there seem to be as many cows as people living in the fort) began to chase us for no apparent reason.
Studded with cafes, restaurants, hotels and exquisitely carved havelis, Jaisalmer fort is in jeopardy from leaking drains that are weakening its foundations, related our garrulous guide. Yet at one time, the four-gate fort was almost impregnable and was taken but once. A late starter in the tourism stakes, it is yet swathed in an aura of medieval charm and has the tantalising feel of a place where time has not only stood still but perhaps moved backwards, harking back to the era when Jaisalmer was a transit point on the Spice Route.
Filled with brilliant light and unfathomable shadows throwing the Jaisalmer stone carver's art into obvious relief, the havelisin the fort are an eye-engorging sight. They were built by rich merchants in the 18th century and in these stately homes, a sense of space evoked by yawning courtyards is balanced by the delicate carvings on the facades.
Fit for a king
Situated on the main Dussehra square is the palace of the Maharawal, the ruler, a fine example of the stone carver's art with a zenana quarter with exquisite fretted screens from which women watched life go by — unseen and protected from the gaze of lascivious males. (There is even a cluster of three Jain temples which resemble one soaring mass of carved spires.)
We clambered up to the terrace of the palace from where we saw the desert spread out like a dusty skirt all around — vast, trackless and unknowable. Our adrenaline-pumping dune-bashing excursion of the previous day felt as dreamlike as Sonar Kila or Jaisalmer fort itself, with its solid ramparts and towers, which rises in surreal fashion from a semi-desert landscape.
The nearest airport is at Jodhpur though Kingfisher Airlines is likely to start a daily air service to Jaisalmer from Aurangabad via Jodhpur and Udaipur.
Jaisalmer is well connected by road with the rest of the country and is a rail junction too.
By way of accommodation, there are a number of options including old havelis converted into modern hotels, state tourism lodges, small hotels within the fort and tented camps near the dunes outside the city.
For information on dune-bashing safaris contact Dubai-based Lama Tours which recently introduced this exciting sport in Jaisalmer. Tel: 02992253007 Email: email@example.comWeb: www.dunesafari.comOr Rajasthan Tourism at: www.rajasthantourism.gov.in