Like in Jordan, one of the most unforgettable and enchanting experiences you can have in India is to ride through the rippling, windswept desert on camel back and camp out under the stars. Taking a camel safari will also give you the opportunity to witness the rustic, rural desert life of India. While the desert can be barren, it's also surprisingly well populated. Here's what you need to know to plan your trip.
Where Can You Go on a Camel Safari?
The most popular place for camel safaris in India is in the desert around Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan. To have the best experience, it's important to consider which location is most suitable for you. Most tourists head to the Sam sand dunes, which are unappealingly commercial and crowded these days. The sand dunes near Khuri village in Desert National Park are more peaceful but have started to attract their share of tourists. If you book a camel safari package from Jaisalmer, it will most likely include a stop at abandoned Kuldhara village on the way to Khuri.
Bikaner, also in Rajasthan, is another popular option for camel safaris. However, the desert is nowhere near as impressive as Jaisalmer. You'll be disappointed if you go there expecting undulating sand dunes because they no longer exist. Instead, the safaris generally focus on visiting isolated desert villages.
Great camel safaris can be done at lesser-known Osian (about an hour and a half north of Jodhpur on the way to Bikaner. Stay at Reggie's Camel Camp or Osian Sand Dunes Resort and Camp. The interesting temples at Osian are an added attraction. Manvar Desert Camp and Resort is an exclusive option in the desert at Khiyansariya (between Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner).
Many camel safari companies will allow you to choose your route, so you can decide if you want to take the road less traveled or the more touristy track. Be specific about it. Otherwise, you'll most likely end up in close proximity to lots of other tourists around Sam or Khuri in Jaisalmer.
If you do want to go on an offbeat sightseeing tour, Vedic Walks offers an overnight Desert Camel Safari and Camping Experience near Pushkar. It includes a safari through villages and a unique spiritual walking tour of the town. Dharma Camel Safari is another option in Puskhar that gets good feedback.
In addition, it's possible to go on a camel safari in the the alpine desert in Ladakh, mainly in the Nubra Valley from Hundar to Diskit. The camels on these trips are the double hump Bactrian variety.
Reputable Camel Safari Companies in Jaisalmer and Bikaner
Be sure to take care when booking your camel safari as the business is very competitive and it's definitely a case of you get what you pay for. Cheaper deals may seem appealing initially, but you'll find that the quality of food, bedding, and other necessities is lower. There will be more people in the group too. Make sure you find out exactly what the arrangements will be, such as whether dinner will be provided at a nearby village or a cook will make it for you over an open fire in the desert.
Most hotels and backpacker hostels in Jaisalmer sell camel safaris (for a commission). However, it's better to go with specialist operators, so you can be sure of what you're getting. Recommended ones include Sahara Travels (next to the Fort gate), Trotters Independent Travel, and Real Desert Man Camel Safaris. Their websites contain details of the various safari packages available. The safaris offered by Shahi Palace, Hotel Pleasant Haveli, Wanderlust Hostel, and Toffu Hotel and are also decent. Many offer non-touristy options away from the crowds.
If heading to Khuri, you can arrive by 4 p.m. and negotiate your camel safari directly with the camps there (they're all situated in a row). On a standard evening safari, you'll spend sunset in the sand dunes and return to the camp for dinner and a cultural program, before leaving for Jaisalmer at about 8.30 p.m.
If you really want to go off the beaten path and have a rustic experience, far from the tourist trail, try The Adventure Travel Agency in Jaisalmer. They'll take you a long camel safari out towards Barmer, sleeping under the stars on army bedding in the dunes.
Duration of Camel Safaris
It's possible to go on a quick camel safari and return the same day. However, most people prefer to go deeper into the desert for a few days. Many choose the overnight option, which is sensible as it can become monotonous otherwise (and you're likely to end up with a sore bum). This consists of riding the camel into the desert, watching the sunset, having dinner, star gazing, waking up for sunrise, and then riding back. Desert sunsets and sunrises are pretty darn spectacular!
Longer options, up to 30 days are available for hardcore enthusiasts! You can get an itinerary tailored to meet your needs.
How Much Will it Cost?
The price of camel safaris varies according to the route, standard of food and comfort provided. In Jaisalmer, rates start from around 1,000 rupees per person for a reputable sunset camel ride into the dunes and cultural program. Expect to pay 1,600 rupees upwards for a full-day (sunrise and sunset) camel safari package. Quality overnight camel safaris start from around 1,800 rupees per person. However, this can increase to 3,000 rupees for top-of-the-range camping (or glamping!) facilities.
Prices can be negotiated, so don't book anything in advance.
What to Expect
Riding a camel can become surprisingly uncomfortable after a while. Many people complain of having very sore legs and bums by the end of their journey.
On the most basic safaris, you'll be sleeping out under the stars either on a camp bed or on the ground. There are no toilets on these safaris. You'll have to go wild! The more luxurious safaris have established camps with Swiss tents and attached toilets.
When to Go
The best time is during the cooler dry months, from September to March. After March, the desert becomes unbearably hot, and then the monsoon season starts. It doesn't rain much though, and temperatures remain high. Camel safaris usually depart early in the morning to allow some distance to be covered, and a suitable camping spot to be found and set up, before dusk.
What to Take with You
Bring something comfortable and padded to sit on to make the journey less painful if you're going on a longer safari.
Other useful items to bring include sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, toilet paper, flashlight, insect repellent, water bottle, toothbrush and toothpaste, sleeping bag liner and plenty of warm clothing as it can get cold in the desert at night. Do be aware that you won't be able to bathe in the desert, so wet wipes will definitely come in handy as well.