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The desert safari is the top tourist experience in Jaisalmer, a remote town of less than 70,000 in the heart of the arid Thar Desert in western India.
I’d never been to a desert before, and I confess that my idea of a desert safari was as farstretched as the Arabian Nights. But without a doubt, the two days and one night we spent on the desert safari in Jaisalmer was full of magical, surreal moments. In the rolling sand dunes in the Thar Desert, the sun dictates the shape of the landscape while the sand envelopes all senses. To top it off, trekking through the desert sand on a camel was an unforgettable, jolting experience.
Jaisalmer is known as The Golden City. The golden colours refer to Jaisalmer’s permanently sunny disposition, the yellow sandstones that make up the city walls, and the sand that could be felt in the drinking water and in my pant cuffs and shoes. Having said that, Jaisalmer makes perfect sense as the top destination for a desert safari.
Continue reading for an account of my overnight safari in the Sam Sand Dunes, plus all the questions answered for your desert safari!
Table of Contents
- Overview of The Desert Safari in Jaisalmer
- Day 1: Jaisalmer → Oasis → Khaba Fort → Camel Ride → Sunset at Sam Sand Dunes → Dinner
- Day 2: Breakfast → Camel Ride → Return to Jaisalmer
- Things to know before your desert safari
Overview of The Desert Safari in Jaisalmer
2 days and 1 night, departing at 2 pm on Day 1 and returning at noon the next day
Rs 1500 per person
The cost is all-inclusive of car transportation, entrance fee to Khaba Fort, camel rides, guide, meals, and bottled water
What to bring
ESSENTIAL ITEMS: sunglasses, sunscreen, tissue packs/wet wipes, camera, power bank, toiletry (toothbrush, toothpaste, facecloth, etc.), scarf, jacket, flashlight
OPTIONAL: sleeping bag (if not using the ones provided), hat/turban, dry shampoo, snacks, extra cash for beer
We booked our desert safari with Bob Cafe and Guest House, a hostel and diner in Jaisalmer.
Even in early February, Jaisalmer felt vividly warm, and every day felt like a lazy Sunday. This was the last stop on our 3-week trip in India, and so we wanted to end our trip on a high, memorable note.
The night before our safari, hunger led me upstairs to the rooftop diner of Bob Cafe, where we’d been staying for a couple of days now. By the way, if you are wondering (as I did), the owner’s name is not Bob; he just really likes Bob Dylan. I met a group of Koreans there who’d just returned from their safari. Between Kingfisher beer and Shin ramen, they showed me photos from their trip. In one photo, the setting sun was unlike any I’d ever seen. It was more reminiscent of a fiery red ball looming just overhead, and the desolate landscape was something to behold. So I got up from the floor cushion and signed up for a safari for the next day. We were told that everything would be taken care of, and all we needed was to bring a jacket, a camera, and a big smile.
Day 1: Jaisalmer → Oasis → Khaba Fort → Camel Ride → Sunset at Sam Sand Dunes → Dinner
On Day 1, we met up with other guests to get ready to leave Jaisalmer for the desert safari. At 2 pm, our party of 6 convened at Bob Cafe’s rooftop lounge with our backpacks. Since my friend and I were staying at Bob’s, we kept our luggage in our room. For the guests who had checked out of their accommodation for the desert safari, Bob Cafe offered luggage storage.
I brought a daypack with my phone, some basic toiletry items, and a light Uniqlo puffer jacket stuffed inside. Oh, and lots of tissue packs. I knew evening in the desert was going to be cold, so I also borrowed a winter parka and a sleeping bag* from previous guests. We loaded everything in the Jeep and managed to fit everyone in. With 1 driver, 4 guests in the passenger and backseats, and 2 more in the trunk with seats facing each other, we were ready to go.
* Sleeping bags are provided for free, but the previous guests told me they didn’t smell very good and offered me theirs instead.
An oasis in the desert
As the Jeep sped away from Jaisalmer, we headed for the first stop on our desert safari tour, the oasis. There’s no road trip quite like when you could see a dust trail running after our Jeep as we raced down the open desert road. Our choice of music? Bob Dylan, of course. We passed by herds of goats, a Gypsy camp, and mud huts which Salim, our driver and guide, said are home to low caste locals. Soon, the landscape became more sparse and we arrived at the oasis.
Salim explained that the oasis is formed by heavy rain during the monsoon season. The water continues to accumulate into a lake for about eight months in the year. Overlooking the oasis is a tree that beckoned some of the guys in our group to challenge their nimble feet as they parkoured up to the top.
The oasis was a nice stop to stretch our legs, but there was more to see! A quick five minutes later, we were back on the road to the next stop, the abandoned Khaba Fort.
Visiting Khaba Fort
Khaba Fort and the neighbouring Kuldhara Village had been left to deteriorate since their inhabitants up and left some 200 years ago. The entrance fee for Khaba Fort is 20 rupees, which was included in our desert safari tour, although the fort is also a popular day-trip option from Jaisalmer. From the crumbling hilltop fort, we could see the plains below, where Kuldhara lies in a similar state.
Once occupied by the Paliwal Brahmins, remnants of the fort and the village suggest that they were a thriving community. So why’d they leave? Salim confessed he doesn’t know too much about the history. If fact, no one really does.
Like all stories once upon a time, this one is a mix of scientific truth with a figment of the imagination. One popular theory is that the villagers abandoned their homes to avoid persecution from a cruel king, leaving the village cursed and uninhabitable. Another probable explanation is the scarcity of water to sustain a community in the middle of the desert. I couldn’t tell you which one was real, but that just adds to the mystery of the abandoned fort, doesn’t it? You can read more about the stories and legends here.
The camel safari
The camel ride, of course, is the highlight of the desert safari in Jaisalmer. At this point, the music had died down and the car was filled with an uneasy silence as our eyes scanned the landscape for signs of the camels. Finally, the Jeep halted to a stop and we staggered out of the car. We oohed and ahhed (or was it just me?), seeing that our camels and handlers were waiting for us in the blazing sun.
At the handlers’ commands, my camel, Michael Jackson, bent his long, spindly legs like a large, awkwardly jointed machinery. In a moment, he had knelt down so I could scramble onto his back. One by one, we boarded our camels with our backpacks, leaving everything else for Salim to bring to the camp in the Jeep.
It was my first time riding a camel, and I took an immediate liking to these majestic animals who live in the harshest and most barren lands, but seem to have an absolutely nonchalant attitude. In fact, they seemed totally unaffected that there were now small, two-legged creatures riding on their backs. I hurled back and forth as MJ led the caravan into the desert, my sweaty palm holding tight onto my phone.
In the bright afternoon sun, we trekked first across gravel roads and then the sand dunes. Each step fell in the sand with a thud and jolted me left and right. Taking the lead, MJ had the best view while other camels had to stare at his behind and occasionally endure his droppings coming close to their faces. Honestly, I don’t blame that one of the younger camels kept closing in and tried to outpace MJ.
Sunset in the Sam Sand Dunes
Having seen photos of the desert safari from other travellers in Jaisalmer, I knew that the sunset at Sam Sand Dunes was something to look forward to. We finally arrived at our camp just before the sun began to set. A couple of guys were already hard at work, setting up the fire and preparing refreshments for us.
We were served a warm cup of masala chai, which always does the trick. Although we had come across another caravan during the camel ride, we had the massive landscape all to ourselves for the evening. At first, we didn’t know what to do with all that freedom and space to roam around. But it didn’t take any time for one of us to pick up a camera and capture the spectacular sunset, and the rest of us followed suit.
Here I also took a brief intermission from taking photos to deal with flight issues via Skype. The good thing about the desert being so sparsely populated is that the reception was actually quite good!
An elderly man with a rucksack slung over his shoulder approached us and asked if we wanted to buy beer from him. Beer is available on demand in the desert?! “Here in India, anything is possible, just never available at the moment,” Salim had joked. The Kingfisher, still cool with droplets of water on the bottles, costs 200 rupees each, which is about the same as in the city. So we placed a last order and watched him make the 40-minute journey to return with more beer.
Night in the desert
As soon as the sun receded from the horizon, the wind picked up and immediately had a cooling effect on us. Meanwhile, the camels had settled in comfortably in a short distance, chewing with slobbery bites. I could barely make out their silhouettes in the darkening landscape.
We scurried to put on a jacket or blanket and huddled around the campfire. There is something euphoric about a campfire, and this was especially so as we sat in the isolated desert, nothing around us saved for each other and the hazy, flickering fire.
Dinner was a simple affair but felt infinitely better by the fire and under the starry night sky. The steamy sweet potatoes, wrapped in tinfoil, were scorching to the touch. Each of us got a serving of rice and chapati, with aloo gobi. Someone produced a chunk of chicken and roasted it in the open fire. Doused with red chilli sauce, it completed our filling meal.
Under the clear sky, it was hard to believe that we were still in India, where cities are shrouded in a permanent smog. Salim said he knew how many stars there were and dared us to count. Obviously, no one took up the challenge.
We had an early bedtime at 10 pm. We walked the short distance to a spot below the towering dunes, shielded from the sandy wind. Thin mattresses had been set up side by side, followed by some blankets. I used the sleeping bag I had borrowed and topped my blanket with a winter parka. Without my usual bedtime routine of staring into a screen, I soon drifted to sleep with the incredible display of stars above.
Day 2: Breakfast → Camel Ride → Return to Jaisalmer
There was no alarm or morning call, but all of us woke up around the same time. We groggily clambered out of our makeshift beds in the chilly morning air, feeling a bit worse for wear. The sun was already imposing and bright, although it still felt chilly and we kept our jackets on. We each took our toiletry items and found corners behind the shrubs to do our business. After a simple breakfast, we went off to snap up some more photos before leaving for another camel trek.
Perfectly timed with our departure, the camels that had gone grazing came galloping towards us. They were again loaded with passengers and blankets, and off we went.
Sound travels far in the openness, and we could hear a crowd cheering and the Top 40 blaring in the distance. We could also make out the shape of a modern building, which was a school.
We trodded in the desert but this time, the novelty had worn off. Instead, I was reeling from a new pain and the soreness that lingered from the ride yesterday. Finally, we arrived at a spot where Salim was already waiting with the car. How they coordinate the locations in an infinite landscape of sand, I’ll never know. Here we said goodbye to the camels, but Michael Jackson merely yawned, a day’s work done.
In the car, we cranked the AC high as we drove back into town. On the edge of the desert, we saw a horse race in preparation for the festivities of the Jaisalmer Desert Festival the next day. And then we were back in town, once again staggering out of the car, this time with our clothes full of sand.
Things to know before your desert safari
When is the best time to go?
The best time to visit Jaisalmer and go on a desert safari is during the cooler months, from October to March. We went in February and it was still quite warm in the daytime, whereas nighttime temperature was as low as 5°C. A desert safari in any other time of the year would almost certainly be too unbearably hot, especially if you are going to be riding a camel. I suggest a Jeep safari if you are travelling in the summer. Also, start your tour later in the day to avoid the afternoon heat.
What to wear for the desert safari
Since we only spent one night in the desert, I didn’t find it necessary to bring a change of clothes. That said, you should pack the 3 S’– sunglasses, scarf, and sunscreen, and cover up with light, long-sleeve layers to avoid the burn. You’ll be sleeping in them, so comfort is key! For shoes, I just wore my regular runners. Sandals are fine, but you’ll want to bring comfortable ones for walking. Either way, you’ll end up with sand on every possible surface, so I don’t think it matters. For other essential and optional items to bring with you, see the overview of our Jaisalmer Desert Safari.
What do you eat in the desert?
On our desert safari, we were provided refreshments, dinner and breakfast. You can bring your own snacks but we were well-fed and had no room for any! The refreshments were masala chai, fried snacks, and chips. For dinner, we had roasted sweet potatoes, rice, and chapati to go with the aloo gobi and roasted chicken. It’s nothing fancy but I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to have such a filling meal in the middle of the desert. As mentioned earlier, you can also purchase beer from a vendor for a fee. Our breakfast the next day was masala chai, toast with honey and jam, hard-boiled eggs, digestive cookies, porridge, and fruits. The meals vary with the tours and I suggest you discuss your dietary needs before booking one.
Where do you sleep in the desert?
We had the option to either sleep outside or in a tent. While a tent might give you an added sense of security, my personal recommendation is to sleep outside. It is a completely different experience sleeping out in the open and seeing the countless stars. Also, I’d say the comfort level is the same for both options, as our “beds” were made up of thin mattresses and a blanket. It was a bit hard on the back but doable for one night.
What about the bathroom situation?
The short answer is, the bathroom is anywhere behind a shrub. Tented desert camps sometimes come with full bathrooms, but we had no such luxury. Luckily, there are plenty of shrubs around for privacy!
Is it ethical to ride a camel?
I thought about this question a lot on our India trip. At Amber Fort in Jaipur, myself and several others shook our heads when we saw the elephants take laboured steps up the winding and cobbly roads to the hillside fort. If it’s bad to exploit elephants for tourism, why are camel safaris still a thing?
I will just say that even though the camel ride was far from comfortable, I enjoyed getting to know the camels. Prior to the desert safari in Jaisalmer, my knowledge about camels were limited to visits to the zoo and what I’d read in books. For example, in Robyn Davidson’s travel adventure, Tracks. As stubborn creatures go, camels are definitely up there, and Davidson described them as children, with some camels gentle-natured, some playful, and some downright defiant. I think the camel safari provided a rare opportunity to see the different personalities of the camels. And from what I could see, our camels were in good health with no sign of abuse. Each camel ride did not exceed 40 minutes, which I assumed was to not overwork the camels. But then again, I don’t think any of us could endure the bumpy ride for longer.
Having said that, the camels are still carrying heavy loads in the scorching desert, day in and day out. One could argue this is just the way of life in the desert, but I don’t believe it’s ethical to support a camel safari for tourism. The bottom line is, without the tourism money, the animals wouldn’t be put to work. Bemused Backpacker has brought up some very good points to consider before booking a camel safari. For the sake of the camels’ (and my butt’s) well-being, I will probably book a Jeep safari next time.
How do I choose a desert safari in Jaisalmer?
In Jaisalmer, you’ll be overwhelmed with plenty of desert safari tours to choose from. We had gone to most of the travel agencies in town to compare the itineraries and prices. Most tours are around Rs 1500 per person for two days and one night. For these similarly priced tours, the itineraries don’t vary too much, although all of them claim to have the most “off the beaten path” experience. Depending on the tour, you might go to either Sam Sand Dunes or Khuri. Sam Sand Dunes, which was where we went, seems to be more popular and therefore more crowded. On the other hand, Khuri offers a more quiet experience.
We went with Bob Cafe’s desert safari since that was where we stayed in Jaisalmer. Compared to tours with an evening dance show and a lavish Rajasthani thali for dinner, our itinerary was not the most action-packed, and certainly not the fanciest. Personally, my favourite part of our desert safari was seeing the sunset in the sand dunes. I think that alone beats all the other experiences you can have in the desert!
There are many other options, depending on your preference and budget. If you don’t want to do an overnight trip, you can head to the desert at sunset and return to the city by late evening. And instead of a camel ride, you can book a Jeep safari instead. There are also luxurious desert camps for those who prefer glamping.
My recommendation is that you read some blog posts to get a sense of the experience. There are also some tours available to book online, which will give you a baseline to compare with the local tour companies when you are in Jaisalmer.