Sleeping in the middle of the desert, out in the open, beneath billions of stars; I highly recommend Thar Desert camping near Jaisalmer, India.
We’ve been fortunate to enjoy a desert camping experience — again. The stunning photograph above is our actual bed.
For two consecutive nights we laid and gasped and pondered and cuddled and eventually slept in the total blackness and silence of the universe that is the Thar Desert at the Indian-Pakistani border. Hardly any other tourists were around on this authentic, rugged adventure.
Truly, the only audible sound in the night was the faint tinkling of the bells worn by our camels as they grazed freely in the distant scrub.
Those bells are a subconscious connection with the earth and the camp in the deep, dark, cold vastness atop the immense sand dunes of the Thar. The delicate clinks invade one’s sleep, one’s thoughts, one’s prayers; a reminder of the incredible medieval starship ride that is this experience.
Looking at the photos now, just a few days later, feels like a time-travel dream. A recurring dream we were first blessed to have in the Sahara in Morocco.
That amazing one-night excursion, near the border with Algeria in early 2018, left us hungry for more sand, silence, solitude, sunrises and sets, shooting stars, satellites, and spaceships.
We found all that outside Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India — the last stop west on the train towards Pakistan.
Thar Desert camping near Jaisalmer
After a few nights in the incredible Jaisalmer ‘living fort’ – a golden sandstone castle and fortress dating to the year 1156 – we headed out via SUV, across the desert to a tiny village where the camel safari began.
Some advance internet research led us to choose this particular ‘tour’ as opposed to the dozens of others offered – sometimes annoyingly – in Jaisalmer.
In fact, on Airbnb, we selected The Mirage Hotel / Ba’s Cafe inside the fort partly because of the great reviews of the desert camel adventure offered by the same operator.
We investigated all camel safari options and found many are more ‘touristic’ and costly. They mostly go to one specific desert area packed with permanent campsites: tents, food options, souvenirs, entertainment, a nightly party. Nothing wrong with that – except it’s not what we want in a desert experience. Prices are variable. Touts promise everything for whatever money they can get.
Ba and his crew at both the hotel and in the desert are authentic — and honest. We highly recommend them.
Reminder: this is an independent travel blog, and we accept nothing for reviews.
Thar Desert camping details: three days, two nights
At our request, Ba laid out the camel tour options and prices (he will customize per your wishes). For a grand total of $130 for 2 persons, we agreed on the two-night, 48-hour package that included individual camels, the guide/cook, two suppers/breakfasts/lunches, unlimited bottled drinking water, cots with mattresses, blankets, pillows, and two-way SUV transport from town (about 40 miles) to Barna Village where we would mount the camels for our desert trek.
After a few relaxing days exploring ancient Jaisalmer, we were zooming down the smooth, paved, one-lane road across the desert to Barna, where Ba grew up. His tours are led by village families he’s known all his life. By 4 p.m. we were comfortably saddled on our camels and trekking across the desert scrub towards massive bare dunes on the horizon. The bell jingling had begun.
Our Sahara experience came in handy. We knew exactly what to expect and were quickly at ease. Ellie doesn’t much like riding horses, but she loves the easy, gentle nature of camels — no control needed as they plod along, loosely tied single file.
Our guides, Sawai and Suru spoke good English and were lifelong desert dwellers. Personal exchanges, desert information, answers to our many questions, and cheerful Hindi/English rhymes filled the oven-hot air.
Compared to the Sahara, which can stretch for hundreds of miles without a single tree or plant, the Thar is alive – especially in October. The monsoon just ended weeks before and it was a wet year, so small greenery abounds. Still, the terrain reminded me of West Texas or New Mexico.
Farm folk worked the one crop of millet or wheat they scrape from valley fields before the parched dust is abandoned until next monsoon. We frequently passed grazing goat, sheep, and cow herds. In addition, over the next days, we saw plenty of deer, birds, lizards, beetles, eagles. The guides said poisonous snakes and scorpions are not an issue until the super dry summer time of April and May.
The first afternoon we rode about 1.5 hours to the ‘preset’ dune-top camp where Ellen and I watched sunset with fresh tea (chai) and cold beer. Yes! As we left Barna, a car delivered six big, cold Kingfisher beers to our guides.
We imbibed as they prepared dinner of tasty fresh vegetable masala, rice and hand made chapati bread. It was more than we could eat.
More beer, a few shared stories, time for the stars. The guides put our cots far out where the Milky Way seemed to touch the sand. Silence. Solitude. Prayers. A magnificent moonrise. The faint clanking camel bells. Gentle night winds. Thank God for the blankets and our unbelievable lives.
A pink desert sunrise with coffee, fresh fruit, porridge, and bread. Again, too much. We broke camp on camelback by 9 a.m. and rode three hours as the sun climbed and baked bush and bodies. At noon, we arrived at the one huge shade tree.
Chai. Lunch. Lazy hours. A sleeping mat. Dozing. Warm beer. Ant bites.
Guide Suru took two camels and headed back toward Barna – more customers coming, maybe we’d meet later? Sawai now walked our camels across the arid desolation toward another distant dune. He assured us two more hours across blazing barrens was a walk in the park to him.
As the sun lowers again on this Thar Desert camping trip, we zigzag the biggest dune yet, eventually arriving at another camp site where beds and cookware are kept under wraps. The camels again released to graze, chai prepared. In the distance, the camels from earlier appeared. Guide Suru now leading two young French women and a solo South Korean guy. They arrived at sunset with a surprise — a cooler with cold beer! Amazing service.
Around the campfire, and again too much food, we chat with the other travelers. As always, our story of nearly seven years of vagabonding is a big hit. The French women are just beginning a one-year ’round the world journey. Early retired and comfortable in our 50’s in an uncertain world is a blessing indeed.
As the skies darken, the guides accommodate each bedding request. We are spaced out over the huge hills of sand and time. Soon the endless blackness is broken only by star twinkles and bell tinkles. It seems only minutes between the midnight moonrise and dawn of the day. Sleep is easy in the void of the Thar.
The other tourists leave early; a one-night stay. They have travel schedules. Ellen and I continue with Sawai. It feels like slow motion. It is.
Coffee. Breakfast. Sun. Saddles. Sky. A tractor. Hours. Sand. Shade. Stories. Sheep. Fruit. Beer. Burning. Back pain. And always the bells.
Sawai talks on his cell. There is no commercial service here, but military channels used for border bases are accessible to desert communities.
We reach another village, much smaller than Barna. The children are curious about us. Small donations and smiles.
We stop at a water source for the camels. They only require it every three days now (grazing on vegetation provides water). They can drink 50 liters in one minute! In dry/hot season they must have daily water to work/walk. The government has run this pipeline to help the desert people.
Sun break. Chai. Talking. Snacking. We saddle up and see Barna again on the horizon. Many miles for Sawai to walk. He declines our offer to share a camel. He’s 31 – he thinks – young and strong and sun-baked. No hat, no sunglasses. No water. Only flip flops. No problem.
Back in Barna Village
At 3 p.m. we are back at the village starting point. It feels like a western movie set. Hot. Dusty. Clint Eastwood dead. A few animals are herded past. Lucky Sawai takes a shower. I use a bush as a bathroom – finally.
Forty-eight hours (12 on a camel) over three days in the desert is about all we can handle. I’m glad the adventure is ending. But like the Sahara, this is burned in my brain. Maybe in the future – another desert, additional days?
We settle the beer tab and tip our guides generously. Like tour providers worldwide, they’ve struggled tremendously since COVID. Sawai lives apart from his wife and children just to have work. We’ve helped this family as much as we can.
Sawai himself chauffeurs us back to Jaisalmer Fort – the amazing Golden City jewel in this desert. We are now friends on Facebook and WhatsApp.
We check-in again at Ba’s. On his fort-top terrace he serves cool drinks with warm knowing eyes. Most his life was spent with the camels. We shower and sleep, and we can still hear the camel bells.
As always, be thankful and generous, happy trails & more beer.
Life us NOW!