A Camel Safari had been high on our list of things to do before we arrived in India, but as we met other travellers and started to learn more about the common tourist attraction, I was becoming less and less convinced.
I had images of riding through the desert in some flowing bohemian textiles against the backdrop of the setting Indian sun. The reality was that we only had the clothes we had been travelling in for five months previous, and riding a camel for hours through the desert results in a very very sore bottom!
As we moved through India we had been growing more and more cautious about the welfare of the animals, particularly those used in tourism. It really didn’t sit well with us that we were about to embark on one of these attractions whereby animals are used to generate tourist selfies, income and trade. Despite these concerns, our kind host Jamin from Crazy Camel, put our minds at ease by telling us loving stories about his camels. He shared pictures with us, told stories of them winning prizes for best in care, and really seemed to have their best interests at heart.
So the morning arrived and we were driven into the desert along with our new friend Caroline. We found our awaiting safari guides and four noble steeds waiting below a random wind turbine in the middle of the desert (I suppose this was a useful landmark!) The hosts were welcoming, chatty and enthusiastically introduced us to Michael Jackson, Jonny Rocket, Papaya and Al Pacino.
I will try to summarise the experience rather than telling every detail about the five hour camel ride. The main host, Hussain (Jamin's cousin), was a fantastic storyteller and chai maker, who had us laughing through most of our safari. We had a main stop for lunch where they made amazing veg curries and we even learnt how to wash dishes using only desert sand!
The conversations with these guys were great, but in honesty I think they had many years experience in entertaining western tourists. We saddled up the camels again and began the second part of our journey, during which we would stop off at two desert villages before making our way to the desert dunes.
We arrived to camp just as the sun was setting. The sun dunes were pretty breathtaking, and laughing around the campfire (with a bhang cookie) is one of the stand out memories of the trip.
As the sun disappeared over the desert horizon, we snuggled under our five layers of thick blankets awaiting a night of stargazing. Apparently a combo of desert safari and bhang cookie make you very tired, so tired that you can’t even stay awake to wish on shooting stars. Fortunately I woke up freezing cold in the night to witness a glimpse of the breathtaking Milky Way, a fantastic way to wake up on my twenty fifth birthday.
We had some very memorable experiences during our trip but unfortunately our pre-conceived worries were ultimately proven. Throughout the journey Jonny Rocket was making a continuous whining noise that I would really put down to pain. Being significantly smaller than the other camels I was so worried that this was a result of being too young. Luckily an hour into our journey the hosts realised this too and replaced his human ride so that he was just carrying blankets. The entire time we were onboard there was an overwhelming feeling of guilt that we were making these camels carry us across the desert purely for tourist entertainment, which left me thinking: ‘I wouldn’t ride an elephant for tourism so why am I riding a camel?’
The straw that broke the camel's back was when we were dropped off at the end. As our jeep approached to pick us up, four new eager tourists hopped out and jumped aboard the poor camels. While we set off ready to fall into bed and sleep, Michael Jackson, Jonny Rocket, Papaya and Al Pacino set off into the scorching afternoon sun once again.
Jamin and Hussain rely on this trade to care for their families and camels, a reality which leaves a traveller in quite the moral dilemma. I do believe that Jamin and Hussain love and care for their camels but perhaps the ‘good’ animal welfare that we can afford at home differs significantly to theirs. Hussain and Jamin are working the same hours as these camels, and I really believe they care for them as best they can. Unfortunately, however, I just can’t comprehend how we have come to use these beautiful creatures for selfish entertainment.
Both James and I regret doing the camel safari, but finding the right answer to end animal tourism so that these Indian families can survive is extremely tricky. No one seems to have the answer but I just hope that globally we start to recognise other means of income for these families and leave animals where they are meant to be; in their natural environment.