Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Camels and balloons in Rajasthan

Up, up and away in the Indian desert

The camel lying on the harsh brown desert floor, in the midst of camel thorn and sand, is not moving. It is dead, says a passing herdsman – something to do with a stomach problem. In a few weeks it will turn to a heap of bones as the wild dogs will finish the rest.

Here, in the Rajasthani desert, life and death go hand in hand. There is little mourning or regret. The camel owner shrugs and walks away, bowing to the cycle of life. Desert tribesmen are harsh people. Many of them have walked days through the hot and empty landscape with their animals, to arrive in the little town of Pushkar. It is one of the oldest settlements in India and home to the biggest camel fair in the country. Every year it hosts around 50,000 animals – from camels and buffaloes to horses and cows. There are also merchants who sell everything from food and drink to camel skin shoes and camel fur. And they are followed by pilgrims who dip into Pushakar’s holy lake and visit the imposing Brahma temple. Gypsy girls from local villages put on fancy dresses to perform exotic dances and sell henna, and sometimes themselves. Amongst all this chaos wander dumbfounded tourists.

Pushkar’s gypsy village

Even during a generous monsoon, like this year, little grows in this place except maybe earthnuts and cactus. Rajasthanis rely almost entirely on tourism. To please the clients, camels are dressed up with colourful ribbons and paint, camel taxis ride the fairground and desert camps spring up like mushrooms luring people in for the “real” Rajasthani experience. A local guide, Pedro, who is 21, thinks it’s because the old ways are dying out. “Who wants to spend 40,000Rs (around £550) on a camel when you can buy a motorcycle for this money?” he asks. Dressed in low cut Levi jeans and All Stars he could easily be living in London. Instead he and his eight siblings live in the gypsy village just off the cattle grounds. According to Pedro, the gypsy village, whose income comes from the fair and tourist trade, is suffering. There is little work for men and women outside this five-week globetrotters’ highlight. Able to write little apart from his name, Pedro and his friend Frankie, 22, speak flawless English, own four mobile phones between them and have a Facebook account. Their job is to take tourists from the desert camps to see the “real India”, as they like to call it: the heart of the gypsy village, where 40 or so families gather, all of them trying to tell you a sad story of how their roof is leaking, the family goat died or that their children have no shoes. After that they send you to town with the boys so you can buy chapatti flour and butter for the local people. The entire fair cattle grounds is like a giant gypsy village. Herdsmen pose for money; only the richest sit around, smoking opium, waiting for their luck to change.

Trading in the rain

Back in the cattle grounds it starts raining. Herdsmen rush for cover. A group asks me in for a cup of chai. When I ask how the fair has been they all shake their heads sadly. I ask if they have managed to sell any camels. “We don’t have camels. If I had a camel I would be a rich man,” one says. He is running a simple food stall in the fair and shares this shabby looking tent with ten other people to survive the trip to Pushkar. The man squatting next to him is wearing a heavy bandage around his head. “Camel attacked me,” he said. “Give me 10 rupees for medicine,” he asks. I only have 2Rs. He seems disappointed. Usually tourists give him more.  Next to their tent a man and his camel stand in the rain. A few metres away lies his sad shelter, a large plastic cover supported by a few sticks and stones. It has taken him six days to travel to Pushkar but it has all been in vain. Despite  days of negotiations and trading he hasn’t been able to sell his animal. A healthy young camel costs around 30,000 or 40,000 Rs; he asks for 10,000Rs but still no luck. “If it doesn’t happen today I will leave in the morning,” he says. “I have run out of money.” The air around the cattle grounds smells of desperation. I blame the rain.

High above the desert

When you rise, oh let’s say, 1km above the city, in a colourful balloon and gondola basket, you witness a drastically different view. But away from all the hustle of the cattle fair and the crowds you’re still able to smell the roasting peanuts and morning chai; still able to hear the calls of the shop keepers and chanting on the shores of the Pushkar Lake. The rain clouds that have covered  Rajasthan for the last few days are in retreat over the mountain range in the distance. Rays of sunshine and blue sky erupt through. “I have flown over this city for four years and today is by far the prettiest,” says Steve Trieber, our Hot-Air balloon pilot. His wife nods in agreement. Together they have floated over many of Rajastahan’s tourist symbols like Jaipur’s Pink City and Udaipur’s Lake Pichola.

Hot Air Ballooning is not a particularly extreme adventure. It is an experience to be savoured: First the morning gathering on the take-off ground, with a lot of chai drinking and witnessing the balloons inflating into the morning sky. Then, just before sunrise the balloon slowly floats off the ground; there is no sense of movement or speed. It simply drifts with the wind as the pilot takes mental notes of where it is possible to fly today. We drift over the Pushkar’s city centre. Despite the fact it is early, around 7am, people gather on rooftops and wave and yell. They are almost as excited as we are. “This is the first time this year wind has taken us over the city,” says Steve, and minutes later we float over the cattle grounds towards the Temple of Wisdom. “Do you see we are the only ones heading towards the temple,” he says, more than once. Sure enough all other balloons are levitating far away from us. “Our balloon is the ugliest and oldest,” says Steve. I am a little intimidated to ask how old the balloon actually is. “I personally prefer sitting in the ugly old balloon looking and photographing the pretty new ones,” says Steve’s wife.

Before the touch down we rise very high. The city is far below us. We get a grand view of the Rajasthani landscape. The ride takes little less than an hour but if feels like 15 minutes. Can we go again? As we touch down in the local village, villagers rush out to witness the miracle. But all of us are slightly light headed from the experience and unable to pay much attention to the world around us.

Ballooning in Rajasthan: skywaltz.com/index.php