| CROSSING THE THAR: Basu’s entourage tramps on
An illuminated night, the moon just coming up across the Thar, a camel sitting a little away from the entrance of a tent situated at the base of Sam dunes and inside the tent, you, watching in awe the magic of the silent desert — does all this sound like a page right out of the Arabian Nights' You too can be a part of this experience if you decide to trek across the Thar — much like ace trekker Satindranath Basu and his four friends, who had set forth to conquer a distance of 1,500 kilometres across Thar desert in nine days in February 1992.
“We started from Calcutta, went to Jodhpur by train and then from there to the city of Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella — Jaisalmer — by bus. One can also go there via Bikaner. The first thing that we did there was obtain permission from the district collector to trek in the desert. You can also go without permission but it is always safer to have it, as this is a smuggler-infested area and you would not want to be mistaken for one either by the villagers or by the authorities.”
The best thing, says Basu, would be to get two camel guides called raikas. They are familiar with the territory and come in handy to carry your luggage which would be substantial.
Basu and his troopers had decided on taking the south-west route from Jaisalmer. On the very first day, they say, if you can trek for 14 kilometres, you will reach the village called Kuldhra where Mrinal Sen too had set foot to shoot his film Genesis. “ In Kuldhra we found only one family. I felt as if they had stayed back to guard their own land and had refused to move on to greener pastures,” recalls Basu.
Day two will bring you to the village of Satta and on day three you will reach Khuri — the sand dune, located 45 kilometres from Jaisalmer and a very popular tourist destination. Roads connect Khuri with Jaisalmer, but the joy of discovering it on foot is priceless. Ask Basu about some of his experiences here. He retells one particularly close to his heart: “While we were on our way to Khuri, evening had set in and we lost sight of the raikas who would usually move ahead of us. But on this occasion we lost touch and despite signalling with our torches we did not get any response from them. It was about 7:30 pm and the sun was about to go down when we saw a few gypsies camping at a site near us. We realised that water was available and we camped there for the night. The next morning some gypsy girls danced for us. Dressed as we were in our loose white cotton garb, we felt like real sheikhs but sadly without the real dinars.”
Day four should see you at the gates of the Desert National Park which approximately stretches across 3,162 kilometres. This park is famous for its wildlife — chinkaras, black bucks, wild ass and a large variety of exotic birds like the great Indian bustard.
From the park, you can trek the famous Sam dunes just like our ‘sheikhs’ from Calcutta. This is where Basu and his friends witnessed the concluding day of the Desert Festival. “We halted at Sam for two days,” says Basu. “There was so much colour, song and dance — a wonderful sight.”
Keep day seven for Chattarail. And also for Lodhurva which is steeped in history. This used to be the old capital of the area and still boasts of a Jain temple, a kalpataru and is the stuff of legend. Day eight can be devoted to Ramkunda where you can find a scout’s shed beside a now dried-up water course. On the final day you will come to Borabag which literally means “ a big garden”. It is a historical place full of sculptures and trees and plants — in the desert!
Life is bound to come full circle in this magical land of sand. What’s left to experience, you might ask — a whirlwind perhaps' Basu and his entourage saw a small one but were not blown away. Basu and his friends returned safely to Calcutta and, despite the passing of more than a decade since the trek, still ask each other, “It was not a mirage, was it'”
The right things to do
• Always advisable to go in the month of February.
• Take permission from the district collector in Jaisalmer and also from the
officials of the Desert National Park.
• Book reliable raikas.
• Make sure you have the right kind of clothing — both light cottons for the day and woollens for the night.
• You also have to cook — make sure you have a stove, sufficient rations, an adequate number of tents and carbolic acid to keep the snakes and scorpions at bay.
• Camp a little away from the villages. That way the night seeps in quietly and you can blend with the hush across the dessert land much like the golden sand. People who go on camel safaris cannot camp, but if you are a trekker, you are your own boss.
• Always camp near a water source. There are no rivers or rivulets here but it being a trading zone one can find several makeshift wells in it.
• You must coincide your stay with the concluding day of the Desert Festival.
• Above all, respect nature.