A Bikaner Desert Safari is one way of exploring and getting to know the Bikaner environment and Rajasthani culture. Is it worth the try? Is it ethical? Read on as I try to answer these questions by sharing some information and my experience with you.
About Bikaner, Rajasthan
Unlike its neighboring Rajasthan cities, Bikaner is relatively less frequented by tourists and more laidback, the very reason why I chose it over Jaisalmer in my 9-day travel to Rajasthan. Bikaner in northern Rajasthan, India is a desert town with remnants of medieval grandeur through its forts, palaces and mansions.
The city was founded by Rao Bika, the first son of Maharaja Rao Jodha, who in turn is the founder of Jodhpur. Despite being a deserted area, Rao Bika established his kingdom in Bikaner, where he took advantage of its strategic trading location between Central Asia and Gujarat. The area is also blessed with adequate ground water, making it habitable.
The city of Bikaner, Rajasthan is also known as the Camel Country. Bikaner has the largest camel research institute in Asia. The center is both a breeding farm and a research center geared towards the improvement of camel health and production, and camel eco-tourism. Being a camel country and in close proximity to the Thar Desert, a Bikaner Desert Safari with camel ride is at the top of things to do in Bikaner.
Ethics of Camel Ride
Before my trip to Bikaner, I have given considerable thought on the issue on camel ride ethics, discerning whether I should go for it or not. I searched through the internet looking for answers and asked some friends who have already experienced a camel safari.
Michael of the Bemused Packpacker has addressed the question by referring to guidelines formulated by a committee of animal welfare organizations, tour operators and NGOs on ethical animal-based tourism. You can find his article here. Travelers who wish to experience a camel safari or any animal-based tourism for that matter are enjoined to actively do their own research while being guided by animal welfare standards one should look out for.
The other side of the coin is an absolute no to riding any animals for tourism activities. The case goes by the fact that they are being used for profit at the expense of limiting the animal’s freedom. Desert people have been using camels as a means of transport for a long time now. The argument is that even so, you are still depriving the animals of their freedom as you support a business that “hires” camels for your own enjoyment.
Eventually, I decided to try it after carefully choosing a tour operator. I have to be honest that I am still not 100% sure whether I did the right thing. Sharing with you below how my first camel safari in Bikaner went. I went with Rao Bikaji Camel Safari Group. To the unquestioning tourist who would normally consider comfort, hospitality and enjoyment, the experience is undoubtedly remarkable. Factoring in responsible travel, I would say the camels are well taken cared of. Their conditions aren’t perfect, though and I wished I asked more of the right questions. More about this later.
Overnight Stay in a Bikaner Desert Camp
The camel safari I took included an overnight stay in a Bikaner desert camp, which is close to the start off point where we are to meet our camels and their keepers. Yogi, the tour company owner, drove us for less than an hour from Bikaner city to the camp. I was with the company of two other solo travelers and the tamest Tiger I’ve ever met (Note: he barks). We set off at almost 6 PM, and then met another staff, our cook, when we were near the camp.
The desert camp isn’t that secluded from the town proper because we could still see some street lights from a distance. Nevertheless, the camp was devoid of noise. The best part was the unobstructed view of the stars above. Yogi played some instrumental Hindi music while all enjoyed sharing stories and laughs over traditional Bikaneri namkeen snacks and some drinks. Traditional Indian food was served for dinner when everyone mutually decided that it’s time to have so.
After some funny Google translates going on (our Brazilian company could speak little English), we decided to call it a night and slept comfortably in a traditional mud house. Guests can have several options for staying in the camp: 1) in a mud house with bed and toilet, 2) tent with bed and toilet or 3) sleep outside on a folding bed under a blanket and all the stars in the sky. Electricity is available courtesy of solar panels.
Traditional mud house
Bed inside the mud house
Tents with bed and toilet
Camel Safari: Bikaner
We woke up at 4:30 AM so we could start with the camel safari before sunrise. Yogi drove us outside the camp to have some hot chai and biscuits before heading back to the desert to meet our camels.
Three of us each had one camel assigned. Angeli, 6 years old, female, was my camel for the Bikaner desert safari. The other two camels are males, 8 years of age. We started the trek into the desert after we were comfortably seated.
After less than half an hour into the trek, sunlight slowly began its first appearance on that day. It is not much wonder why people love watching sunrise or sunset. During these times, the colors changing and unfolding before your eyes is just magical. Every sunrise or sunset is also unique. The one we witnessed in the Bikaner desert was a glowing sun in perfect circle against the clear sky.
Water break for the camels
While the sun hasn’t fully risen yet, we passed by a small water tank for the camels to drink. A camel is said to have the ability to survive six to seven months in the desert without drinking water. However, that doesn’t mean they have to endure this before giving them access to water. While the camels were having a water break, I took the opportunity to get off my camel and take a few sunrise shots.
Rest stop for camel drinking
Bikaner desert – what it’s like?
Bikaner’s desert is quite different from what I’ve imagined. Being my first time to visit a real desert, I have initially imagined Bikaner desert to be a vast barren area of sand dunes. It is, however, characterized by scattered vegetation. We even passed by an area where the desert field was used for peanut plantation. I didn’t mind, though, as what I was seeing is something different from what I normally see back in my tropical home country.
But if you are mainly interested in seeing the sand dunes, then the Bikaner desert may not fully satisfy. The upside is that there are less tourists (we were the only group at that time). In addition, the presence of flora makes Bikaner desert rich in biodiversity.
Those white objects are animal bones
Couldn’t believe there’s a peanut plantation in Bikaner desert
The camel trek is called a camel safari. If taken in its true sense of the word, the journey would not only focus on the camel ride but also on observing wildlife in their natural habitat. We did see both wildlife and domestic animals during the camel safari such as deers, birds, cats and, uhh…cows (as popularly known, they’re everywhere even on busy Indian city streets).
Two deers spotted (sorry, this is the farthest my lens could zoom in)
Alin, alin, alin ang naiba?
There were also various trees and shrubs along the way, providing habitat and food for desert fauna. Going back to the photos I’ve taken after my India trip, I now wonder whether we have encountered Khejri trees in the camel safari. The trees from the sunrise photo below closely resemble a Googled photo of a khejri tree.
Wondering whether these trees are Khejri trees
Why the interest on Khejri tree? A few days before I arrived Bikaner, I visited the Bishnoi village in Jodhpur. They are known to have protected Khejri trees from being cut down many years ago, for use in the Maharaja’s new fort construction. That fateful event resulted in the massacre of more than 300 Bishnois. Read here if you want to know more about the Bishnois of Rajasthan.
It would have been a great value addition to the camel safari if the guides can also orient us about desert wildlife for a better appreciation of Bikaner desert environment. A possibility is that our guides cum camel keepers are knowledgeable on the desert flora and fauna. It’s just that the language barrier is a problem.
After about 2 hours into the trek, we stopped at an elevated part of the desert where the sand looks softer and less compacted, closer to the sand dune I had in mind. Happy to give our tailbones a break from the herky-jerky ride, we removed our sandals to feel the soft sand beneath our feet. While the camels fodder on the bushes, the three of us enjoyed the Bikaner desert through some crazy photo ops.
This is the best part of the Bikaner desert we’ve visited, in my opinion.
This photo is owned by Fabiano Magalhaes
Back to our Bikaner desert camp
We started our trek back to the desert camp, this time passing through a village where our camel keepers live. The villagers were friendly and waved at us while we pass by their homes. Angeli’s camel keeper (my bad, I remember the camel’s name but not its keeper) takes care of two other camels. I asked both the camel keeper and Yogi how many trips each camel does in a day for the safari. Both told me that each camel takes only at most one trek in a day. I hope this is really the case as it is not uncommon that camels are sometimes used relentlessly for tour purposes.
Met up with a shepherd herding his sheep and goats on our way back to the camp. I was amazed by how the animals were segregated and all queued in a straight line.
Colorful village near the camp
The entire safari took 4 hours from start to end. The sun is starting to get scorching hot by the time we were near the camp. Needless to say, starting early before sunrise is the best timing to prevent trekking under the strong heat of the sun. We then had our much needed breakfast back at the camp.
What You Need to Know Before a Bikaner Desert Safari
What to Pack
Remember to always travel light. It will benefit you and your camel.
- Wear light clothes, long pants that are lightweight and breathable (ideal for protection against weather and insects). Pack extra clothes depending on how many days or nights you wish to stay.
- Lightweight shoes or sturdy sandals
- If going on an overnight camping, check average weather temperature during the night. Bring sweater, shawl or scarf for cooler nights
- Small flashlight or head lamp, if camping overnight
- Scarf or hat as head cover against the sun
- Reusable water bottle filled with water. Also check with your safari provider. They usually provide limited number of complimentary bottled mineral water.
- Camera, spare camera batteries and memory card
- Toiletries (bring only the minimum amount)
Best time for Bikaner Camel Safari
October to February or during winter is the best time for camel safari. Bikaner weather is pleasant and relatively cooler during these months. March to June becomes very hot, with high chances for dust storms. Hence, enjoyment of outdoor activities will be difficult. July to September is the monsoon season, in which months there will be moderate amount of rainfall and humid weather.
Duration of Camel Safari
Typical camel safaris last for half a day, consisting of around 2 hours camel safari and village visit. Full day safari usually consists of 2 to 4 hours camel ride. Prices will vary depending on whether you’ll take packages that include overnight desert camping with accompanying meals or traditional Rajasthani folk song and dance performance. The price of camping also varies with the type of accommodations, whether tent type, mud house or sleeping in bed under the stars and moonlight.
You can have the option to start the camel safari in the afternoon before sunset or early morning before sunrise. Safaris lasting up to 6 days with overnight stays are also offered by some operators, where farther villages in Bikaner are covered. However, I wouldn’t be comfortable taking longer camel safaris as these could entail camels carrying heavy carts and heavier loads.
Ethical Camel Safari: What to ask?
Consider asking the following questions to tour operators to help you choose which companies to support.
- For desert camps, how do they manage garbage and human wastes? Taking away rubbish for disposal later in the city proper where garbage gets collected is better that burning them in the desert.
- Where are the camels kept? Are they protected with appropriate shelter?
- Are the camels adequately fed and hydrated? During the ride, are they given regular access to drinking water?
- Ask the age of the camels. Only camels starting at 6 to 8 years old are considered mature enough for camel rides.
- Are tour providers overloading their camels? Based on the Holiday Hooves Guide published by SPANA, an average adult camel should carry a maximum load of 150 kg. One passenger per camel is ideal. Bear in mind that aside from your weight, the camel will carry your padded seating and your drinking water bottle/s.
- Are the camels controlled by sticks or bullhooks? These controlling devices can cause wounds, sores and scars. Also check whether the straps or tethers are too tight. Skin damage could occur if these are tied too tightly.
- Ensure that the camels are given adequate rest periods in between the trek and in between each tour.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Consider your own weight when choosing camels for your ride.
- Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
- Listen to your camel keeper’s instructions on how to safely ride and get off the camel.
- Don’t move around too much while riding the camel as this may agitate or annoy your camel.
- Keep your trash until you’ve found a proper trash disposal area. Leave both the campsite and the desert as you find it.
What Tourists Can Do to Support Responsible Tourism
Animal-based tourism generates income for the animal’s owners and tour operators, providing them an income stream to support their families. Tourists also derive benefits from the enjoyment of this unique experience. The downside is when these animals are poorly treated and overworked.
Looking at the long-term impact of the activity, disregard for the animal’s welfare can gradually lead to the deterioration of the condition of the animals from which we derive social and economic benefits. In order to prevent a lose-lose situation, there needs to be a balance between earning a profit and respecting animal welfare.
As tourists, we have a role to actively choose to support responsible tour operators. Honestly, this is not something that comes as straightforward. Sometimes, even if you ask the right questions, some answers only come once you experience the tour itself. If we see that some practices needs to be improved, what we can do as travelers is to offer them recommendations. Similarly, we can positively influence other travelers to seriously consider responsible tourism in their holiday enjoyment.
Read other articles and destinations related to eco-tourism and responsible travel
How to get to Bikaner
Train and bus are the best options of getting to Bikaner. Bikaner doesn’t have an airport. Jodhpur, which is 251 km away from Bikaner is the nearest airport.
By Bus – Bikaner can be reached by bus from different cities of India. Popular bus route connections from Bikaner are for Delhi, Ganganagar, Pali, Jodhpur, Agra, Ajmer, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Jhunjhunu, Jaisalmer, Udaipur and Kota. Bus with sleeper coach is also available if you plan to take an overnight bus ride from Bikaner.
By Train – The railway station in Bikaner is well-connected to Indian cities like Delhi, Jodhpur, Punjab, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Kolkata, Guwahati, Thiruvananthapuram and other cities. Click here to check available routes and schedule, and conveniently book train tickets through 12Go Asia.
Where to Stay in Bikaner
I stayed at Karina Homestay in Bikaner, close to the famous Rampuria Havelis and within walking distance from the Kote Gate Market. Check accommodations/ hotels in Bikaner and compare rates in all top online booking sites and read reviews through Hotels Combined here.
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Have you tried camel safari before? What are your thoughts about riding a camel in the context of responsible tourism? I would be happy to hear your thoughts.
Note: Rao Bikaji Camel Safari hosted this camel safari and desert camp. All opinions are my own, and no one from this company reviewed or approved the article. This post also contains Affiliate Links. This means if you book hotels, flights, or purchase product or services using the link(s) in this article, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your continued support!
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