Sometimes I wonder if I find adventure, or if adventure finds me.
I suppose coming to India to poke around for a few months counts as my finding adventure. Going on a camel safari deep in the Rajasthani desert probably counts too. But what happened to me on safari… that much is definitely adventure finding me.
Everything starts out ordinarily enough — doesn’t it always? We decide to go on safari, which brings us to Jaisalmer, a sleepy little desert village in northwest Rajasthan. The usual program for these safaris includes: staying in Jaisalmer for a night, taking a jeep out to the edge of Thar Desert in the morning, riding camels into the dunes during the day, and spending the night under the stars.
Kim and I are over the moon with excitement. We’ve heard great things about the experience from fellow travelers, and we’re both particularly looking forward to seeing the stars. Neither of us have ever been in a remote enough location to see the Milky Way! (Side note: we’re both major Cosmos fans. All hail Neil deGrasse Tyson.)
Thar Desert is only 100 km from the Pakistani border, so as you can imagine, it’s very hot. We take advantage of the requisite night in Jaisalmer to equip ourselves with cotton clothing and headscarves, and late the next morning we set off on our way.
After one of the bumpier drives I’ve ever been on, we hit the dunes in the early afternoon and get our first glimpses of our camels. They’re calmly sitting down in a little group, not making any noise, letting humans bob and weave around them freely.
Now, here I should mention that I have a somewhat — shall we say — turbulent relationship with animals. I love them, but I’m generally very afraid of them. Even of dogs.
Taking this into account, I’m impressed with myself in our first moments with the camels. This is one of the only times I can think of that I’ve met a new animal and not felt immediately anxious.
“How ya doin’, Cath?” My copilot Kim checks in with me, knowing my general discomfort around animals.
“I’m fine, actually!” I happily report. “They seem so gentle.”
“Yeah,” Kim agrees, “I think they are!”
Our safari team consists of one guide, me, Kim, and another backpacker named Alejandro. The time comes to climb aboard, and I swing onto my camel without a problem. Once we’re all on our respective camels, we’re tied up in a caravan: the guide in front, followed by Kim, then me, then Alejandro, and the camel carrying our equipment bringing up the rear.
If you’ve ever been on a camel, you know it’s a bit of a wobbly ride. Their humps and knobby knees don’t make for the smoothest of journeys! But other than adjusting to the balance, there don’t seem to be any tricks of the trade. Our adventure starts off calmly and easily.
…Until the most unexpected hiccup imaginable happens.
A couple of minutes into our journey, Alejandro’s camel — the one directly behind me — starts to make some unfriendly noises.
The guide hears this, and he brings our caravan to a halt. But once we’re stopped, the grumpy camel only gets grumpier. And what becomes apparent is that the cause of his discontent seems to be me. He continues to growl, and he even bares his teeth at me as he sticks out his long neck and thrusts his head in my direction.
“Is that camel trying to eat you!?” Kim jokes.
“I’m not sure,” I laugh, with more than a twinge of apprehension.
But I try to remember that there’s no cause for concern. These camel safaris are run multiple times a day throughout most of the year. They must be safe.
Although… this particular camel’s hostility does not seem to be abating. He’s getting closer, and closer, and closer to me. I’m not sure what he’s trying to do, but I’m in the line of fire of whatever it is.
“Okay…” My tone changes as I try to get the guide’s attention. “What’s happening???”
Alejandro’s camel is clearly not messing around. I’m becoming concerned that he’s going to bite me.
“What’s going on???” I repeat, entering panic mode.
The guide comes over to me and unties my camel from the caravan. I assume this is so that my camel will take a few steps away from the group and I’ll get a little distance from my aggressor.
This, unfortunately, is not what happens.
As soon as he’s untied, my camel simply takes off. At full speed.
Before I can even process what’s happening, I’m being violently jostled. We’ve gone from zero to a hundred in half a heartbeat. And there seems to be no way for me to hold on! There are no reins, and the saddle has only a tiny peg to grip. Probably a useful feature when the camel is sauntering… not so useful when it’s galloping. Naturally I’m scared, but I’m also confident that at any second the guide will shout some kind of command to make my runaway camel stop in his tracks.
Again, this is not what happens.
My camel keeps on running, and running… Suddenly it hits me that I’m either going to be thrown off of this thing, or ride clean onto Pakistan. With each passing second I have a weaker and weaker handle on the saddle, and I’m being shaken harder and harder as the camel continues to gain speed. I realize I’m probably moments away from losing my grip entirely.
Because we’ve only just begun the safari, we’re still at the edge of the dunes, so there isn’t only sand beneath me. There are various rocks and cacti and who knows what down there. The danger isn’t only if I fall off — it’s what I fall onto, as well.
I quickly look down. At that moment we seem to be galloping over pretty smooth ground…
Split-second decision: time to jump off.
Now, I’ve never jumped off of a galloping animal before, nor have I been educated about a safe way to do it. The best I can come up with in this pressure-cooker of a millisecond is to simply allow the camel to throw me off.
I figure I’ll try to rotate my body so that my glutes hit the ground first, and try to protect my neck and my wrists most of all — but I know I won’t be able to fall with precision. The force of acceleration is too great, and it’s at least an eight foot drop to manage. And actually, what I’m most worried about is not clearing the camel’s path. If I happen to fall under him, I’m sure I’ll be trampled to death.
It’s a bit of a Hail Mary, but I don’t seem to have a choice…
I let go.
What happens next is literally a blur. I feel the impact of my fall, and for a moment I hear the camel’s hoofs pounding the desert floor — but then, everything goes quiet. I think I’ve fallen safely, but I don’t really know yet. I’m still conscious, so that’s a step in the right direction.
I stay curled up in a ball for a few seconds before daring to move. When I’m confident the camel is no longer above me or near me, I begin to sit up. I figure I should see where I am and if I have all my limbs, intact or otherwise.
At first I don’t see anyone, animal or human. It’s deafeningly silent. The moment feels almost post-apocalyptic. Not to mention I’m in a state of shock, which messes with your sensory perception anyway.
I wiggle my fingers and toes. I bend my elbows, wrists, knees. I turn my neck left and right. Nothing seems to be broken. Blood is coming from somewhere, but I’m not sure where yet. I get my legs beneath me and push myself up to standing.
When I turn around, I see Kim. She and the guide have dismounted their camels and are coming towards me.
“Oh my god,” she says as she approaches, noticeably shaken from what she’s just witnessed. “Are you alright? Oh my god…”
“Yeah… I think I’m fine…” I manage to say, slowly but surely rejoining the real world.
Time and space begin to adjust back to normal. We survey my body for any potential injuries. Once we clean off the dirt, we figure out that the blood is mostly coming from my hands and a rather large scrape on my right hip.
“Come on,” our guide says, seeing the gnarly looking abrasion on my side, “we’ll go to the hospital.”
“No, no — I’m really fine,” I tell him. “I just have a few cuts.”
In this moment I’m really not trying to be brave. Granted, I don’t want to go through the hassle of going to a hospital in a foreign country, but also I miraculously do seem to be okay. The cuts I have are very superficial; I’ll just have to be diligent about cleaning them and caring for them while they heal.
“Are you sure?” The guide confirms with me. I’m sure his head is spinning too, having just watched one of his camels go rogue with a foreigner astride.
“I’m sure,” I tell him, gaining confidence in my condition with each passing second.
“Wow,” he says in disbelief. “I promise you — this never happens…”
The guide is incredibly apologetic and shocked. He says that the camels have been inactive recently because of the rainy season, which is his best guess for why Alejandro’s camel might have acted up and caused my camel to be spooked.
“Please,” I assure him, as he falls over himself apologizing, “it’s not your fault.”
It’s true — there was no way of preventing that from happening. Nothing could’ve been done better, or more safely. By some unbelievable stroke of luck, everything turned out alright. At the end of the day, no matter how many safaris a camel has been on, it’s still a wild animal. Accidents happen for reasons that are sometimes out of anyone’s control.
“So — how are you feeling?” Kim sweetly asks, once I’m all cleaned up. “Do you want to go back to Jaisalmer? Or do you want to keep going?”
I pause. My nerves are definitely wracked, but I also know that this is our only chance to go on a camel safari. We won’t be coming back through the desert, and we’ve made it this far already.
“Let’s keep going,” I reply. “We’re not missing the Milky Way.”
“But…” I quickly add, “I want a different camel.”
The rest of the safari is truly magical. Our second set of camels is perfectly behaved, and two more guides join our caravan just to make sure we feel at ease. We ride into the dazzling desert sunset, pick a place to camp, and watch the stars rise as we cook over an open fire in the sand.
After we eat, one guide grabs an empty water jug and begins to beat it like a drum. The other guides join him in song as Kim and I lie on our backs and gaze in awe at the Milky Way.
“Way to get back on the camel, Cath,” says Kim — who, by the way, is the MVP of the afternoon. I couldn’t have asked for a better friend (or nurse) in my time of crisis.
We laugh. We’re totally relaxed, which is astonishing given the events of the day.
But if there’s anything worth being thrown from a galloping camel, it’s that night sky. Without a doubt the most phenomenal display of constellations I’ve ever seen. My lucky stars, I suppose.