Ship of the desert – the camel

A camel safari is a fabulous way to get a taste of rural desert life and experience the desert in all its glory. 

The camel is an integral part of the landscape of Rajasthan; it is part of its cultural identity, and economically important for desert communities. 

Camel safaris have been a mainstay of life in the Thar Desert for eons and today are an essential part of your desert experience too. Where once camels used to carry Maharajas, Rajput warriors, traders and precious cargo, they now offer you the chance to get away from the hustle and bustle for a while, ride across the desert and experience the same awesome immensity, windswept horizons and ancient Rajasthani hospitality as they did.

Here are some interesting facts about the camels of the Thar Desert. 

Why were they called ‘ships of the desert’?

Humans have used camels as a means of transport for thousands of years. Adapted to harsh desert conditions, camels made ideal pack animals. During the time of the silk road, camels helped caravans travel miles of deserts and mountains and thus became known as ‘ships of the desert’. That’s also why Thar Desert locals call them ‘desert helicopters’ – because they travel up and down, in and out, and all over the desert carrying passengers and produce. By getting the caravans across, they helped trade with countries across the Middle East, Europe and Asia, including India. Without the help of camels, the silk road would not be possible. Horses, donkeys and mules could not be able to carry the weight nor sustain journeys of many miles the way a camel can. 

You can read more about their history here.

What makes camels so well suited to the desert?

Doe-like eyes with long curly eyelashes, nostrils that close and ears lined with hair
Camel footprint

Camels are perfectly adapted to arid lands. Their large, doe-like eyes are protected by a double row of long curly eyelashes and a third, clear eyelid that protect their eyes from blown sand and dust. Their ears are lined with hair, and they have closable nostrils that they can shut during sandstorms. Each leg has wide-padded feet with two broad, flat toes that spread when each foot hits the ground, preventing them sinking into the sand. 

Camels can survive for long periods without food and water.  A loaded camel could sometimes go for almost two weeks without a drink of water. Nonetheless, whenever they have access to water they can drink as much as 32 gallons in one drinking session!

Why do camels have humps?

Camels’ humps are not used to store water. The hump is composed of fat and fibrous tissue, and acts as food storage. When needed, the fat is converted to food and water, and as it is used up, the hump deflates and droops until it can be refilled.

Humps also provide insulation and protection in temperature extremes, helping the camel to regulate its own body temperature.

What do camels in the desert eat?

A camel in the desert can eat almost every type of vegetation they come across. When in the desert, they thrive on tough desert plants like saltbush, fodder, foliage and dry grasses. Their favourite forage trees in the Thar desert include the khejri, babul and neem. Their thick, tough lips can even put up with thorns.  

What sorts of camels live in Thar Desert near Jaisalmer?

Camels are divided into two types – one hump (Dromedary) camels and two hump (Bactrian) camels.  The camels who take Queen of Thar guests on camel rides are one hump camels and are predominantly a breed called ‘Jaisalmeri’ camels, which were developed in Jaisalmer. The Jaisalmeri camels are known for their good riding and race potential and they are well adapted to the conditions in the region.

On a camel safari, camels move in a nice relaxing walk, so it’s hard to think of them racing, but they actually can run as fast as 65 kilometres per hour.

What role do camels play in Thar Desert?

Around 80 per cent of India’s camels live in Rajasthan.  Not surprisingly, the camel was declared the State’s animal in 2014.

The camels of Rajasthan were essential for local people, being used as a beast of burden, carrying goods and water, ploughing and pulling carts. Nomads kept camels for their milk and meat and to help transport them from one area to another in search of pasture. Camel milk is actually one of the healthiest milks, being lower in saturated fat and lactose than cow milk, and possessing more nutrients. Nutritionists say that camel milk has the ability to improve a person’s immune system and stimulate blood circulation, and is better for diabetes.

Camels were also used ceremonially and as war animals for centuries. The Rajasthani Ganga Risala were an Indian camel cavalry unit which fought in the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, in Somaliland in 1902, and in both World War I and world war II in Africa, Egypt and the Middle East. The Ganga Jaisalmer Risala also served along the western borders during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war. Jaisalmeri camels were their breed of choice.

What’s more, along with transport, camels give leather or wool products. The wool is used for rugs, blankets and cots. And after death, their skin can be used for leather, which is popular for local handicraft use in Jaisalmer. Camel hide is extremely tough and durable and the way it is treated makes it lightweight. Some desert dwellers still use the traditional camel leather sack that was used to carry water around in earlier times. And today, handicrafts use camel leather not only for shoes, bags and belts, but also folders, hats and phone covers. Even camel bones are used for local artisanal work, being a more sustainable alternative to ivory. All of these things are an important source of income for locals.

Today, camels on the Thar Desert are used principally for safaris and riding. Many locals still earn their livelihood from camel breeding and husbandry. So camels have played an important role in the region’s economy and heritage for centuries and continue to play this role to this day.  

Is it true that camels are bad tempered?

Although camels are known for spitting, they are generally fairly placid and laid back. Be nice to your camel and she or he will be nice to you. They kneel down for you to get on and off and often love being gently scratched along their necks. Camels are very social. In the wild, they travel with around 30 others when looking for food.

Local people of Thar Desert earn their daily wages by taking tourist on a round trip of the desert sand dunes. Their camels are not only the source of income but are often their partners and friends. They give them very unique names such as Michael Jackson. And Jethalal.

Thar Desert folk

What is a camel ride like?

A camel ride over the sands of the desert is a pretty nice feeling.  When camels walk there is a rolling rhythm to their movement which is quite soothing. It is smoother than most horses because camels have very long legs, and they move their right two legs then their left two legs, unlike the horse gait. So you can just sit back, relax and enjoy the rocking rhythm. 

It really is magic to go on an overnight camel safari, trekking out into the desert where you’ll enjoy an evening camel ride across the sand dunes. Watch the sunset, then gather round a cozy fire to prepare and eat your dinner. Sleeping out under the stars and then watching the morning dawn.

To spend time with a camel in the Thar Desert is to truly experience the Great Indian Desert. 

A camel safari with Queen of Thar

At Queen of Thar Desert Camp, we make sure that our camel drivers treat their camels with respect and kindness. We can arrange for you to meet a camel and walk with it into the sand dunes. Or you may choose to ride a camel into the dunes. 

We have a range of packages that are fully adaptable to your needs. From a short half hour experience to roaming adventures over several days. Longer adventures include your own camel, camel driver and hot chai and meals cooked over a campfire.

Experience the thrill of the ships of the desert on an adventure daytime, sunset or sunrise camel ride over the vast Sam Sand Dunes of the Thar Desert.

Go to our Safaris page for further information.