The Thar Desert extends to 77,000 square miles. Although some of it is in Pakistan most of it lies within India of which it constitutes about 10%. It also is called the Great Indian Desert.
We left the Maharajah’s numerous stables, built in a wide circle around a roofed water trough and pump, to ride the 100 miles to Nagaur. The evening before Bonnie had taken us to the far side of the lake so that we could see how we got on with our horses and tack. It had been a lovely ride and Gajner Palace’s red sandstone glowed in the setting sun, across the water. The cavalry officer took it upon himself to advise Bonnie that my horse was too sprightly for me. Bonnie smiled quizically at me and I grinned back. Later I learned that Laila had been on full food with no exercise for three weeks since completing an endurance ride. Of course she was perky but she settled and was the most gorgeous mare to ride.
I can’t remember the cavalier’s name. We decided that he probably had held an administrative post in his regiment – it was clear that he was no horseman. Soon he was irritating us all and the reliably benign Jan started referring to him as Amyl Nitrate. It stuck.
Dundlod had its own 200 horse risala (cavalry) until 1920 and Bonnie, in his military uniform with Sam Brown belt and a loaded pistol in its holster, led the way on his skewbald horse. The five of us followed and his standard bearer, who was also there to to pick up any bits, brought up the rear. The Dundlod colours are deep yellow and scarlet. The cloth martingales and saddle clothes matched the huge fluttering standard as did the standard bearer’s pagari (turban) with a tail that reached to the cantle of the saddle. Pip, in his own uniform, assembled with purchases made in an Edinburgh junk shop, rode a flighty horse to one side.
The horses picked their way round scrubby bushes and the beaten footpaths fanned out over the undulating horizon of bhakars. Soon the flotsam that skirts all Indian villages gave way to unadorned dusty earth only occasionally punctuated by a lone flip-flop abandoned in the sand. The Thar was unlike my preconception of a desert – heaps of shifting sand-dunes. It was very arid but dotted with Khejri trees, Lebbek and Acacia. Those near to settlements had been pollarded; their leaves and pods used for fodder, the timber for fencing, building and fuel. It is the most densely populated desert in the world and invisibly absorbs 40% of Rajasthan’s population.
Peacocks sat in the branches, occasionally launching into brief cumbersome flight, their tails trailing in their wake. We crossed fields that had been cultivated but remained un-drilled. Precious seed corn wouldn’t have germinated after such a prolonged drought. Once Bonnie had decided that we and the horses had settled he announced that we would trot. Before long this had accelerated into a canter and then a very strong canter. It ended when he raised his hand indicating that he, and we, would walk. Trained in the hunting field as children we did as directed. We quickly learned that “Now we will trot.” translated into “We’re off!” By mid morning we had reached an oasis where water stored in a circular concrete tank fed a trough. While we let the horses drink, camels looked on disparagingly.
We stopped for a late lunch by more water for the horses and shade for us all. Some of Bonnie’s back-up team had got there first in one of the jeeps flying the Dundlod standard. Trestle tables, chairs and Karrimats were laid out. The horses were unsaddled, allowed to roll in the sand and fed hard food and hay. We had a delicious hot lunch and chilled drinks au choix. While we snoozed the boys brushed the sand and any sweat from the horses.
By the time dusk came we had covered slightly over 20 miles and had reached camp near the desert village of Jai Singh. The scale of the operation became clear. Two lorries transported forage, feed bins, rugs and halters for the horses; tents, luggage, cooking equipment and even a mounting block for us. The lorries were backed up by two jeeps, one with a trailer. All supported the Dundlod colours.
The kitchen tent failed to hide the bustle of activity already being undertaken. Our circular tents had been pitched in a semicircle round what would be a camp fire and honesty bar. Each one was lined in Jaipur fabric and rugs. A mirror was hung from the centre poll; a table with a candle and matches was beside the proper bed already made-up. Christiane, H., and Sunayana met us and enquired about our day. Tea arrived. Our bags were by our tents. Out of our boots and as the sky darkened, drinks and supper round the fire enveloped us in a cocoon of privilege and well-being. In bed we found hot, hot-water bottles. This was to be a far cry from wet, miserable camping in Cornwall.
I was too exited to sleep once muffled voices alerted me to dawn. Peering out I marvelled at the unique beauty of the ‘toilet facilities’. In the evening it had been too dark to really appreciate the trailer with its yellow skirt and domed roof and water tank. Beside it a fire had been lit under an enormous cauldron of water. It was starting to boil. Inside loos and a shower worked perfectly and with the bucket of steaming water I had the perfect start to the day. Self-help tea-bags, coffee, milk and a thermos of hot water preceded breakfast. Afterwards we left Bonnie’s team to clear up.
Over the next four days we continued towards Nagaur. The rolling caravan, including the ablution trailer, could sometimes be seen in its distant dust cloud. Dundlod’s standards billowed. After the second day Amyl Nitrate complained of a bad back and we advised him that a day out of the saddle (and away from us) would give it the best chance of recovery. At the end of each day we enquired solicitously but he continued by jeep. We might have felt guilty had he not seemed relieved.
Sometimes we followed walled cart tracks, once disturbing a desert fox to which we gave cheerful, vocal chase as if in the Shires. We passed thorn-protected circular-straw-hut villages inhabited by Untouchables. They came out to watch us ride by. Despite apparently being miles from permanent settlements they all had children wearing neat, clean, blue school uniform. It was easy to imagine how it must have felt, as part of a baronial army, to cross England in Medieval times.
Barbed wire protected plantations of Eucalyptus, Cassia and Jojoba introduced to help stabilise the desert preventing it from encroaching on better land. Once a pipeline, too big to jump, diverted us until after dark and the jeeps came to lead us in their headlights. At the entrance to another village Bonnie unclipped his pistol and told us to ride near him until through it. The previous year the resident deer-worshiping animists had decided that venison had been on the menu despite being shown the carcass of a chicken. Held up for nearly a day the group had been released only after Bonnie had managed to summon police who arrived in force.
We spent a night in Kakku within the courtyard of an old Haveli. We slept in traditional straw huts, with exquisitely woven ceilings and peacocks roosting on the roofs. After dark tribesmen arrived to show off their ancient ritual of walking barefoot across burning coals before carrying them round the yard in their teeth.
We were met outside another village by a tribal head who had fire crackers lit in order to welcome us. They jumped crazily towards the horses that were not amused. He was an old war lord who had spent a great deal of his time on armed forages into Pakistan scooping up whatever appealed. The Pakistani government had asked for him to be handed over but Bonnie had explained to Indira Ghandi that it could make patrolling the frontier difficult for Indian border patrols as they would have to contend with the warlord’s tribe and probably neighbouring tribes, quite besides the loathed Pakistani military. On condition that he desisted he was allowed to remain in India. It was not the only time that Bonnie had helped him and as a result he, and by association we, were the most welcome of guests. He cut a theatrically rogueish figure with one eye, the other presumably left on the end of a sword in Pakistan. He wore white cotton kurta under a long dark single breasted jacket buttoned to the neck and carried a scimitar at all times. He was accompanied by a young child or two. It was unclear whether they were his grandchildren or he was still procreating.
Camp had been set-up within its encircling walls and a second group awaited us, or more accurately – Bonnie. We joined villagers and watched Bonnie presented with silver pastern bracelets for his horse. The following morning we were invited to the ‘museum’ to buy souvenirs of our stay. In a tumbling stone house, it contained everything acquired during his life by fair means and foul:- incomplete Woolworths’ tea sets; perished hot water bottles; cut glass goblets; foxed mirrors; a charpoi, muskets, daggers; swords; wobbly Empire chairs; bangles; ear-rings – even the frame of a fourposter bed. With his exploits curtailed he was having to sell off treasures to keep going. I added a razor sharp knife for my collection started in Kashgar’s Sunday bazaar 25 years earlier.
Late morning of the final day we reached the outskirts of Nagaur. Bonnie suggested that although the following day was to be spent at the fair we might like to ride round it for a few hours. We had been passed by camels heading for it and we jumped at the opportunity of a preview. Indian women don’t ride. Men, often riding aggressively, demonstrate their masculinity. Four white women in gentle control of lovely Marwari horses following Bonnie, who was lauded everywhere, created quite a stir. It also gave us a chance to see the lay of the land from higher than had we been on foot. With an estimated 25,000 camels and almost as many horses, cattle, sheep and goats it covered an enormous area and we could hardly wait to revisit next day.
Amyl Nitrate, left in camp, sulked.