And they’re off!! Nine camels racing from the distant dunes across rough terrain, their riders cutting a dashing scene with their white robes and red or orange turbans streaming out on the breeze.
It’s the championship race in the Rajasthan Desert Festival and the camels build up an impressive turn of speed on the harder ground, before slow motion kicks in for the soft sandy finish. The crowd on the surrounding sand dunes erupts with cheering, music and dancing.
I was lucky enough to catch the end of this annual Rajasthan festival in February while on a camel trek from the golden fort of Jaisalmer, one of Rajasthan’s famed coloured cities, and an ancient outpost in India’s Thar desert.
Thousands of people gather from the surrounding villages to watch the camel racing and enjoy the social atmosphere, the majority men but with a few women clad in the bright fabrics of Rajasthan.
There were camels everywhere, placidly sitting and chewing, or moaning vociferously, waiting for their turn; their humorously expressive faces bedecked with colourful bridles and decorations.
The roar of a patrolling Mirage fighter jet passing overhead was a reminder that the Thar Desert forms a border with neighbouring Pakistan. This more-than-200,000-square-kilometres of aridity extends from Rajasthan into Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat.
In the harsh conditions the desert is surprisingly populous but desperately poor. Riding through villages that day I regularly saw people engaged in the labour-intensive and never ending job of fetching water.
The racing may have been over but the final night of the Rajasthan Desert Festival had plenty more to offer. Snake charmers and musicians do their best to capture the attention of excited festival-goers with ballads of valour and romance.
Chanting and primal drums roll out to answering cheers from the crowd. After nightfall a fireworks display failed to compete with the brilliant stars as the full yellow moon begins its slow arch across the sky.
At last peace descends on the desert; all I could hear was the cry of a wandering peacock, the melodious sound of sheep bells, and the snoring of our flatulent beasts.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you experienced a festival in India?