As the first rays of dawn light up the horizon in Sadri, a municipality in India's Rajasthan, the Raika — a pastoral nomadic community — head out to their camels. Resting between the low lying acacia trees and scrub vegetation, the animals stir at the approaching footsteps.
Guests staying at the nearby Ranakpur Camel Lodge have the option to join the Raika on a morning chaifari — a unique type of safari — with the chance to see the handlers milk the camels. This routine is followed by a cup of tea brewed with fresh frothy camel milk over an open fire fuelled by dung cakes. It's common to see the Raika untie a part of their elaborately coiled crimson turbans and use the loose end to stoke the fire. Tea is served in steel katoris (cups) or in bowls constructed from freshly plucked aak leaves, a plant found abundantly in Rajasthan.
The Raika and their camels share an exceptionally strong bond that has been built over generations. The hardy people consider the camels to be part of their family and believe that every camel has a unique personality. As Dayli Devi Raika says: “Nowadays all kinds of people keep animals, but nobody can serve them like the Raika can.”
One of the largest states in India, Rajasthan is home to the Thar Desert, also known as The Great Indian Desert. In this dry and inhospitable terrain, camels have long been an intrinsic part of life. But while the desert sands remain, life in this part of the world has transformed and with it, so has the role of these humped creatures.
Over the years, the "ships of the desert" have slowly lost their relevance, substituted by improved means of transportation and a growing network of roads across the state. Furthermore, a lack of adequate grazing grounds and unfavourable legislation have adversely impacted the camel population.
The story of Ranakpur Camel Lodge began in the 1990s, when German veterinarian Ilse Kohler-Rollefson moved to India to study the hoofed mammals. Back then, the country had the third-largest camel population in the world, a number that Kohler-Rollefson says has declined by about 90 per cent.
In 1996, alongside Indian Rajput Hanwant Singh Rathore, whose grandfather was a camel trader, she set up Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan, a welfare organisation for lifestock herders. The organisation focuses on establishing grazing rights and veterinary care for camels and attempts to influence state level policies in favour of the creatures and their herders.
LPPS works closely with the Raika in championing their issues. One of the primary challenges facing the community is a lack of steady income. In an effort to build alternative income streams, Kohler-Rollefson set up a camel dairy process, as well as places and procedures to assist the Raika in making camel soap and wool, plus a workshop where paper can be created out of camel dung.
However, these streams alone don't generate sufficient income for the herders. “Milk can bring in income, but the demand for camel milk is still limited,” explains Kohler-Rollefson.
Seeing the fascination that visitors to the region had for the camels and the Raika, Kohler-Rollefson realised that tourism could be a positive pivot to secure much-needed additional income.
In 2018, two round huts that were originally built for camel herders travelling to the region to attend training sessions were opened to guests and Ranakpur Camel Lodge was born. Simple brick structures, each room has a reed roof that helps to keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. In the years that followed, more rooms were added and the lodge now offers seven rooms, including two luxury options — with additional comforts such as air conditioning and bathtubs.
A stay at Ranakpur Camel Lodge offers guests an immersive experience into local village life.
After the morning chaifari experience, guests can join the herders as they take their camels out to graze. The camels are kept in a nomadic system, grazing on trees and wild vegetation, many of which are also used in traditional medicine.
There's also the option to visit a Raika family and join them for a meal or lend a helping hand in some local workshops, including paper or soap-making. The soaps are made by blending camel milk, coconut oil and multani miti, a mineral-packed clay, with rose and sandalwood essence. Guests who want a true camel herder experience can also opt to spend a night under the stars with the Raika and their camels.
A highlight of any stay at the lodge is the wonderful rustic food that's cooked by women in the village. Using minimal oil and spices, meals typically feature a thali of dal, subzi (vegetable), dahi (curd) and roti (flatbread). Every thali is also served with a panchkuta — a traditional Rajasthani specialty curry made with the pods of the khejri tree.
While out with the herders, guests are also able to enjoy a camel herders' lunch consisting of bajra (millet) bread cooked over an open fire and served with dal, subzi, dahi and jaggery. There's also cheese tasting events where travellers can sample various types of camel cheese, and the option to enjoy a five-course meal featuring a host of camel dairy produce, including cream cheese dips, a salad made with camel feta, a pasta dish called camelina and cheese cake.
For guests staying at Ranakpur Camel Lodge, many of whom are repeat visitors, it's the peace that the place offers that's often cited as the highlight. But for Kohler-Rollefson, nothing beats the opportunity of being able to nuzzle with the statuesque camels that call the region home.