by Kate Christie Zee, M.D. 1997

Kate Christie Zee, M.D. tackled the shifting sands of India’s Great Thar for Camel at rest.the camel ride of a lifetime. This month's feature article is published courtesy of "ACCESS to Travel."

Swaying and shifting with each thud of the camel’s feet, I suddenly had the odd sensation of walking on four legs. As I rode at the edge of India’s Great Thar, they certainly felt a lot more secure than my own M.S.-weakened two. Relaxing into their easy rhythm, I rode deeper and deeper into the desert.

Ever since seeing "Lawrence of Arabia," I had always dreamed of riding alone into the desert on a camel like a real warrior chieftain. When I was diagnosed with M.S., the dream flickered away like a sputtering film when the power wanes at the cinema. But, when I traveled to India’s desert state of Rajahstan, the image suddenly leapt vividly back to life.

After seventeen hours of travel from the East Coast to Delhi, broken by a rest stop in Frankfurt, we flew two more hours to Jodphur. Here we stayed in luxury at the Umaid Bhawan Palace--formal, immense, and elegant--where the current maharaja still resides.

Designed for inaccessibility to enemies, this hilltop royal residence provides a real challenge to a wheelchair traveler. My room was separated from the lobby by a yawning chasm of stairs--18 steps down to a courtyard and 18 steps back up. But once my companion wrestled my wheelchair across this barrier, I had free run of the spacious public halls.

The palace was a marvelous place to explore. Multiple gleaming marble rooms were reserved for trophies of past hunts. Life-sized portraits of previous majarahas kept watch over others. Separate rooms set apart for smoking, drinking, and watching television were filled with even more lavish mementos of a bygone era--here an elephant-foot table, there a tiger skin rug.

Everywhere I looked, stuffed leopards, tigers, and bears seemed to follow my every move with curiosity deep in their glassy eyes. Perhaps they suspected that I had not come only to eat and sleep like a maharajah--an Indian king. But if they knew that my dream was to be a maharanah--a royal desert warrior, they were in no position to tell.

Early one morning, we were driven out of town to an isolated village. Soon two boys appeared with a raggedy camel. This was to be my mount. After they strapped a thick blanket on its hump, the surly beast knelt with an angry moan.

Before I could change my mind, my companion hoisted me up, and the boys pulled my right leg over its hump. Groaning loudly, the camel suddenly lifted its rear and I slid rapidly forward. As it abruptly raised its front, I rocked just as quickly to the back. Finding me somehow still hanging on, the camel screwed up its lips and spat.

One of the boys pulled at the front and another used a stick from behind. With a sigh, the camel reluctantly moved forward. I held on tightly to the thin material of the makeshift saddle and looked desperately about for my companion. Seated happily in the shade with a Pepsi, he waved a cheery good-bye.

"It’s a 20 minute ride to the dunes," he called. "We’ll come with a truck when you’ve had enough."

I gritted my teeth and smiled. I didn’t want be a wimp and be hauled through the desert in a truck. I had come for adventure. My mind flooded with images of Laurence of Arabia, and all the former maharanas, dashing over endless desert dunes. So I dug my heels into the camel’s side and loudly yelled over my shoulder, "No thanks. No truck. "Then, with as straight a back as I could manage, I rode proudly away.

Traveling along the sandy, bush-dotted ground, the strangely pleasant sensation of walking with an extra pair of legs was gradually replaced by one far less desirable. Straddling the camel’s sharp spine, I began to feel as if I were sitting on the wrong side of a razor blade.

Spotting my distress, the boy leading the camel stopped the beast and ran back to offer me water.

Hopefully, I asked, "How much further to the dunes?"

He pointed to a distant ridge and said, smiling, "The dunes. Soon." He seemed to have little more English.

As the mornings heat intensified, we repeated this little ritual again and again. But we seemed to be getting no nearer the dunes. Trying desperately to find a comfortable position, I didn’t want to give up. The desert I was seeking was not this scrub brush terrain, so much like central Arizona. My fantasy had always included endless, rolling dunes of pure sand, and I was determined to see them.

After forty long minutes we came to the ridge, but on the other side was only more flat, plant-dotted sand. With disappointment, I realized that I was nearly 500 miles east of the real desert. I wouldn’t find the rolling, dunes of my dreams without riding for more than a week.

Hoping against hope, I continued on for a few more minutes. But, as the now scorching sun rose higher and higher, I finally called for a halt. As soon as my groaning camel knelt completely, I slid quickly to the ground. I was so glad to be off that razor-sharp back that I didn’t spare a thought for how I would get back on.

Sitting on the sand in the scant shade of a scruffy tree, I finished the bottle of water. The boys hunkered down near me. For several long minutes, we all gazed at the horizon in silence.

As the dry brown leaves above me scraped together in a tiny puff of breeze, I suddenly understood why the Rajastani’s rimmed their children’s’ eyes with kohl in hopes of intensifying their vision. As my own eyes strained to encompass the infinite horizon, I could feel my soul expanding to fill all the far spaces.

It no longer mattered that I had not found the dunes of my dreams. This was also the real desert--bleak and beige and vast. Here along the fabled Silk Road, caravans had traveled for centuries, bringing China’s rich silks and spices to waiting ships on the Arabian Sea.

Closing my eyes, I could almost hear a light tinkle of camel bells in the distance, accompanied by an ever-so-faint scent of frankincense and myrrh. When I opened them again, both boys were watching me with concern. Feeling infinite peace, I smiled at them, then asked, "How far to the truck?"

Grinning, the boys motioned back the way we’d come and said "The truck. Soon." Within seconds, I heard the roar of the motor.

As it neared, my smile broadened as I began to laugh softly to myself. It wasn’t because I didn’t have to get back on the camel. It was because it no longer mattered how I got back--on four feet, or two, or even on wheels. I had already gotten more than what I had come for. Not only had I come deep into the desert, but the beauty of the desert had, in some intangible way, come deep into me.

Perhaps I didn’t find the dunes I sought. But what I did find here, near the edge of the great Thar, was greater than any of the desert adventures I had dreamed. Maybe I wasn’t Lawrence of Arabia or a fierce Maharana of Jodphur. But, to myself, I was now Kate of India, and it was more than good enough.

Information about Indian tours is available from Mr. Howard McCoy of Accessible Journeys, 35 W. Sellers Ave., Ridley Park, PA. l9078; 800/TINGLES, 610/521-0339; fax 610/521-6959.

Kate Christie Zee, M.D., a physician with M.S, has traveled extensively in a wheelchair. Now pursuing a career as a free-lance writer, she has just finished a book about her journeys, and hopes to get it published soon.

Editor's note: Kate Christie Zee, M.D. passed away and this book is now out of print.

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