Live it up, camp out

The joy of camping amidst nature and being one with the elements is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Travelling through the diverse landscapes and locales across India, we have had some great opportunities to camp and enjoy the outdoors. Camping in India comes in various avatars – we have slummed it out in tents at Ram Baba’s Ashram at Bhojbasa on the trek to Gangotri and Tapovan, shared large community tents at the Maha Kumbh Mela, camped along the coast from Goa to Gokarna, pitched our own tents on hikes to Dodi Taal and Uttarakhand, walked and camped with Buddhist monks on an eco padayatra across Bihar, and got pampered glamping on the dunes in Rajasthan, in the Himalayas, and at luxurious jungle tents in North and Central India.

The history of camping in India is not new. For centuries, pilgrims have trod ancient sacred routes and high mountain trails on spiritual journeys, finding whatever shelter en route. Be it the Narmada Parikrama, the Kanwar yatra in Shravana season, or the journey and circumambulation of Kailash Mansarovar, most pilgrimages teach you how to master the art of budget camping. Surviving on a shoestring, making do with whatever is available, staying at dharamsalas and ashrams, eating a communal meal at a langar; you learn to improvise.

Long before Burning Man and ‘leave no trace’ was in vogue, from Ujjain to Prayag and Nashik to Haridwar, entire tented cities that numerically shelter the population of small countries have been assembled and disassembled periodically. Kalpavasis follow an austere and minimalistic life and camp for extended periods of up to a month! Most of them stay in thatched huts or sleep on sandy riverbeds, listen to discourses, ritually bathe in the holy river thrice daily, and eat only once.
 

Best camping spots in India

The majestic Himalayas, crisscrossed with treks of varying lengths and difficulty, are a dream for any camper. In Uttarakhand, take the Shipton-Tilman trail to Roop Kund-Kuari Pass while camping in bugyals (high altitude meadows). Leisure Hotels, the largest hotel chain in Uttarakhand and pioneers of luxury pilgrimage travel in the region, have run their Char Dham camps since 2003. Pilgrims can stay in comfort at scenic spots – Harsil and Maneri for Gangotri-Gomukh, Barkot for Yamunotri, Guptakashi for Kedarnath and Joshimath for Badrinath. The rafting stretch above Rishikesh is also a popular haunt for adventure seekers with tents set up on sandbanks by the river.

Ladakh, with its high altitude cold desert and dramatic natural beauty, has always been among the best places to camp in India. Stay in tents on the banks of its Great Lakes – Pangong, Tsomoriri and Tso Kar - and spot migratory aquatic birds and Tibetan wild asses. Watch the play of light and shade on the panorama of clouds, mountains and shimmering lakes. Located on the Indo-China border, Pangong used to be a lot nicer and quieter before the 3 Idiots craze had thrust the lake into stardom. Hunder in Nubra Valley is another favourite campsite to see and ride the double-humped Bactrian camels.

Kashmir has its own Great Lakes Trek from Sonmarg to Naranag via Vishansar lake, Krishansar lake, Gadsar lake, Gangabal lake, and Nundkol lake, with camping along scenic meadows and valleys. In adjoining Spiti, the crescent-shaped Chandra Tal is accessible via Kunzum Pass and is another camper favourite. You can easily pitch up at Losar, Kee and Nako and extend your stay with Banjara Camps in Sangla Valley on the beautiful route from Recong Peo to Shimla.

In South India, the stretch of Western Ghats running parallel to the coast is a dream for hiking and camping. Though homestays and guesthouses abound, the hill ranges of Coorg, Baba Budan Giri, Kodachadri, Wayanad and Nilgiris are popular camping locations besides Vagamon, Munnar, Cardamom Hills and Bison Valley in Kerala.

Wildlife camping & glamping

While the commoner has always camped frugally, erstwhile kings and maharajas set up elaborate camps on journeys of pleasure and hunts. Many of these hunting camps form the inspiration for luxurious halts in the wild today. Be it the personal touch of Jehan & Katie at Shergarh Tented Camp in Kanha or the stamp of hospitality of Taj Safari Lodge at Banjaar Tola; each experience is unique. Located by the quiet Banjaar river with two intimate camps of nine tents each, they come decorated with Bastar bell metal sculptures, Gond artwork, and intricate stone carvings. This is no ordinary camping; this is the hot new trend of ‘glamping’ or glamour camping.

In the tiger’s lair at Ranthambhore in Rajasthan, the opulent tents of Aman-i-Khás echo past Mughal grandeur while The Oberoi Vanyavilas is styled on the majestic caravans that crossed the deserts carrying noblemen during the Raj era. Don’t be beguiled by the traditional mud walls and pebbled drives lit up by glowing torches; inside, the canopy is decorated with gold woven tiger prints, plush rugs on polished teak floorboards, a canopied four-poster and a claw-foot bathtub! If it’s a pure wildlife experience you crave for, then there’s no better place than the rustic elegance of Ranthambhore Bagh run by Poonam and photographer Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh, with wild stories shared around the campfire.

Jawai Baandh in Bera, where many a prince shot his first leopard, royal scions have now turned custodians, organising jeep safaris across its boulder-ridden landscape to spot leopards. Stay in simple tents at Varawal Leopard Camp with passionate wildlife expert Pushpendra Singh Ranawat or experience sheer luxury at Sujan’s Jawai Leopard Camp where tents come with private decks offering views of wilderness, dramatic granite formations, scrub and sandy riverbeds.

However, TUTC (The Ultimate Travelling Camp) by Cox & Kings, takes glamping to another level with its Chamba Camp near Thiksey/Shey and Diskit in Ladakh. Every year between June and September, the luxury tents with colonial furniture are set up in a landscape of chortens. Guests have a private butler and their own travelogist to curate their stay – meeting oracles, visiting monasteries, watching a game of polo and rafting down the Indus.
 

Festive camping

For culture and music enthusiasts, many festivals provide the perfect backdrop for camping. The Pushkar Camel Fair has established itself as the premiere camping experience with Swiss tents pegged on soft sands interspersed with amla and kikar trees. In the background are camel races, Ferris wheel rides, tug of war, animal trading and moustache competitions.

Another festival making waves on the independent music scene is Magnetic Fields at Alsisar. Guests stay at the palace or in tented camps for the three-day festival, or if it’s all sold out, you can pitch your own tent!

No visitor to Jaisalmer can resist the lure of the sands at Sam and Khuri with sunset camel rides culminating in a cultural show featuring kalbeliya dancers and manganiyar musicians, besides the mandatory night stay on the dunes at a desert camp.

The Desert Festival is a good time to visit the region. In neighbouring Gujarat, during Rann Utsav, an entire tent city springs up on the white desert, making it magical in the moonlight with the dazzle of mirrored costumes and stellar cultural performances.

With the unfettered adventure and thrill of being outdoors, camping calls for certain sensitivity towards the environment. Respecting the local ecology is sacrosanct and expected of every camper. It’s not for nothing that Mount Everest is disparagingly called the world’s highest garbage dump. Closer home, certain unscrupulous tour operators on the popular Chadar Trek in Zanskar had dumped their garbage in the fragile environment, leading to a local uproar.

The freedom of camping amidst nature and being one with the elements comes with the responsibility of leaving no trace of your presence.

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Live it up, camp out

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