We were in the middle of the Thar Desert filming reptiles when the sandstorm hit us. It hit late in the afternoon as we were heading back to base camp. Suddenly, we could no longer tell the road from the sea of sand.
The jeep provided shelter but it was hot and stifling. Opening the windows even a crack was impossible. I decided to step out. I covered my head and face with a shirt, but the sand continued to sting my hands and forehead. I could barely open my eyes. A couple of hours later, when the wind abated somewhat, everyone huddled against the jeep. The nearest village was more than 50 km away and we had only a couple of water bottles left.
A beacon of hope
The storm was still raging when night fell, bringing sudden relief. Insects and lizards started popping out of small burrows in the sand. It wasn’t safe to sit on the ground. Fast and dangerous desert snakes were sure to surface soon in search of prey. A few people clambered on to the roof of the jeep, while two of us shared the bonnet.
We needed a distress signal. So I attached a hazard light (a flashing torch beacon) to our microphone boom rod and sank it into the sand. It stood almost 13 feet out of a higher dune nearby. We slept restlessly, hoping someone would spot us.
The storm stilled completely by 4 am. In the emerging daylight, we tried to dig out the wheel buried deep in the sand but failed. I changed the clogged air filter, which had ruptured badly. Sand was everywhere.
Thirsty and exhausted
We were thirsty and exhausted. Our throats were dry and our tongues had begun to swell up. We shared two warm bottles of beer. With all the drinking water finished, that left us with only water in the radiator and windscreen washer to live on.
I felt a headache come on and my heart was pounding fast. It was the first sign of dehydration. Two crew members were feeling feverish. As the day got hotter, we began to see mirages all around us. We lay down in the thin shadow of the vehicle, exhausted and worried.
Benumbed by sheer exhaustion, we must have all gone to sleep. I woke up to water being splashed on my face. A group of Raikas – a nomadic tribe of camel breeders – had surrounded us. They had spotted our beacon from miles away. They carried water in bags made of hide called mahsaks. They warned us to take small sips or we would choke.
They all tried to push the jeep but it would not budge. Two camels were then pressed into service. With the engines running and all the Raikas pushing, the jeep lifted out of the soft sand. The camels towed the loaded jeep effortlessly almost 10 km to safer, harder ground from where we could see the road. We drank again from the Raikas’ stock of water. Their generosity and warmth was unbelievable. We saw their encampment a few miles away and bid them good-bye.
After getting medical attention for the two sick crew members, our guide Kanhaiya Lal and I returned to the Raika camp with a large barrel of water. They were surprised and elated to see us.
We had learnt our lesson. In the desert, always carry extra water to last you at least 24 hours. This is in addition to your daily requirements. LED lights are useful. Carry plenty of extra sheets. Alcohol is dangerous because it causes dehydration.
Pandey is a Green Oscar-winning wildlife filmmaker