Andrew Laxon found the best way to convert his teenage children to the delights of travelling in India was to do things, not look at them. Here are some of his highlights.

Six weeks of uninterrupted family time backpacking around India. What could be more fun?

Almost anything, according to our two teenage daughters. Yes, they acknowledged grudgingly, seeing the Taj Mahal might be kind of interesting. But overall the prospect of missing a New Zealand summer to travel the length of India ("It's so noisy ... It's so dirty ... Why are you doing this to us?") did not immediately appeal.

So my wife, Heather, and I agreed we would avoid conventional sightseeing as much as possible and look for hands-on activities. That way Megan, 16, Joanna, 13 and David, 11, could experience the country for themselves.

It wasn't always possible as our time and budget were limited, but it often led to our most memorable travel experiences. Here are some of our favourite "sight-doing" experiences, which appealed to adults and kids alike.

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1. CAMEL SAFARI

The best place for an overnight camel safari is Jaisalmer, a stunning desert town that looks like an overgrown sandcastle and sits on the western edge of Rajasthan, near the Pakistan border. Most tourists book their accommodation and camel tours in a package deal from the same operator.

Two very different experiences are on offer - luxury tents with local folk songs and dances for the huge domestic Indian market and a basic sleep-under-the-stars package for crazy Westerners. Naturally we went for the cheap, authentic version.

Getting on your first camel is unnerving, as they seem to have about three knees on each leg and stand up in a series of unpredictable jerks - funny to watch until it's your turn. But riding was unexpectedly easy, with our guides leading the camels. We could relax and watch the village growing smaller behind us as we headed off into the dunes.

Camel safari near Jaisalmer. Photo / Laxon Family
Camel safari near Jaisalmer. Photo / Laxon Family

At the campsite, the guides made dinner while we admired the vastness and tranquillity of the desert. Then David saw a snake. One of the guides jumped up and bashed it to death. Not pretty but that probably helped everyone sleep better. We went to bed fully clothed, cocooned in giant blankets that kept us warm but not exactly comfortable. After a restless night I was more than ready to see the first light creep over the horizon and walk up the nearest dune to watch a stunning desert sunrise.

Mystic Jaisalmer: Full day-overnight-half day camel safari: 2100 rupees ($42) each.

2. ZIPLINING

We hadn't planned on this one but a rave recommendation from a fellow Kiwi tourist made us think again.

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The package included six rides for only $24 a head in a giant ravine next to the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort in Jodphur. London mayor Boris Johnson said on the website that it made him feel like Batman. Better still, the company, Flying Fox, had an excellent safety record.

Ziplining at Mehrangarh Fort in Jodphur. Photo / Laxon Family
Ziplining at Mehrangarh Fort in Jodphur. Photo / Laxon Family

The first zipline ran along the outside wall of the fort, overlooking the pretty blue-roofed houses of the town far below.

I tried to look confident as my turn came up.

"Relax," said our guide.

"This is very strong. It can take two and a half tons. It will hold you."

So much for the poker face then. But the adrenalin rush was more than enough to put all our minds at rest. The second ride was even more spectacular, flying 170m off the battlements and high over a lake to the far side of the ravine. By this time we were all learning the finer points of ziplining - ankles high for maximum speed and a firm wrist on the trolley so the wind didn't spin us in circles.

On the final run home - a mighty 300m across two lakes back to the fort - David was too light to make it across, but our guide just ziplined slowly out, wrapped his legs around David's and pulled them both back, hand over hand, to safety.

Flying Fox: Jodphur zipline, six rides, 1200 rupees ($24) each.

3. ART CLASSES

One of the attractions of India is the superbly detailed miniature paintings, which usually feature stylised scenes in bright colours. Heather and Megan got an excellent beginner's guide at Ashoka Arts in Udaipur.

Their teacher, Madan, invited them to choose what they wanted to paint from a range of traditional subjects and then guided them through each step. He helped Heather break down her elephant into simple shapes and then fit them together for drawing. Madan then mixed the paints for her and advised her how to apply them to the silk surface.

Painting at Ashoka Arts in Udaipur. Photo / Laxon Family
Painting at Ashoka Arts in Udaipur. Photo / Laxon Family

Megan, who studies painting at school, was more confident with her peacock and happy to spell out the exact shades she wanted. They worked in contented silence for three hours, kneeling on the floor as Madan's regular artists worked on their compositions.

We thought the $60 cost of the three-hour lesson for two was good value as they were the only students. The amazed reaction afterwards from the rest of the family - "Did you really do that?" - was a bonus.

Megan's peacock painting in Indian miniature style. Photo / Laxon Family
Megan's peacock painting in Indian miniature style. Photo / Laxon Family

Ashoka Arts, Udaipur:

500 rupees ($10) each an hour.

4. HORSE RIDING

Not strictly a must-do in India, but a good birthday present for Joanna, who is mad about horses and turned 14 while we were away.

The highlight for her was seeing Marwari horses, a rare breed native to Rajasthan and known for their distinctive inward-turning ears.

While Heather and Megan painted miniatures in Udaipur, Joanna, David and I went riding - sort of. David and I were beginners and Marwari horses are regarded as "spirited" (a horsey euphemism for bad-tempered), so we settled on a half-day walk, with a guide to lead David's horse. The first half was a sedate trip through the outskirts of local villages, where the children greeted us like royalty, and into the foothills.

Horse riding in the Udaipur foothills. Photo / Laxon Family
Horse riding in the Udaipur foothills. Photo / Laxon Family

The route back was more interesting, along winding trails through bush and outback that felt like a location for a spaghetti western.

I briefly imagined being a real horse rider and going on a multi-day safari into the hills, as advertised in the company brochure. The dream faded as we headed for home with sore backsides and our horses - who had been very patient up to this point - tried to break into a canter to get back to the stable.

We spent some time afterwards watching the stablehands feed and scrub them, which seemed to satisfy Joanna even more than the ride itself.

Princess Trails: 2800 rupees ($56) each for a half-day ride.

5. COOKING CLASS

Cooking classes in India range from large Western-style schools with do-it-yourself tables to lessons offered by Indian women in their own homes. We took the more traditional option with Mary Thomas, who runs a beautiful guest house with her husband, Robin, on the lakeshore in Udaipur's old city.

The menu was classic Indian vegetarian - mutter paneer (peas and cottage cheese), aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower), dahl and fried rice.

These were served with chapati, the standard Indian flatbread, and paratha, the flaky, multi-layered version that can be served plain or stuffed with either sweet or savoury fillings.

Mary Thomas' cooking class. Photo / Laxon Family
Mary Thomas' cooking class. Photo / Laxon Family

Mary also advised us on the medicinal properties of herbs and spices, including chewing on boiled ginger root to ward off colds.

I haven't tried this one at home, but she may have been on to something - on freezing winter mornings in north India we often joined the locals queuing for ginger-infused masala (spicy) chai from the street sellers. Naturally, Mary had a recipe for this too.

Vara Guest House cooking classes: 2500 rupees ($50) for a vegetarian class (based on two people cooking and five eating). Phone: 00 91 91667 99997

6. BIKE RIDE

Most tourists get on a boat to see Kerala, the lush green state at the southern tip of India which is crisscrossed by waterways.

We did this too but found a half-day 40km cycling trip was another great way to get close to the scenery.

Kerala Bicycle Trips runs a thoroughly enjoyable sunrise tour from Fort Kochi, a beautiful old town steeped in British, Dutch and Portuguese colonial atmosphere.

Bike riding in Kerala. Photo / Laxon Family
Bike riding in Kerala. Photo / Laxon Family

We cycled through the sleepy streets just after 6.30am on our sturdy 24-speed touring bikes, past waving children on their way to school and the giant cantilevered fishing nets introduced by Chinese explorers hundreds of years ago.

South of the town, the road ran alongside canals that grew into small lakes. We stopped at a fish auction and talked - with the help of our guide, Emil - to a woman diving for shellfish and cheerfully clinging to a pole in water over her head. The tour diverted after breakfast to a boat trip with a fisherman, who showed us the large crabs he had caught, and finished on a winding country road surrounded by lush bush. It was surprisingly peaceful and reminiscent of one of the Pacific Islands.

Kerala Bicycle Trips: 3500 rupees ($70) each for a half-day ride.

SURVIVAL TIPS
Food: The best way to stay healthy in India is to eat hot, vegetarian Indian food. You can usually find Western-style food, but it won't taste the way it does back home and is more likely to make you sick.

Meat can be risky, so if you have any doubts about hygiene, take the vegetarian option. Avoid salads, any fruit you can't peel yourself and milk products (sadly, this includes icecream). Clean water costs only about 80c a bottle and is available everywhere. Make sure the seal is unbroken as some sellers fill old bottles with tap water.

Accommodation: Because there were five of us, we booked all our accommodation in advance using TripAdvisor. This took some time and a lot of emails but was handy when things went badly wrong. We once turned up at a hotel well after midnight after our train ran late, only to be told all the rooms were full and our reservation did not exist.

Our email booking record was thankfully enough to get us mattresses on the roof for the first night and a heartfelt apology from the manager the next day.

Boredom busters: This was our first trip going fully digital - books, music, videos, games - which saved on weight and space in our backpacks. Believe it or not, you can borrow free ebooks from Auckland Council libraries while sitting on the beach in Goa. The main problem in India is access to wifi. Most hotels provide it free of charge with a password, but the signal is often weak and tends to cut out. If you like to listen to music or watch a lot of TV shows and movies, it's safer to download before you go.