From age 18 to 29, I smoked Camels. Known to be strong – and thus ‘masculine!’ – cigarettes, with its package showing a camel in the desert and pyramids in the background, the smoking habit supported my ‘seventies self-presentation of a non-conformist, independent and tough broad. Helpful make-belief, when you travel solo in strange places. But one day, I stopped smoking, ‘cold turkey.’
My next encounter with camels, of the real, one-humped dromedary kind, was in 1980 in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, doing a one-day riding trip in the desert west of there. In 2007, I did a desert expedition guided by Tuaregs in the Sahara, in the Akakus area of southern Libya (a small window of opportunity: this was during the few years that Gaddafi proposed to behave himself, seeking rapprochement with the EU, WTO and UN). In 2015, I traversed the Sinai desert peninsula from east to west, guided by local Tarabin Bedouin. And in 2019, I crossed the Bayuda Sahara north of Khartoum, this time guided by Beja Bedouin people of Sudan.
These three expeditions were ‘camel-assisted’ 10-day foot treks of about 200 – 250 km each. We had access to, but hardly rode the camels, for good reason: It’s that darned hump in the wrong location and awkward, parallel gait (unlike a horse, a camel walks with its two legs on one side moving at the same time, then the other, causing this pronounced, lilting movement, as though your mid-riff was constantly salsa-dancing). Riding a camel all day hurts. Some of our younger Bedouin helpers already knew something we didn’t when we started: that riding a camel was a far worse scenario than walking the distance yourself. In a short while, most of us preferred to take only an occasional turn on camelback, just to rest the feet. It’s funny to note that apparently, none of the camel-riding cultures found stirrups of any kind necessary, so for us, it’s tiring if you’re not used to sitting for hours on end without support like that. Ways to ride a camel vary: the Tuareg men sit slightly in front of the hump on a beautiful, tasseled saddle with an elegant, carved cross in front, their lower legs crossed around it, feet resting in the curve of the camel’s neck. The Bedouin of Sudan sit more on top of the hump on a heavy wooden frame built around it, filled with a huge stack of blankets. They cross one leg over the saddle and hook that foot underneath the other leg that dangles forward and down, more or less like a less elegant 19th Century side-saddle position (the men of the desert wear robes, too, don’t forget).
But as a pack animal in this kind of an extreme environment, camels are unsurpassed. One has to compliment the gods on getting it right on this score, but still, it looks like they did a trial run coming up with an animal design suitable for the desert. Did the creators first talk to the ‘giraffe people’ before they arrived at this impossible beast of burden that roars, bites, gurgles and kicks while being handled, but looks perfectly lovable with its pretty face, elegant neck, smiling lips and long lashes?
That awesome hump is not just filled with water, as many people think. It’s a fibrous storage space for fat that the animal draws on if it can’t find enough fodder and water for a time. Most of our guides stated that their camels go comfortably without a drink for three days of walking, longer if needed – in 40+ degrees daytime temperatures, mind you. We had to drink every 15 minutes or so to avoid dangerous dehydration. But when the camel drinks, it sucks up 90 litres in 10 minutes, so again, it’s astounding how any physique can possibly handle that kind of a bath-tub full in one go. The ruminant camel has to extract, nay tease, nutrition from the sparsest, driest, thorniest desert vegetation. For this task, it has the longest digestive system in the animal world, up to 60 metres of intestines, with three stomachs to ferment the twice-chewed cud. And yet, neat little brown bullets come out the other end in a steady stream. Makes you wonder what’s left to feed that big body that gets to carry a load of about 50 kilos on each side, carefully balanced by the cameleers each morning during the intricate loading ritual. Camels are expensive and their handlers treat them with great care and attention at all times.
At night, the camels would be unloaded, hobbled and sent out to forage, to be collected again at daybreak. Their front legs tied together, they could only take little 6” steps instead of their normal one-metre ship-of-the-desert stride. They looked like haughty ballet dancers ‘en pointe,’ enormously dismayed while we laughed.
After our desert crossing, we visited the camel market on the outskirts of Omdurman, the city adjacent to Khartoum on the other side of the Nile. Bellah, our older, stoic chief cameleer and wayfinder during our trek – and a well-known ‘big man’ in the camel trade, took us there. Sudan is possibly the largest camel-trading nation in the world: many animals, bred in Darfur, go to Egypt for meat, and to the Middle East for racing. Imagine a sight of miles and miles of camels, being shown or ridden, or sitting down in groups, variously hobbled awaiting their fate; hundreds of sheds, trucks, open kitchens with BBQ’s, dust, desert sand, noise and men, mainly men, clad in white robes and turbans, making deals. What I witnessed here, for the first time ever, was the loading of camels, by crane, into the open boxes built on the back of trucks, packed sardine-like. This proud animal that we had just spent a fairly intimate time with, admiring it for doing what it does best, was reduced here to some sort of a carefully wrapped Christmas package sent in an internet delivery vehicle, hanging high in the air, bellowing in complete desperation: it was too much to bear. To laugh or to cry, I was so astounded that I forgot to take photos, so here’s one from the Web to show you how it works.
May I be able to visit the Sahara again one day, there’s no place quite like it. I never quit Camels, and perhaps I’m still a tiny bit tough, too.
(More posts about the Sudan, Sinai and Libya expeditions to follow)