Words and Pictures by Keith Kellett
I was surprised to learn recently that the only country in which camels can be found in the wild is … Australia! They’re not native to Australia, of course, but, in bygone times, they were imported for transportation of goods to remote places. When these duties were taken over by the truck, the train and the aeroplane, a lot of the camels were simply turned loose to fend for themselves.
In countries more associated with the camel, all of them belong to somebody. But, even now, the camel caravans are being replaced by the truck even here. So, the tourist trade is the real reason that many camels are still around.
Most people have mixed feelings about the camel. At first glance, you would never call it beautiful. Someone once called it ‘a horse designed by a committee’, which I thought was a very good description. All the unattractive-looking features have a function, and, like the VW Beetle or the C-130 Hercules, that functionality grows on you, and develops a kind of beauty of its own.
Unfortunately, most people’s experience of the camel is a ten-minute lurch along the beach or around the Pyramids on a flea-bitten beast that’s seen better days. Sometimes, the tourist gets first-hand experience of the ungainly way the beast gets to its feet. I once had a surprise in Egypt when what I thought to be an Egyptian, in caftan and keffiyeh mounted a kneeling camel … and clung on for dear life, exclaiming ‘Mother of Jesus!’ in a strong Irish accent when it rose.
Not that all camel rides in Egypt are like that. We once took a ‘desert safari’, in which we rode for a considerable distance into the desert around Sakkara. We passed on the one in Tunisia, though, and took a ride in a calèche, instead. But, they still made us dress up like we were auditioning for the chorus of ‘The Desert Song’ … they said, as protection against the dust and sand.
The best camel ride we’ve been on to date was the three hour one in Jordan’s Wadi Rum. Two Jordanian lads accompanied us, both rather incongruously attired. One wore a dishdash and a Yankees baseball cap, the other a keffiyeh and a Manchester United shirt. But, they really knew, and cared for their animals.
On the ride, we passed a group of ‘happy campers’ digging their LandCruiser out of a sand dune.
‘You’ll never see a camel stuck like that!’
said one of the boys ‘Because, a creature which knows the hundredth name of God has sense enough to go around that which he can’t go over!’
If you just want to see camels, rather than ride them, there’s probably one or two in a zoo near you. Or, if you’re ever in Bahrein, there’s the Camel Farm.
Bahreinis are very proud of this, and, even if you’re only stopping over briefly, most city tours include it. It was started as a hobby by an uncle of the present King, and remains in the ownership of the Royal Family.
There’s no camel-riding here; all you really do is wander around inspecting (and, of course, photographing) the camels. They aren’t working animals, said the guide. They’re just kept because the Royal Family like having them around. But, she had a word of warning. If you get too close, and the camel doesn’t like you, it will spit.
‘And, nobody who’s been spat on by a camel is getting on MY bus!’