It sounds deliciously romantic in theory, especially if you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia a zillion times, and have always dreamed of one day traveling across the Sahara desert sands on top of a camel. Well, sorry to disappoint, but camel riding can be tortuous to the body, and after several hours, your hips, legs and back will be begging for relief. There is, however, another way to get up close and personal with camels (no, not at the zoo!), but by walking alongside these odd-looking ungulates on a short camel trek. Plenty of travel companies operate multi-day tours, especially in Morocco, where you can explore ruins, check out oases, or shop at local markets in the company of Berber guides.
The camel is certainly a strange-looking creature. Many have joked that the camel is a horse designed by committee. But despite its Rodney Dangerfield taxonomic reputation, the camel has been an essential part of nomadic cultures for centuries. Most camels today are domesticated; they provide milk, meat, hair for clothing or textiles, or are used for transportation and carrying heavy loads over long distances in extreme conditions.
The two surviving species of camel are the dromedary, or one-humped camel in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa; and the bactrian, or two-humped camel in Central Asia. Now, about those humps. Camels do not directly store water in their humps as it was once commonly believed. Instead, the humps are where fatty tissue is stored; and this provides the nearly limitless energy source of their tremendous endurance. While camels walk at a leisurely pace, they can run up to 40 miles per hour in short bursts and maintain speeds of up to 25 mph. Usain Bolt would lose by a nose to a camel in a 100-meter race.
To help those interested in knowing more about traveling with a camel, Planet Wild and RailRiders Adventure Clothing turned to British-born adventurer Ripley Davenport, who, in 2011, led the The Gobi ‘Crossing’ 2011 Expedition–a non-stop trek across the fifth largest desert in the world and Asia’s largest. For nearly two months, he and his party of 11 others trekked across the inhospitable, wind-blown terrain, covering a distance of 1,100 miles. They were assisted by 12 bactrian camels and a Mongolian/Khazak support crew. A member of Team RailRiders, Ripley’s next big adventure will take place at sea: he is training for an unprecedented 850-mile ultra adventure swim around Ireland. Photos on this page are by Emmanuel Berthier.
Ripley Davenport: Camels are incredible beasts and walking beside or in the company of them is quite a muted experience.
Q: How much can they carry? Please list some of the supplies you used on the Gobi crossing.
RD: Well, camels can carry about 375 to 600 pounds (170 to 270 kilograms) but during the Gobi crossing we seldom exceeded 100kg per camel to avoid injury, as 1000 miles is quite a journey for both man and beast. The camels carried tents, sleeping bags, personal baggage, some food and water and our powertraveller solar panels and batteries.
Q: Please explain the importance of the Mongolian/Khazak support crew, and their day-to-day function.
ZD: It’s very important. The day-to-day function consists of loading and unloading and bringing back the camels after their daily graze prior to being picketed for the night. We had a few issues with camels such as loose nose pegs and tick infestation around the camels’ genitals. Nothing good old motor grease and gasoline couldn’t handle though!
Q: Where, today, are camels still used as primary modes of transportation?
RD: Camels are employed in the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and Australia in many diverse roles. Today, bactrian camels are still used in Central Asia. The Arabian – one humped camel – is used in Africa, Australia and the Middle East. Apart from their use for tourism, camels are used for sport, milk and meat. Of course some zoos have one or two knocking around.
Q:Are camels easier to work with, and train, than say, horses or dogs?
RD: In many ways, camels are more considered a pet. Camels, if well treated, are more curious, affectionate, and attention seeking. However, they are a more “emotional” than horses and less reliable in their reactions. Basically, they are less predictable than horses. Camels also seem to call for the company of their own species. Dogs can be trained for a reward and as long as the training revolves around play, the dog can be easier to train but that depends on breed. I have insufficient experience with horses but I have spent a lot of time around them and I’ve seen that they can be trained.I believe camels can be trained to a certain extent but then again it depends on the handler and experience. Camels will indisputably follow a skilled guide and trained to carry out basic tasks but I am not sure the word training applies to camels.
RD: Yes. We walked with 12 bactrian camels and after time we began to identify their personalities and even name a few. They are temperamental bovine beasts but loveable in their own way. They can reward humans with mild affectionate behavior. However, if a camel is made to feel threatened or troubled it will spit cud and may become aggressive, which was an all to common affair during our Gobi 2011 crossing.
Q: What is the best thing about going on a multi-day trek with camels?
RD: The simplicity. You wake, eat, load up, walk and at the end of each day you unload, graze and/or picket the camels, eat and sleep. Repeat a few times and you have your multi-day trek. Do remember to throw in some regular daily belligerent moments.
Q: Camels, known for eons as the ship of the sands, are typically associated with desert travel. How would they fare or hold up in other conditions, such as the mountains or tropic heat?
RD: Bactrian camels seemed to manage in the Altai Mountains in Mongolia quite well. They are excellent at scaling steep terrain with heavy loads. I don’t know how they would handle humid tropical heat.I do know that the confines of its natural distribution are determined by wet climates and the existence of the tsetse fly. The camel is the supreme domestic animal in arid environments with long, dry, hot periods of insufficient, unpredictable annual rainfalls. The camel relates directly to its extraordinary adaptation to extremely ruthless conditions. It can thrive where no other domestic animal can continue to exist.
Q: What tips or recommendations would you suggest for someone going on his or her first “camel” adventure?
RD: In my experience, keep it simple and travel very light. Camels are pretty straightforward to use as long as you are primed to handle their moods. It’s not a horse so as long as you can handle the fundamentals. Just remember to consider water and grazing for the camels. Grazing should be available often and water every few days especially if they are covering great distances and carrying great loads. Certainly you won’t go far wrong by travelling with a companion or a person with prior cameleering experience.
Q: During the Gobi expedition, did you personally prefer to walk alongside the camels, or ride on top of one?
RD: I prefer not to ride on them. I have a preference of walking. I find it extremely uncomfortable for one. To sit for prolonged periods can lead to a sore backside, back issues and aching muscles.
Q: What about clothes? Best apparel for camel trekking?
RD: In my experience clothing has to be robust and functional. I have only worn clothing by RailRiders and have no complaints. The clothing is incredibly strong, comfortable and lightweight and it’s the only clothing I would recommend.
Q: Can you recommend some organizations or tours that conduct camel tours? And their place of travel?
RD: There are so many companies out there, but if one were to use a company then find one that has a sound reputation and sound knowledge of desert travel and camel-handling experience.
Rip’s Favorite Gear for Desert Treks: