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Camels are Great - but Humpy and Bumpy

by John Gregan

The pained aristocratic hauteur of camels!Never wear a money belt with your passports in it if you intend to ride a camel. This is the sort of advice that you don’t get in ordinary travel articles.

“ Why ?” you ask. “What can possibly go wrong between a camel and a body belt with passport?”

And that is just where the problem is, between the camel and the body belt. The anatomy of a camel is such that if you ride behind the hump, as most tourists are forced to do, you have an immoveable object in front of you. You cannot get around it or away from it. The gait of the walking camel is a slow lurch back and forth that for some unknown reason pushes you forward just as the front end is coming back. As you go forward and the hump comes back, and the passports in the money belt descend like a guillotine blade, on a very sensitive part of the anatomy. By the way this advice applies only to men.

Camels are great. They must be the champion belchers of all time and they certainly are the best grumblers and complainers in the world. When they were being saddled up they reminded me of a bunch of teachers being asked to take on extra parent-teacher meetings outside school hours. The groans were pathetic and heart-rending. But they do have a lot to put up with. Can you imagine getting a horse to lie down so that you can get comfortably aboard and then asking him to climb to his feet with you swaying and screaming in the saddle. It would never happen.
So riding a camel requires a lot more cooperation from the camel than you might think. And they do it with just a piece of rope around their lower jaw. No need for iron bits or heavy bridles. The really good ones don’t even have a rope around their jaws.

I suppose they get their reputation for bolshiness because they have such disdainful expressions. In the 'freezing you with a look' department, the camel leads the world. At over 50 paces the average camel can give you a look of such pained aristocratic hauteur that you are made to feel like something which has stuck to your shoe.
Which is a pity because they are, as I said earlier, great. They can carry a big fat girl who flops around like a sack of potatoes and screams interminably in Spanish. They can also carry a big fat man who even though he is sitting quietly is twice the weight of the big fat girl. They can carry loads of up to 400kgs for long periods. And they can do this without being fed or watered for 5 or 6 days. And they do this without dying afterwards, which any self respecting horse would do in similar circumstances.

We met these marvellous animals in the South Moroccan town of Zagoura which is further south than David Lean went to film “Laurence of Arabia”. Zagoura used to be a Foreign Legion Post and is home to the famous sign “Tambooktoo 52 Jours”. It is very much Beau Geste country with the Draa Oasis cutting a well defined green belt along the river and through the surrounding dryness. The Draa River which keeps the Oasis alive is said to empty into the Atlantic and as such is the longest river in Morocco. It last reached the Ocean in 1989 during freak floods but more usually dries up in the desert so it’s a sort of virtual river. However, there are more rains falling this year so you never know.

We had arrived from Marrakech after a harrowing mountain drive even in a well appointed 4X4 with a superb driver, Mustapha. How he felt driving 380kms over the high Atlas while observing the Ramadan fast I just cannot imagine. But he drove safely and with total good humour all the way. We felt slightly guilty stopping for tea and food along the way as he stoically sat apart.

The Draa Valley and Palmerie on the southern side of the Tiz n Tchika Pass is over 90 kms long and produces the best dates in Morocco. It is rich and heavily populated with kasbahs and fortified family homes all along the edges and just outside the fertile land. The number and size of the fortifications make you wonder who they were protecting themselves from. Could it possible be from each other? Life must have been interesting in the good old days.

Zagoura is not quite in the Sahara proper. You have to go another few kilometres to M’Hamid to really leave civilisation behind. But it is the place to have the Desert Experience. Onto a camel for a couple of hours, ride through the darkness to the Bedouin Camp, excellent meal of harira and tagine, gnawa music to lull you to sleep in your tent, breakfast next morning and a spectacular desert sunrise before heading back to Zagoura for a nice shower in a hotel. Of course it’s tourism but its good fun. If you really want to do it right, take the trail for a 10-day trek to Merzouga. But remember why camels are called the ships of the desert. It’s because you get seasick on them. One night was just right for us.

We arranged our trip in Marrakech where any travel agent has a Desert Trip catering for every requirement from comfy ( but not too comfy) overnights to the real adventurer’s need for a 16 day lurch across the Sahara, no holds barred. I cannot imagine what you need to do to prepare for that sort of trip but I would suggest some sort of bottom hardening, for example sitting in salty water every night for a few weeks.

We found the small Habti Agency in Gheliz helpful and practical. They were willing to put themselves out a bit more then the bigger places and had lots of useful advice and suggestions. Ask for Mustapha Ighouer who is an excellent driver and (unusually) speaks good English. And go in April or September.