August 16, 2005

Part IV: Camel Safari

So, the biggest thing I wanted to do while we were in the South was make sure I rode a camel. We asked around, and ended up booking an overnight camel ride/camping trip out of a small town near Douz, I think its name is Zafhaz, for about 40TD ($25).

Our camels were led by this delightful old man named Aoud. At one point we stopped in the desert to stretch our legs and explore the dunes, and I got to talk to him a bit.

He told me he has seven kids, and has been guiding camels for fifteen years without an accident. He also seems to have an appreciation for music, and sang a few songs on the trip, and seemed very amused when we tried to return the favor with some Simon and Garfunkel classics.

Camels are really bizarre creatures. Their feet are really cool... two fleshy toes, and the whole foot kind of padded with fat so that it spreads out in the sand. Also, their back legs have five joints instead of four like a horse, which looks really weird (I think the beasts of Tattouine in Star Wars were modeled on this), especially when they are lying down and their back knees bend backwards. Plus, they have some interesting habits you might not know about from National Geographic... like when they lie down, they like to roll on their back and kick sand on themselves to knock away the bugs. A good thing to know if you're going to hang out near a camel!

You've probably never thought about how someone gets on a camel. They're too tall to get up on with stirrups (which in real life are used only on racing camels, so the jockey can stand up and not get completely thrown around). I remember being at a zoo as a child where they had camel rides (or was it an elephant?) where you climbed steps up to a platform at the same level as the animal's back. But obviously this would be impractical in the desert. The way it works is that the animals are trained to lie down on command, making them only about four feet high, and possible to climb on. However, a camel lumbering into standing position is quite an awkward seat, and you have to hold on tight!

The saddle design probably hasn't changed in a thousand years: blankets filled with sand to form some padding, strapped to the camel with rope. Some weird-shaped things (probably camel bones) are laced together at the front to form a combination saddle-horn (for grip) and hook for your baggage. Simple but effective technology. A camel is much wider than a horse, so your legs are spread more, and it's gait is much more awkward so you get tossed around quite a bit. But I can definitely see the magic of riding in the desert... it's quiet and peaceful, cooled by the free-blowing winds, and I think at night under the stars, being part of a camel caravan would be just about the coolest thing ever.

We rode about two hours out into the desert, toward a small greenish space where a permanent campsite (complete with showers and cooking facilities) is set up. Ironically, that was the most comfortable night's sleep I've had in almost two months. We had simple beds under an old-fashioned tent, and with the wind blowing over the desert landscape, it was the coolest I've been since coming to Tunis... at one point close to dawn, I actually pulled my thin wool blanket over me. Delicious.


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