I was in two minds about my first experience of riding a camel. On the one hand, I’m (almost) always open to new experiences, especially those that involve a certain amount of action and adventure. I grew up riding horses, so the act of riding is far from alien to me, and I was curious as to how different it would be. On the other hand, most people I know who’ve actually ridden a camel haven’t exactly raved about the experience. Smelly, uncomfortable, and with a tendency to bite and spit (random aside: I used to play for a softball team called the Spittin’ Camels). I’d even heard that camel riding can provoke travel sickness due to the bumpy nature of the ride, and being a sufferer, I was a little worried. My mum advised me to take travel sickness tablets before venturing near a camel, but in the end I decided not to. This was mainly because I forgot to buy any, but also because they tend to give me side-effects of either falling asleep (probably not ideal while riding a camel, and might have ruined the experience a little) or giving me terrible dehydration (also not really advisable in the desert).
The camels arrived while we were finishing breakfast, and I must admit they were quite different from what I’d been expecting. Well obviously not THAT different — they had four legs, two humps, and were brown with long necks and vicious-looking teeth. But they were in very good condition, much smaller than I’d expected, and very docile and friendly-looking (apart from the teeth, but I tried to keep away from those). Obviously not the spitting type. One of them even appeared to be smiling.
We shouldered our rucksacks and hovered a little nervously while we were assigned our camels. I have no idea if it was totally random, or if they tried to match our size, weight or personality appropriately. It turned out that I was assigned one of the larger male camels, while most people seemed to have the smaller female camels. The camels were tied together in groups of 2, 3 or 4, presumably to minimise their chances of absconding with us on board. I did wonder if a whole train would ever abscond all at once. If the lead camel decided to run off, would the others follow, or would they hold back and act as a brake? Luckily I never found out.
Mounting a camel was one of the most inelegant things I did on the trip. I’m sure there must be a better way, but I was so busy worrying about my own camel I forgot to watch how everyone else did it and whether they were any better at it than I was. Those who had the smaller camels had a much easier job of it though! Although they were kneeling down, it was still quite high off the ground to get your leg over, especially because unlike with a horse, you have to get your leg over the hump on its back, and with no stirrup to put your left foot into, you had to do it from the ground, unlike on a horse. I put my right leg over its back, finally managing to get it over the hump, but I had nothing to hold onto to swing myself up, so it was a terrible scramble before I was finally ensconced. I’m sure the Bedouins were laughing at my efforts, but I was concentrating too hard on not falling off to pay attention.
Once we were all aboard, we set off. Luckily there was no issue with the bouncing motion, since we were only walking, and it really felt just like riding a rather large and wide horse bareback. It was a bit disconcerting not having a neck in front of you as you would on a horse, as camels’ necks bend downwards in an arc, so there’s a big gap in front of you which feels a little insecure. On the one hand, you’re less likely to break your nose on its neck if it stops suddenly, unlike on a horse. On the other hand, you’ll go flying over its head since there’s nothing to stop you.
So, the camel’s gait at a walk isn’t really a problem, but finding a comfortable position to sit is more tricky. There are two stumps to hold onto (one in front and one behind you) but the one behind you is actually really awkward if you have a rucksack (as we did, since we were continuing later that day on foot) as it bashes against the stump. Those of us who had smaller rucksacks, or maybe who were just sitting more awkwardly, complained that their back was pressed into the stump and got bruised. The worst part was that the larger camels were very wide, and it was hard to get your legs comfortable. Some people found it easier to curl their legs around the top of the camel’s neck in front of them, which gave a bit of respite, but also wasn’t very comfortable for long and felt a bit strange.
The biggest issue, however, was trying to control one’s camel. We passed frequent small bushes along the way, and some of the camels (mine in particular) decided to try to stop at every bush and eat bits of foliage. Since the camels were tied together, this made life a bit awkward for the other camels in the train. There was no way to control the camel, since they didn’t respond to leg commands, and we had no reins or anything else. The other problem was that the camels would frequently come alongside each other, which meant you had to be very careful not to get your leg trapped between two camels. Or worse, find another camel trying to eat your foot or rub its head against it. The camels seemed to suffer from itchy heads, and constantly tried to scratch by rubbing their heads against the preceding camel’s bottom. Luckily the other camels didn’t seem to mind this much, but it was a little disconcerting nevertheless.
All in all, however, there was little danger and I soon felt quite relaxed (other than my aching legs). The couple of hours were over very fast and the only final hurdle was to dismount. The Bedouins urged us to lean back as the camels stopped, otherwise as soon as they went down on their front knees, the unsuspecting rider would be catapulted into oblivion over the camel’s head! You really did have to lean back a long way, and it felt quite scary! Getting off was also as tricky and inelegant as getting on, as the same issue with trying to swing your leg over the hump emerged, and this time with rather stiff thighs which didn’t help! We all managed successfully without any major mishap apart from a lot of groaning as we eased our stiff muscles into action!
In summary, it was a fascinating experience, and actually very enjoyable. However, I think this was a very different experience from the usual tourist camel ride experience, just as riding a pure-bred Arab is very different from a flea-bitten donkey ride on the beach!