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All Aboard the Ship of the Desert. the destruction of the camel routes by motorized transport
Praise the beauty of its eyelashes: Camel journeys in North Africa


Man can recite the 99 Islamic names of God but the 100th name is known only to the camel. This does much to explain it's superior attitude and inscrutable smile. The camel also has the power to look straight through you, leaving you with the impression that it has given a withering assessment of your character with one blink of an eye. The only possible response is to lower your own eyes, praise the beauty of its eyelashes and apologise when it is made to kneel for you to mount. Good manners are of vital importance in the desert.

Having admired their saddles in museums for years I remember the horror with which I faced my first wooden saddle on a real camel on the edge of the Sahara. The saddle no longer looked like an interesting historical relic but an instrument of torture. It resembled a rectangular crown, a small tottering tower of points and bars rising from the camels back. Like a condemned man I backed away from the infernal instrument and fumbled in my pockets for another cigarette. I watched in horror as my guide confidently threw his leg over the apparatus, but to my immense relief he settled astride the comfy roll of blankets draped with a killim just behind the saddle - and not on it. The saddle acts as a large buckle, keeping the cloth girth and folded blankets together.

A camel rising from a sitting position seems expressly designed to throw the novice straight back onto the ground. You lurch forwards, backwards and forwards again, to a rythmn that is different with each animal. The trick is to hold firmly onto the saddle, count yourself up the three lurches and pay no heed to your appearance. If you want to cut a dash as you mount - find yourself a horse.

As to riding a camel I have never done it. I am content simply to sit on top as it moves. There is a sureness of way, a gentle dignity and steadiness of purpose about a camel. The Arab description of camels as "ships of the desert" conjurs up just the right image. Just as you surrender to the movement of a ship, so you should surrender to the swaying movement of the camel and to the silence, introspection and erotic fantasy that it encourages.

With a camelteer in view there is nothing to worry about, but I would not like to be left alone with a camel, let alone have to hobble a herd of bull camels at night. Some do. As you read this my friend Eamonn Gearon is somewhere in the Egyptian desert, attempting the world's longest, single-handed camel journey. Needless to say he drinks in Soho and is at least partly Irish.

If there is much gentle pleasure in a camel journey, of need there is none. The jeep is now master of the desert. It is a common site to see prized camels being conveyed in the back of an open-top van. Less common (because it happens in the cool of the night) is it to witness the movement of an entire nomad clan, complete with tents, womenfolk and herds in a convoy of battered chartered lorries.

Without the internal combustion engine the complete conquest of North Africa and the Sahara desert by the European powers would never have been achieved. In 1920 there were still half a dozen Muslim states in the desert. The most powerful of these were the Senussi, a pious brotherhood of scholars, though it is the names of the tribes, such as the Reguibat of the Western Sahara or the Tuareg of the central Sahara that have entered the poetic imagination of the world. They are collectively known as blue-men from their use of indigo-dyed robes.

Their independence was based on navigating camel caravans along a hidden string of oasis stopping off points - the old trans-Saharan trade routes. Typically they would march for ten days across total desert before resting for an equal period at an oasis. Their desert was also dotted with hidden cisterns and secret subterranean reserves. No amount of imperial bluster, disciplined armies or powerful artillery trains could impress these hardened tribes. The Sahara lay in the hands of those with access to water and camels, nothing else mattered.

In 1919 however the Asoura-Tidikelt expedition struck the death knell to this ancient desert order. Seven Brazier personnel-carriers (watched over by three Farman aeroplanes) completed a 1,700 mile expedition. Three years later the "Raid Citroen" completed the first mechanised crossing of the Sahara. This, the great grandfather of all those interminable rallies, be it Paris to Dakar, or Dakar to Cairo, was also the immediate progenitor of the armoured car patrols, lorry and bus routes that quickly proliferated across the continent.

By the mid 1930's camels had been entirely ousted in terms of speed and endurance by the motor-car. Only smugglers, raiders, slavers, salt miners and mounted police patrols still made effective use of the camel. In the process the vital strategic role of the oasis was also dissapeared. The next war in North Africa would fought over control of air fields and fuel dumps not water-holes.

The camel however has survived, bred largely for its meat and wool as well as for prestige. As a means of transport it survives on the needs of tourists, travellers and writers. It's appeal is likely to grow with the extension of every deafening new motorway. A camel journey and a night or two spent in a traditional black tent offers an almost unbearably romantic escape from the noise of modernity. When this also includes lamb and flat bread baked under the ashes of a desert fire, which is then used to warm tambourines for an impromptu love-song, a long contemplation of the startling clarity of a desert night sky and the inescapable drama of a Saharan dusk and dawn you may become as addicted as I. Just don't be surprised if you catch a glimpse of a lorry coming over the sand dunes to pack up your tent and roll up the carpets.


The resort town of Douz in southern Tunisia is the customary base for camel expeditions and is the home of half a dozen local agencies such as Bechir Benslimen's Les Amis du Sahara, tel (05) 472177. An alternative centre, completely off the beaten track is the simple and isolated Hotel el Ghorfa at Ksar Metameur in the Matmata hills. Run by Drifi Hachem, tel (05) 640294, who has been organising camel and donkey expeditions through his native hills for years.

In Morocco, the prime centre for camel trips is Zagora. The hotels Fibule du Dra, tel (04) 847318, fax (04) 847271 and Kasba Asma, (04) 847241, fax (04) 847527 are amongst the most experienced local operators.

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