Not all camels dream of car­ry­ing tourists over the dunes of the Sa­hara. Some are per­fectly happy to run away from their rid­ers along the West Coast, says Werner Win­ter­boer.

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The petrol at­ten­dants look scep­ti­cal. “Camels come from Egypt, right?” “No man, you’re think­ing of pyra­mids!” They’re dis­cussing the strange cargo on my trailer: two camels, one called Pi­lot and one called Gen­eral, which I picked up from a man called Karel Kameel in Krugers­dorp yes­ter­day. My plan? To ride said camels along the beach from Strand­fontein to Elands Bay on the West Coast. But first I have to get Pi­lot and Gen­eral to my par­ents’ hol­i­day house in Still Bay in the south­ern Cape, where my travel part­ner Mike van der Spuy and I will hone our camel­rid­ing skills. (Tech­ni­cally, our dromedaryrid­ing skills, be­cause that’s what a camel with one hump is called.) We ar­rive in Still Bay later that af­ter­noon. “Just dodge their legs and teeth and you’ll be fine,” I tell Mike. I try to un­load Gen­eral first, but he barely has one foot on the ramp when it gives way and he tum­bles out of the trailer. I act as if

this is per­fectly nor­mal. Pi­lot steps out like he takes a trip to the beach ev­ery day. The camels start to graze on the plants in my dad’s gar­den, caus­ing pass­ing mo­torists to slam on the brakes. It’s not ev­ery day you see a camel in Still Bay! When I picked up the camels yes­ter­day, I chat­ted to Thabong Redebe, a camel han­dler, about ba­sic camel obe­di­ence. He told me to use the com­mand “koes!” to get the camels to kneel. “Koes, koes, koes!” I shout. Pi­lot kneels down, but Gen­eral doesn’t seem to take or­ders from any­one. I call Thabong and put him on speak­er­phone, but even the trusted han­dler’s voice won’t make Gen­eral budge. Time for plan C, which is to raise a horserid­ing crop. This is Thabong’s ad­vice and it works. Gen­eral bends the knee. The idea of be­ing struck is ob­vi­ously enough. We saddle up the camels and I climb onto Pi­lot’s back, only to come thud­ding back to earth, flat on my back with a view of the clouds. Mike is also on the ground… howl­ing with laugh­ter. It takes us a few more at­tempts to get into the saddle and ac­tu­ally stay there. I shout “go!” and touch my heels to Pi­lot’s sides. He lopes away and I try to steer, but both camels head straight for the near­est tree with the low­est branches. Mike and I dive for the ground. That’s enough for one day. We’ll be okay. There aren’t many trees on the West Coast.

A week later we ar­rive in Strand­fontein. We’ve done lit­tle to no plan­ning for this trip and it’s start­ing to show. Mike and I di­vide our gear: tent, camp­ing chairs, sleep­ing bags, ket­tle, braai grid, food, wa­ter… We tie the bags to the camels’ backs with ropes. I’ve seen peo­ple do this on TV. How hard can it be? Pi­lot stands still, but Gen­eral rolls around in the sand like a dog try­ing to get rid of a flea. Even­tu­ally we man­age to get ev­ery­thing strapped down. We saddle up, ready to start our jour­ney down the beach. But then the camels turn around and walk back the way we came. “Maybe they don’t like sand,” I mum­ble. “I think they’re head­ing back to the trailer,” says Mike. We slip off their backs and end up lead­ing them by hand. Af­ter about 10 km, we come to a sturdy tree trunk on the coast where we can tie up for the night. We set up camp, open a bot­tle of red wine and watch the sun go down.

READER STORY WERNER WIN­TER­BOER Oc­cu­pa­tion: Shoe­maker Home town: Pre­to­ria

LOOKS CAN BE DE­CEIV­ING. The two camels – Gen­eral in front and Pi­lot be­hind – obe­di­ently fol­low their hu­man leader, Mike van der Spuy. How­ever, this was mo­ments be­fore they went AWOL north of Lam­bert’s Bay.

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