Travelling by camel gives me the hump
When, early this year, the BBC offered me the chance to join Ben Fogle on a mission to replicate part of the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s journey through the world’s largest desert, of course I jumped. It was almost 10 years since we had rowed the Atlantic together, and three years after I was hit by a fuel truck in Arizona. Don’t ask me why, but the idea of the Empty Quarter, ( Rub-al-Khali) which takes up most of the southern Arabian Peninsula, seemed irresistibly romantic. Our plan was to buy camels, food and supplies then head to the edge of the Empty Quarter to be fast-tracked in Bedu skills. Little did I know how utterly obsessive these dastardly dromedaries were to prove.
First buy your camel
Selecting and buying camels before you have ridden one is like buying a car before learning to drive. Ben and I needed two apiece, one to ride and one to act as “sherpa” for our supplies. The advice of our Bedouin guru, Masalan, was to “choose strong healthy ones”. I opted for two statuesque-looking models who seemed to be happy in each other’s company. Then followed the camel-buying equivalent of kicking the tyres. Did they have a limp? I checked the undercarriage and was pretty sure I’d chosen two males.
Ben ended up with one male and one female – which at least meant that if we got stuck in the Empty Quarter, we’d have a potentially endless supply of camels.
Helpfully, Masalan told us: “There’s not much to eat in the desert.” He also made it clear that feeding the camels was at least as important as feeding ourselves. “They love dates,” he said. “They are their chocolate.” I persuaded Ben the camels wouldn’t mind if we bought the cheaper dates with the stones still inside. We bought the ingredients for making our own bread. This was to be accompanied with dried camel meat and washed down with sweet tea, or water from goatskin containers.
To clothe myself I bought a huge dishdasha and accessorised it with a shemagh, a massive cloth to protect my head from the sun, and my face from the blowing sand.
First, get your camel to crouch down on all fours. You do this by imitating an aggressive snake while tapping the camel’s leg with a camel stick. Then you rope its ankle to its thigh so the camel can’t stand up. Hiss, kneel, shackle. Now it is time to put the saddle on.
Masalan proudly produced traditional saddles, i.e. old and knackered. There seemed to be more rope than saddle and rather than a perfect replication of his knots I opted for the trusted mantra – if you can’t tie knots, tie lots.
Saddle on, we set up a rudimentary rein by looping a rope around the camel’s jaw and attaching it to a dog’s choke collar.
Even a crouching camel is pretty high, making getting a leg over difficult, especially while wearing a dishdasha. My camel always attempted to stagger upright as soon as he could feel my weight. So rather than adopting a Tony McCoy riding position I looked like a bounty hunter’s prisoner slung over the back of a horse. An elegant solution was to cut slits in my dishdasha to allow me to board the camel quickly. This was effective but offered a brief and indecent spectacle to Ben and the other camels.
Time to get the beast moving. A couple of clicks with the tongue and a tap on the rear with my trusty camel stick got him lumbering along. My camel’s laboured amble and appalling gait seemed to suit my lessthan-ballerinalike posture. Steering was straightforward: tap the camel on the right side of his neck to make him lurch right, and the left to provoke the same reaction in the opposite direction.
To make our bread, Ben mixed flour with water, oil and a sprinkling of salt to a cement-like consistency before slapping a hand-sized dollop onto a hot rock to “bake”. He produced something that looked like an underdone pizza, and Camel No1 didn’t complain when I gave him some. I have no sense of taste or smell, so it seemed fine to me.
Masalan told us: “You need to wake up at 4.30am, feed the camels, build a fire, have hot sweet tea, and pack the extra bread you made the night before and some camel meat to eat during the day. Don’t drink too much water. Leave before 7am, ride the camels until the middle of the day then walk for two to three hours. Then ride for two hours stopping around 5pm, feed, tie up the camels then make camp.”
The naming of camels
I asked Kiki, my four-year-old daughter, for camel name suggestions. She said: “Otto.”
“Who’s Otto?” I asked. “A boy at nursery.”
“Very nice. But I have two camels.” “Otto 1 and Otto 2 then.”
Ben proudly introduced me to Captain Barnacles (a character from The Octonauts, apparently) who was named by his eldest lad, and Janet, a name Ben had chosen himself. “Why Janet?” I asked. “After Janet Street-Porter.” Masalan waved us off with two motivational gems. “Head in that direction,” and “The most beautiful place in the world is to be alone in the desert with your camel.”
Securing your camel
Fill a sack with sand and tie the camel to the sack with many knots.
Resecuring your camel
After the camels have dragged their sacks and started fighting, get up in the night and repeat the process with two sacks per camel.
Feeding a camel
When you have made camp and secured the camels, search for some green bushes. Feed the green growth from the bushes to your camels. They will not eat it. Feed them dates instead.
How not to feed a camel
One one occasion, Janet mistook Ben’s fingers for dates. You douse the wound with iodine and be thankful that your rabies shots are up to date.
Chasing a camel
I tried a number of methods when Otto 1 bolted. I sprinted: he could outrun me. I tracked him as if game stalking: he could outlast me. Then I gave up and waited for him to realise that I had all the dates, which worked a treat.
How to trot a camel
According to Masalan, “you tap them on the bum when they’re already walking — and you sing at them”. Ben took to it like a natural, but Otto 1 was always rising as I was descending so my naked undercarriage was taking a battering with every step. I was shrieking, rather than singing, but we kept moving.
How to be cool with your camels
In the heat of the days, the camels kept stopping dead. When Masalan arrived to see what the problem was, we told him. He explained: “The sand is too hot for their feet.” And yet not they seemed happy to sit down and have a bit of a rest on it.
How not to dismount
Janet suddenly dug her feet in and stopped dead. The rope joining the two camels whipped off the saddle from Captain Barnacles, complete with Ben atop. Ben fell to the ground with a thump, followed by a shriek. Our film crew arrived soon after with the doc, who quickly suggested a broken rib. An X-ray later confirmed this, and there was no option but to fly home, let Ben’s rib heal and pick up where we left off a month later.
How not to mount
On part two of our journey we trotted from day one and all was very comfortable. But while mounting at the start of the second day, Otto 1 bucked me off. I fell heavily, hearing a finger crack. Rather than calmly remounting, I decided to recreate the scene from Blazing Saddles when Mongo punches a horse. Ben yelled “No!” and I realised that there will only be one winner in Man v Camel.
How it ended
Reader, I am alive. Both my camels are alive. Ben, also, survived. If you wish to see more of Otto 1 and 2, tune in on Boxing Day. It was scarcely the journey of the Magi, but like real wise men we arrived at our destination, if less enlightened and considerably more beaten up.
Ben & James Versus the Arabian Desert is on BBC Two on December 26 at 9.15pm, with episode two the following night at 9pm.
That empty feeling: James Cracknell, left, contemplates another uncomfortable day on the back of his camel