Trav­el­ling by camel gives me the hump

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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.

Tack­ing up

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.

Mov­ing off

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.

Daily rou­tine

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

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