barefoot on a camel

What do you wear for camel riding? This was just one of the questions flying round my head while I packed for a few days in the desert. As it turns out camels aren’t too fussy and there’s no-one in the desert to tell you about a fashion faux pas. Our Bedouin guide kept it simple with a long sleeved taupe ‘dress’, white pyjamas, red and white headscarf and bare feet… we did our best to blend in. After someone had his headdress retied traditionally and shoes had been loaded into the never-ending tapestry camel saddlebags, we hauled ourselves onto our kneeling friends wondering what the next few hours would entail.

I’ve never ridden a camel before, but my son had advised me it could be quite bouncy. Apart from nearly taking a nosedive off ‘Samhan’ – my eight year-old camel – into the sand below as he rose to his feet for the first time, it really wasn’t too uncomfortable. A little flick of the reigns and he was off following the other two camels as they padded out into the desert, leaving the black and white tents of our camp behind. Sitting on a camel as they walk involves a rolling movement as they amble gracefully through the soft sand. So if you’ve ever tried unsuccessfully to walk in a straight line after a little too much to drink, you’d have a pretty good idea of the feeling. Leaning back after a few minutes, I looked around at the surrounding rock formations and distant mountains and thought, This is easy. I can manage this for a few hours, no problem. But that was before our camels decided to change pace…

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We were on our second day in the desert of Jordan’s famous Wadi Rum with http://wadirumjeeptours.com and so far everything was living up to our expectations. The desert is a quiet place and on our jeep tour the previous day there had been plenty of time to stop and climb a perfect red sand dune or sit in the shade of a cliff and listen to the echoes of our calls reverberating off the hillsides. Our young Bedouin guide slid his phone into a side pocket of his robe and told us he could call his friend miles away across the Wadi – if his mobile ran out of signal. Obviously just what those incredible acoustics were designed for! Although it was a hot barren expanse he showed us many places where water was erupting from hidden springs and trees and herbs were springing up offering tasty food supplies in the midst of the desert. Our Arabic only extended to ‘thank you’ and ‘peace be with you’ and he did really well with English, apart from a few amusing mispronunciations.

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One was his instruction for us to look out for a tree with ‘wold’ figs. We puzzled over what he meant as we clambered through a narrow canyon, until a little while later we realized he was referring to ‘wild figs’. There was further excitement as he showed us a plant that could be used to make soup. Picking up a handful of stalks, he said, “Keep these and I will show you how.” Before we got back in the truck, he placed the stalks on a rock and began to bang them hard with a stone for the juices to come out. “Soup…you will see!” He smiled up at us confidently, but I was wondering what kind of soup was going to appear as he rubbed his hands together with the mashed stalks and asked me to pour a little water on them to make ‘soup’. Please don’t ask us to taste this, I thought, looking at his slimy hands, now slightly green and frothy. “Soup, you see?” Suddenly we saw it… “You mean soap – to wash?” He nodded excitedly, yes “soup” he said again. It took a few minutes of repeating to adjust from, but he was chanting, “So Ap… So Ap”, as he got back in the driver’s seat.

Back on the camels it was VERY hot. Salem our guide waved to a line of cliffs up ahead and said we would stop for tea soon. I scoured the shadows beneath for a Costa or Starbucks, or even a shack selling coffee…but nothing. No toilets either – just a lot of bushes and small rocks. Meanwhile, Salem was unwrapping items from his saddlebags – a little black kettle, three tiny glasses which he placed on a rock. He scraped out a small hollow in the sand in front of where he was squatting and dropped some dry stalks of bush on top. In seconds he had flames licking around the stalks and a tiny fire fed with other small sticks began burning. Soon the black kettle was balanced on top. He smiled up at us and said, “You like tea?” Our delicious sweet black tea was ten times more welcome than any cappuccino or latte – and so much more refreshing.

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Many hours later, after we’d gazed across at craggy mountains marking the border with Saudi Arabia and Jordan’s white desert, eaten our picnic lunch in the narrow shade of a rock face and dozed away the hottest part of the day, I began to feel slightly hypnotized by our wanderings in the desert. Moving by camel there was no sound apart from the swish of the sand around its feet. Intense heat blazed down on my arms and legs and I began to feel as if I’d always been on a camel – running my toes through the soft curly camel hair, that camely farmyard scent and the rough rubbing rhythm of dust filled blankets against my legs were all becoming as familiar as the rattle of a train. It was later in the afternoon that we stopped off at a Bedouin ‘farm’ (tents plus goats and chickens) where, as white tourist, we were relegated to the seats by the goats and enjoyed more cups of sweet black tea, while animated Arabic conversation rattled on between the ladies in black and our guide.

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Time slows in the desert and is only measured by the height of the sun. As the shadows began to lengthen and we were back on the camels, I was roused out of my dream state as Samhan suddenly broke into a trot. We had trotted before – bouncing haphazardly along for a few minutes, thighs rubbing uncomfortably against the rough blankets. This time however, it was much faster and downhill and I hadn’t even asked him to speed up. I was bouncing high off the saddle and was sure it was going to end in a painful fall. Clinging onto the wooden pummel at the end of the saddle I willed my legs to cling on and tugged on the reigns to no avail. Samhan was excited – he was heading somewhere and he wasn’t going to slow down. Luckily just before I completely lost my balance and flew off the camel, he slowed to a walk and I saw the camel ahead had stopped by an opening in the rock. We had arrived at our new camp for the night – there was a pile of blankets and cushions laid out on the ground and a man we didn’t know was mentioning tea. Thank goodness for tea – I don’t think I’d have survived the desert without it.

Jordan is much more than desert, camels and sweet black tea – but the camel ride, the desert and sleeping beneath a canopy of stars is what I will treasure from this first visit.

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