Travelling with camels: a practical guide

by Charles on March 7, 2013

1.         Why use camels?

1.1       The alternatives are feet and vehicles. Vehicles are boring, unreliable and hopeless in mountains and serious sand. Feet cannot carry for any significant distances the food and (particularly) water needed to keep them going. So unless the desert area you are in is not a proper desert, you cannot rely on feet.

1.2       So the main reason why you should use camels is that unless you do your expedition will fail and you may well die. Camels are temperamental, sometimes violent, and take a lot of getting used to. But most of the classic desert journeys have been done with them, and one photograph of a camel is worth a thousand photographs of an air-conditioned Land Cruiser.

2.         What sort of terrain can be crossed?

2.1       Sand, obviously. And rocky and mountainous areas if the camels are used to it. If they are not, rocks will cut their feet to ribbons.

2.2       All dromedaries hate mud and are pretty miserable in all wet weather. I know nothing about Bactrians.

3.         Should you hire or buy?

3.1       For long expeditions you should consider buying. Unless you have extensive experience of camels, supreme self confidence,  a knowledge of the local camel trade  and a lot of time on your hands, you should delegate the buying and the subsequent selling on to someone local who knows the business. He will take a big cut, but it should not be as big as that taken by the man who hires camels out to you.

3.2       If you intend to buy, build into the expedition schedule time to try out your wares. If you buy on a Monday and set out into the dunes on the Tuesday you need urgent psychiatric help.

3.3       For short expeditions you would be insane to buy. Hiring more or less guarantees the provision of an animal which is capable of staggering round the course.4.         What to look for in an expedition camel

4.1       There are lots of types of dromedary, and there is a vast and fascinating literature which compares and contrasts them. The ones you are most likely to come across are the Mehara (in the Sahara), the Hageen (in Egypt), the Dilool (in Arabia) and the Beja and Anafi (Sudan and lots of East Africa). Camels have now been bred for so long in Australia that the old African and Arabian labels probably can’t be accurately applied there any more.

4.2       Although all this is very interesting and impressive around the campfire, it is almost certainly completely irrelevant to your expedition. Whether you are hiring or buying camels, what you need to be able to do is to pick out from the limited selection available the least undesirable ones.

4.3       Set out below are some specific points to bear in mind. But when you first start looking at camels you will be horrified at how gangly, weedy and unco-ordinated they all look. Most of your expeditions will be done on board animals who defy physics and geometry with every step.

4.4       Feet

Front feet should be straightish. The hind feet should be turned out slightly. Smaller,  feet are preferable for camels operating in mountainous or very rocky territory. These camels will have to mince around obstacles. Big, dinner plate feet spread the weight well and are ideal in a camel trekking over soft sand.

Uneven wear of feet, like uneven wear of shoes, indicates poor conformation or action. While it might not matter in a milk-producing paddock animal, it can matter when you are six weeks from home and carrying heavy loads.

Camels’ feet always look appallingly scarred and cracked. Take no notice unless the animal is obviously lame in the foot.

Legs

The “elbows” should stand well clear of the chest pad. The front legs should be straight and close together. The books all say that cow-hocked camels are a disaster. I have never seen an expedition animal which isn’t, from the rear, a horse-buyer’s nightmare. An overall picture of robustness is much more important than any fancy points about conformation.

Hump

This should be firm, not flabby.

5.         Camels, heat and water

5.1       This subject is not just of academic interest. In order to get the most of your camels, you need to know the basics of the design characteristics which allow them to deal with deserts.

5.2       Adaptations for heat and water conservation

–           a long and narrow body which the camel angles so as to present the smallest possible surface area directly to the sun

–           a relatively large surface area per unit weight, which increases the efficiency of heat loss from the skin

–           fat is localised in the hump, which means that the rest of the body is a more efficient radiator than it would be if it were smothered with subcutaneous fat

–           body temperature can, for a homeotherm, fluctuate very dramatically. In the heat of the day the body is a great thermal reservoir. At night all the sun flows out into the sand.

–           there is a very dense network of capillaries lying just beneath the surface of the skin which allow rapid heat loss

–           the hair insulates well against incoming radiation. It is also shiny and reflects heat. Erector pili muscles allow the hairs to stand upright, which facilitates evaporation from the surface of the skin. Do not shave your camel. It might lose 50% more water than a hairy one.

–           they have a very low respiratory rate. This reduces water loss and also reduces heat generation.

–           a large volume of body water can be lost without increasing blood viscosity to dangerous levels. This is partly because they have oval erythrocytes (which are very good at squeezing through sludge), and partly because plasma volume is maintained at the expense of tissue fluid. Camels have been recorded as losing water amounting to 40% of body weight without ill-effect. But don’t rely on this.

–           they simply have a lower water requirement per unit weight than most mammals

–           they can drink vast quantities of water at once to compensate for fluid loss. If a dehydrated cow drank like a dehydrated camel, it would probably die. The camel’s secret is to absorb water very slowly from the gut. This avoids the vertiginous osmotic gradients which would kill the cow. Those oval erythrocytes also play a part: they can swell to 240% of normal size without bursting (the limit is 150% for most other species).

–           their kidneys have a phenomenal power to concentrate urine. Camel urine can have twice the salt content of sea water and be as thick as golden syrup.

–           the colon removes water very efficiently from the faeces.

5.3       Foraging camels get most of their water from the plants they eat. But as a general rule you should aim to water your camels every 3 days or so. You can condition camels to do without water for longer. This is done very gradually, over a period of about a month, by progressively increasing the period of absence from water. Do this properly and you can produce camels which can do without water for over 10 days.

5.4       Before a long, waterless section, keep the camels from water for a while until just before you start. Then let them tank up to the gills.

6.         Feeding

6.1       Camels cope without water much better than without food. They need to be given something to eat every day. If there will be nothing to browse on, you will need to carry hay, alfalfa or, if the camels are used to it, grain. If you feed grain, try to grind it into a mash.

7.         How fast do they go?

7.1       Like everything else, camels aren’t what they were. Do not be encouraged by the accounts of the great desert travellers. They were better men than us, and were probably lying anyway, and they were riding camels which were used to going for many days at full pelt over the most hellish land and then charging into artillery fire at the end. The wrecks you get in the modern camel markets of Omdurman and Cairo are degenerate great-great-great-great-grandchildren of them and their forebears would be desperately ashamed of them.

7.2       Racing camels gallop at about 35 km per hour, and keep this average up over about 10 km. A champion can hit 65 km per hour, but not for long. Averages for the other paces are 4 km per hour for the walk, 16 km per hour for the trot and 27 km per hour for the canter. For expedition purposes forget about everything but the walk.

7.3       For a lot, if not all of the time, your camels will simply be porters. They will carry your kit, and you will walk alongside them, leading them. So the expedition pace will be your foot pace.

8.         Riding styles

8.1       Don’t worry about style: just worry about staying on.

8.2       The Baltimore housewives who ride the camels at Giza all sit on the saddle with one leg dangling each side, as if they were riding a horse. If they kept that up for half a day instead of half an hour, they would have no skin at all on their buttocks. The only sensible way to ride is with one leg more or less straight, with the foot resting on or near the camel’s neck, and the other leg crooked round the pommel of the saddle and curled down near the other leg.

8.3       There is a single bridle. This might simply be a rope attached to a nose ring, or a rope attached to a head collar or halter. You hold the rope with one hand, a (very sparingly used) stick in the other, and steer mainly with the feet and legs.

9.         Loading

9.1       Try not to average more than 300 lb per camel. A camel in decent condition and provided with decent food and water, should, though, be able to carry 600 lb.

9.2       Symmetry in loading is very important. An unbalanced camel is an unhappy one.

9.3       Remember that the forelegs of the camel are much more powerful than the hind legs. In practice, since you will load things on and around the saddle, which stands fairly far forward, you will inevitable get the front legs bearing the right proportion of the weight.

10.       The travelling day

10.1     Most people get up early, feed themselves, and make an early start in the cool of the day, stopping in the late morning, hopefully in shade, and tying up or hobbling the camels during the midday heat. They would then start up again and walk into the evening before making camp.

10.2     I don’t like this myself. But a lot of that distaste comes from my loathing of those endless lunchtimes rather than from cool logistical assessment. I  agree with Francis Rodd that one long march is a lot better, and tend to think that if it is too hot to travel well in the middle of the day, one might as well cut one’s losses and do all the travelling by night. But it is rarely too hot to travel in the middle of the day. The real reason why your guides will tell you that they must stop is because they have always  done it that way. That is often a very good reason for doing something a particular way, but I’m not convinced in this case. A lot of energy is spent unloading, hobbling, catching and reloading camels. I would rather spend that energy making miles.

11.       Veterinary issues

The best basic book is Field Manual of Camel Diseases: Traditional and Modern Veterinary Care for the Dromedary, by Ilse Kohler Rollefson, Paul Mundy and Evelyn Mathias: Published 2001 by Intermediate Technology: ISBN 185339503X.

{ 4 comments }

Faraz March 13, 2013 at 1:58 am

Very interesting! I walked for two months across this Gobi Desert with bought Bactrian camels carrying food and water, and many of these pointers ring true for them too. An uneven load certainly does not a happy camel make!

BiodiaEsogs April 25, 2013 at 10:43 pm

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Zener February 25, 2014 at 9:23 am

I enjoyed the article and have only one question. What is the average price for a decent expedition camel?

Charles February 25, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Many thanks. Massively variable – with country, place in country, time of year, type/age/gender/condition etc etc. So can’t give any remotely useful general advice, I’m afraid.

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