A caravan of camels were coming to the camp to take our safari group further out to the plains. We were in the Laikipia Plains in Kenya. In the Maasai language this translates to “vast plains” and it is just that.
We were all very excited about this adventure…until the camels arrived. A dozen very angry, noisy camels were creating utter chaos in our quiet little camp. Growls were a predominant sound, but not deep like a wolf, higher, like a human. In addition there was screaming, groaning, and sobbing. (For a pretty good rendition of camel sounds, click here, and then click on “Sounds.”)
We all stood there with bewildered faces. There were several attendants for the camels, and they were running about, talking in Swahili, preparing the saddles and ropes; unconcerned with the racket. I noticed one of the camels spitting out green slime, then several more did too, shooting bright green cud in every direction.
Our guides were trying to get our attention because they had something important to tell us before we mounted our camels. But we were all so horrified by the spitting, hollering camels, that concentration was impossible.
These camels were dromedary, that is, one-humped. How does a person sit on the back of an animal that has a giant hump in the middle of its back? By the use of a saddle rig. It’s not a saddle with rich, brown leather like for horseback riding, this was a combination of a blanket and a boxy rig, designed for human rear ends to rest over the hump. We were told to hold on tightly to the front and back of the saddle.
Eventually the camels settled down and it was time to mount. The camel rests his entire body naturally on the earth, folds his legs underneath himself. You mount while they are laying down, and as soon as they feel your body on their back, they stand up. But the problem is they stand up only two legs at a time. So when the two front legs rise, you are pitched violently backward, and when the two back legs rise, you are pitched violently forward.
A roller coaster would have been easier, at least you’re secured. But I did fine.
After my heart got back to a normal fibrillating rhythm, I noticed desert hares darting around us, and the beauty of this scene began to unfold. I was about 10 feet up off the ground and could see very far. What a thrill to see a herd of elephants in the distance, lumbering toward a patch of acacia trees.
Soon we were in a rocky area and my camel lost his footing. His ungulate hooves slipped on the rocks. Helplessly, I thought we were going to go down, but he caught his balance.
They’re not a fast animal, they’re slow and stubborn. We’d been under the hot African sun a little over an hour when we arrived at our final destination, the water. Here we would disembark the camels, and the safari vehicles would take us to our next destination.
I was nervous about the upcoming dismount and my hands were already very sweaty from the heat, so I wiped them on my pants and prepared for the precarious finale. The ride was not at all what I had dreamt it would be, it was far more unsettling and frightful; but it was more beautiful and humbling than I had expected, so all in all it was a success.
The dismount went fine. I was relieved to have my boots back on the ground. If my legs hadn’t been so wobbly I would have kicked up my heels in triumph.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander