Try Riding a Camel

– by Bruce Kirkby, The Globe and Mail, July 6, 2012

If Stampede antics make you dizzy, and just the thought of clambering onto a horse’s back is daunting, just remember: It could be worse. Specifically, in the form of a 900-kilogram angry, puking camel. Rather than that fleeting moment of faith one takes when launching upward onto an unfamiliar horse – one foot in a stirrup, the other swinging precariously over the saddle – getting on a camel requires quasi-MMA skills and iron resolve.

You never know when you’ll find yourself in the oasis, needing to sit atop a camel. Sadly, reference materials and training courses are scarce. Here, then, in the spirit of the Stampede on its opening weekend, is a step-by-step guide. I’ll use single-humpers, or dromedaries, for my illustration, but the methodology for two humped bactrians is essentially the same.

The secret of success starts with your approach. For camels are mind readers. You can walk amidst a cushed (seated) herd without raising any alarm – sorting saddles, folding riding blankets, attaching halters – but the minute you ponder jumping aboard, one invariably leaps up. And then, because camels are pack animals, the whole herd is up, dashing about the dunes in pandemonium. Keep your thoughts to yourself.

Simultaneously, keep an eye on the camel’s head. These boney noggins come armed with canine teeth (camels evolved from a carnivorous ancestry) and are capable of unleashing streams of puke. Camels are ruminants, and in possession of three stomachs, giving them the uncanny ability to launch half-digested cud upon any transgressor.

Don’t fall to the temptation of saddling a camel with the usual bad rap. Problems arise not because they are mean and nasty – as is popularly imagined – but rather because they are uncannily smart and intensely sensitive. Despite their frightening appearance, camels are very emotional and, in general, are more inquisitive, affectionate and attention-seeking than a horse. Treat a camel well, and its loyalty will rival that of a dog. But mistreat it, and its fury will never fade. A bedouin once told me of a neighbour who cruelly beat a baby camel. The mother, who witnessed the lashings, waited a year before leaping through the windshield of that man’s jeep, killing him (and her). The reason camels get agitated as you approach? They know you intend to take them away from their beloved herd and home.

Now that you’ve mastered the approach, you have to wrestle the ungainly dromedary to its knees – camels are like those buses that lower to the curb so passengers can get on board. But getting a camel to the ground is no mean feat. These are enormous animals, double the size of an average horse, with heads that seem to float in the sky.

To get a camel into the curb-sitting position, it must be coerced with a guttural “khhhh” and a firm tap on a front foot with a camel stick. Slowly and ponderously, it will go down. (A herd will sit in cushed position for hours, chewing cud, all lined up like iron fillings pointing toward the sun. In just one of the glorious adaptions to the harsh desert environment, the herd constantly and imperceptibly shuffles as the sun arcs across the sky, following it head on, thus reducing their exposure to its evaporative rays.)

Now it’s your job to keep it there. Because a camel’s rise begins with its front knee, the first thing you must do is stand, with all your weight, atop its foreleg. This effectively pins it down.

When you are ready to set off, grab the reins and walk back to the hump bringing the head with you. By the time you’re standing beside the saddle, the big muscular neck is bent in half, the camel looking at its posterior, its cheek pressed firmly against your thigh. This is the camel version of a half nelson, for the neck is now pressing down on its foreleg, and it remains pinned down. Any lenience in the neck bend, and the camel will struggle out of this hold.

Of course, your steed is now upset, and a stream of puke burbles down upon your sandaled toes. Ignore this, and focus on getting one leg up and over the beast – a stretch of yogic proportions. There are no stirrups on a camel’s saddle, just a crescent of woven reeds to perch your bottom on, so grip the tufts of curly hair atop the hump for all you are worth. After glancing around to make sure your companions are all aboard their camels, slowly let the reins slide from your hands.

Now, the thick neck begins to swing forward, and as it does, the camel erupts upward very nearly tossing you off its back as it leaps to its fore-knees. Then, as its back legs extend, you’re nearly catapulted forward over its head.

And finally, if you’ve held on, you are riding at the height of a basketball net – at which point, the only thought on the camel’s mind is, “Get the pasty white Canadian off my back!”

Camels will run into thorn bushes, lie down and roll, and even work together – “Hey, you bite my rider, and I’ll bite yours” – to buck you off.

But survive the first five minutes, and the camel’s instinct to conserve energy takes over. Known by the Bedu as ata allah (God’s gift), and by early Arabian explorers as Ships of the Desert, camels will walk in an arrow-straight line, hour after hour, day after day. You can fall asleep, and they won’t veer off course. And that is more than can be said of the horse.