What sparked my interest in the wild camel

My admiration for and interest in the camel started when I first used them for transport south of Lake Chad on the Nigerian/Cameroon border. Unlike African porters, who had head-carried my kit from one place to another, my camels didn’t complain about the distance or their pay. They didn’t get roaring drunk on pay days, seduce the chief’s daughter or need their feet dusting every day with DDT to prevent jiggers from laying eggs under their toe-nails.

I also discovered that camels could go where the porters couldn’t. They could push forward for days through wilderness and wasteland on a minimum of food and water. Unlike the porters, they didn’t have to get to a village before nightfall to be content and happy. A thorn bush would suffice for food, no matter how long and sharp were the thorns. The porters were often very good companions but a camel could keep me warm on a freezing desert night if I had smeared enough kerosene over my body to keep its greedy parasitical ticks away. I ended those days of West African bush travel with great respect for the cheerfulness and stoic qualities of the porter, but with an unreserved admiration for the camel.

Later in northern Kenya, I discovered that camels could take me to places where the toughest and most sophisticated four-wheel-drive vehicle could not go. They could cross the sharp, brittle lava flows south of Lake Turkana and the mighty Omo river which feeds into it from Ethiopia. When I was almost on my knees they cheerfully withstood the great heat of the Suguta Valley and in the soft sand of river-bed ‘luggas’ they glided along at five kilometres an hour while I struggled behind to keep up with them. It seemed, as one plodded after them over rocky outcrops and watched their lower hind legs contract and extend, that they had been blessed with natural shock absorbers. From time to time pee would dribble down their hind legs to provide their bodies with an in-built cooling system.

These days and nights of travel and travail in Africa were in the company of the dromedary, the single-humped camel which has been extinct in the wild for over 2,000 years. However, in the Gobi deserts of Mongolia and China, the single-humped camel’s, double-humped cousin, the wild¬†camel, Camelus bactrianus ferus, still survives as a truly wild creature in some of the most desolate deserts in the world.

In my quest for this timid and elusive creature, I have been led into some of the most breathtakingly beautiful yet most hostile country imaginable. I have made a first crossing of the Gashun Gobi from north to south and been fortunate to stumble across a lost outpost of the ancient city of Lou Lan on the Middle Silk Road. I’ve taken camels over the forbidding Kum Tagh sand dunes, discovered a population of wildlife that had never encountered man and crossed the 200 kilometre long dried-up lake-bed of Lop Nur. Whether walking behind the domestic single or double-humped domestic variety or scanning the sky-line for their wild relative, the camel has enabled me to do what I like doing best; exploring.