Monday, 18 November 2013

Kevin the Camel - Morocco 2003

Morocco, May 2003.

It’s a pity I can’t find travelling companions. But if I have to go on these adventures alone, then so be it.
Marrakesh was unchanged since Michele and I had been here a quarter of a century ago in 1978. My hotel was a stone’s throw from the famous Djemma el Fnaa, the square where snake charmers and soothsayers and food sellers and jugglers and magicians would gather at dusk. The drumbeats would thud across the air; the breezes would throw up great wafts of aromatic smoke from the braziers grilling lamb cutlets. 

The rough plan from here was to take a bus up into the Atlas mountains and then walk down to the fringes of the Sahara. Maybe buy a bike off somebody and free-wheel down. On my first full day in Marrakesh I rose early and strolled through the souks. The morning sky was mostly obscured by the great lattices of wood that protect agains the sun. The place was still asleep. Here and there would be piles of rotting rubbish being scavenged by starving bony cats. In one little spur, the cockerels stuffed into dozens of cages were crowing the dawn. Next to them asleep on a bench, an arab wrapped up in his whatchamacallit. What an uncomfortable place to sleep!  

I decided to pay through the nose for a (shock, horror) organized trip by Landrover. We would sleep out among the nomads for two nights, getting there on camelback.

Our team consisted of a German couple, a pair of British women, an (as the song says) American lady five foot tall and (bringing up the rear) (as usual) myself.

Mary Manaker, straight from the Crosby Stills & Nash song

It was now the second evening of our excursion. The Landrover had deposited us at a hotel on the rim of the sand dunes where we were obliged to deposit our baggage, and as the shadows lengthened, our little caravan was plodding rythmically along the wind-crust side of  dune after dune. With the total tranquility of the desert, the rhythmic delicate-footed plodding of the camels, and the vivid primary colours, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Choosing my moment, I snapped our shadow projected onto a dune to our left. At the rear of the shadow, my own silhouette on top of Kevin’s. I would whisper into his fine woolly ear that I really respected him; was honoured to be transported in such style and comfort by such a fine beast. Unlike the other camels, Kevin was very interested in where we were going, and unlike the other dullards content to view the hindquarters of the camel in front, he was moving left and right to get a better look. This resulted in his nose rope becoming detached. Oh the freedom! Kevin carried on walking, and only we two knew that we were free. And then Kevin came to a standstill and, despite my best efforts to encourage him forward, refused to budge. What did Peter O'Toole shout to get his camel going? "Hut, hut!" This attracted the attention of the guide, who came back to tie us on again, our brief moment of freedom ending. I nagged Kevin mercilessly for his lack of enterprise all the way to our overnight stop.
But God was in his heaven; all was right with the world.


As dusk crept on, we spied our destination. A family of desert nomads were our hosts for the night. The wizened old nanny stayed in her tent. The man’s wife was preparing a great plate of rice and chicken. We sat in the dinner tent, crosslegged, gradually getting cramp, and shared the feast. Afterwards we sat out on rugs, getting to know the family better, and being sung to by the dad and the camel driver: tuneful rhythmic songs accompanied by an improvised drum – a large plastic water jerrycan. After hours of stargazing, and spotting satellites passing overhead on polar orbits, we went off to sleep in a great tent decorated inside with metallic spangles.


Awoken in the early hours of the morning by the discomfort of my saddle sores, I reached back into my pants and detached the cloth from my supporating buttocks. The sound was like a piece of velcro being ripped away. This could be dangerous – in these high temperatures, a wound becomes quickly infected. Even minor grazes on the back of one’s hand would turn dark red and ominous. Foolishly I had left my medical kit back at the hotel in my rucksack. Furthermore, before we had gone to bed, the daddy nomad had presented his son to me. The lad had an eye infection, aggravated by sand. A week before I had gone to the pharmacy in Oakengates and explained that I needed eye-drops in case I met some nomads with just this condition. (The Lonely Planet Guide had said expressly that eye drops were prized by the nomads.) 

But my eye drops and my arse-powder were eight kilometres away from our encampment, sitting uselessly in my sodding ruckasack. I therefore had two reasons for nipping back to the hotel before the camp awoke. In my pocket was my Satnav GPS. In its memory was the precise location of the hotel. I had the ‘navigational capability’ to cross this short stretch of the Sahara, collect eyedrops and arse-repair-kit, and get back to the encampment before the others awoke. 

Without disturbing the others, I sneaked out of the tent, left a little note to explain my absence, and took off in the direction of the hotel. 

In my readings of Wilfred Thesiger, he had explained something of the art of desert navigation. You need to be judicious in choosing your course. Straight line travel is of course impossible. It now began to make sense. On the windward side of a sand dune, the surface is harder; there is a crust. If you take the other side, where the sand is being deposited, you will sink in and your boots will fill with sand. So there is an art to choosing your course. 

At one stage the previous evening we had debated why a camel’s front feet were bigger than his rear feet. The answer lies in specific loading. Given that a camel must stay on top of the wind crust, if the weight-per-square-inch is too high, he will break through the crust and be a less useful camel; a camel to be killed and eaten rather than a camel for transport and breeding. This is Darwinian selection under human guidance. The camel’s front feet carry more load than the rear do (since the head and neck and front torso weigh down on the front) but only the hindquarters weigh down on the rear. So, in summary, the ideal camel has a uniform kilos-per-square-centimetre because of his big front feet.

Arriving back at the hotel before dawn, I woke up one the staff (sleeping outside on a hard wooden bench), gained access to the depository, reclaimed my medical kit, then retraced my steps. I got to within a few hundred metres of our camp and spotted tents. That must be it, I thought. But in fact it was the neighbours. Filthy children were climbing all over their parents. The old dad made me a coffee. I gave them some token – aspirins or something – and wrote down all their names in the back of my phrasebook. When I got back to our encampment, I was given a good telling off by Monica, a school teacher from Surrey, for my foolhardiness. “Really, Brent, if you had perished out there, Mohammed would have lost his job.” Rather than debating the differences between British and Moroccan employee-liability, I took it on the chin and agreed with her, the busybody.

The Nomad Family

We never really made it up. Monica bitterly disputed my decision the next day to jump ship on the final leg back to Marrakesh and go out on my own. Having had a bellyfull of her criticism, I snapped back, “Monica, this is a question of self-sufficiency,” which I think made her shed a bureaucratic tear or two. Some people, eh! They want to rub shoulders with uncivilized people, but still behave by the codes of Orpington. In the Atlas Mountains, thirty miles from Marrakech, I chose my moment to have the Landrover stop. The plan was to walk solo up the Ounila valley. Several famous films have been made here: Gladiator at Ait ben Haddou; James Bond films; films on ancient Egypt (golden sphinxes can still be seen!).  

Stock photo of Ait ben Haddou

As a peace offering, upon my leaving the Landrover Monica presented me with an olive branch, a Jewish symbol of good will. She and her friend had been making a big thing of being Jewish. Fine by me. I made my way up the valley through Berber villages, where the women look you square in the eye rather than looking all shifty and oppressed and be-veiled as muslim women do. In the centuries following the arab invasion, the indigenous Berbers (hence the expression Barbary Coast) had fought like wildcats to remain independent.

On the previous and final night of the organized trip, we stayed in in a hotel. Having made my decision to jump ship, I went out in search of supplies, especially bottled water. In a shop, I agreed a price and said I would come back later to collect my nine litres. “Right, I’ll see you later,” I said. He replied, “Insh’Allah.” (If Allah permits.) “No, I really will be back later.” “Yeah, yeah… Insh'Allah.” The point is that, as an Englishman who keeps his promises, I would definitely come back. But in their minds, all future events depend on Allah allowing one to do so. This is one of the fundamental psychological differences which separate us and them. Progress (so-called) is impeded by the notion that some higher being controls one’s fate. Which viewpoint is correct? We could argue for ever. But the charming, natural, technology-free existence that is such a relief from our media-saturated Western lives would be destroyed if they thought like westerners. 


 So far, I have only nibbled at the desert; only made a few faltering steps into a hostile environment which does not forgive mistakes. But as the years pass, my competence and judgment become increasingly refined. I have missed the opportunity to be a serious explorer, but I can still push the limits within my own modest horizons. My desert trip in Iran was real - I use this expression deliberately. What do I mean by real?  

The rides at Alton Towers are exciting. Designed by highly competent engineers, they give us all the benefit of a scary experience without any risk. It is not real; it is fake. Surfing is real, as is parachuting or being buried in an avalanche. When we meet indigenous people in the villages their ancestors have inhabited for millenia, that is real. When they dress up and perform in a posh hotel, they are not real.  

I do not have a full definition of words such as real  and authentic. But I do know that in my search for original experience and unique experience I cannot tolerate being spoon-fed by somebody. Television does that for us; on holiday it has to be REAL. 

In Iran one morning, upon leaving my room, I met a man dressed in olive-green baggy suit and big baggy turban: by all appearance a sodding mujahedeen. In an English accent he asked me, “Is that room free, mate?” Fascinated, I asked him his story. This bloke had just traversed Afghanistan. (This was at a time, October 2002) when American and British forces were attacking much of the country to root out the Al Quaeda terrorists who had flown planes into New York’s twin towers.) He proudly told me of a twenty-hour taxi ride across the desert (“the driver said that if he stopped at any of these villages they’d kill me”) and paying for armed guards to stand outside his hotel room while he slept.  

I blurted out, “Afghanistan? Jesus, mate! Have you got a death wish?” To my surprise, he twinkled “Yeah”, full of himself, the silly young sod. 

Which brings me to the following conclusion: some of us are prepared to accept a certain degree of danger to experience something, er, profound or worthwhile; some of us, in contrast, deliberately court danger. The former is rational; the latter irrational. 

Over the years, as I have gone from an underequipped rookie getting hypothermia in the Black Mountains of Wales to somebody capable of crossing a smidgin of the Sahara, I have gradually been building capability. I would say that the level of danger on these increasingly ambitious ventures has been constant.  

To experience a desert is reminiscent of going close to a large dangerous beast. Provided you know enough of the beast’s behaviour, and provided you are appropriately equipped, it can be done in safety. Put another way, it can be done with an acceptable degree of risk. 


In Morocco, one little experiment I tried was a flop. When our Landrover had stopped off in a town on Day 4 I went in search of a digging tool. I wanted to try digging for water. No such trowel or mattock was to be found, so I bought a hammer in a harware shop, then found a little fabrication bloke and had him weld a plate onto the head. This would be my digging implement.

Up in the High Atlas, I located a gulley where vegetation grew. My theory that at the bottom of the ‘vee’ water might be found was a complete waste of time. No chance. My digging disturbed the most magnificent lizard, its pink-spotted head the size of a ping pong ball. 

Anyway the digging, whilst making me very thirsty, revealed not even damp sand. The exercise was not worth the effort. As a potential life-saver, a mattock is not to be counted on… 

The long walk (maybe 30 km, maybe 40) to Telouet was well worth it. I spent a night next to a stream; another on a ledge above a village and, snug in my sleeping bag, found a parasite attached to my flesh. Eek! Gerritoff! I had a cuppa in the sad hovel of an arab family whose kids demanded that I come to their house. They showed me a big cardboard box sent by a French plumber who had stayed with them. He and his wife had sent clothes and toys for the kids, big colour photos and loads more. There are some good people out there.

The vivedness, the romance and atmosphere of riding camels out into a sand sea at dusk is profoundly satisfying.

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