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It is impossible to overstate the importance and the value of a camel to the Bedouin. This "ship of the desert" allowed them to cover long distances, often at high speed, and ensured them their independence from authority for centuries before the arrival of cars, jeeps and airplanes. If they met trouble in one place, they could be a hundred kilometers away in 24 hours. It is not surprising that they called the camel "The gift of God" ("Ata Allah").
Camels have been throughout history a source of riches and of survival for nomad tribes. Their strength and endurance have served in trade and in war. Their wool, their milk and their meat are useful in everyday life. They are comfortable with people and often enjoy being caressed. Many of them attach themselves to their owner, and are actively unhappy when separated from him for any period of time. During wars, the Bedouin claimed that even if a camel is mortally wounded during a fight, he will not succumb before having carried his rider out of the battle and out of danger before allowing himself to fall.
Although camels do appear to sneer at one, and the noises they make can sound very menacing, most camels are docile and even friendly creatures. I agree they do slobber! But the Bedouin seem to consider their camel as an intimate friend, they are proud of them, and will boast about them on the slightest provocation. I have known more than one wife (or girlfriend) complain that "his camel comes first"!
To simplify, camels can very generally be divided into three types: the burden bearing camel, the racing camel and the milk camel. A male camel is known as a "jamal" (the generic name for a camel), a female as a "naga", and a young camel as a "warh".
Burden bearing camels are the most common camel in Arab countries. You can see the difference in its larger size, its strength and its endurance. It can, in case of need, remain more than 2 months without drinking and 2 weeks without eating, although when given the chance it will drink and eat every day.
It is the riding camel the most frequently used. These camels are able to carry loads as heavy as 900 pounds, although normally they will only carry a third of that. Its hide provides tents for shelter, and the meat is said to be similar to veal, although a little tougher.
The racing camel are mainly to be found in the Arab peninsula where camel racing is becoming a very popular sport. it stands out by its long legs, a fine body and a small hump. It is reputed for its intelligence, its strong will and its courage.
An ordinary riding camel will normally proceed at about 5/6 kms/hour, its fastest racing speed being perhaps 20kms/hour, but a racing camel can reach 40km/hour, sometimes more. Their endurance is astonishing: although a good camel can cover 50 or 60 kms a day for several successive days, over 100kms in 12 hours is not extraordinary. A very good camel can cover 120 or 130kms in 12 hours. Some specially bred camels have been known to continue at racing speed for up to 18 hours. If you calculate the distance this covered, you can see just how valuable they were to the Bedouin and why they earned their name.
In the photo above you can see a young Bedouin racing a camel. He is leaning right back against the saddle, since like this, practically lying against the camel's rump, he is not bounced around at this speed as he would be if he was sitting on a normal saddle in the normal way. I am even told that this position is very comfortable! The saddle here is not for sitting upon, but to stop him sliding forward.
You can see the difference between the two types of saddle. The riding saddle is made of wood and is very solid. It is customary to pad it heavily with blankets which the Bedouin will use for sleeping. The brightly coloured saddle bags, woven by the women from goats' wool, can contain a considerable weight, often as much as a hundred kilos, sometimes more. A camel saddle and its harness is also decorated with tassels and woven ribbons to make the camel look even more handsome!
The milk camel or breeding camel is raised for the quality of her milk and fur. She is often allowed to wander alone with her herd in the desert and is also used to bring water and food for the Bedouin camp. Happy in human company, she will mark out her territory and will come back to her master's camp in the evening for the night. The "herd matriarch" will lead the rest of her family home.
Camel milk is more nutritious than cow's milk since it is heavy in protein. It is one of the basic ingredients of a traditional Bedouin diet (it carries little fat, does not curdle and is difficult to turn into cheese). It is said that a Bedouin who only owns a female camel and her young one is a rich man, since he can cover long distances and is nourished mainly from the camel milk. I have heard several stories of Bedouin who live alone in the desert and who live on camel milk. You can see from this photo how the camel's udder is high up between her legs, and largely protected - quite unlike a cow's udder.
A female camel will carry a baby for 12 months before it is born, and it will be nourished on her milk for a year. Twin babies are unheard of. Most camels will live for about 30 years.
Camel milk has also a number of medicinal uses; it is recommended in cases of muscular diseases, in cases of sterility and more recently camel milk and also camel urine is being studied as remedies for cancer.
Camels in Jordan and in Wadi Rum
Fifty and even thirty years ago, literally thousands of camels could be seen in the desert areas of Jordan, where today you will only find a few dozen. The coming of the jeep, the arrival of good roads (the road to Petra only exists since the 1960's) and especially the lack of rain in the last ten or fifteen years have all contributed to their virtual disappearance.
A specialist can recognise the country from which a camel comes. There are distinct differences between Saudi, Iraqi and Jordanian camels, divided into families in each country, where different characteristics have appeared in each Bedouin family's breeding policies. In Jordan, for instance, in the south and in the Bedouin tribes, one finds the Habdat camels, the Haizat, al Gout, Ashaelah, etc.
While the main money earner for most of the Bedouin in Wadi Rum is undoubtedly tourism, several people concentrate on breeding racing camels for the Saudi Arabian market. As I said higher up, camel racing is becoming increasingly popular there, and the Saudis are always on the lookout for a good prospect. Camel races are organised in the district, often at Dissieh and at Humeima, where camels can change hands for high sums - by which I mean several thousand dinars, sometimes tens of thousands of dinars. This means that many of the camels offered to tourists for riding are in practice racing camels which are "left over" or which have not yet proved their worth. If you see an Arabic number marked in indelible ink on the camel's neck, this shows that it has in fact participated in a race - it might even have won it!
A special breed, something in between the heavy and the racing camel is developing in Wadi Rum. They are happy with people and usually enjoy being caressed. They are bred in the desert and live there until they are full grown (at 4 years old) and then they are trained for a year by the Zilabia tribesmen until they are judged suitable for novices to ride. These camels are popular with tourists, and camel treks of several days are often organised. Look closely at the photos below of camels with tourists and you will see the long legs of the racing camel.
Camel trekking in the Wadi Rum area
While most tourists in Wadi Rum looking for "a camel ride" will be happy riding around for an hour or so with the camel led by a small boy, more and more people are interested in the true desert experience of a longer trek. Even a short trek of a day or so, guiding their own camels, with a Bedouin guide riding beside them, is infinitely more rewarding than the semi obligatory promenade around the Rest House.
The specialised camel guides in Wadi Rum are all from the Zilabia tribe, and were born and live in the desert here. Every boy will start to ride a camel when he is very young, many of them have participated in the camel races organised nearby - some of them did so when they were seven years old! They know both the camels and the territory intimately, are capable of dealing with illnesses and injuries to the animals, and many of them will choose to ride their camel rather than moving around in a jeep.
They will explain to any tourist who seems to be interested how to saddle a camel, how to groom it, and the words of command to control it - a camel responds as much to the rider's voice as to the rein. Many of the sounds to be made are greeted with hilarity by the neophyte riders, who thoroughly enjoy "speaking camel'!
During a trek of any length, the tourist is expected to look after his own camel; to groom it, saddle and unsaddle it and bring it water and feed it. All this helps to establish the essential partnership between the rider and the mount. A camel is a proud and noble animal, and deserves the same care and consideration as does a horse. It can be a true companion. It is in these conditions that the traveller, spending even a short time in the desert, can nevertheless understand the sensations of the nomads who rode through these lands before the arrival of the jeep. He will quickly sense when the camel is uneasy or uncomfortable and will learn to look after it when the "caravan" halts.
Almost anybody in very modest physical condition can ride a camel and learn to control it very quickly. Unlike a horse no special training is necessary, no special costume, no rules to remember. A few stretches each morning will help to remove any stiffness from the night - and you are ready to set out!
As said above, it is possible to do a "tourist" ride on a camel for an hour or so, usually a camel led by a small boy. Obviously like this you will not cover more than a few kilometers. With a mounted camel guide on his own camel, you do better. Unless you are unsure of yourself you will be guiding the camel yourself after the first quarter of an hour, and a trip will probably cover ten or fifteen kilometers. These camels will be of a better quality than the others, and more responsive.
After this camel treks can last as long as you wish! Few people have the time to spend more than two or three days, and these treks will usually wander in an arc around Wadi Rum village. You do not plunge into the further reaches of the desert here unless you have at least five days or more. A camel will do about 40kms in a day. At the end of a day's trekking, the guide will settle on a place to bivouac out in the open. For small groups, mattresses and blankets are provided, usually brought out in the evening by a support vehicle which will also bring food and water - for the camels as well as the riders. On longer treks you will be asked to bring sleeping bags with you, since the vehicle will not be returning to base every day.
This is real nomad living, and you might well be startled by the difference!
Saleem's dream is to arrange a series of camel treks covering most of Jordan, possibly re-creating some of T.E. Lawrence's famous rides - but at a more reasonable speed! For the moment he is concentrating on camel treks in and around Wadi Rum - the area of which is far bigger than most tourists can imagine!
Some of the possible camel treks
Within the Wadi Rum desert : from one to ten days, visiting the well known sites or plunging deep into the desert far from the tourist tracks to explore the area close to the Saudi Arabian frontier.
From Wadi Rum to Aqaba : About 5 days' trekking in a great circle around Rum Village to finish by taking the desert road to Aqaba through Wadi Daega. Tourists finish the trek by fifteen minutes in a taxi - the camels will return to Wadi Rum in a truck.
From Petra to Wadi Rum (or vice versa) : About 7 days through the Kharazeh area - again the camels do the return trip by truck.
From Wadi Rum to Mudawara and back again : A trek lasting about 8 days to do the round trip, through Wadi Al Hozan et Abu Sowan area.
The last two are harder than a simple circuit around Wadi Rum, since much of the time the camel guides are unable to use mobile phones in case of difficulty, and a 4x4 vehicle must accompany them with back up equipment and food, water and bedding. The Mudawarra trip is particularly difficult in this regard.
Guides offering camel trekking
Just about all of the guides in Wadi Rum, and in all of the Bedouin villages, can organise a camel trek for you. The standards might be different, it is worth going to a good guide, who will provide reliable and friendly camels and whose arrangements can be trusted. On the whole it is not an economy to look for the cheapest price.
Since it is Saleem who has helped me so much with the making of this page, it would be unfair not to start with him! Saleem has a tourist company, based in Wadi Rum, but which can make arrangements for your holiday throughout Jordan. Its name is Jordan Tracks and its website is at www.jordantracks.com. You can reach him at email@example.com, by phone at +962.796.482.801 and at +962.795.298.046. Fax at +9126.96.36.19989. Other guides in Wadi Rum are given on the page entitled "Useful contacts in Wadi Rum")
The price of these treks in Wadi Rum is usually around 60JD per day, which includes all meals (see the page on Tours of Wadi Rum). The longer treks, however, which will go perhaps 100kms away from the village, sometimes more, tend to be more expensive, needing a full time vehicle and driver and also a more experienced and responsible guide.
See also the web page "Two Bedouin friends and their camels"