Karen Custer Thurston
How To Ride A Camel: Tips From the Saddle
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Have you ever dreamt of riding a camel? As you'll soon learn, it's not what you would expect but IT WILL make for an unforgettable adventure....
Before I rode camels in India’s Thar desert and the Sahara of Morocco, I’d only seen them ridden in movies. My daughter suggested both desert multi-day treks on those international trips. I thought, why not? As an avid horseback rider, I thought “I’ll just be higher off the ground.”
Both deserts were exceedingly hot by day so I chose to wear cotton pants, long sleeved shirts, tennis shoes with socks, sunglasses, the ugliest ever hat and applied heaps of sunscreen, often re-applied over sweaty skin during the fiery days. My good clothes were left behind since I would be sleeping in blankets, used by the masses, and sitting near a wood smoke fire in the evenings.
I wasn’t prepared for fine sand blowing up my nose, in my face, eyes and my expensive camera lens. I wasn’t prepared for my pants to ride up exposing skin to the sun and giving me that ‘high water’ look. In the photos, I did not look like the actors in the movies. I looked like a goober.
I was surprised how mesmerized I was with the camel’s feet, which are specifically suited for sand. I would lean to one side and watch the hoof splay out with weight, then contract when lifted. Over and over, every step. Magical.
I also was unprepared for how I would devour the dinner prepared by our guides on the fragrant wood fire. In the Sahara, we ate a mouthwatering, savory chicken tagine and rice. We ate with our hands which seemed so natural.
My tutorial for a first-time camel rider:
1. Take a good look at your reclining camel before doing much of anything. Stay away from the big, yellow teeth. Camels will spit, bite, chew and kick sideways. Gauge its height if there is a standing camel nearby. Picture your precipitous drop to the ground from the saddle in order to get a grip of the situation when the camel stands. 8-10 feet is a good guess. Try not to stand downwind of your camel or breathe through your nose. Check out the long neck, which, I can assure you, can whip around, like a dragon, and be in your face in a heartbeat. Keep in mind that you paid money for this experience.
2. Ask anyone nearby how it feels when the camel stands up because quite a few people fall off when their camel stands. You REALLY don't want to be one of those people. Make your friends promise not to photograph this if it happens. Since your friends will lie, check their cameras afterwards.
3. Approach your camel with authority. I’m laughing as I write that. You are now signaled by the camel driver to get on. He might be smirking. Swing your leg over the saddle, which is nearly chest high. On my trips, various camel drivers have pushed my bum to get me up in the saddle. Since I was using both hands to pull myself into position, I was unable to severely hurt the ‘helpful’ drivers.
a. The saddle sits atop thick cushions and pads, with pieces of luggage and cooking pots and pans piled behind the place for your bum. This makes quite a stacked heap to swing your leg over. Ladies: Do. Not. Wear. A. Skirt.
b. The width of the saddle is akin to riding a pregnant Clydesdale draft mare, with additional blanket pads. At this stage, prophylactic Ibuprofen would not be amiss.
4. The camel is signaled to stand. The hind legs straighten, causing you to lurch forward onto the 10 by 2 inch upwardly projectile saddle horn for a rib cage puncture and see the camel's ears up close and personal. You will detect a distinct camel fragrance at this time. The front legs straighten, causing you to lurch backward, hitting your head on all the aluminum pans and empty, 2 gallon plastic oil containers strapped on behind you. Truly a rodeo experience but without the championship belt buckle. Gain extra rodeo points for executing these movements with one arm flailing about, just like a bull rider.
Much later on, when you ‘dismount’, your steed will bend the front legs, pitching you precipitously forward. Then the hind legs bend, slamming you suddenly backwards towards those familiar pans and oil containers.
5. Now that you and the camel are upright, realize that you must not drop anything—sunglasses, hat, scarf, water bottle. If you drop anything, the guides will not take the time to help you down. They will stalk back, pick up your dropped item and hand it to you with a shaming look. And, know that when the camel drivers are talking and laughing, they are talking about you.
6. You now see you have no reins. Your camel is connected to the camel driver ahead of you by a nose plug and rope. It dawns on you that you have absolutely no control over this huge beast. Remember that you paid money for this experience.
7. You then see there are NO STIRRUPS on camel saddles. With no stirrups, you weight is loaded onto your spine and bum.
8. You realize, as you sort out how far various body parts are rapidly adjusting to the width of the saddle, saddle pads and camel’s girth, that you will be walking funny for days after. And, there is now no possible way to get to your Ibuprofen.
9. The lead camel rider sets off at a walk. After an hour, numbness dulls the inside thigh pain, back pain and bum pain. You might begin to think of Lawrence of Arabia and romantic settings against the Moroccan or Indian sun. You might begin to think you can handle this. You might begin to relax.
10. Without warning, the lead camel man kicks his mount into a trot. All camels are connected by nose pegs and rope so, ergo; all camels pick up the trot. Tourists have no reins, no stirrups, no 'seat'. ‘Seat’ means the quality of how you sit in the saddle. You have no seat. You are a bouncing bag of potatoes hitting a hard surface. And, you have no idea when the lead camel driver will stop trotting. He might look back and grin since camel guides lead uneventful lives. You wonder how long he will trot.
11. Your kidneys, tailbone, lower back, lumbar and neck are at full alert. 'Riding off into the Sunset' will never evoke the same image again.
And just remember, you paid good money for this.
Copyright Karen Custer Thurston 2020
Unsplash: Savvas Kalimeris, Frederico Guttierez, Jacob Jacobsy, Youhanna Nassif