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How I Foolishly Agreed to Break a Wild Camel

Some hikers use “vehicle support” when traveling quickly along a long-distance trail — that is, a driver meets them at different points along the route and resupplies them with food, water, and other equipment, thus enabling them to travel lightly. On the Abraham Path in the Sinai, hikers do the same thing, but with camels instead of cars!

“Camel support” allows hikers to use rugged trails while carrying only daypacks, while camels carry overnight equipment, food and water, and cooking gear, often along a different route. In the evening, the hikers and camels come back together to set up comfortable night camps, complete with big dinners and campfires.

But camels are also an important part of the livelihood of the Bedouin tribes who live in the area. There are few paved roads and human settlements in the mountains of the Sinai, so camels are useful for transporting people and goods, and are a key element of the local economy. Camels are valuable animals, and their owners treat them as such.

Camels are intelligent and opinionated, so their owners have to deal with them carefully. Our guides used body language, auditory signals, and small rewards to get the camels to do what the group needed them to do. One of our guides was a sort of “camel whisperer” who was known across the Sinai as particularly skilled in training the animals. 

Camels can live in the desert on their own, so rather than pen them and feed them, many Bedouin simply allow them to roam free. One might expect the animals to get stolen, but each tribe brands its camels with its own mark, and individual owners add marks of their own. When someone sees camels in the wild, they generally check to see whose they are, and then pass on the information to the next person they see.

In this way, camel owners can leave their animals in the wild for months or even years, and keep track of where they are. One of our guides said some of his animals had been out for more than a year, and the last he had heard, the females had given birth and the herd had grown. The story illustrated for us not only the place of camels in Bedouin life, but also the connections in Bedouin society that allow valuable animals to be left unsupervised for such long periods of time.

Overall, “camel support” is an arrangement that gives Abraham Path hikers the best of both worlds. During the daytime, they can explore the mountains of the Sinai freely, without the burden of a heavy, multi-day pack. In the mornings and evenings, they can get to know these fascinating animals, and catch a glimpse of how they fit into the fabric of Bedouin society in the Sinai.

It seemed like a good idea: the other two Americans on the journey had gotten to ride camels for awhile the previous day, and now it should be my turn. I had ridden camels elsewhere before as a tourist, but we all figured that if I were going to write anything about camels in the Sinai, then I should ride a camel in the Sinai.

Things quickly became complicated. We made the rounds as the camel handlers were loading everything up. Was it OK for me to ride this one, this gentle one? No, came the answer; she’s carrying enough already. What about this other nice camel? No, she’s been carrying people a lot and needs some rest. So it seemed to go for all of the camels.

Only one was left: the majnun camel, the crazy dark-haired camel that had been making us laugh for two days as it growled like Chewbacca every time anyone tried to make it do any work. Our guide told us this was a three-year-old racing camel unaccustomed to carrying people and heavy goods; it was along because its trainer, Eid, wanted it to learn.

the majnun camel

the majnun camel

Eid, it turned out, was the greatest camel-trainer in the Sinai, and I knew he wouldn’t let me ride this wild beast even if I wanted to. So I jokingly said to our guide, “Since there aren’t any others, I’ll ride the majnun camel.” The guide smiled and said no. I started off to prepare for the hike.

Then the guide called my name. I turned around and he was standing with Eid next to the wild racing camel. “Are you serious about riding this one?” he asked. “Because if you are, Eid would like someone to ride him.” Eid was nodding his head, gesturing for me to come.

So far on the trip, my general policy had pretty much been to say yes to everything. Did I want to climb this mountain before breakfast? Sure. (The climb turned out to be much harder than I thought.) Did I want to cure my stomach illness with wild herbs and dubious traditional Bedouin healing techniques that involved a painful massage of my internal organs? Yeah, OK. (It hurt a lot and didn’t work.) Would I like to try smoking a homemade cigarette made from local mountain-grown tobacco? All right. (I coughed.)

I guess that policy was why I walked over and swung my leg over the saddle of the kneeling majnun camel, even though deep down, part of me wondered if it was really a good idea to hop aboard a giant animal that had razor-sharp teeth, and whose long neck could enable those teeth to bite me in the face. My worst fears were almost realized as the camel opened its mouth, swung its head around, and bellowed angrily. Eid growled at the camel and got it under control.

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Bellowing angrily as I hop on board.

Once it got up on its feet, the camel ran in circles and tried to throw me off. I was more nervous than afraid; Eid seemed to know what he was doing. I got a little too into it and swung my arm around like a cowboy on a bucking bronco. This made the camel more angry, so I stopped.

Actually, everything I did made the camel angry. Even after Eid used a short rope to tie the camel to another camel ahead, I couldn’t move without causing the camel to bellow and rear up and try to run. If I sat completely still, the camel calmed down somewhat, but I couldn’t even reach into my pocket for my camera without an angry reaction.

I only expected to stay on the camel for half an hour or so, just to get the experience. But Eid was committed now to the training, and by extension, so was I. The rugged path took us up over high, windy passes, and I held on tight as we crested the ridges and dropped into the valleys below. I had to trust the majnun camel, but the good news was that he seemed more focused now on negotiating the narrow trail than getting me off his back.

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At that point I made the mistake of kindly patting the camel’s neck, which caused me to almost lose a finger. Eid thought this was hilarious and told me to do it again. I did it again, with the same reaction. And I suppose it was around this time that Eid and I became friends.

We stopped on a hillside and the camel guides dismounted for mid-morning prayers. I was alone now with the majnun camel and didn’t move a muscle. I was still in one piece when Eid came back, and he took out an orange and gave me half of it. We both ate and then gave the camel the peel. Something had happened now: I was still on the camel’s back, and the camel was still angry about it, but Eid pulled the camel’s head close, beckoned him closer, and gave him a kiss on the lips.

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The best camel trainer in the Sinai.

Finally at lunchtime we all dismounted, and I assumed my wild ride was over. But Eid called me back when everyone was ready to go; apparently I still had work to do. And so I rode that camel, alongside Eid and the other guides and their camels, all the way to the Blue Desert.

That was the end of the line for these guides, who were from the Muzaina tribe; going forward, we would be with the Jabaliya Bedouin the rest of the way. In the morning we bade farewell to Eid and the other men and their camels, but before they left, Eid came and gave me a big bear hug, and told me that if I ever came back to Sinai, I would ride that camel again.

My time on the back of the majnun camel might have been the best time I had in the Sinai, and it wasn’t because I didn’t have to do the walking. It was because for a little while, I got to play a small role in the everyday lives of these men and their animals. I like to think that today, that crazy camel might be a little less crazy, and someone might be benefiting from that fact.

To anyone who hikes the Abraham Path across the Sinai after this, I humbly suggest that the “yes” approach to the trip — taking every opportunity to do new things and be a part of that rich and beautiful place — is a good one. Be foolish, within reason, and ride a majnun camel if you get the chance.

But don’t under any circumstances submit to the internal-organ massage. Say no to that one.

by Shay Rabineau

Pictures by Evan Bryant