We didn't rush to get up the next morning, because the camels didn't go till half-past three, but after the usual trouble finding somewhere to eat - it was the middle of Ramadan - we presented ourselves at our new friend's shop. It was on the main thoroughfare, and we wondered where all the camels were - would they just be driven by? We were quickly told that we needed to get a taxi to the kasbah on the edge of town, where the operation was run from. We decided to walk it instead, to save money and see some of the town. The attraction in Zagora is a big sign at the end of the main road pointing roughly south-east with the legend, 'Timbuctoo 52 days'. Timbuctoo, in Mali, was the major oasis at the crossroads of the trade routes across the Sahara, but I think the sign was only about 49% serious.
After leaving the town, we found the walk far longer than we had expected. Every twenty minutes or so, we would be overtaken by the trek organiser on a tiny moped, waving frantically that we were going in the right direction. He would disappear into the distance, and then wobble into view again later to reassure us. We passed a few palmeries and crossed a river in this way, and by the time we found the place we were quite tired.
A couple of camels were already outside, one huge, golden animal with a serene air about it, and the second a smaller, white one. They were lying on the ground, absently chewing, and looking patiently around them. As we gathered round to watch, the rest of the troupe were led out, all looking surprisingly different, until there were six camels sitting or standing on the dusty space in front of us. They seemed all right, we thought - docile as anything.
But there seemed to be some problem with the last one. From where we stood outside, we could hear three or four men struggling with it behind the wall, shouting and scrabbling in the dust while the camel, evidently angry, honked and screamed as if it was giving birth to a badly-positioned calf. 'Oh my God,' James said, staring in horror at the doorway. We exchanged nervous looks, all privately deciding we were not going to end up on that one. It came out behind three men, who were virtually dragging it across the courtyard, and we backed away a few feet; the problem was resolved when Iain squinted lazily at it and said, 'Yeah, I'll have him: he's got personality'. Psychosis might have seemed more accurate, but none of us were very surprised when the apparently lunatic animal instantly adopted the attitude of a domestic kitten as soon as Iain, laid-back and sardonic as usual, sat on it.
Conversely, Matt's choice, who had been dribbling away to himself quite happily until now, suddenly decided it had better things to do than be sat on by a confused group of bastard foreigners, and while Matt watched with growing apprehension, it enthusiastically started a programme of moaning, shaking, and foaming at the mouth. This sudden sign of personality prompted Matt to call it Thor.
Simon secured his place on the calm giant, whom he named Ben, and Lois took Sally, the white female. Alex picked Hovis, a majestic, older animal, while I went for the one who looked to have the least personality, and called it Gerald. I was roped to Simon and Alex, while Lois was attached to James, Iain and Matt in a separate grouping, which was none too pleased to find themselves fastened to Thor the berserker, who now had about a foot of ropy saliva hanging from the corners of his mouth. We were also accompanied by a young, white camel who was presumably the offspring of Lois's female.
The seats were made of a kind of raised, flat saddle with several thick blankets piled on for padding. It seemed quite comfortable and I thought a couple of hours on this would be fine - then they got up. Camels get up with their hind legs first, and I found myself thrown suddenly and violently forwards, clinging desperately on to the rope like I was in some kind of ludicrous Arabic rodeo. Just as I recovered my bearings, the animal pushed up with its front legs, and I went flying skywards again towards the horizontal. My shock was mitigated slightly by the sight of everyone else being similarly hurtled into position, and once you're up it does seem very high. Gerald was probably somewhere just under six feet, but Alex's and Simon's rides were considerably taller.
We set off, led by two guides, heading south-east to Mt. Zagora and the endless sand beyond. A camel's back is pretty wide, and I really think it could have been a fairly solid, comfortable mode of transport, were it not for a series of evolutionary whoopee-cushions which have rendered it about the most painful way of travelling between two given places. For a start, there's the hump, which somewhat to our surprise was positioned directly under the seats. It ruins a potentially stable back; sitting just off it, the hump rubs constantly against your legs, and it's too sharp to sit directly on top of. Then there's the added problem that a camel seems to be made up entirely of knees, so that walking becomes a series of staccato jerks which give the impression of being perpetually on the point of falling over.
The net effect on the rider is abrasive, and I pitied the African tribes who, presumably in desperation, had had to domesticate the camel - one look at the supposedly tame Thor, quietly corroding its rope with goblets of green spit, told me I never wanted to meet a wild one. Luckily for us, they seemed quite sure-footed as we picked our way around the lower slopes of Mt. Zagora and lurched off into the stony hammada beyond; we were calling jokes out to each other, throwing around the bottles of water, taking pictures as we headed in a direction which, if continued, probably wouldn't hit another town until Nigeria or Chad, in the middle of the vast continent. The calf capered around the legs of the other camels as we plodded onwards.> > >