Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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Texas Caravan

You don't have to leave the continent for a camel trek through the desert

Chug stomps backward, groaning and tugging on the reins. Doug patiently pulls down on the rope, forcing the camel's chin toward the ground, repeating the command "sit." Baring his teeth, Chug grunts louder, the sound growing into the roar of an enraged lion.

Sand swirls as Chug's 900-kilogram body settles onto the ground. I take a deep breath of dry desert air and sweep my legs over his wide back to get into the saddle. He rises on his front knees and stops midway, sending me on a slow-motion roller-coaster ride until I'm three metres in the air. Am I prepared to ride this camel for two days?

I recall Sand Dance, Bruce Kirkby's account of his 1200-kilometre camel trek across Arabia's Empty Quarter, the world's largest sand desert. It doesn't exactly reassure me to know that his expedition team found that mountain climbing, bungee-jumping from bridges and kayaking raging rivers was less frightening then their first day riding camels.

Despite this admission, Kirkby's book rekindled my fascination for camel trekking. Curious, I signed up for a two-day trek through the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas with Doug Baum, the camel handler who trained the Kirkby expeditionary team.

Chug, Chewbacca and me
With four camels tied nose-to-tail, our small caravan leaves Sauceda Ranch and travels the sandy paths to Cinco Tinajas, two of the desert water pools in Big Bend Ranch State Park. After his protest during mounting, Chug is remarkably calm, adapting his walk, slow and rhythmic, to the heat of the desert. He climbs his way up clattering rocks near El Bulido Butte and plods through the Rio Grande Rift in view of Oso Mountain.

Unlike the continuous fast-paced thrill of mountain biking, or the adrenaline-pumping excitement of white-water rafting, the adventure of a camel trek resides in the unpredictable nature of your travelling companion. According to Kirkby, camel handling was the most difficult part of his expedition. It's a challenge to travel in harmony with an animal as stubborn as a camel.

As our caravan plods through the desert, a camel named Samson folds his knees, lowers his body onto the hot sand and starts chewing on a thorny ocotillo branch. It's a routine he repeats several times during the trip.

The most valuable lesson Kirkby learned about camel handling came from Baum, who said "be firm with them. Think of them as six-year-old children." As gentle and responsible as these camels are at carrying us through the desert, they are like curious kids, unaware of their own size. Chewbacca loves the camera, nosing the lens while I'm trying to take a close-up shot of him. Perhaps his movie-star status has gone to his head. He played "Robert E." in A Texas Funeral starring Martin Sheen, a film now airing on the Starz network.

Camels were not brought to America just to be used in Hollywood pictures. They were brought here by the government in 1859 to transport ammunition and supplies while the unmapped territory of western Texas was being charted. The expedition was abandoned at the end of the Civil War and the camels were auctioned off. Some escaped, living wild in the deserts of Utah, Arizona and California. Others were used in Nevada during the 1870s to haul salt from marshes in the desert to silver mines.

Today's American camels are used for less labour-intensive work, merely hauling curious tourists around the deserts of the southwest.

The Nevada Camel Company (11625 Highway 50 West, Stagecoach, NV 89429; tel: 775-629-0800; fax: 775-629-0800; www.nevadacamelco.com), located on the former salt marsh route, offers a variety of camel experiences from one-hour rides to one- and three-day excursions. The safaris travel from the Carson high desert plains to the Carson River Basin. Along this desert river a narrow band of reeds, cottonwood and Russian-olive trees offers a stark contrast to the dry barren land. The trek includes a side trip to historic Fort Churchill, built in 1861. This army outpost was abandoned 10 years later and since then has been preserved as a ghost town.

Camelot Lodge (PO Box 621, Moab, UT 84532; tel: 435-260-1783; www.camelotlodge.com) in Utah offers a three-day camel camp trek where participants learn how to ride and handle their own camel, including saddling, brushing and feeding. After learning the ropes, riders are given some room to roam and aren't stuck with caravan-style wandering. Customers can ride through the Great Basin desert along the Colorado river, red rock cliffs and canyons.

For those less adventurous, Bill Rivers Camel Safari (tel: 760-399-5665) near Palm Springs, California, offers one-hour rides at the Oasis Date Gardens. Participants are led caravan-style through rows of date groves in the southern California desert.

Doug Baum, the man who taught Bruce Kirkby and I how to ride, can be reached at (254) 675-4867.

Whether you take an hour-long tour or a two-day trek, you are here for the camels. High on Chug's back in the Chihuahuan Desert, I dip to one side as both of his left legs move forward, then drop to the right, gently rocking as our caravan winds through the desert like a band of sleepwalkers. The gentle rhythm is deceptive, because you're never quite sure what a camel is going to do next.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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