Arabs will tell you that the desert is the true heart of Arabia, with its combination of adventure, cultural insight, and nature’s surroundings. It is all true. And a direct contributor to this is the multipurpose camel.
Because camels can travel great distances across hot, dry deserts with little food or water, Bedouins depended heavily on them. But it was a two-way relationship. Camels needed the Bedouins to provide them with water if they were to survive Arabia’s scorching summers. The amount of water a camel drinks varies with the time of year and the weather conditions. They need less water in winter when the weather is cooler. However, a large thirsty animal can drink up to 200 liters of water a day. One reason it needs less water is due to the moisture coming from its food. In addition, camels retain most of the water that is in their body. Most animals sweat when hot and the water evaporating from their skin cools them. But camels sweat very little. In fact, their body temperature rises during the heat of the day and then cools down at night. If you have ever seen a group of camels pressing against each other on a hot summer day, what they are instinctively doing is fighting off heat as their body temperature may be lower than the air temperature.
Infamous for their unpredictable behavior, camels nevertheless work hard. They’ll groan and spit and maybe kick, but they carry heavy loads. If too much is demanded of them, they will die from over exertion rather than refuse to work.
The nomadic Bedouins also understood the camel’s importance for food and clothing. Camel meat can be cooked and eaten, the fat from the hump melted to be used as butter, and its milk for drinking and making cheese. Their tough skin yielded leather for clothing, sandals, bags and saddles, as well as shelters. The soft woolly fur became warm blankets for cold desert nights, its bones could be carved into utensils and dried droppings provided a reliable fuel source.
Arabian camels may once have lived wild in the desert, but not so today. They have been domesticated for thousands of years.
Carrying its own built-in food supply on its back in the form of a hump, this lump of fat provides energy if food is scarce. The hump does not store water, as many people believe. When a camel begins to starve, its hump begins to shrink. The Dromedary (one hump) is the Arabian camel. Their average life expectancy is 40-50 years. Two hump camels are called Bactrians. The Arabian camel’s fur is short and helps protect its body from the heat, while a Bactrian camel’s fur is longer.
A camel stands between 1.8 and 2 meters (6 to 6 ½ feet) tall at the shoulders and can weigh from 250 to 680 kilograms (550 to 1500 pounds). Long, curly eyelashes that keep out sand protect their large eyes. Glands supply the eyes with water to stay moist while thick eyebrows shield the eyes from the sun.
Camels have 34 strong, sharp teeth within their large mouths, which can be used as weapons. Oftentimes, a camel owner will muzzle the animal’s mouth to prevent it from biting. You will also customarily see a set of their legs tied together, which prevents them from walking far or running off.
Powerful leg muscles allow for carrying heavy loads long distances. Camels usually walk, especially if it is hot, but when they must travel faster, they can gallop or pace at a medium speed. The pacing and rocking motion can make riders “seasick”; thus, the term “ships of the desert” that has been associated with camels.
Bedouins fed them dates, grass, and grains, such as wheat and oats. If food was scarce while traveling across the desert, they lived on dried leaves, seeds and desert plants. If food was extremely scarce, camels ate anything – bones, fish, meat, leather; even their owner’s tent.
A female camel carries a single calf for 13 months before giving birth. The two live together for several years unless forcibly separated. At about a year old, its owner begins teaching it to stand and kneel on command, and to carry a saddle or light packs. The size and weight of the packs are gradually increased as the camel ages. By age five, it can carry a full load.
Many GCC countries implemented racing as an effort to preserve Arab culture and tradition. With serious money to be won, racing is more popular than ever. Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the UAE are popular racing venues.
As the sport grew more competitive in the mid-1980s, trainers began using child jockeys, a practice banned in 2005. Now, men drive alongside the track using remote-controlled robot jockeys.
Let’s not forget the camel beauties. Beauty contests are popular in Saudi Arabia and the UAE (Abu Dhabi) where they have become cultural, heritage and economic carnivals.
Adorned beauties compete for best decorated, fur cutting design, camel milking and the best haircut. Winners receive huge cash prizes.
For most though, it is the unique riding experience that attracts us. I remember well my first time during a desert safari.
The three brown, one-humped camels gave no indication as to their pleasure or displeasure as we awkwardly took turns swinging a leg up and over the kneeling beasts. Once firmly planted in the multi-colored cloth saddle, the handler uttered a single Arabic word and my camel slowly raised its massive body up from his kneeling position jerking me forward as I held tightly to the pummel. I sensed myself in slow motion inching closer to the camel’s head until suddenly he was firmly on his front legs. The beast next hoisted himself up onto his hind legs, thrusting me backward with a mighty jolt. We were now on all fours.
The scraggly bearded Bedouin advanced leading a slowly paced animal and its awestruck rider across the desert. It was incredible.