Camel-ology

July 24, 2014, 9:39 p.m.

Tayib Essem, Saudi Arabia, 28°33'37" N, 34°48'01" E

Video still by Paul Salopek

Loading up for the trail: The hump is the key. Video still by Paul Salopek.

You must allow camels a generous rest at midday. This improves their dispositions.

You must avoid walking camels on stones—a camel’s foot is not a hard hoof but a smooth pad, soft as a pot holder. (Our older bull, Fares, will take your shoulder between his jaws as you lead him with a rope, and squeeze gently, communicating his distress on sharp rocks.)

A camel can travel three to five days without water. Some Bedouin claim, in admiration, that the animals can endure thirst even longer—for weeks, even months. It is not advisable to test these assertions, born of dizzy love.

While traveling, feed your camels twice a day, morning and night: one lozenge of alfalfa a hand-span thick and one bucket of grain when available. They also will eat orange rinds, banana peels, stale flatbread, plastic bubble wrap encasing laptop computers, the living hair off your scalp, and a thousand different varieties of grasses, thorns, shrubs, and trees. Do not be alarmed by the breadth of a camelid’s palate. Their stomachs are made of titanium. If they do suffer indigestion, however, you must grab them by the nostrils until they vomit, typically unburdening themselves all over your shoes.

Do not pamper your animal. A camel is your partner in work, not a pet. You must look into its gigantic, sable eyes and address it firmly. You can reward it with ear scratches.

Never hit your animal: Camels remember. (The Prophet Muhammad is said to have comforted a weeping camel he found tied to a post in Medina: The camel, its fur wet with tears, bemoaned its master’s mistreatment. The Prophet sought out the owner and berated him harshly.)

You can work a single camel for many years . . . and there will still be 70,000 secrets you will never learn from it. The Ambassador of Yemen in Djibouti told me this.

To pack a cargo camel is to confront a daunting problem of geometry, of architecture: the hump. The placement of the saddle is critical. It cannot be an inch too far forward, or an inch too far back. The camel will complain otherwise. It will roll in the sand. No one hump is like any other hump. Thus, you must achieve loading perfection on just one. Awad Omran, my Sudanese camel handler, packs Seema. I pack Fares. We do this three times a day (dawn, midday, dusk). It is a pleasing ritual that connects us to these large, fatalistic, self-satisfied animals through our hands. I will miss it dearly in the industrialized Northern Hemisphere, where I will suffer, like everyone else, under the hegemony of cars.

Go to the National Geographic website to watch a short video.