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Khartoum - Sahara

Our introduction to camel riding and the Sahara

46 °C
View Sudan Camel Trek 2004 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This is not a recent trip, rather it is taken from the journal I wrote on our adventures in Sudan in 2004.

Breakfast is a substantial affair, with egg, sausage, toast, fruit, yoghurt, muesli etc. I fill up as much as I can, as meals from now on are an unknown, as is every aspects of our day. Today we will set out on our very intrepid adventure: a ten day camel trek across remote parts of the Sahara.

We drive through Khartoum, stopping briefly at the Libyan Market to stock up on supplies.

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Omran heading for the market

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Michael in deep discussing with Omran. I always think Arabic, when spoken fast, sounds like people are shouting angrily at each other. It is a harsh sounding language, but absolutely fascinating to listen to.

As we head out of town we see a number of 'temporary' refugee villages for the displaced persons from Darfur. As this conflict has been in the news so much recently, it really hits home quite how bad the situation is here, with mud huts stretching as far as the eye can see.

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We head for an open area on the outskirts of town where we meet our camels who will be our trusty steeds for the next ten days. Gulp. The air is thick with a mixture of excitement and nervousness, with Michael barking out uneasy orders in Arabic to the animal handlers and porters.

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Omran, our local guide

Last night Michael was explaining how the loading of camels this morning will only take half an hour, but by the time two hours has passed with disorganised faffing about, I feel the need to sit down. It is just so hot, and no shade to be found. Sudan is experiencing a heatwave at the moment, with temperatures at least 10° hotter than normal for this time of year.

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While we were all busy admiring the camels and worrying about what lies ahead, Michael has changed into his local outfit of a long flowing djellaba and headscarf.

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It's time to try out camel riding, something that is new to almost all of us, and we have varying success.

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Eventually it is my turn. I have been putting it off and putting it off, feeling a rising panic as I realise I cannot delay the inevitable any longer. I fall off before I have even got on, overbalancing as I lift one leg. (Apologies for very poor quality photos, these are screen grabs from a video)

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I try again, this time with greater success, although I do feel very wobbly as the camel gets up from her knees.

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The whole experience is rather unsteady and uncomfortable, and again I overbalance when the camel gets down, headbutting the poor animal in the process. Eeek. What have I let myself in for?

Apparently Omran has never been on a camel before either, something he failed to disclose to Michael when he was interviewed. Michael is not happy.

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The saddles are home made and very rudimentary, and make me wonder just how comfortable they will be after a few days.

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Suddenly it is all go and we're off. We walk for the first few hours, with the camels loping behind us. Our two camels, which we have named Fatima and Fluff, are much better behaved than some of the others, obediently following us at the end of a lead, much like a dog would, while a couple of people really struggle to get their animals to move at all. The camels carry a lot of heavy gear with all our personal stuff, tents, sleeping mats, mess tent, cooking implements and all our food for ten days. Water for drinking and cooking will be collected from wells along the route, while personal washing is not really including in the plan.

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David and Fluff

The weather is blisteringly hot with no relief from shade nor any clouds, while the scenery is uninspiring with neither impressive sand dunes, not any kind of vegetation to break the monotony. Just sand. A few tufts of scorched grass dot the landscape and the odd dried-up acacia shrub. These plants seem to be rather small and insignificant here, unlike in Sub-Sahara further south where they grow into tall, majestic trees. It's a brutal environment and we see few living creatures as we wander further into the sand sea that is the Sahara.

Although it seems to me that I am constantly drinking water and refilling my 1.5 litre bottle, I am aware that the glaring sun and unforgiving climate is taking its toll on my body and mind. Despite the frequent fluid intake, I am beginning to feel progressively unwell.

For a while the surface under our feet is soft sand that makes for hard going as the weight of my body makes me sink in with the muscles in my ankles and calves taking to brunt of the work. Densely packed earth, baked, parched and cracked by the relentless sun gives way to gravel and stony ground seemingly sizzling with in merciless heat. This bleak and merciless environment demands respect, but I feel more and more ill as the morning wears on. Eventually Michael signals that it is time to stop for lunch. Close to tears and ready to give up, I struggle into the camp set up by the porters and collapse onto a chair. Thank goodness I packed a collapsible chair for this trip.

A mess tent is erected offering some relief from the ferocious sun. My thermometer reads 46 °C in the shade, and I feel like I am wilting, even in the shade. As my feet have been hurting for the last few miles, I carefully take my boots off, noticing both little toes are sporting blisters. Covering them with blister plasters, I put my boots on again and hope for the best.

Life around me is a bit of a blur, I hardly notice what I am eating and taking photos hasn't even enter my mind for several hour now. I must be ill!

After lunch I decide to have another go at riding. Fatima is carrying bags of firewood as well as being fitted with a large wooden saddle for me. Several of the men stand by in case I fall when mounting the camel, but all goes well. I don't feel at all wobbly and the saddle is surprisingly comfortable.

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For the first couple of hours Fatima is plodding along quite happily, being led by Osman, while I am reasonably comfortable perched high above the ground.

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Later we take a short break and Michael adjusts my saddle, moving it a little so that it is better for the camel. It may be better for Fatima, but shortly after we start off again, the wooden knob at the back starts digging into my bottom. After another couple of hours we stop again and as Fatima leans forward on the her knees and I lean backward to avoid headbutting her, the saddle totally disintegrates and I tumble, head first, onto the hard cracked earth. I don't have any pain, but feel somewhat dazed and confused. Michael is furious with the porters for not assembling the saddle properly in the first place (a basic structure, the saddle consists of pieces of specially shaped wood fastened together with rope).

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I opt out of riding for the last few miles, preferring to trust my own two feet rather than the lofty animal with its rickety seat. The blisters on my feet are seriously bothering me and I feel increasingly weary, ill and in pain as the trek seems to go on and on and on this afternoon.

The expedition is not really going to plan as per Michael's briefing last night. He suggested that we would be all sorted out in camp and having snack before dinner, watching the sunset while the chef prepares our meal. Not so this evening. Sunset comes and goes while we are still walking.

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Eventually we stop and again I collapse into my much-welcome chair. Not for long, however, as we end up having to put our own tent up (Michael had indicated that the porters would do that for us) while we wait for the camels to be unloaded and the mess tent erected. Not expecting any rain overnight, we leave the outer cover off the tent to allow for some ventilation.

Taking my boots off is a great relief, but my toes are now just a mass of blood and puss. I am not sure what to do for the best, so I just put a pair of sandals on and leave them to dry out overnight and see how they feel in the morning.

We end up having to help another couple of people with the erection of their tents, and once we are all sorted, we gather in the mess tent for drinks. Non-alcoholic, of course (Sudan is a dry country), and the promised snacks do not materialise either. Two people are asleep already and Michael sends someone to wake them so that he can have a little talk about how the day has gone (not really to plan and he is anything but impressed so far with the staff he has hired), what our plans are, and if anyone has any concerns. Despite feeling more and more apprehensive about the adventure, I say nothing.

We talk and talk and talk, sharing travel stories and generally get to know each other. Still no dinner. From time to time Michael goes to check up on how the chef is doing, and each time he comes back and reassures us: “soon...” After a while his word become rather hollow and I really just want to lie down and go to sleep. Eventually, at 22:10, over three hours later than planned, the food arrives: a sweet and sour soup with bread rolls, BBQ chicken with mooli and a vegetable salad in mayonnaise. Although the food is all very nice, it is way too late for me to eat, and I leave most of it, preferring to go to bed instead.

Not wanting to be cooped up inside the stuffy tent (I suffer from mild claustrophobia), I take my mattress and thermarest outside and lay down under the stars with my fleece sleeping bag liner covering me. Sleeping outside in such a place as this, far, far away from any light pollution, is one of the great joys of life; the stars are simply awesome and I go to sleep feeling quite contented.

Posted by Grete Howard 13:52 Archived in Sudan Tagged market camping tents hot camels heat camel_riding refugee_camp heatwave khartoum darfour_displaced_persons darfour refugess Comments (3)

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