I’ve made no secret of the fact that I adore camels. They’re full of character, have the cutest faces with big eyes, long eye lashes and full lips which curl and flap into the funniest shapes or simply hang in gormless contemplation. Buts its not this that really attracts me – its their nature – wrongly characterised as grumpy. They can be the most affectionate of beasts and develop relationships with their handlers as strong as that between humans….. when you’re kind, they respond with gentleness, when you’re rough with them, they fight back. And they bicker and squabble with each other like all animals.
Best of all though is their patience, toughness and hardiness to cope with the unbelievably harsh conditions that they can endure as nomadic transportation. Heaving loads across hundreds of miles of desert in extreme temperatures, sometimes going weeks without food or water, relying on their fat reserves, for survival.
Their milk is the most nutritious of all and the staple diet of the bedouin who can survive only on camels milk for a month if necessary. Contrary to popular belief, it is actually lower in fat than cows milk but higher in vitamins and minerals such as potassium and vitamin C. For this and many other reasons, the bedu refer to the camel as ‘Ata Allah’ or ‘God’s Gift’.
I had the fortune to meet a fellow Al Jazeera colleague with a similar passion for this ‘ship of the desert’ and she had already been out to the camel race track to write a piece about them. So we agreed we would go out together one early morning and try to witness the camels being washed!! now this may seem like a bit of a niche activity – up there with excessive dog grooming, cats in wigs or child beauty pageants – but to me it seemed like a thoroughly exciting prospect.
So at dawn we headed to Camel City – an area west of Doha – where the business of camel racing takes place. First stop was the Camel supermarket to buy some water – it was only 6am and already it was in the 30s and the sun was rising fast. In this little parade of shops beside the supermarket were all sorts of shops for camel food and accessories from crops and bridals to the delightful muzzles in a variety of colours.
As we headed to the track, we could see groups of camels everywhere being led out for warm up, training and racing, many still wearing their coats and young ones being lead by adults. We found ourselves at the finishing line first where we suddenly realised our car was facing in the wrong direction so we hurriedly moved out of the way of the oncoming charge of land cruisers, all operating their little robotic jockeys which sit atop the camels.
These little robots have replaced little humans which used to ride the camels, until 2003 when using children – mainly from South Asian countries of India and Bangladesh -was banned by the Emirate emir. The owners drive in landcruisers on a road that runs beside the track. They have 2 walkie talkies with the counterparts strapped into the robot – one which they can use to shout at the camel, the other into which they blow which then activates a robotic whip.
Once this race had finished, we headed to the start line, behind which as far as the eye could see, disappearing into the hazy dawn, were young camels lining up to race. Today was focused on the juniors – starting at around 1 year old.
A variety of colours – from pale cream and light brown to red and dark brown, some quite mottled and some had been groomed to a smooth silky aerodynamic finish while others were almost as woolly as sheep!
Rather like horse racing, they are held behind the starting gate in a holding area and once the previous race is underway, they are brought around to line up. Their handlers run through the side gate with them at high speed, the young camel’s legs flying about uncontrollably – it seems incredibly dangerous to the uninitiated!! One kick even from a young one would do serious damage!!
Once into the starting area, they are tied to an overhead pole which stretches across the start line with a canvass sheet hanging from it in front of the camel’s faces to keep them calm.
All you can see are legs jostling and fighting for position, occasionally getting a sharp tap from the handlers to keep them in line. Sometimes they were held there for quite a few minutes as the handlers squabbled almost as much as the camels over where or how they should be secured to the pole.
Once everyone is happy that they’re set…. the handlers quickly clear the area and the pole turns over, the ties drop down, the canvass is raised and off they go! Of course this all happens in a split second and the shouting, energy and excitement as they set off is something to behold up close, standing as we were right beside the start, getting a face full of sand on a couple of occasions as I tried to get a good shot of racing legs!!
We then witness one or two races of the newbies – these are 1 year olds experiencing their first ever race. Two of them fell quite early on, I think tripped by others or perhaps taken by surprise and not quite into their racing stride just yet!!
And after all the young ones in each race have taken off, they are followed very shortly behind by a few adults which – when they get to the finish, will guide the young ones home. Young camels are more willing to walk behind older camels than be led by humans. Young camels have two trainers – one human, one camel. Now how sweet is that!
At the finish line – 1500metres later, we notice one or two camels with what seems to be orange paint on their faces. This was saffron which is traditionally rubbed onto the camel’s face and neck as a sign of honour. There we met Mohammed Islam – a Bangladeshi camel trainer. He was very sociable, friendly and knowledgeable and keen to share more with us. He invited us to join him after the race at his farm to see some behind the scenes action!!….. including, we hoped ….. camel washing!!!……
…… to be continued!