A Night with the Camels in Saudi Arabia

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April 12th 2010
Published: April 14th 2010
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 Video Playlist:

1: Herding the camels 26 secs
2: Michel and the Camels 9 secs
3: Praying in the desert at sunset 13 secs
The master camel handlerThe master camel handlerThe master camel handler

Camels liked to be scratched and will lean in like a cat.
April 12, 2010

Sometimes you are presented with an opportunity and what you need to do is grab it while you can. Such an opportunity happened two nights ago.

One of the guys I’m traveling with, Michel, is a raging extravert. Michel has never met a person he can not say hello to and start a conversation. Such was the case with two Saudis who were in the lobby at the our Guest House accommodation called Al Jazerra (which means “island” by the way).

Somehow one of these guys mentioned that his cousin owns camels and Michel said that many in our group had not seen camels up-close before. Within seconds, Michel had an invitation from these two to visit his cousin’s camels. Lo and behold, the next evening when we returned from the Assessment Center, they were waiting for us.

So a group of us went in their two vehicles - a pickup truck and a Hummer. We thought that the camels were in town, but as we drove on and the lights of the town of Khafji grew smaller on the horizon, we realized we were on an adventure but we had no idea where
Michel is amazed as we reach the camelsMichel is amazed as we reach the camelsMichel is amazed as we reach the camels

"We are in the middle of absolutely nowhere!"
we were going. We drove off the main road onto a secondary and eventually onto a hard-packed sand path in the desert. We then moved off of that “road” onto what looked like plain sand.

You might wonder how one knows where to turn when there are no landmarks except empty miles of sand. The answer is high tech, GPS - and low-tech, strategically placed tires in the desert (make a left turn at the third tire). Amazing.

After a 30 to 40 minute drive from the town of Khafji, we arrived at what looked like a mobile home and about 30 to 40 camels. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to see endless sand in all directions with dozens of camels roaming around (some loose and some in a pen). The sun was setting fast and I raced to take photos while I could. I am uploading a couple of videos that unfortunately are dark because of the time, but you can hear the low groaning noise that camels make.

The biggest surprise was how friendly the camels were. As I was shooting photos, the camels came closer. And as I nervously walked away, they followed me. I had always heard that camels are nasty critters that spit and bite, but that was hardly the case. In fact, Majed taught me how to scratch under the camel’s neck (above it’s belly) to calm the camel. They actually nuzzle in close to you like a cat.

As our group moved from the camels outside the pen to the younger ones inside the pen, Majed brought over a huge bowl of fresh camel’s milk. The milk was warm, so I assume it was freshly “made.” What was most surprising was that it was really, really foamy. Majed laughingly said it was Saudi cappuccino . We passed around the bowl and all took a drink. It was surprisingly good. It was sweet and rich and a bit more grassy tasting than cow’s milk. It’s a shame I didn’t have some toll-house chocolate chip cookies to go with my camel’s milk.

As the sun set, Majed and the other Saudis lined up and started praying. You can hear the prayers in a short video clip I’ve uploaded. In the quiet of the desert, it was quite moving.

Afterwards, we were invited onto what we would call
We have arrivedWe have arrivedWe have arrived

The location of the camels was about 30 minutes from Khafji by car.
a deck attached to the mobile home. This was the time for dewaneea, a time for talking. We removed our shoes at the foot of the deck. There were Saudi-style cushions for sitting, fresh dates, Arabic coffee, and a bowl of camel’s milk for each of us. If you ever visit a middle-eastern person, you will always be offered coffee and dates (but not usually camel’s milk!). In case you’re wondering, land is not privately owned in the desert. Anyone (well, at least any Saudi) can use the land.

The conversation flowed in English and Arabic with Michel translating where English or hand gestures didn’t work. The camels became quiet and when there was a lull in our conversation, there was absolute quiet. The distant lights of Khafji in one small part of the horizon were the only signs of “civilization.”

It was time to return to our accommodations, but Majed’s cousin insisted that we must first visit the goats (and who were we to argue?). So we got in the two vehicles and headed out across the desert. Then the pickup truck got stuck in the sand. I’m pretty sure that my AAA automobile card, even though
Koen and the camelsKoen and the camelsKoen and the camels

As you can see, there is nothing but desert, camels, and Koen.
it’s the gold card with the extra towing coverage, would not do the trick. However, the answer was to deflate the tire by about a third to create additional traction and that did the trick. Off we went again.

About 10 minutes later, we reached the goats. The goats were also penned and quite people-friendly. They particularly liked being fed dried pita bread. As a side note, this is referred to as “Arabic bread,” or simply “bread.” We also got to meet the pigeons/doves that they raised and were shown the chicks that must have been born that day.

About that time, someone spotted a scorpion in the sand (the headlights of the two vehicles provided some light) which is about the time we decided to return. Scorpions not withstanding, it was an experience that I’m glad I had and I will of course remember for quite some time.

April 14

I am writing this blog entry on the plane. The monitor shows that we are 1271 miles west of Amsterdam. My return started in Saudi Arabia, where we traveled to the Kuwait City (with a driver whose driving consistently broke the sound barrier), then on to as stopover in Bahrain, and then onto Amsterdam.

We had a five hour layover, but I thought the flight was at 10:40. When I looked at the monitor, it read that the departure time was at 10:10 and said that the gate was closing. (It was about 10:00.) Oops. I ran back to James (also traveling to Minneapolis) and we flew out of the lounge at a speed only slightly slower than the drive to the Kuwait city airport. Unfortunately, the actual gate must have been half-way back to Saudi Arabia, so we had a long way to go. If only, I had the marathon skills of my daughter! Somehow we made it and arrived panting at the gate. Of course, once we got on the plane, it was delayed for an hour!

On the plus side of traveling, I have had two interesting people sitting next to me on the plane. On the Kuwait/Bahrain leg, I met a woman who was born in Saudi, has a Jordanian passport, and lives in Bahrain. She was on her way back to Bahrain from Washington DC. She is a vice-president of an agency that promotes business in Bahrain. She spoke perfect English and it was quite interesting to hear her perspective on how women’s rights must, and is, changing in The Kingdom. Her favorite thing about the US: Broadway shows in New York City.

On this flight, I am sitting next to a lead research space exploration scientist from France. He is traveling to Denver for a one day for a meeting. He is working on a joint venture between the US and Europe for a space mission to Jupiter that has a launch date of 2020, at a cost of several billion dollars. He really is a rocket scientist! We discussed manned vs. unmanned space missions and the technology limits of what is currently possible. He says it is technologically possible to have a manned mission to Mars, but it would take three years in space and no one knows the long term psychological affect of someone traveling in space for so long. Unmanned missions are cheaper (even at several billion dollars), safer, easier, and can gather as much or more scientific information. He was a year old when people first landed on the moon. Can you imagine working on a project that has taken six years to get to the proposal stage (now), ten years in development, and then another six years to travel to Jupiter? Amazing.

And so wraps up my sixth and perhaps final trip to the Middle East. However, you never know. I’m sure one way or another, more adventures are ahead.

Additional photos below
Photos: 33, Displayed: 27


The camel caretakerThe camel caretaker
The camel caretaker

The camels roam free during the day and come back at 3 pm for dinner.

15th April 2010

Much better in person than "smoking" them! Welcome home. Talk to you tonight when you have had some rest.
15th April 2010

Arabian Nights
What a grand finale!
15th April 2010

Welcome Home
I will miss these missives from the middle east. See you soon.
15th April 2010

Hey Ted - more great adventures for you! I have to comment on the Camels on the Horizon photo... my inner 10 year old was screaming - 'they look like AT-AT's!!!' Hope you had safe/easy travels home.

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