The camel has become the Jim Carrey of the animal world. Who, for heaven’s sake, can take the creature seriously? But on the sands of the Sahara it’s quite another matter – and the Western World has some debts to pay.
It seemed a good idea at the time. Camels are pretty strange creatures and a nose-on photograph would capture that very well. Especially with a close-up lens.
Through the viewfinder the camel in question looked oddly like a rabbit. As I moved in for a good shot, its split upper lip curled into what I took to be a rather endearing grin. It wasn’t.
What happened next had an effect not dissimilar from tossing a can of smoked mussels into the back end of a fan. I will not treat you to a more detailed description except to say never, ever, allow yourself to be sneezed at by a camel. It’s the only time they break their rule of being frugal with body fluids.
As the camel pulled back its head in the haughty pose of its ilk, I cursed it in terms unfamiliar to Central Sahara. My only consolation was that the Tauregs I was with hadn’t seen the incident. I had a strong suspicion they’d regard a face full of camel snot to be fair comment about those of us who are not from the desert.
As we swayed our way across the peach-pink sands and through the weirdly shaped, sun-blackened rocks of the Akakus Mountains in Southern Libya, I became increasingly interested in my ungainly ship of the desert. Despite our earlier encounter it was, I had to admit, quite comfortable – and it left me time to enjoy the awesome beauty of the Sahara. Out here there was no hint of the war further north.
Arabs, it seems, forgive the camel its arrogance. They say its demeanour stems from the fact that while humans know 99 of the names of Allah, only the camel remembers the 100th.
But in countries beyond the great sand seas the creature has little to recommend it beyond being a butt for humour. The most positive recorded comments I could find were from a sea captain named Crowninshield, who imported two into America back in 1701 (and who no doubt hoped to make money from them): “These ftupendous Animals are moft deserving of the attention of the curious, being the greateft natural curiofity ever exhibited on this continent.”
The eleventh edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica obviously took the opposite view. It described the camel “from first to last an undomesticated and savage animal rendered serviceable by stupidity alone. Neither attachment nor even habit impresses him; never tame, though not wide-awake enough to be exactly wild.”
A book of quotable quotes I have says, most unkindly, that whereas the wheel is one of mankind’s cleverest inventions, the camel is one of God’s clumsiest. It’s a good thing camels are patient to insult.
Given this mention of the wheel, I was rather startled to come across an obscure book on the relationship between camels and wheels by Richard Bulliet, published in 1975 to, I’m sure, a very limited readership. Camels, according to him, are the only form of transport in the history of human technology to have replaced the wheel.
From its first invention to the development of the motorcar, every advance of the wheel has been examined and speculated upon. Whippletree, leaf spring, cambered spoke, each has come in for its share of attention. There has even been speculation as to why relatively advanced societies such as those of pre-Columbian America never made use of this marvellous transportation device.
Yet it appears that, apart from Bulliet’s work, there has never been an investigation of why a vast area of the globe, encompassing some of its most advanced societies, chose to abandon its use in favour of the ungainly camel.
But it goes much further. For example, without the camel there may have been no Renaissance in Europe. All this needs a bit of explanation.
During the Eocene period, some 50-million years ago, the camel’s ancestors were rabbit-sized mammals in North America. During one of the glacial periods they crossed the Bering Strait and spread east across Central Asia (where they developed two humps) and south into the Sahara (where one hump was somehow more efficient).
In both places this evolving camel developed a defence strategy against predators which was, in biological terms, peaceful and innovative – the ability to live on ice and sand deserts in places few predators could survive.
Camels also have a prodigious capacity to hoard food and water in odd places. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t store water in their humps: that’s here they keep extra fat. The large quantities of liquid they consume are stashed away in tissues throughout their bodies. They have efficient kidneys which can retain high concentrations of impurities so they don’t have to urinate much. They also don’t sweat like other animals, instead allowing their blood temperature to rise to levels which would kill most other similar-sized creatures.
To complete the adaptation to flight rather than fight, they evolved large flat feet and (in the absence of shady trees) bulging eye sockets which protected them from fierce, vertical light. A perfect, biological 4x4 waiting for someone to figure out how to use it.
This is where the wheel comes in. The first wheeled culture to penetrate the tribes scattered along the North African seaboard was the Phoenicians. They were followed by the Greeks, who built the magnificent cities of Cyrene and Appollonia, and the Romans, who built the even finer cities of Sabratha, Oea, Leptis Magna and Carthage.
Roads spread, as did the use of chariots. (Within rock overhangs in the central Sahara we were to find ancient paintings of these chariots hitched to speedy looking horses.)
What happened next took more time than can be told in a few sentences, but essentially North Africans, with their backs to the hostile desert and waves of invaders on their shores (including the Vandals), invented a saddle which made it possible to sit on a camel’s hump. Before that camels had been hunted and eaten or, at best (for camels) used to carry heavy loads. Now they could be ridden. And for their riders, the age-old fear of the desert evaporated.
The saddle also made possible new weaponry and fighting tactics which shifted the balance of power in the desert. Arab warriors seized control of the caravan trade and throughout North Africa both riding and pack camels rapidly replaced the wheel. They could carry heavier loads over greater distances than the wagons of the time, keep going for longer and didn’t die of heat exhaustion like oxen and horses.
The replacement was to have far-reaching consequences – and pay off handsomely. The whole Arab world soon set its rhythms by the camel: Cairo’s streets were made to the width of two packed camels, villages sprang up one day’s camel ride apart and great caravans crossed the Sahara all the way to the forests of West Africa. Former nomads and cattle herders became the new lords of the shifting sands.
Which brings me to the Renaissance. Its flowering is generally agreed to have coincided with the waning of the Middle Ages and is considered to have begun in Italy in the 14th century. It was a rebirth of culture, art, science, geographical discovery and secular free thought. And it laid the foundations of our modern world.
It’s no coincidence that the Renaissance began in Italy. Through its former colonies that country had strong links to North Africa. And by extreme good fortune Arab caravanners discovered great salt pans in the central Sahara for which they found a ready market in hot, saltless West Africa. What they also came across were traders known as Dyula who were prepared to exchange salt for its weight in gold.
Entrepreneurship, it seems, is embedded deep in the human heart. Despite political intrigues, conflict and old animosities, a route was set up from mines deep in the West African forests, through towns such as Kumbi, Gao, Jenne and Timbuktu, across the sands to Tangier, Tunis, Tripoli and Alexandria and on to the goldsmiths and mints of Europe.
The requirements of any good Renaissance is, of course, the wealth to buy the leisure time to pursue all that art, culture and science. And that wealth was not only born northwards on the backs of camels, it was made possible because this arrogant, shambling animal made desert travel possible. It is to the camel in part, therefore, that we owe the Renaissance.
There is, of course, an underlying irony here. The stark truth of it became clear when we happened upon a vast herd of grumbling camels snaking picturesquely across the hot sand.
“Is it a caravan?” I enquired.
“No,” said my guide. “They’re for meat.”
The Renaissance eventually gave us the science to make the sort of wheels that were to win back the desert. Camels – those not destined for theme parks or kept as Taureg runabouts – are now heading for slaughterhouses in great numbers.
So to return to my point of departure: by the time our little caravan had reached the outrageous finger of sun-blackened rock where we’d planned to meet a 4x4 hired to whisk me out of the desert, I had forgiven my camel for its earlier misdemeanour.
A single command had urged it to heave up from its convenient crouch, gentle pressure on its neck with my bare toes had served as an accelerator, and a light tug of its single reign brought it onto its chest so I could hop off onto the sand. The Toyota Land Cruiser, when it appeared, seemed quite crass by comparison.
I bid the Tauregs farewell and watched my camel disappearing into the dust cloud of our churning wheels. Then I busied myself picking bits of by then dried snot from my camera. It was a pity, I reflected, that my introduction to this remarkable beast had been by way of its bilge pump. But then I only knew one name of Allah so I could hardly expect to receive its favourable consideration.
About the Author:
Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and photographer who, some time back, realised he knew little about the natural world. So he set out to discover it. This took him to five continents – including Antarctica – and resulted in five books on natural history and hundreds of articles. The Last Elephants, published this year with Colin Bell, is his 18th book.
His other books include:
Gang Town, which won the City Press Tafelberg Non-Fiction award,
Writing Left, a biography of the journalist Ruth First.
Voices of liberation
Gangs, Rituals & Rites of passage
Rainmaker, a novel shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
Just add dust,
Loveletters to Africa,
Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica,
The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers.
Wild as it Gets,
He has degrees in criminology, political science and African history and is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine.
He was one of the primary drafters of the White Paper that became the Child Justice Act, a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy for high-risk youths, a board member of Wilderness Foundation Africa, a member of the Conservation Action Trust and was the facilitator of the Western Cape Government’s gang strategy roadmap.
His day job is as environmental investigative journalist.