If you are of the opinion that camels are smelly cantankerous creatures then, just a week or so ago, I would have wholeheartedly agreed with you.
They have a thousand different ways of complaining, their faces are those only a mother could love, and their breath? Oh my. Well, lets just say its enough to put anyone off their dinner.
However, its amazing what you can get used too.
I was just three days into a week long luxury camel trek across Kenya’s Northern Rangelands, and I was already warming to their personalities.
Yes, its true they spit and flatulate a lot. But they are also very proud animals with a commendable strength of will.
Each morning, as the sun rose, the other guests and I would rise from our mesh screened dome tents, take a warm shower (a bucket hung from tree), sit down at a table and commence to drinking our freshly ground coffee as the breaking of camp got underway.
It was always a fascinating spectacle.
The fifteen Maasai warriors who were accompanying us would set to work tying tents and equipment to their animals whilst singing those wonderful deep songs that Maasai sing so well. The camels habitually joined in, albeit less tunefully, with wails and growls and howls of their own.
Sometimes the beasts protested at the fastening of bridles and straps by kicking out at their Maasai masters. At other times they ran off into the bushes, forcing the men to give chase.
Whatever comic capers went down though, one thing was assured, the camels always lost the battle and ended up tethered in a neat single file line.
The men, despite most of them hailing from small local Maasai villages, had all undergone extensive training from Charlie Wheeler (the boss) on how to manage rowdy camels as well as potentially pedantic foreign guests.
As such, they were as adept at controlling the cantankerous creatures.
“Would you like a Darjeeling or earl grey to go with your porridge sir?” asked one young man whilst hefting a rolled up mattress onto the back of a dribbling camel.
Like many of the other men on the trip, his face was adorned with silvery chains and his ears had been stretched into long floppy flaps by heavy earrings.
He was a great camel man and also a very good chef, and the evening meals were always decadent affairs consisting of fine foods (cooked over a wood fire)with a choice of wines and deserts.
The venue choice was never less than spectacular, and most evenings saw us dining by candle light overlooking mount Kenya, in a forest full of monkeys, or otherwise close to a waterhole where wildlife would show up.
During one particularly memorable evening, we were serenaded by lions and hyenas beneath a full moon whilst dining on freshly steamed vegetables and char grilled steak in the middle of a wide dry river bed.
It was absolutely marvelous.
A Cultural Conglomeration
Although the food and service was good, the biggest delight of the trip came from simply enjoying the experience of walking with camels through wild territory full of big animals and fascinating tribes.
The area is known as the Northern Rangelands, a tapestry of community and privately owned wildlife conservancies covering some 1.2 million hectares.
Spearheaded by the Lewa conservancy (a place made famous for its role in saving Rhinos during the 80s and 90s) the Northern Rangelands are not only home to important populations of elephant, rhino, wild dog, leopard, cheetah and lion but also to over 60,000 pastoralists from diverse tribal backgrounds.
The Samburu, Mokogodo, Rendille, Laikipiak and Meru Maasai all utilize the area as do various semi nomadic peoples from the north
Although we were deep in the bush, hundreds of miles from the nearest town, we still encountered a surprising amount of people; most of whom were herdsmen with their livestock. They would often amass at junctions between dry rivers, and there they would set to work digging water wells for their animals
These focal points were always exceptionally lively places where noisy camels, numbering in their hundreds, stood in raucous and unruly lines; their flaccid lips dribbling with anticipation of a drink.
Amongst the forest of their knobbly kneed legs, thousands of goats scuttled around in rowdy anarchy whilst red robed Maasai men and gaunt looking Muslims dressed in turbans tried, often in vain, to maintain some sort of order.
We squeezed through these cultural conglomerations, in single file, one camel after another, and bid good day to man and beast alike.
“The dry rivers of Northern Kenya are natural thoroughfares” said Charlie as we wandered down a wide flat valley. We had a good open view of the sandy river bed and I could see that there were literally dozens of traditionally dressed men and women making their way towards the waterhole with thousands of noisy livestock in tow.
“Droughts in the north are forcing more people down here to where the grazing is better. But when the weather breaks, as eventually it must, most of them will go home”
The Northern Rangelands Trust; an umbrella organization to 19 distinct conservancies; is the glue that holds all these people, their lands and the wildlife together.
They assist with conservation issues, education and health care, poverty alleviation schemes, tourism development, conflict management and livestock issues too.
“It may look busy sometimes” said Charlie as we wandered past a small village of Maasai women “But at the heart of the conservancies there is usually a conservation core where wildlife is strictly protected and grazing seldom allowed.”
“That’s where you’ll find lodges and other tourism activities, the profits from which are ploughed back into community projects and conservation”
We had left the hubbub of the herders and headed instead into a quieter conservation core where the sandy trails no longer told a story of men and their livestock, but rather that of lions and leopards and cheetah and wild dog.
“We are in fact following well trodden elephant paths” Charlie told me pointing to a line of enormous prints.
“And it wouldn’t be a tour if we didn’t at least see some of them”
Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long before we came across a single huge bull. We followed him on foot for a while, watching from a safe distance as he lumbered slowly and methodically through the bush.
He was magnificent.
The last leg of our north Kenyan odyssey took us out of the sun scorched semi desert of the lowlands and up into the Mokogodo mountains; a series of forest clad hills where more than 300 bird species rub shoulders with forest dwelling elephants, bushbuck, buffalo and black rhino.
It was a magical and misty place; a cool verdant jungle, totally at odds to the arid landscape of the semi desert through which we had travelled. It was also teaming with elephants and buffalo, both of which we had encounters with.
On the final night of our camel caravan odyssey, we emerged from the bush and forsook our canvas tents in favour of the five star opulence of the Tassia Lodge; a very personal place consisting of just six open fronted cottages that overlook the landscape through which we had just trekked.
The camels were treated to some home coming rations as well as a huge draft of fresh clean water, and I lounged on my verandah, supping a good crisp claret whilst observing the approach of a tropical thunderstorm.
The drought was about to break, and from my vantage point on the side of a hill, all around I could hear the distant celebrations of all the region’s inhabitants.
Our camels gurgled and bellowed, elephants trumpeted, lions roared and the cries of a thousand bleating goats fused with the beautiful sound of Maasai men singing.
If you are of the opinion that camels are smelly cantankerous creatures then, just a week or so ago, I would have wholeheartedly agreed with you, but not now. As far as I’m concerned, camels are the bees knees and I cant wait to get back in the saddle.
Bad breath and all .
Charlie Wheeler organizes camel treks by arrangements. He has various routes ranging from easy treks into wildlife rich core areas all the way up to serious expeditions to the Ethiopian border.
Trails tend to begin and end at the family owned luxury 5 star Tassia Lodge on the game rich Lekurruki Community Ranch. They can be contacted about organizing a camel safari.
Find out more on the Northern Rangelands areas