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A Camel of our own…the first of a caravan hopefully. 

Good camels are an essential of desert trekking, they carry everything we need for our trip. The tents and bedding, the food supplies, cooking utensils and water to last us for days in the desert. They are with us day and night and anyone travelling with them gets to know them well. 

We have always hired camels in the past, and will still be hiring some of them but this January we bought our first camp Sahara camel, he has been named Sami by Katherine, which is an Arabic name meaning ‘elevated’ or ‘sublime’ we don’t usually give individual names to camels, referring to them more often by their colour, but she was insistent! 

Sami, as you can see, has a lovely smile! He also has a gentle temperament which makes him perfect for working with visitors. He is already earning his keep and you will certainly be spending time with him when you come on one of our desert trips. 

We are currently looking for a second camel as they do not enjoy living alone and although his yard is cosy he has no friend just now…

Ships of the Desert – part 1

I like camels a lot… And I mean a LOT.

As I started to write about Camels I realised there was far more I would like to share with you than would fit in one blog post. So this is part one, I am thinking about putting something more permanent together on this fascinating subject too as I have so much material already…
Camels have played a important role in North Africa for thousands of years. They were probably domesticated some 4000 years ago and up until relatively recently were absolutely essential for travel and trade across the Sahara and this tradition continues today in the desert areas of Morocco.

All the camels you see as you travel the desert will belong to someone, there are no truly wild dromedaries left in Africa and the Middle East and only a small number of the Bactrian camel far away in Mongolia that are still wild. There is a feral population in Australia but they were originally taken there as domestic animals.
I have always had a soft spot for these oddly beautiful desert ships with their liquid eyes and luxuriant eyelashes. I rode one when I was very small at Dudley zoo and later dreamed of riding one down the streets of my hometown…


My first attempt at depicting them also came early, I think I was about 10 when I drew this picture and clearly couldn’t remember what their feet looked like! (No internet for reference photos then)

But travelling frequently in the desert has given me ample opportunity to get much better acquainted with these amazing creatures in the last few years and I have been surprised by so many things as I learn more about their habits and the folklore that is associated with them
One thing I have experienced is that contrary to popular opinion most of them seem to be infinitely patient with human beings and often like to be in close proximity with us overnight if they can be ( this is not always welcome when wild camping as they can have a variety of interesting digestive songs which In the silence of the desert sound even louder)

 

This reminds me of the cautionary Islamic story of ‘The camels nose’ but more on that later…

The relationship between the Morrocan nomad people’s and their camels is a complex one, they occupy quite an elevated position as a beast that is so intimately connected with the very survival of the nomad way of life here, and I have seen men embrace them and talk to them with real affection, they are also valuable creatures and take a long time to grow to maturity and train up to be pack or riding animals. A camel takes 15 months to produce a calf and that calf will then take 4 years to mature, much longer than many other domesticated animals. A camel can then live up to 50 years so your relationship with your working camel may be a very long one indeed. The Prophet Mohammed owned three during his life that are quite famous, especially a female called Al-Qaswa. Who I will also write more about later.

But they are meat and milk to the people here too. especially at festivals, weddings and celebrations. Although I will not be trying camel meat (which some believe will bestow on you some of its contrariness if you are not careful to cleanse yourself spiritually afterwards) I have tried the milk, which was lovely and I can report didn’t make me any more contrary than I usually am. Camel milk is also said to have curative powers, a subject that may be ripe for research.
A camel’s nostrils can not only close completely to keep out sand during storms but also trap almost all the water vapour in their out breath returning it to the body. And it’s kidneys are so efficient that when it urinates, it produces a thick sticky urine which is said to have homeopathic properties (although I have no idea what you would use it for exactly) these adaptations mean a camel can go for weeks without drinking (though they can also drink a prodigious amount when water is available)

Camels can eat almost anything and during times of scarcity will even eat bones. When we travel in the desert with them they ensure nothing from our meals is ever wasted, but as they are particularly fond of dates I think they must have quite a sweet tooth, which is a very Moroccan characteristic too!


 

Their dung arrives already so dry It can be used for building fires, although I have never see it used for this in Morocco.
Camel hair can apparently be made into an incense which has the reputation of curing nosebleeds, I haven’t tried this one either, as yet.

I think the camels almost magical ability to survive and thrive in the harshest of conditions confers on it a certain sense of the wondrous. So it makes sense to me that these qualities of toughness in the face of adversity as well as its famous contrariness are seen as something that it may be able to pass to others.

Some Moroccans also believe that a camel is the only sentient being that is able to see the Djinn, spiritual creatures mentioned in the Qu’ran that exist alongside humans and Angels.

Camel hide is occasionally used to make prayer mats, but I have also heard that one should avoid praying where camels rest as they are ‘of the devil’
During my perambulations around various advice sites looking for more info about this Pronouncement I came across an Imam who replied with dry wit to an earnest enquiry on the issue that regardless of how much devishness is contained in camels (and being bolshy and stubborn is absolutely a sign of the bad guy at work apparently) it was probably good advice not to pray near to them as there is always the chance that one might step on you or take a bite out of you.

Not conducive to making a an appropriate connection with the almighty I imagine…I have not been bitten. Yet.

Look out for the next instalment when I will share some Camel stories and talk about travelling with them
(All photographs and artwork copyright K Soutar)

The ugly beautiful. Or how I learned to love the Camel spider.

Ok, I will be the first to admit that Camel spiders have a bit of an image problem. I am an invertebrate lover of long standing and even I jumped a wee bit the first time I saw one!  Many of my Moroccan friends also find it difficult to understand my fascination with them and are still not altogether convinced of their harmless nature. 
I realise spiders of any sort are a bit of an issue for many people, even tiny cute ones, and these are not cute. 
But bear with me, because they really are incredible little creatures. When you get to know them. My initial encounter with one was during my first camel trek in the desert, when it ran across our improvised tablecloth spread on the sand by the campfire for supper, it was only a small one and was promptly dispatched to whatever heaven arachnids inhabit by Ali, I think in the mistaken belief that I was going to freak out utterly as soon as I spotted it. (They know me better now!) I did get a chance to have a good look at its now inert body however and spent the rest of the trip hoping to see another but was out of luck that time. April 2017 I finally hit the camel spider jackpot though, staying in a fixed camp near M’hamid I spotted a big one sitting by the light over the kitchen door. The following morning when we moved the camel gear there was a positive flurry of activity as several escapees headed for the shadows. I spent quite a bit of time watching camel spiders that day and started to feel quite affectionate toward them, and I was entranced by their strangeness…

They are not the most attractive of creepy crawlies it’s true, in fact their colouration and odd almost semi transparency makes them look as though they could  be the inspiration for a dozen Sci fi monsters. But they are perfectly camouflaged and adapted to their environment and are true desert survivors, capable of catching and eating creatures bigger than themselves, including small rodents and lizards ( I have been told they also catch scorpions but have no evidence for this) with their enormously powerful jaws. Dinner can be scarce in the desert so you have to eat whatever you can get hold of.

They are able to run pretty fast, faster than almost any other arachnid, with a top speed of about 10 miles an hour. They are also in fact, not spiders at all but belong to an even more ancient arachnid family called solpugids.

When they do run they are usually running determinedly towards shade if disturbed during the day as they can’t bear the sunlight. Their proper name of solifugae meaning ‘one who hides from the sun’ This does mean that they usually run towards the nearest available shadow, which might be yours in the desert. But it is not you they are after! Just your shady effects… At night they are actually attracted to light so you may see them resting near lights and lamps. This is the best chance to get a really good look at one, as they will just sit there for you. Treat them with respect as they do have big jaws but only a very annoyed one is going to bite you, and yes, it will hurt if it does,  but they are not poisonous or in my experience at all aggressive. 

For many years, Middle Eastern rumors (and gulf war soldiers folklore) have painted camel spiders as huge, venomous predators, with a voracious appetite for large mammals. These myths are untrue. These creatures do not actually eat anything bigger than a mouse and certainly don’t prey on camels, that is just silly… (although they will use a camel for shade which may have fuelled some of these tales) and they are not so large, (only about 6 inches and weighing a just a couple of ounces) but the real camel spider is still an amazing predator and an utterly fascinating inhabitant of the desert…

And finally, if you really don’t want to get to know them at all, relax. I haven’t seen them at all on several of my treks, and I was looking for them!

The amazing Sandfish 

 

The brilliantly named ‘Sandfish’ (Scincus scincus) is a small lizard typically about 4 inches long that is native to the Sahara desert. 
This little golden lizard has a long, wedge-shaped snout it uses to quickly burrow into the sand to escape from predators. Its body has flattened sides and is covered with smooth, shiny scales. Its legs are short and sturdy, with long, flattened toes and a tail that tapers to a point. 
When startled they dive into the sand and literally swim through it, with their little legs pressed against the sides of their bodies. No matter how fast you are at digging the chances are they will be long gone before you even start!

They probably use the same technique to ambush the insects they feed on and of course it is also a good way to get out of the hot desert sun…

 

  

The only time I have ever seen one up close was when we found one hiding in a piece of firewood we had collected for the evening campfire, smooth, beautiful and glowing a little in the firelight. We released it back into the sand to swim another day, and I always check the firewood has no passengers now…

Gazelle! 

On my most recent visit to the desert I spent time in the stunning dunes of Chegaga, and was lucky enough to see Dorcas Gazelle…

One morning we set out by camel from the bivouac in Chegaga to visit a family of nomads and share lunch with them. Leaving camp very early in the morning to try to make most of the journey before the temperature climbed too high. I was gazing sleepily at the horizon and listening to the swish plop of the camels feet when Barbossa suddenly turned and made a ‘horns’ gesture with his hands and put his finger to his lips before pointing into the distance. I managed to suppress the squeal of delight that nearly escaped me as I saw what he was indicating. Two beautiful, delicate gazelle were staring back at us through the shimmering early sunshine from about 50 metres ahead, after a few moments they trotted off unhurriedly and we followed them at a distance, seeing them stop to look back at us again twice more before they tired of our presence and bounded out of sight across the Hammada.
It is difficult to find the words for the feeling of seeing an animal like this in its own environment and on its own terms rather than on television or at a zoo. Wonder, awe, utter humility perhaps? But it is unlike any other experience and one I always feel incredibly privileged to have. When I returned to the family home in M’hamid I wanted to celebrate it somehow and so on a swelteringly hot afternoon just before my return to Marrakech I painted this on a wall… (I will post another time about how to recognise the early symptoms of heatstroke…;-))

Gazelle are sadly becoming a rarer sight in Morocco partly due to poaching for the restaurant trade and partly through loss of environment. Although  the gazelle is a protected species here with such huge areas to cover it can be difficult to police. The prevalence of 4×4 travel in the Sahara may also be a factor in that it disturbs the population and may be driving them deeper into more remote areas.

There are some things even camels won’t eat…

This impressive looking plant is the giant Milkweed, Calotropis procera, a species of flowering plant that is native to North Africa and parts of Asia.
My first encounter with the giant milkweed occurred when I commented about the many floating seeds that drifted past as we ambled across the Hamada with the camels one November morning. Barbossa took a stick and poked what looked like a large green fruit on a nearby tree, it collapsed with a sigh and I could see it was actually completely hollow. This, he said, was where the seeds were coming from, and that it was a poison tree, the milk (sap) could make people and animals blind if it entered the eye and no animal would eat it.

 


You may well encounter this curious plant as you travel across the Sahara, in some areas it is ubiquitous. Common names for the plant include Sodom’s Apple and Kapok tree. At times the breeze is filled with their small floating seeds like desert snow.

Inside the green globes is a toxic milky sap that is extremely bitter and turns into a gluey coating resistant to soap. Most animals will not eat them due to this toxic sap which can cause rash, blisters and serious inflammations and may as mentioned above, lead to blindness. Ingesting larger doses of latex produce toxic symptoms like burning in the throat, irritation of the stomach, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, tremors, vertigo and convulsions.

Sheep, goats and camels will sometimes try to eat the young leaves, young pods and flowers during droughts, but only if they are very hungry indeed….Even the nectar of the flowers is considered toxic, and gives honey a bad taste. Beekeepers therefore often cut down the plants near to their hives.


But even this seemingly hostile plant has amazing uses

All over Africa there are medicinal uses of Calotropis procera Roots, stem bark, latex, leaves and flowers are all used in many and varied ways in traditional medicine.
A decoction or infusion of the stem bark and root bark, or the powdered bark in water is taken to cure diarrhoea, dysentery, intestinal worms, colic, spleen complaints, stomach-ache, cardiovascular problems, pneumonia, fever, jaundice, elephantiasis and leprosy.
Dried root powder in water is taken to increase milk flow of nursing mothers and is given to women to ease child birth. Ground roots or the ash of the burnt roots are applied as a salve or rubbed in to treat skin rash and skin infections.

Root powder mixed with Capsicum pepper is put in a bath to treat rheumatism and arthritis. The root bark with latex is smoked as remedy for cough. The stem bark is even considered in some countries as an aphrodisiac. The latex is also used as an antiseptic, Leaf juice is used as a poison antidote, rubbed on scorpion stings and wounds, leaf pulp is taken to treat snakebites. A leaf decoction or infusion is drunk to treat colds, Pounded fresh leaves are put under the pillow to treat insomnia.
Leaves are used as mattress stuffing to keep insects away. Dried leaf powder is sprinkled on wounds to improve healing and burnt ground leaves effectively reduce pain and swellings in rheumatic joints. Leaves are heated, grated, mixed with fat and applied as a paste to treat skin diseases and lice. A leaf dressing is applied to the abdomen to ease childbirth and to treat sun stroke. The smoke of dried, burned leaves, and sometimes the stems, is inhaled to calm asthma attacks and severe headache.
A decoction of the dried flowers can even be drunk to treat impotence apparently!
And of course the woody stems can be used for firewood in an environment where it is often scarce.
There is one creature which does enjoy the leaves of the milkweed and that is the beautiful and rather misnamed plain Tiger or African Monarch butterfly, which is believed to be the first butterfly ever used in Art. A 3500 year old Egyptian fresco in Luxor features the oldest illustration of this species

 

The plain tiger is protected from attacks due to the toxic latex eaten by the caterpillars during the larval stages. The butterfly therefore flies slowly and leisurely, generally close to the ground and in a straight line. This gives a would-be predator ample time to recognise and avoid attacking it. Inexperienced predators will try attacking it, but will learn soon enough to avoid this butterfly as the alkaloids in its body cause vomiting.

The butterfly also has a tough, leathery skin to survive such occasional attacks. When attacked it fakes death and oozes nauseating liquid which makes it smell and taste terrible. This encourages the predator to release the butterfly quickly. The plain tiger thus has the ability to recover “miraculously” from predator attacks that would kill most other butterflies.