Mar 20 2013
If you ask me, Nature never meant for horses, camels, mules and donkeys to be ridden. If it had, these animals would have come equipped with handle bars or steering wheels and humans would have been naturally bandy-legged. But this is a purely personal point of view. And here’s why.
Camels are horses designed by committee
In 1982, six German friends and I rented a pick-up truck for the 32 km ride to Rannikot Fort in the Khirthar Mountains of Sindh. At the end of our four days of bliss in that wild and beautiful place we hired four camels to bring our group back to the road head. In the course of this journey of eight hours, I learned that someone was right on the ball with the saying, ‘camels are horses designed by a committee.’
How to ride a camel
After the gangly beast has been couched, you are required to jump on, the postilion rider forward of the hump which should never have been there in the first place and the pillion aft of it. On driver’s command to rise, the animal raises its hind quarters sending both riders keeling to the front. Then with a jerk it unbends its front legs and the riders tilt over backwards, only barely missing being spilled all the way over the camel’s dung encrusted hind quarters.
To make matters worse, the camel does not approve of riders either. If the sound of a pig being slaughtered is horrid, the protestations of a camel being mounted come straight from the darkest depth of Hades. The deep, sonorous rumbling growl unnerves, its ugliness complimented by the appearance of the bladder that erupts from one side of the camel’s mouth. Puffed up with air, livid with purple and red blood vessels it is covered with slime which the camel, turning around, sprays on the hapless rider in front. Toothpaste manufacturers would do well to invent something for the camel’s halitosis.
On the march, the camel lurches forward and back creating a rubbing motion against the saddle. In the part of the world where our lot was experiencing the first camel ride, the saddle is a wooden frame overlaid with patchwork cotton sheets. The part of the anatomy that chafes against the seating arrangement is the cleavage just below the end of the coccyx.
Non riders are never in harmony with the motion of the mount and therefore about half way through the long ordeal all of us were aware of the sore developing at the end of the coccyx. Over the next eight days, this was the only wound of my life that I never actually laid eyes on and had to feel for gingerly in order to learn how it was healing. The only redeeming feature of this ride was that the camels were hitched nose to tail and none of us heroes was required to steer the beasts.
Falling from camels
However, even before the sore made itself felt and when we had hardly been underway for ten minutes, I watched the saddle on the lead camel begin to list to one side. Before Norbert and Hans Werner could call out to the camel man, I saw them coming down in slow motion. In an avalanche of colorful patchwork, blond hair, pale skins and sling bags the two sailed to the sandy bed of the dry river in which we were marching. Thankfully neither bones nor cameras were broken because of the soft landing.
Thereafter, on two different occasions, once in the Khirthar Mountains and again in the Suleman Mountains (northern Balochistan), when I had to hire camels, I used them as beasts of burden. The memory of the sore coccyx still haunts me as if from yesterday.
Horses are only slightly better in that the ride is closer to ground level and a fall does not have the potential of transporting the rider to traction in a hospital bed. In the Suleman Mountains of western Punjab, my rider friend Raheal insisted that I take the proffered horse. Like the fool I am, I did. Within five seconds I realised that it is impossible to steer a horse with a limp leather rein. (George Burns, take note: sex at ninety is not only like shooting pool with a rope, it is also like steering a horse with this rein.) That was when I realised that not having equipped them with handle bars, Nature had never meant horses to be ridden by humans.
As we started up the first slope, the simple process of taking out the camera from the bag very nearly unseated me. A minute later the lens cap fell out of my hands. That brought the ride to an end. I got off and when Raheal’s minions insisted I get back on, I snapped like a rabid dog. It’s another thing that the men thought this middle-aged man from Lahore would be dead by the time he reached the top and called for a cot for my transportation. Years later, Raheal told me the legend of the tireless one from Lahore still lived on.
Camel trek in China
In 2006, I was in Raskam in Xinjiang (China) to trek to Suget Jungle under the north face of K-2. I had three camels to carry the load. In comparison to the dromedary, the Bactrian double-humped animal is cute and cuddly. It has large, limpid and gentle eyes, a wholly likeable face and, best of all; it does not growl or spit.
In those ten days in one of the greatest wildernesses I have ever seen, my guide and I rode the camels for a total of ten minutes each. This was when we had to cross two particularly deep channels of the Shaksgam River. The process of mounting the camel was simple. Seet, the camel driver, made a soft whistling sound and the animal took a sort of a courtesy while Seet lowered the animal’s neck for the rider to use as a step to get on. Gross indignity that this was, the animal yet suffered it with remarkable forbearance, something that the dromedary is singularly incapable of.
At one with the camel
Thankfully, I was not subjected to rides any longer than a few minutes or I might have discovered the unsavory side of the double-humped camel. But I did feel a pang or two of envy for Seet as I watched him riding effortless, swaying forward and back with the motion as if he were a part of the camel’s anatomy.
How not to ride a donkey
The worst equestrian experience, and hopefully the last, was in August 2009. On the second reading of News from Tartary, I was taken by the idea of seeing the first view of India that Peter Fleming had back in August 1935. So there I was in the company of two young and spirited lads, Aman and Irfan, from Misgar village on our way to Mintaka Pass on the border with China. En route Irfan commandeered a loitering donkey to carry our load.
When I took off my boots after the first six hours of walking, I found red sores just above the heels on the inward side on both feet. The next day these were bleeding wounds, a size somewhat larger than the British one pound coin. On the third morning, I was all but resolved to concede defeat and call for a return march when Irfan suggest I ride the donkey.
And so we set out for Mintaka Pass (4684 metres), but what a sorry setting out it was. I astride the little donkey, my legs hanging limply on either side and hands clasping the iron ring at the top of the surcingle. On the go, I could not afford to cast so much as a glance in any direction because I tended to lose my balance. All I could do was keep my eyes focused at some point in front through the angle of the donkey’s ears.
We made the pass all right, but the journey from our overnight camp back to Qalandar Chi, where I got a ride on a motorcycle, was a nightmare. For the first time in my life I learned that the manure of every other donkey is every other donkey’s most pressing interest. As we would be trotting along with me holding on to that single strap for dear life, the donkey, having spotted a load of manure on the trail, would suddenly brake and stick its muzzle into the heap. Done sniffing lustily, it would lift its head up to sneer at the sky before setting off again. At every unannounced halt, it took every bit of effort for me to prevent myself from somersaulting over the animal’s head and landing on the scree in front.
In one particular instance when I was lulled into somnolence by the mid-morning sun, the animal braked and I did actually fly off to land on my knees in front of it. Fortunately no patellae were fractured.
This is a guest post by Travel Writer and Author Salman Rashid, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society.
Top photo courtesy of Angeloux Flickr photostream. All other photos courtesy of Nancy D. Brown.