How not to ride a camel in the Sahara desert: the story of me & Earl

It was November 2015, the trip that led to my complete enamor of Morocco. I was in awe of the cymbals and drums awakening the medinas, the maroons and blood oranges, the ultramarine blues and the shimmering golds, the fairy tale dreams of magic carpets, the sugary rush of mint tea. One of the biggest tourist attractions in Morocco is to ride camels through the Sahara Desert — if you go during the right season, you can look up and see the Milky Way, so bright it truly looks like it’s there as your personal guide. Tourists envision it as this awe-inspiring, hopelessly romantic experience, where there’s nothing between you and the galaxy. There’s no sound, except the light crunching of sand underneath the camels toes, no city lights, no sudden movements disturbing the serenity. 

Sunrise over the Sahara Desert dunes

And it is all that. Unless, of course, you’re in a tour group with me, and I’m whining because my bum is so raw and all I want is to be off this animal. This happened folks and there is no way other way to describe it except straight shootin’: I rubbed my butt raw while sitting on top of a camel. Raw. As in, bleeding, difficulty sitting, scabbing over. And two years later, down the road to recovery, I’m here to share the story with you.

For anyone that has done the Sahara trip before, you know that it is a mission in itself to get there. Most people head to the Sahara from Marrakech, which most often means driving in a bus that notoriously will run out of air conditioning within the first two hours, through the winding roads of the Atlas Mountains. The drive can take anywhere from 8-12 hours; factors: the traffic, how may rugs you decide to buy along the way, how many other cars your driver runs off the one-way sized road that is used for two directions. So by the time you arrive, you’re quite tired of sitting. You know the other strangers on the bus with you a little too well…you’ve been sitting with them, drenched in sweat for hours, and you start to realize that if you had your eyes closed you could probably recognize each person by their personal stench. You make your way to the camels and realize how MASSIVE these things are. For some reason, in my head, I pictured camels as like horses with a little boost, like on a step-ladder. These things are horses on stilts, if the stilts have been taking steroids for two months in preparation for their last hurrah as the circus closes down. It’s more reminiscent of trying to hop on the back of a giraffe, not a sweet little pony at your 8th birthday party. (I was even scared of ponies when I was little because I was scared of “heights” -- more or less just scared of everything). 

Tip 1 for riding a camel as a woman: do not, I repeat, DO NOT wear full underwear. No bikinis, no granny panties, no briefs, no boy shorts, NO. The only acceptable underwear choice is a thong or nothing at all. And this is my only tip. 

As you can gather, I was wearing full coverage underwear on the fateful day. I realized as soon as I sat on the camel and it stood up that there was no way I was letting go of the reins for the next 2 hours of walking. (This is why I have hardly any photos from the Sahara — how do you guys manage to take your hands off? How do you even ride a bike without hands? Where do you guys learn these things?! I feel like I missed some important lessons on the playground…) It’s high up. You begin to check your oxygen levels and wonder if you will get altitude sickness. And the riding isn’t well, refined. About fifteen minutes into the bounce house event, I began to get uncomfortable because I could feel a wedgie coming on, but I couldn’t do anything about it because I was dead certain if I took a hand off a rein I was doing a nose dive. My camel, Earl*, was quite feisty — he actually ended up getting into a tiff with the camel in front of him and almost pulling his harness loose, rearing his head and trying to fight off Earl Sr’s** butt rams.

There was nothing to do but to become uncomfortable. And squirm. Squirming made it worse, which led to the infamous question are we there yet?. Maybe the diachronic development of this question is not from kids going crazy in the new inventions of cars, listening to their parents "oldie" music for hours on end, but from children having to sit with their families crossing the heat of the Sahara, as their clothes crumbled and their bums began to lose feeling. My are we there yet?s being ignored, Earl's ride led to discomfort and then just unsurmountable pain. I was oh so close to pulling a complete diva moment, saying I quit, getting off damn Earl, and walking the rest of the way. Then I heard Earl Sr. expel his stomach, while he was walking, right in front of me. Then remembered that the trail we were on was covered in camel poo and I was wearing sandals. But, I mean, I did remember from some biology class back in high school that camel dung was extremely hard and lacking of moisture, it’s even used in some places as cooking fuel because it’s slow to burn and virtually smokeless. (Why on earth is this the one thing I remember from biology class?)*** So, needless to say, I was still considering leaving ole’ Earl when our camp finally appeared. 

We arrive at camp and damage control must be done. I am bleeding, supplies for butt wounds at camps in the middle of the desert are limited, and I’m completely unsure what to do. How do you heal open wounds instantly? There has to be modern day technology for this by now, right? And it has to be sitting in the middle of the Sahara, just waiting for me to put it to use. My modern technology was Vaseline that a (now) friend had with her. We had a lovely dinner, sat around the campfire, attempting to sing away my pain. I was on the road to recovery; until, the next morning when I woke up and realized that I had to get back on that damn selfish inconsiderate Earl again. And naturally I didn’t bring any camel riding appropriate underwear with me for round two. Vaseline lathered and ready to go, I barely made it back to the bus. I ended up standing most of the bus ride home and we had to take some extra restroom breaks so I could reapply. 

Nothing makes you become friends with strangers faster than them helping you take care of your camel butt wounds. Thanks again, I love you guys! (Especially you Lynne, for foreseeing my future and bringing the necessary Vaseline medicine!)

*Yes, I named my camel Earl because it’s a name I cannot get attached to and Earl and I did not create a loving bond, not even a tolerable one

**Earl Sr because these two camels were the death of me

***If you want some more camel poo related fun facts, I have some more stored for you in my “random knowledge you learn in high school” folder. During WWII, German tank operators in North Africa decided (for who knows what reason) that they would have good luck if they drove over mounds of camel dung. The Allies got wind of this…interesting..ritual and started making mines that looked like camel dung. The Germans figured this out, after a few mishaps of course, so then the Allies started making piles of fake camel dung with tank tread marks already rolled over them. (This was actually in the Allies’ budget — imagine that job description “chief artistic designer of camel poo dung mines”). The Axis’ used the camels too to their advantage though. When dysentery was causing havoc throughout the front lines, the Axis powers turned towards local cure: eating camel droppings. Scientists discovered that camel feces is filled with a certain bacteria which killed the dysentery-causing germs. So, ironically, so they wouldn’t shit themselves to death, they had to turn to eating camel shit. Another reason to prefer to be on the Allies’ side?

Camel riding in the Sahara