”It looks younger than you say” , I told the crowd watching me walking backwards, checking the camel who had been offered for 2500 dollars and added; ”But it is really placid and cuddly.”
The Bedu crowd protested when I questioned that this not fully grown male camel was younger than the 4 years they suggested. Nobody knew exactly, but after awhile, I agreed, this young camel teenager was perfect for us. We named him Kensington after a friends company, who had sponsored the Expedition with this camel. Kensington was a charmer. Small, but well built, he had walked some distance with gear and had been ridden a lot, according to the people selling him, which was a first for us to hear, since we came to Al Mahra. So far we had seen many camels, but none used to long distance walking with gear. Kensington had small ears, a big mouth, cute and very curious eyes and a strong big hump. I didn´t find any injuries anywhere, except the scars after far too big branding marks on his left cheek and long neck. He was one of the calmest camels I had ever come across and even Tanya, who still wasn´t too comfortable being close to these beautiful animals, could pat him without him getting angry, wanting to bite her like all the others. Camels, like other animals, fear people who are scared and behave irrationally. I also noticed he didn´t have a nose peg, which made me happy. That meant these guys knew how to handle camels. And, of course, the Bedus are the real camel people on earth, who´s spirit is closely related to this fine and proud animal. Something we didn´t really understand at this stage. We were still fighting what we saw as a life of injustice because we were foreigners. We felt everyone was trying to rip us off. We still hadn´t adjusted to the way the Bedu´s live. Basically meaning:
Time has no end.
They can wait for years to take a desicion. So why hurry taking desicions? Bedus are considered by many as the most indigenous of the Arabs or people of the Middle East, by which I mean, they probably lived here before anyone else. The first appearance of nomadic peoples in the Arabian desert is said to be traced back as far as the third millennium BC .
”Ok, we want him”, I said and everybody seemed happy.
But how to get him back to Marejki, where we were supposed to start our journey?
It was 4 hours really, really rough desert and mountain road away. Of course they loaded poor Kensington, who was furious and full of fear, on the back of a HiLux and than we set off the 4 hours back to our starting point. It wasn´t the most perfect of beginnings, because we had travelled 2 rough hours of road from Al Ghaydah to Marejk and from there, 4 hours to this mountain settlement to see Kensington, buy him, and now travelling back. And I was really worried how this bumpy and uncomfortable trip would do to the mind of the young Kensington. Maybe it would scare him for the rest of the life? Make him freak out every time we saw a car? The desert environment is harsh and does not lend itself easily to the support of human life. It was scary how lifeless and barren it was. Twice we passed some date farms, but that´s it. The rest was hostile desert. Well, we did see stray camels everywhere. And goats and sheep. Which are the traditional job of the Bedu. Raising these animals and finding food for them in the desert. It seemed an impossible jobfrom the beck of the jeep, where Mohammed our friend from Al Ghaydah and our body guard/guide Mabkhout, was sitting, singing songs from this extremely rough desert region. But, of course, I knew by experience that despite these harsh conditions, a great deal of life animal and plant life manages to exist in the desert. All we saw now was mountains, rock outcroppings, gravel and stony plains, wadis (dry riverbeds, which can become sudden torrents during a heavy rainfall), and stands of scrubby bushes or trees. I also knew that after a rainstorm, the desert floor explodes into a carpet of grasses and brilliantly colored wildflowers. But, when I asked the driver, when they last had rain, he answered:
“We haven´t had rain for three years”
After this he brought up the subject that he wanted to get payed for driving us back and forth to this hidden mountain refuge where we bought Kensington.
We knew we had to get up early next day, to avoid the heat and I was still nervous, since I still hadn´t seen the saddles and the saddle bags they said would be part of the deal. Next morning I woke up at 5 to be shocked. The saddle consisted of 2 blankets. Of course they had no rope, so I brought out my yellow colored back up one, which Mabkhout cut into pieces immediately before I could do something. The same happened to one of the harnesses a friend of mine, Marianne, had given to me to use on this trip and in shock I saw what they considered pack saddles, meaning they did they old basic set up. Only 2 blankets and a piece of rope made a saddle, with a home made girth holding it to the body. And I immediately realized they would then use the equal balance technique and that no saddle bags existed. So we had a bit of a row. At the same time, it was getting much hotter and we were still far from being used to this oven.
After 300 meters of walking the equipment fell of the camel with a big thump! I was furious, feeling cheated again and being dead worried that this would cause Kensington a lot of damage on his hump area. We had far too much gear, so we got rid of some stuff, like the duck tape, which would have helped us later on. Mohammed put a bit of the left overs in his already heavy rucksack, the type kids use for schoolbooks. But he had as many books. All about Islam. On top of this, he carried his customary Kalashnikov, which he probably never had used.
We repacked quickly, but the sun was getting real mean, temperature showed 40 and it was just 7 in the morning. The same thing happened after another 500 metres and this time, I angrily demanded to do it all by myself and amazingly enough managed to get it to work. The problem was the 40 litres of water we carried. All together Kensington carried around 75 kg.s on his maiden trip, far too much, but we had no idea where we would find water next, even if we were in a Kel Shat-area, the home tribe of Mabkhout and Muhammed. After an hour the heat was immense. My thermometer showed 46 degrees Celsius and we were all really knackered, after just 4 kilometres of walking, we took a 7 hour lunch break, hiding from the burning sun under a former river bed wall.
I think we were all more or less in a state of shock. Tanya kept up her charming spirit up, but there was no doubt she was suffering in this intense heat. Muhammed was really, really knackered. The speed was far too high for him, who had never walked many metres in his life and at the same time was quite overweight. Mahood seemed to have lost some spirit that morning through our quarrels. Bedus are no fans of heated discussions and upset tempers. I personally felt that kensington was far too heavy, we were too many on this trip on one camel and we were moving at a snails speed. I wanted to average 20 km.s a day to be able to have all options open what to do all the time. I was also unsure of the exact route to take. We knew that Rumah would possible be the end of the trip, due to the worries as regards to Al Qaedahs movements in the Hadramawht. But at that moment, Rumah seemed impossible to reach.
Kensington wanted to return to his mountain retreat and birth place during lunch, so Mahood almost went all the way back to Marejk to pick him up. He had hobbled all the way there and when Mabkhout came back to our place in the shadow, I went out to take the exact GPS coordinates and Mahood came up to me, slightly curious to what I was doing. So I explained the satellites in orbit around the globe and that this little item exactly could tell us where we were. After a minute of silence, Mahood asked me:
”Does it tell us where we can find water?”
Slightly surprised I said no and this made Mabkhout looked me deeply in the eyes and he said:
”What good is it if it doesn´t tell us this?”
I have to say, this is probably the best remark I have ever come across. Modern society meets the Bedus! This was also a big eye opener for me as regards to my irritated behavior.
”I didn´t sleep at all during the night!” Mohammed said next morning whilst we were cooking breakfast.
Porridge. Loved by me, hated by the rest. Mohammed wanted to return home. It was harder than he had expected, but we talked him into continuing. We told him this was a great chance for him to see his own land and country plus that he would do great as a translator of the local tongue mahari into Arabic, which Tanya would translate for me. Her work rate was impressive and I was wondering how long she would be able to keep it up, because this life as an explorer was all new to this great human being.
Tanya comes from the suburbs of Stockholm. A very different background to the one where I am brought up in the sticks of the Central-North of Sweden in a tiny village. We talked two different dialects, but I love hers. It is the tough dialect of the suburbs and she makes me continously laugh. She is a tough talking girl who fits in very well in both the worlds of men and women. But I was worried that she was to eager to show that she could do the job as a translator and Expedition partner. She worked continously. Running back and forth talking photos, filming, talking to Muhammed who got more tired by every meter and sometimes she just forgot to drink. But it was Muhammed who fell apart just before we made it to our first settlement, the last before we headed up Wadi Kudyt, a settlement called Marayt.
”He threw up 3 times under a tree” , Tanya told me when she caught up with Mahood, kensington and me, sitting in the shadow sipping this extremely tasy but sugary tea of the Bedu and she continued; ”I am worried for his life if he continues.”
Mohammed was one of many men who said Tanya was to weak to do this trip. He among most others in Tanya´s address book, who believed she would never make it. I had no worries at all. I knew there would come times when she wanted out, due to heat and tiredness, but I knew she would make it all the way. Mohammed would be the first one to give way to her speed and strength. When Mohammed turned up, there was no doubt he had been hit by a sunstroke of the smaller kind, but it would have been very dangerous for him to continue. He had put in a great effort far beyond his capacity, but this was the end of his dream. He smiled at me and said;
”I have realized that from now on I will be only travelling to Sanaa and Mukalla.”
We spent most of the lunch defending our right to continue. At this stage we were still very bothered by the feeling of continuously being cheated because we were foreigners and there´s no doubt, some Bedus tried to inflate prices, but not as bad as we felt. But we were still kind of worn out of all the haggling in Al Ghaydah and when Mabkhout immediately started asking for 4 times the price we were paying him now per day, it was really too much for us plus that the heat was soaring near 50 again. We decided to continue ourselves and this scared Mohammed and a lot of the others surrounding us, half the men folk in the village, most of them out of work, so we had to record a message on the camera stating that Mouhammed and the others were free from responsability.
”I am really worried for you” , Muhammed stated over and over again; ”We are still in the Kel Shat area, but once you are out of that, anything can happen. The tribe coming up next have a bad reputation and that is why Mahood wants more money.”
We were paying Mabkhout 50 dollars a day and Muhammed half of that, plus free food. And we felt that all this was only a way for them to raise their prices. We were really out of our league there. Too tired by the walk, the problems with the saddle, the heat and the attention we were getting everywhere, but most of all, but the continous negotiations we seemed to end up in. So we said, we will head on by oursleves and take what comes a long the road. So we did that film to free Mohammed off any responsabiltiy, because everyone saw him as being responsibel for us (when he came back to Al Ghayday he was interrogated by the police), and than we went to the duka (store) to buy our last Pepsis for a few days and when there, Mabkhout came running and said he would do it for a 100 US a day. And we had realized that we needed a Bedu with us, not for taking care of Kensington, but because he would deal with the Bedus along the way, the Bedu Way, not our Swedish way. Mahoods presence offered us this ancient rule of the full protection of his tribe as long as he was with us. If something happened to us, his tribe would even go to war for us. So we said yes, Mabkhout became very happy. We still knew little about him, but would learn more soon and we would consider him a great friend after awhile. Mohammeds last words before we left was:
”I am happy I am not continuing. Those tribes ahead are very dangerous and I am worried what they will do to you.”
Explorer Mikael Strandberg
Fellow The Royal Geographical Society | Fellow Explorers Club| The Long Riders Guild | Travellers Club
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