By Marg Sumner
Edrisi and I had a relationship that was going nowhere, except into the Sahara Desert, which is not too far from nowhere. I didn’t care for him from the get-go, and he was indifferent to me. He was homely; he was bored; he was tolerant in the way that one waits in the grocery line while the buyer ahead of you digs through her purse for exact change. In other words, he rolled his eyes when he saw me; I gave him the stink eye.
Edrisi was a camel. I don’t like camels; I never have. I associate their sour odor with my father’s feet and his camel-skin slippers. His feet smelled from the jungle rot he acquired during World War II, riding camels while fighting Romel’s army in the North African desert. My camel dislike was compounded when a camel spit at me on a children’s camel ride at the Vilas Zoo. There was an uncomfortable, but tolerable ride into the desert in Morocco in 1997. The next year a camel in Egypt carrying a friend and me to the pyramids at Giza tried to dislodge us, and then three camel guides cornered my friend with their camels and shook him down for money.
Now here I was in Timbuktu, Mali, headed into the Sahara on Edrisi’s back for a long ride in, inevitably followed by a long ride out.
Camels are big. Seated (and I use that word loosely), you’re about 7 or 8 feet off the ground. Their feet are about the size of dinner plates and are a serious threat, given that a camel can weigh more than a half-ton. One is perched precariously on a wooden saddle about 4 inches wide, with an equally narrow “backrest” that ends at the approximate location of one’s bra and an ever-growing bruise. The “frontrest” is for gripping with all your might. Your legs are outstretched and crossed at the ankle where they meet the camel’s neck. Once you’re seated, you’re stuck, even though the skin between your legs is pinched and being rubbed raw. By the way, you climb on the camel when he’s seated, legs folded beneath his bulk. He stands by straightening his back legs first, throwing you violently forward with only your crossed ankles for stability. The ride goes downhill from there.
A tourist’s camel ride is nothing like you see in the movies. When the camel’s right foot plants itself in the sand, you lurch forward. When he plants the left foot, you lurch back, stopped from tumbling backward by the so-called backrest. In between lurches, you attempt to resettle yourself on the saddle by wiggling yourself into a more comfortable — I take that back — a less uncomfortable position.
I survived the day’s ride into the Sahara only because my mind was laser-focused on remaining atop this plodding behemoth.
That night — in what could have been a romantic shelter open to the air and stars — I slept fitfully, dreaming of camels, sand, burnt goat (our dinner that night) and earwigs. We were warned about the earwigs, but were assured they’d crawl out of our ears before daylight.
Morning came; the earwigs departed. I’d early on earned extra attention from our Malian tour guide. Not only did we share a love of West African literature, but I’d proven to him that I needed careful monitoring. A few days earlier, I tripped on a nearly flat surface and almost launched myself over a cliff. I was assigned a long-suffering minder whose job it was to encourage, push, prod and hoist me onto Edrisi and reverse the process that night. With the new day, the poor bugger had to do it all over again. Harder to say who was more pissy, me, the minder or Edrisi.
I brought up the rear of the caravan with my minder. Our guide was in front with more lively company. When he dropped back to check on our progress, against the advice of both guide and minder, I called a halt and declared I’d rather walk back than ride another step on that rotting-foot-smelling creature. Edrisi threw himself to the ground (a little too cheerfully, if you ask me), front first, nearly launching me into the sand. I was damn grateful to be in control of my trek, but not for long.
Travel lesson #209: The only thing worse than riding a camel in the desert is walking in the desert. It’s okay if you have giant paddles for feet, but a size 8 hiking book isn’t remotely up to the task. Not even close. Desert sand has less in common with coarse beach sand and more in common with talcum powder. With every stride forward, your heel slips back a half-stride. It was soon obvious, even to me, that this was not a sustainable mode of self-transport.
I was rapidly approaching the point at which I was willing to admit defeat and beg my way back onto Edrisi’s back when my lifeboat came roaring into view. Four guys in a Range Rover, doing wheelies and tight turns in the desert, stopped by to see the Saharan version of an American dude astride her first horse on a dude ranch. If I was putting myself in harm’s way getting into a car with four strange men, I didn’t give a rat’s ass. Fortunately, my guide gave an ok. I pushed myself into the back seat of that Rover and half-ordered, half-pleaded with them to take me back to Timbuktu.
The next day was Thanksgiving. Even though the temperature was close to 115 degrees and I had raw skin and a large bruise, I was never more thankful.
© 2022 Marg Sumner
Marg Sumner is retired from 40+ years of copyediting and proofreading other people’s words. The tables have turned, and she now writes and suffers the slings and arrows of copyeditors. This is her second piece in what she hopes will be a series of travel vignettes organized by passport. Timbuktu was top of her bucket list and so deeply touched her soul that it satisfied her longing to travel for several years.