You never know when you might have to ride a camel, so here are some tips to make the experience easy and fun. Riding a camel is a great way to enjoy the view as you glide silently along on a ship of the desert. Camels are all over the world, from the Middle East to North Africa to Mongolia to India to Australia and the United States of America, with a few places in between.
An easygoing desert caravan led by a traditionally dressed Berber in the Great Sahara, Morocco.
First, let’s allay some of those rumors about camels and their “nasty” behavior. They do have different characters, some are friendly, some are aloof, and some are grumpy, but generally they are kind and obliging. Be nice to your camel, and they will be nice to you. Approach them from the side between their head and shoulder, never head on, and like any animal you have not met before, be polite. If they are happy to be touched, they love being gently scratched along their necks. If you want to give them a treat, camels love fruit and vegetables and of course, dates, but get the guide’s permission first.
I have never seen one “spit,” but they can if they are really annoyed or threatened. The “spit” is actually a mixture of their half digested food and saliva, so it is not pleasant. If they are salivating and shaking their lips and filling their cheeks, stand well back! However, this is unusual behavior for happy domesticated camels.
Yes, camels are tall, very tall. Athletic boys and men can climb on them by hooking their legs around the camel’s neck and literally climbing up. If we all had to do that, I doubt many of us would get to ride a camel. However, camels are very obliging, so they sit down for us. If you are flexible enough, it’s just a case of swinging your right leg over and sliding into the seat. Sometimes guides will provide you with a small stool or step to assist.
Camels waiting patiently for their riders with Berber guides to assist in Morocco.
Once you are in the saddle – what happens now? Hopefully, the camel has some manners and waits to be told to stand up, but be prepared anyway. Because of their long legs, they go through a process to “unfold” their legs.
- The camel lifts their hind legs first, so you need to lean your upper body backwards
- Then they lift their front legs, so you need to lean forward
- When standing, you need to sit upright. The guides will be there to make sure you keep your balance, in sha allah (which means “God willing,” and everyone in the Middle East says it to anything that may or may not happen).
Camel saddles come in varied shapes and sizes, depending on where in the world you are. Bedouin saddles in Sinai and Jordan tend to be quite small, made of wood covered over with blankets. Saddles in mainland Egypt are larger for tourists, and can even take two people. In Morocco, they are large with a metal frame and a T-bar handle in front. What style of saddle does dictate how you can sit and ride. Camel saddles don’t usually have stirrups.
A leather covered Touareg saddle on a wooden frame.
It’s easier to ride camels when you can raise your knees like you are in a chair. With a saddle that has a post in front, a little like a cowboy roping saddle, you can hook the right leg around the front of the post so both feet are on one side. Then hook the left leg over your right foot so you are quite secure around the saddle post. This does two things – 1. It gives you some feeling of security, and 2. It lifts your legs so you are more in a sitting position which keeps your back upright. This improves your posture immediately, and you will be sitting pretty a few yards off the ground. Yikes, don’t look down!
When the camel moves, look forward to where you want to go, not the ground (unless you already want to go there). As you will have noticed, camels have very long legs, so when they walk there is a different rolling rhythm to their movement. Horses walk with a step of even beat footfalls 1,3,2,4. Camels have the same sequence, but there is a space between 1,3 – 2,4.
Make friends with your camel by giving it a gentle neck scratch.
You have to follow the rhythm by allowing your hips to slide forward on the 1,3 back on the pause and forward again on the 2,4. Let your hips do the work by isolating them from your upper body. Many people find this very difficult at first and complain they hate riding camels, but once you master the feeling, it becomes quite soothing, and you can just relax and enjoy the rocking rhythm. I find this much easier when my knees are lifted when riding side saddle in a Bedouin saddle.
One hour is enough for most people for their first camel ride. Even physically fit people often get off their camel, complaining they have used muscles they didn’t know they had.
Bedouin children from South Sinai bathing their camels in the summer heat.
As for steering your own camel, that will depend on your confidence and the safari. For safety, most tourist rides have the camels tied together in a caravan. The guide will walk in front, and he will have placed the camels so they know their order. They are tied from their head to the saddle of the camel in front. Don’t worry; they know what they are doing so you can just concentrate on your riding and enjoying the view, taking pictures if you like.