National Geographic

Trail Notes: Camel Camaraderie

Near Asaita, Ethiopia, 11°48'38" N, 41°24'38" E

There is something comforting about traveling with large animals. Their honest bigness, their extraordinary power, when moving in tandem with your own punier step, can buck up your spirits on the trail. It seems as if animals, too, have thrown in their lot with your journey. An absurd conceit. (Nobody ever asked a beast of burden its opinion about carrying our loads.) But the sense of cross-species solidarity is hard to shake.

More than 50 camels head back to Haramfraf Bouri after grazing. Photograph by John Stanmeyer-VII

Camels heading home after grazing. Photograph by John Stanmeyer-VII

In the case of camels, which can easily weigh a ton, a surprising fragility adds poignancy to the partnership. Camels may be able to endure thirst for three or four days. Most can lug 500 pounds of deadweight. But they are picky eaters and the soles of their feet, which are smooth as a bald tire, slip on mud and grow sore on sharp rocks.

At night, our two camels scissor down to the ground with a pneumatic softness, and kneel close—sometimes, within arm’s reach. They roll in the dust like horses. (This can be startling in the dark.) And they chew their cud. Endlessly. This habit generates a strange noise. It sounds like footsteps on gravel. I started awake last night because of it. Our larger camel, Suma a’tuli, wasn’t chomping too noisily—it was because he had stopped.

Click here to hear a camel chewing the cud.

There are 44 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Laura
    February 26, 2013

    Hello out there! I have never heard a camel chew it’s cud before and it does sound like moving gravel! Thank you for sharing all these moments with us, we are really looking forward to sharing your journey with you, remotely of course!

  2. Antonio
    February 26, 2013

    Two outstanding moments:
    1. The sound.
    2. The photo – in all my years consuming magazines, films, tv, etc., I have never seen such a gesture towards one of these animals. Never.

  3. Tom Dailey
    February 26, 2013

    I share the feeling of both the above comments. You have brought to all of us a new dimension of camel appreciation. Continuing to read and enjoy. Thanks, Paul

    • Paul Salopek
      February 28, 2013

      Glad to have you along, Tom. And I’m pleased to report that these camels are much better behaved than Mexican mules.

  4. Cynthia Carlson
    February 27, 2013

    It is the things we don’t know about animals emotional life that intrigue me. You have brought a glimmer. Thank you.

  5. johan marie
    February 27, 2013

    cool

  6. amber street
    February 27, 2013

    have fun and be safe

  7. Cassie
    February 27, 2013

    These camels are so cute

  8. alicia
    February 27, 2013

    the camels are so cute(:

  9. Tevan T.
    February 27, 2013

    Camels have been my favorite animals. Thanks very much for sharing your amazing journey’s events.

  10. Heather Thompso
    February 27, 2013

    I too share the feelings of the above …what a beautiful and very touching photo…talk about our taking an animal for granted,at least in our so-called modern world. ha!

  11. Eddie Patton
    February 27, 2013

    Paul, you have truly become Ahab, the Arab,
    The sheik of the burning sounds (He had a camel named Clyde). Onward, thru the fog!!

    • Paul Salopek
      February 28, 2013

      Thank you, Eddie. Tim White, the famous paleoanthropologist, has nicknamed our camels “Ringo” and “George.” It took me a few seconds to figure out why. The two guys covering this assignment are John and Paul.

  12. faisal ali
    February 27, 2013

    nice article , camels are such good patient and quite strong animals we resent it just because they are not a good looking creatures , ,,,,,typical human judgement ,

  13. al kalk
    February 28, 2013

    Paul, your touch is an example for how your going about your journey: gently, discerning and superbly communicative.

    • Paul Salopek
      February 28, 2013

      Gadegay, as the Afar say—many thanks.

  14. Jow
    February 28, 2013

    I love that picture of the group of camels.

  15. Joe Clark
    February 28, 2013

    I’ve always heard and read that camels are cantankerous ill tempered beasts prone to spitting. Your words and the photo of A’urta evoke and entirely different view and a feeling of compassion thats hard to put into words

  16. Jan Alderman
    February 28, 2013

    The sound of the camel chewing cud made me want to start moving rhythmically (I teach movement & dance), it would be great to put all the natural sounds of Pauls journey together, and create a dance to it. it made me wonder if there is a correlation between how the people of a place move in their daily life and their dance and the sounds of the life around them, be it natural as the camel or the sound of work (thinking here of the rhythmic movement of 3 people pounding grain with long sticks), and whether we can see the roots of movement developing as our ancestors came out of Africa and spread.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 6, 2013

      Love your idea about creating a “sound map” of the route, Jan: We’re working on it, using audio snippets from the “Milestones” that I’m recording every hundred miles. I think auditory landscapes must shape human culture. (An Ituri pygmy’s heard universe differs significantly from a Chicagoan’s.) Local ambient sound must also mold language in subtle ways. On a similar track, a friend has suggested that I study the rhythms of the many languages that I’ll be walking through, and then attempt to walk to that beat for a day.

  17. Becky W
    February 28, 2013

    Great audio! Never heard that before.

  18. lynn
    February 28, 2013

    the touching of the camel was just beautiful. such lovely creatures.

  19. Eppie
    March 1, 2013

    Traveling alone that sound would be a blessing.

  20. Clayton
    March 1, 2013

    Not to mention we have well over a million of these amazing animals roaming the central outback in Australia. But they are causing a bit of a problem.

  21. Sou
    March 1, 2013

    Interesting sound indeed! Never thought it would sound like that. Lol
    Thank you for sharing. :-)

  22. Gail Lowe
    March 1, 2013

    Paul,

    Am enjoying following your journey. But as a long distance hiker and backpacker, (10K miles to date), I am disappointed that I can’t tell from your posts, what your mode of travel is, or what your day to day schedule is like. Are you walking? Riding camels? How many miles a day do you cover? Where do you get water? What are your camps like, and where are they? Is this to be a continuous path or are sections skipped? Is any of it covered in vehicles? This is not meant as a criticism. It’s just that I have read (and written) many blogs and these topics are generally of a huge interest to readers.

    Many thanks, and safe journeys. Also wondering, from looking at your map, if it is your intent to hike the length of the Pacific Crest Trail??? (2,700 miles- 2008, for me….Mexico to Canada).

    Again, best to you!!!

    • Paul Salopek
      March 6, 2013

      Thanks for writing, Gail. I agree, the granular details of walking and camping across landscapes can be interesting to readers. But as someone who’s undertaken long, muscle-powered journeys before, I also know it can devolve into repetition pretty fast. That said, I will leave a few more breadcrumbs along the trail. In general, my walking days are defined by the quality of the stories I encounter along the way. I take turns leading or following the camels. (Afar pastoralists don’t ride.) I camp out. I stay with nomad families in their huts. The walk’s route is continuous. And so far, I haven’t had to resort to mechanized travel. To see a map of the journey, go to “Map Room” and click on “See the Route.”

  23. chefbrucewest
    March 1, 2013

    I look forward to your every post. You are teaching us. Thanks

  24. Saboorifar
    March 1, 2013

    we humans are walking the same way you described the camels, but we are less aware of it…

  25. Enrique Barranco
    March 1, 2013

    Increíble, no cabe duda que el conocimiento es basto y no alcanza la vida para aprender todo lo que nos rodea por muy común o sencillo que sea, gracias a este tipo de reportajes podemos tener acceso a un sin numero de conocimiento que no podríamos asimilar a veces por lo economico, por tiempo y otras por ser imposibles, por no estar a nuestro alcance, felicidades, buen reportaje

    • Paul Salopek
      March 6, 2013

      Gracias, Enrique. Captaste las ideas detrás de esta jornada perfectamente.

  26. jgd
    March 2, 2013

    Camels were around where I grew up but your photo and sound track provided new insights for me. Thanks. Have a safe journey and keep your trip notes coming.

  27. M Ali Sadiqi
    March 5, 2013

    Brings back memories of camels in my life. They are great judges of the quality of one’s heart. I can already tell you have a good heart.

  28. Alkojumyw
    March 6, 2013

    Merci, vous avez bien fait j’aime les chameaux c’est le vaisseau du désert.

  29. Ilse
    March 12, 2013

    Didn’t know until I saw your picture that camels can be told apart by their hairdos :) Thank you for sharing that special moment with the rest of us. Thank you, too, for sharing your journey with those of us who can only dream …I will follow every step

  30. Tyler Miazga
    March 16, 2013

    I loved the sound recording at the end! Added a whole dimension to your experience which one day I hope to replicate in a similar manner (a visit to every national park in the world for instance could be a good 7+ year project)

  31. barbara
    March 28, 2013

    i love the notion of you and your gentle friends bedding down for the night, on the desert floor. and i am so happy to know that i’ve now listened to a camel chewing, most especially as i sit here in 02139, where camels never roam…bless you this day, or whenever you stumble upon these humble words…

  32. Jim Manning
    March 29, 2013

    Hi Paul–
    Your walk is not only interesting and educational, it is outstanding. I am a long distance hiker/backpacker–53,000 miles since 1995 and still going at age 80–mountain area mostly, some mild desert areas.

    Take care of your feet.
    jim

  33. Robert Perkovich Cobb
    March 31, 2013

    May the bones of our ancestors mark your path and bring you home…happy trails!

  34. Kathy Gabriel
    April 13, 2013

    You are very courageous. This post reminds me of a Bedouin guest speaker who came in to talk to my class of seventh graders in Abu Dhabi. He said that camels have an amazing memory. He admitted teasing and torturing 1 of his grandfather’s camel herd when he was a child, visiting the camp in Liwa. He swore that when he went back a couple of decades later, that camel remembered him and bit him! Do camels really have 3 eyelids?

    • Paul Salopek
      May 3, 2013

      I wouldn’t dream of teasing a camel—not after walking too close behind our old bull, Modaita, and nearly having my chest caved in by a rearward kick. The three eyelids factoid is new to me. They do, however, have Marilyn Monroe’s eyelashes.

  35. DBD
    August 21, 2013

    In his satirical book “Pyramids” the author Terry Pratchett posits that camels are really the world’s greatest mathematicians. All of those long hour plodding through trackless wastes gives them the opportunity to contemplate higher and higher abstractions of the universe of numbers. Terry Pratchett is a very funny man. Camels are a very funny species.

  36. Azucena
    February 8, 2014

    I’ve always thought camels are among the most amazing animals on earth due to their resistance. It’s fun learning about them. I didn’t know they had such terrific memory. I guess in the desert they are even more important than wives.
    The Marilyn Monroe comment made me smile

  37. Jill
    March 12, 2014

    Love the audio! In love with these camels.

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