National Geographic

Trail Notes: Solar Camel

Near the Gagade Plain, Djibouti, 11°32'54'' N, 42°12'28'' E

Winter in the desert of Djibouti. The sun does not shine equally for all.

By nine a.m., the thermometer pegs 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). I begin to stew in my sweat. The Afar guides, meanwhile, shiver under shirts, sweaters, scarves. Mohamed Youssef, a cameleer, zips himself inside a “Tom Tailor” brand parka from China. The only uncomplaining one is Madoita, the lead camel. He is both warmed and shaded by a $600 blanket of photovoltaic silicon cells. He is a belching, furry, ambulatory wall plug for my satellite phone. We take turns cleaning the dust from these cells with a cloth. A new chore on an ancient caravan trail: Wiping down your solar camel.

Mohamed Youssef wards off the chilly 90-degree evenings with a parka. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Mohamed Youssef wards off the chilly 90-degree evenings with a parka. Photograph by Paul Salopek



There are 34 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Guy FORREST
    April 2, 2013

    Am following you keenly. Why a solar camel? You serious the Afar’s really feeling cold at 38 ° ?

  2. Gary Boivin
    April 3, 2013

    So, it’s all relative. I would be in as close to swimwear as local ethics would allow, in such temperatures.

  3. Tyler Miazga
    April 3, 2013

    They probably take off their jacket and put on some long sleeves in 120 degrees!

  4. Linda Hoernke
    April 3, 2013

    Solar panels and camels, parkas & 90 degrees…such opposites and yet, they fit!

  5. Robert Durkin
    April 5, 2013

    A solar camel … that is a first!

  6. pedro van der endt
    April 5, 2013

    do i enjoy your trip !!!!!!!!!
    thank you for taking me there

  7. Steve Chambers
    April 6, 2013

    I remember visiting Malta over christmas and walking around in t-shirt and shorts while all the locals were shivering in thick jumpers and coats, as someone else said it’s all relative and I’d just arrived from the UK.

  8. Donna Tait
    April 9, 2013

    Thank you so much for sharing all your wonderful information, I do not quite understand how the camel can be helping the solar equipment? I am thoroughly enjoying your sharing of the stories and it takes me back to my 3 months spent in Morocco in 1973. Thanks!!!

  9. Chris D
    April 16, 2013

    Since water is scarce and when there is water it appears to be dirty, have you ever thought of investing in a water purifier that could be powered by the solar energy?

  10. Korey W
    April 16, 2013

    How long does it take to charge a phone with a solar blanket? How long does the battery on the phone last? How long do you use the phone for a day? What other things do use the solar blanket for?

  11. Cameron B.
    April 16, 2013

    Do you use the solar energy from the solar blanket to cook your food?

    • Paul Salopek
      April 18, 2013

      I use old-fashioned firewood to cook, Cameron. Solar stoves are being used in Africa, though.

  12. Justin T
    April 16, 2013

    Does the solar blanket provide enough solar energy for the trip? If not, how can you improve the design of having a solar panel on a camel if Djibouti is poor and doesn’t have a lot of materials

    • Paul Salopek
      April 18, 2013

      Good question. My friends back at MIT are advising me on how to make the best use of the solar panels. (See the link in the comments above to get details.) Djibouti does use solar power. Everything from schools to light poles are topped with solar arrays. Geothermal power is also an option here. Djibouti straddles the rumbling tectonics of the Rift Valley. There is an abundance of hot springs in the desert.

  13. noah s
    April 16, 2013

    Once you charge your phone, do you use your phone to collect data, and write articles, or play fun apps and games to entertain yourself?

    • Paul Salopek
      April 18, 2013

      Hello, Noah. Alas, I am walking with a dumb phone. I use it the way Alexander Graham Bell would: to talk with people. Once I reach more “wired” stretches of the world, I will begin to experiment with smart phones as data-gathering devices. This will significantly lighten my equipment load.

  14. parker P
    April 16, 2013

    How much does the Solar panel weigh? Vs the camels normal load. Does it affect how the camel performs (what kind of terrain it can handle, how fast it can walk)?

    • Paul Salopek
      April 18, 2013

      The solar panels are ultra-light, a bit over a pound each. Modaita the camel probably isn’t even aware that he’s wearing what is, in effect, a solar serape.

  15. Wilson J
    April 16, 2013

    As the county is hot and sunny, you must get excess energy from your solar panel. Can you store the excess energy, and if you can what is it used for?

  16. Griffin Glendinning
    April 17, 2013

    Is the Solar blanket worth the money, is it very efficient? Also, how long can the solar blanket perform, and how does the charging mechanism work?

  17. Rene deBerardinis
    April 17, 2013

    Wow, a camel with a solar saddle! I was SO intrigued by this I shared your blog post with my 8th grade students at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy – you’ve already spoken with our 5th graders here. So my guys have submitted questions – the comments with first name, last initial only. Some interesting inquiries! Thanks for sharing!

    • Paul Salopek
      May 3, 2013

      Glad to have your team on board, Rene.

  18. Ian D
    April 18, 2013

    Why do you think that the Djiboutian’s are cold when it is 92˚ fahrenheit outside?

    • Paul Salopek
      May 3, 2013

      I suspect it’s a combination of adapting both physically and psychologically to the environment. Different body types have evolved in response to climate. Thinner, leaner frames shed heat more quickly but are also more susceptible to cold.

  19. Conor McAdoo
    April 18, 2013

    What are photovoltaic silicon cells? And where to you get these materials from?

    • Paul Salopek
      May 3, 2013

      I haven’t a clue.

  20. Noah C
    April 18, 2013

    Are you going to use the same camel for your entire trip? And if you are not, What are you going to do?

    • Paul Salopek
      May 3, 2013

      It’s sometimes tough to get across borders, Noah. Bringing a camel along would make it even more complicated. There will be long stetches of the trail ahead where I will be the beast of burden—carrying my house on my back.

  21. Rosemary Conti
    May 7, 2013

    Dear Paul,
    I just found in a brasilian magazine, an article about your amazing 35.000 km “trip . I’m still SURPRISED and under impact trying to follow the devellopment of this unique experience related to new discoveries, diferent cultures and social relations. I hope you go on finding generosity and solidarity throughout your fantastic journey. Thank you for sharing with us.
    Rose Conti
    Fortaleza – Ceará – Brasil

  22. Mary Power-Hall
    May 7, 2013

    I am amazed and moved by this bold journey. I believe wholeheartedly in the value of the slow journey – it is the only way to understand how deeply the people and the culture are rooted in the land. Know that you are speaking to all and each of us as you observe the world and the people around you. I will be reading your distilled observations with great interest. Thank you for this profound gift of your time and understanding. Move forward step by step, knowing that we are listening and learning.

  23. Andrew Harper
    June 13, 2013

    Great & compelling journey Paul. I’m interested to read the solar camel posts. I have been using solar camels since 1999 to power our 12v batteries which then power the ever increasing plethora of digital stuff! Love your comment about the phone and using it the old fashioned way! I look forward to following your journey. Travel well, Andrew.

  24. Dave Tufte
    December 22, 2014

    I suspect the locals are shivering in the heat because they don’t have enough lipids (fats and oils) in their skin. They probably don’t need the insulating layer of fat that people accumulate easily, but it’s very easy to wear and wash away the thin layer that covers our skin. Don’t believe me? The next time your hands are cold, put some lotion on them.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. The Solar Camel « Sustainable Sources

    […] I got a kick out of one of his recent posts titled Trail Notes – The Solar Camel. […]

    August 17, 201314:14 pm

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