National Geographic

The Camel and the Gyrocopter

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 24°42'46" N, 46°40'25" E

“How many camels are you looking for?”

I am sitting in the elegant café of the Four Seasons Hotel. I did not imagine that shopping for cargo camels in Saudi Arabia would involve a meeting at this exclusive oasis of sleek waiters, gleaming marble, beveled glass. In Africa, to acquire a camel, you must sweat: You squat in an Afar hut (or outside the hut’s door, if the cooking fire is too smoky) and tell a nomad who professes a deep spiritual love for his animals (“They are family! I will never sell them!”) that you have no interest in his livestock anyway; that they are bony, mere louse bags, and that you would not rub two birr together to buy one of his animals—thus opening the pathway for true negotiations.

But in Saudi Arabia I know nothing: I am unworldly, naïve, old-fashioned. A black lacquered table at the Four Seasons, with a china bowl of French truffles, is exactly the spot to begin a camel quest. Because my friends Fares Bugshan and Seema Khan, entrepreneurs and community leaders, are there. They have summoned me to talk about education. (I will be speaking to local schools.) When I mention, offhandedly, how difficult it is, in modern Saudi Arabia, the heartland of the famous Bedouin nomads, to find an ordinary work camel, Seema puts down her teacup. She pulls out a leather bound notepad. She clicks a pen. She asks: “How many camels are you looking for?”

“Well, two.”

“Is that all?”

“Males.”

“Two males.” She begins jotting. “Okay, anything else?”

“Five to seven years old would be good.”

“Five to seven. Yes.”

“And I’m afraid I can’t pay more than 2,500 riyals apiece.”

“Two thousand five hundred.” Seema nods. “Okay. Is that all? I know nothing of camels.”

“Well, preferably castrated.”

“Oh yes. Castrated. Of course.”

“Thank you, Seema.”

“You’re most welcome, Paul.”

Slow sipping: tea and haggling at the camel souk. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Slow sipping: tea and haggling over camels in Jeddah. Photograph by Paul Salopek

A few days later, I buy two male camels, five and seven years old, to walk with me out of Saudi Arabia. I find them at a cattle souk close to my starting line in the Arabian Peninsula, the coastal city of Jeddah. Or rather: Fares and Seema have found them for me. Dust. Dung. Wranglers hooting in rickety corrals. I am transported instantly back to Africa. I am back in my element. The sellers are bemused Sudanese. We haggle inside a canvas tent. It requires 14 glasses of tea to seal the deal. (My purchase has saved these two beasts, I suspect, from a fate worse than carrying my spare socks through the Nefud desert: Their fur is clotted with yellow paint applied by the meat graders at the port’s stockyard.) The next day, to celebrate my success, I ride a gyrocopter over Jeddah.

What is a gyrocopter? This is a natural question.

A gyrocopter is a cross between an airplane and a helicopter. I did not realize such machines still exist. (A snapshot from the basement of my memory: Amelia Earhart standing beside a gyrocopter.) There is a gyrocopter club in Jeddah. It flies the latest aircraft manufactured in Germany. It is managed by another Saudi friend, Colonel Doctor Mubarak Swilim Al Swilim. Mubarak is the Vice President of the Arab Air Sports Federation and the Parachuting Champion for Islamic Countries. He is one of two Saudis who have parachuted over the North Pole. (Wasn’t it very cold? I ask. No, no, he replies: He wore a special thermal suit that actually made him sweat.)

Amelia Earhart and "Beech-nut" Pitcairn-Cierva PCA-2. Denver, Colorado, June 3, 1931. Photograph courtesy Library of Congress

Amelia Earhart’s Beech-Nut Autogyro arrives in Denver, Colorado, June 3, 1931. Photograph by Harry M. Rhoads

“You must scout your route ahead,” Mubarak says. “Nobody has walked out of Saudi Arabia in a very long time.”

This is undeniably true. So I strap on gel-filled earphones. I ride a gyrocopter over Jeddah.

Saudi Arabia is a vast and complicated country. Ultramodern and very ancient. Traditional and experimental. Its archaeology is deep—back to the original Homo sapiens migrations out of Africa—and yet, in the clear desert air, its present and past are accordioned: They touch. Here you can walk centuries in a single day.

Along my planned route into the Middle East, small towns with old Islamic coral block architecture jostle multibillion-dollar instant cities designed to eventually house two million people. High-speed rail lines are laid near the antique Haj road traveled by kings and their entourages of 15,000 caparisoned camels. Top-end DNA sequencers hum away at a university along my path. In Old Town Jeddah, the ear picks up the beautiful call to prayer from 36 different mosques at sundown—another sort of humming altogether. And of course, there are the oil pipelines. I will cross several on my 900-mile foot journey in the Kingdom. They decant a quarter of the world’s petroleum supply onto thirstily waiting ships: a divine boon—or burden—depending on which Saudi you speak to, and on which day, and in what mood.

An instructor at the Jeddah gyrocopter club steers north for the open desert. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

An instructor with the Jeddah gyrocopter club steers north for the open desert. Photograph by Paul Salopek

“You make us remember our past,” a friendly young pilot at the gyrocopter club tells me. He has learned of my caravan camels.

I smile. I thank him. He is too young by three generations, at least, to remember what he thinks he is remembering. Yet still (I want to tell him) we are connected by some things. Camels are North American mammals. They evolved 40 million years ago on the chilly plains of what is today Canada and the United States. Fossil records show they migrated westward in herds over the Bering Land Bridge to Eurasia, into Arabia, against the dawn tide of humans spreading east. The first ancestral people to enter the New World hunted them to extinction there about 10,000 years ago. These are the trailblazers whose footsteps I’m following.

“What are your two camels’ names?” the pilot asks.

My head is still spinning. It is the ocean of light I have just seen.

“Fares,” I tell him. “Fares and Seema.”

Fares, left, and Seema, right. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Fares (left), Seema (right). Photograph by Paul Salopek

 

 

 

There are 53 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. William Watson
    June 11, 2013

    Keep em coming. Been viaje, amigo!

  2. Kirk Brumbaugh
    June 11, 2013

    Love the posts – you are #1 on my Explorer Favorite Bar and I check for your posts several times per week. Looking forward to making the journey with you – and hope that my feet are not as sore in 7 years :-). Have you told your friends that you named your camels after them – or – will they be suprised when they read this posting ? Good travels !

  3. Adam Jasmick Jr.
    June 11, 2013

    How many members do you have traveling with you? Are you traveling to sites where humans first settled as they migrated from Africa? Stay safe!

    • Paul Salopek
      August 4, 2013

      There are three of us walking now, Adam—Mohamad Banounah, Awad Omran, and myself. Mr. Banounah has also asked a friend, Farhan Sharafani, to occasionally help out with laying food and water caches in the most extreme parts of the desert. And yes, the idea is to follow the pathways of the earliest human diaspora. I’ll be stopping at archaeological sites en route.

  4. barbara
    June 11, 2013

    perfectly heavenly tale, most especially as i pack the contents of my life into 25 boxes to be shipped across the continental US while i fly in a plane. you and fares and seema make me feel so otherworldly. your route is far more poetic, and you don’t have to fight the printer when it jams printing out the labels. yet another reason to go the slow route, the deep route, around the world. blessings…

    • Paul Salopek
      June 25, 2013

      Thanks, Barbara. My journey is easy compared to moving a household. But I suffer the equivalent of printer jams, too, when the camelids throw their loads.

  5. lorna
    June 11, 2013

    I had no idea camels evolved in North America. I need to read more.

  6. SalehEdin
    June 12, 2013

    I went to the mall today…no camels there.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Wrong mall, SalehEdin.

  7. Phyllis
    June 14, 2013

    I hope the camels aren’t too old and grouchy and will make it on your Saudi trek. Why did you give a male camel a female name?

    • Paul Salopek
      August 4, 2013

      One could say the same about me, Phyllis. Seema honors a good friend who helped me find him. The real Seema, a brilliant and lovely woman who lives in Riyadh, took the dubious compliment in good grace.

  8. waleed
    June 14, 2013

    Welcome to Saudi,
    Thanks for keeping informed about your journey, you are doing a great job and wish you all the best.

    I hope you have a great time in Saudi and reach your aims here :)

  9. Kaleyesus Bekele
    June 14, 2013

    The courageous journalist on the move in the Saudi desert. May God be with you, Paul. Huts off to you!

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Thank you, Kaleyesus. I hold your hand. You’re walking a more courageous path than I these recent weeks. Condolences.

  10. chefbrucewest
    June 14, 2013

    I enjoy the variety of ways people negotiate to buy, to get things done. Their methods tell me much about their history. Keep it going Paul:)

  11. Penelope Williams
    June 15, 2013

    Your journey and journalism have captivated me. I’m filled with wonder and will include your reporting in my “best of summer” reading. Thanks

  12. Kate Cole-Adams
    June 16, 2013

    Thanks for the stories, Paul. I train reporters in feature writing at an Australian newspaper and have used your tweets and reports in my training sessions. I describe them as perfectly structured stories. But more than that, more even than the beauty of your prose, there is something deeply nourishing about this whole project.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 4, 2013

      You’re doing the work of angels, Kate. I don’t think, as some pundits apparently do, that the world is getting “flatter” with globalization. Huge and deepening canyons of inequality are gaping across our shared pathways into the 21st century. We need journalists who can see and write in three dimensions to describe this worrisome human topography accurately to readers. Good reporters are survival guides. Keep going.

  13. L J Daniels
    June 16, 2013

    your long hard thoughtful walk through time and human history (mainly pre-history, I think) certainly has more than piqued MY antique imagination, Mr. Salopek… what an idea!.. what an odyssey!.. what huge ‘cojones’!.. and in our ‘interesting times’, to boot… well, sir, may your feet and legs and the rest of your carcass hold up to the test, and your technical gizmos as well, and most of all, may your wonderful Muse always continue to walk with you every step of your journey, the dispatches and
    ‘as it takes place’ (more/less) reports
    are as unprecedented for such a long
    arduous hegira as the journey itself…
    well, not entirely unprecedented as you, yourself, have observed, there
    WERE others who went before you…
    BRAVO!!!, sir, and may you travel with blessings and best wishes from us all… LJD

  14. Lee
    June 16, 2013

    I am researching my family heritage and going to England this summer to walk in the ” footsteps” of some of my early relatives of the 15th century. We all seek seem to want to seek our roots and in so doing discover how connected we all are. Your journey is an inspiration.

  15. HikerBob
    June 17, 2013

    These two boys, Fares and Seems, are the lucky fellows to accompany you on your long walk across Saudia land. I am delighted with so many of your turns of phrase such as “snapshot from the basement of my memory” which color our imagination as to your frame of mind. The adventure continues across more desert in the hot climes.

  16. HikerBob
    June 17, 2013

    The film, “Captain Phillips” is releasing in October with Tom Hanks as captain of a freighter hijacked by Somali pirates. Having read your dispatches since the first one, I am quite interested to see the film. Great trailer out on it.

    • Paul Salopek
      June 25, 2013

      A brave man who endured a harrowing experience, Bob. I remember the incident well. Let’s see if Hollywood offers some context—why piracy still exists in Somalia. The histories of Somalia and the U.S. are painfully entwined on this account, and ignoring such complexity would be a disservice to all the protagonists in this story.

  17. Magda
    June 17, 2013

    Paul I enjoy every world of your story. I find it exciting and inspiring. Thank you for allowing us to journey with you.

  18. HikerBob
    June 17, 2013

    PS, the film “Captain Phillips” purports to be a true story.

  19. RyoNakamura
    June 18, 2013

    Thank you for visiting our school today in Yanbu on 6/18/13. Our school’s name was Yanbu International School. Good luck on your journey, Sir.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 2, 2013

      Thanks for hosting me. You guys had great questions. Ramadan karim.

  20. MicheleM
    June 19, 2013

    I learn something new every time I read your posts. Thank you.

  21. Ellen Lindow
    June 21, 2013

    Remember there are still camelids in the Americas. We have 6 living in our back yard in Florida. 4 llamas and 2 alpacas. They all have their own personalities and quirks. Happy trails to you and Fares and Seema from the Lindow family camelids.

  22. HikerBob
    June 22, 2013

    Barbara, your route sounds poetic as well.

  23. Pjjcm
    June 23, 2013

    The walk itself is a fantastic idea and Paul’s writing brings it to life.

    I am posting this from pretty much the western edge of Europe and , in some ways, the edge of western technology – using an IPad and using Paul’s coordinates to see , pretty much instantly, where he’s posting from on Google Earth. That seems so removed form the lives of many of those Paul has met so far but the reality , as Paul’s dispatches eloquently demonstrate , is that what we have in common , irrespective of where we are and , to some degree, how live inescapably binds us all.

    Even this early in his 7 year journey there are reminders that our shared history , genes and , inevitably , future on this tiny blue orb which will , one day, be consumed by the star which formed it do genuinely makes us all siblings.

    While we cannot and should not deny other cultures the advances which make our daily lives in the West comparatively comfortable it seems to me that we have a duty to ensure that those who do not wish to live our way have the choice to live however they choose.

    Failure to do so will homogenise our species to blandness.

    Thanks Paul for your work so far. I’m looking forward to another seven years of insight and reflection.

    May the sun always be on your back.

  24. chuck osgood
    June 23, 2013

    Reading your journal is like reading history in the present. As a photojournalist (and former colleague at the Trib) I’d love to join you for a day or two, but your pictures are pretty good on their own.

  25. dafa
    June 24, 2013

    The nasty hyperbole you used to describe the Afar may not be what I expected you would do to describe your adventure. All of the sudden, I am going to lose interest in your articles.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 4, 2013

      Dafa—I’m sorry if my writing about the Afars caused offense. I have nothing but respect and affection for my Afar friends. I also regret that you misread the journey as an adventure. Others may interpret it that way. I don’t. It’s ordinary and natural. It’s what millions of people are doing today all over the globe, voting with their feet, largely for economic reasons. Biologically, it’s what we’re designed to do.

  26. Linda Hoernke
    June 26, 2013

    I love the comment “Here you can walk centuries in a single day.” So much of that is true in Africa and the Middle East~~

  27. dafa
    June 28, 2013

    I submitted a comment, which wasn’t necessarily favorable, base on my true feeling of the article. I do expect it to be printed

    • Katia Andreassi
      August 8, 2013

      Hi Dafa,
      We had a lapse in comment moderation this summer which resulted in some comments being held up. Paul was able to respond to many of these comments, including yours, last week.
      I’m moderating comments now so we can keep that from happening again!
      Sorry for the delay,
      Katia

  28. Patricia Ortega
    July 6, 2013

    As i read and concentrate on the narration, i am instantly transported. I am honored to be a witness of your journey. Thank you and God speed.

  29. Beatriz Mallory
    July 17, 2013

    Walking centuries in a single day. A foreign concept in such a young country as the US, unless you put aside the notions of “country” and think instead of “land”. Sigue caminando con cuidado, Paul.

  30. Jason S
    July 23, 2013

    I was fortunate to grow up in a family that lived in Saudi Arabia for four years. By all accounts a fair chunk of my formative years. While I am uniquely American part of my heritage was growing up in a land of desolation and beauty that few will understand. I recall seeing many wonders in the desert and feel a slight pang of jealousy …safe journeys to you.

  31. Lola Hamilton
    July 30, 2013

    Your journey is fascinating for those who can follow through your narrative so perfect.It takes courage to cross fhe Saudi desert with Fares and Seema. I hope the”ocean of light” does not dazzle you. Good luck

  32. Zoran, Belgrade (Serbia)
    August 9, 2013

    Hi! I just want to salute your adventurous spirit and to wish you safe and fulfilling journey.
    I look forward reading your posts.
    “We need journalists who can see and write in three dimensions to describe this worrisome human topography accurately to readers.” > Great words! Sooooo true.
    All the best to you and your crew…

  33. cafox
    February 6, 2014

    camels seem difficult to handle

  34. Yolo Swaggins
    February 6, 2014

    #Swag

  35. travelingbulldog
    February 6, 2014

    Interesting camel posts.

  36. Miguel Garcia
    February 6, 2014

    #camels!

  37. 98burro98
    February 6, 2014

    what do the camels eat and how much do they coust

  38. 98burro98
    February 6, 2014

    yea why not

  39. 98burro98
    February 6, 2014

    yea why not…..

  40. 98burro98
    February 6, 2014

    what old days did we had o0n the passed ”pilot”

  41. 98.burro98
    February 6, 2014

    how did people live back then looks like no bed where able or they couldn’t pay for it….

  42. Benjamin
    April 26, 2014

    Wow! You ‘re really brave to be walking a long Journey. May god be with you for the rest of the Journey. Please carry on inspiring people!

  43. arixl
    April 28, 2014

    Wow, I’ve never heard about a airplane helicopter! (Gyrocopter)

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