Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Egypt - The Camel Markets

Dedicated to the Bronze Medallist of the Egyptian Camel Marathon

The Camel Market lies a couple of hours beyond Cairo. It's slightly past the outlying farming areas, before the desert begins, and way past the Giza pyramids. The morning light is golden, perhaps more so than usual due to the persistent city smog.

You drive along a dead straight rural road adorned with street stalls selling mandarins, strawberries and unusually coloured carrots. There are also regular signs for the "Wiseness" Language School, and an elaborate theatre set of giant autumn leaves abandoned by the roadside. Donkey carts and industrial machinery slow down traffic, but we still see a number of amazing near-misses from other vehicles moving at high speed.

The camel market itself is not a tourist destination, and it's hard to find. It's in a walled enclosure about the size of a pair of city blocks, end to end like a street. The only hint is the odd camel you might see loitering about the entrance.

I have never seen so many camels before in my life. As we drove in, and continued right through to the far end, they reached out their sinuous giraffe-like necks, gurgled borborygmically and hobbled about on three triple-jointed stilt-like legs. It was like a mammalian version of Jurassic Park.

Men from across Northern Africa wore long flowing dark galabeyas and plain white kaffirs amidst the clouds of dust set drifting by stomping megafauna. They paid little attention to us, and periodically moved their charges about with exclamations in Arabic and the odd thwack with a long stick. This truly didn't seem to bother the camels, who barely flinched and seemed to speak as much Arabic as me. I was suprised by the lack of serious maltreatment of camels there - almost all seemed free from injuries or disease, as you might expect from beasts being prepared for sale, and there were vastly different regional varieties. Somalian camels are tallest and thin, like animated origami stilt puppets, whilst Morrocan camels are dark and luscious. Every camel bore markings indicating its origin, be they painted, tattooed, branded, or strategically shaved.

They are staturesque and graceful creatures. The women I was travelling with would say the same about some of their herders - all beings present possessed striking large eyes, thick lips and sun-tinted skins. Everything moved with an elegance of purpose and assumed immaculate picturesque stances without a second thought. The smell was actually more pleasant than many farms I have visited elsewhere - a faint horsiness, like fermented cut grass, and whiffs of strong black tea.

Camels retail here around 2500 Egyptian pounds minimum, which is around $500 Australian. Most of those at the market were destined for butchers around Egypt. The most prestigious specimen we saw was a velvety chocolate-coloured Morroccan virgin, who was affectionate and loved having her head cradled in our arms. She wore a unique bone tablet around her neck marking out her status. (She wasn't for sale).

Becky and I rode a racing camel around part of the street-like enclosure. He was perhaps the least attractive beast there - lanky, aggro, howling like a wookie and easily nine feet tall. The most awkward part of camel riding is the mounting and dismounting. They'll make it easy for you by lowering to the ground, but the extension of their legs is like unfolding a wonky deckchair. Once up, high over the terrain, it feels very regal. You cross your legs across to one side, and hold the front and back of the saddle with either hand. Serious riders sit differently - the jockey launched our camel into action a few times, showing us a few tricky maneuveres - but this was fine for us.

Our afternoon was spent at the fascinating Australian archaeological dig at Helwan, near Maadi, where we saw the excavation of 1st through 4th-Dynasty tombs, and the illegal encroachment of hastily built apartments by local residents, obliterating priceless archaeological remains in the process. This would have been worth a blog post in itself, but I thought you might like the camels instead.

I have been busy with many other events over the last few days as well, mostly involving long walks and talks around Cairo with Beck. We'll be heading off in different directions over the next few days, but it's all been good fun, and I haven't regretted a moment.


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