by Doug Baum
As a young zookeeper in the early 1990s, I sat at my kitchen table and designed my business card. I knew what I wanted to do with camels (never mind that I had no camels of my own at the time): in addition to education programs, live nativities, and TV/film work, I wanted to trek with camels.
I’d read Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks, about her solo adventure across the Australian Outback in the 1970s, and I’d read Jolene Boyd’s book Noble Brutes, about the US Army Camel Experiment of the 1850s. I knew I wanted to combine these two things. Walking in circles giving camel rides at the zoo was horribly unfulfilling and I knew these incredible animals were capable of so much more.
The years passed and I worked hard and, by 1998, I owned a few camels. I began offering guided treks in the Big Bend area of Texas, the very same land where the 19th century US Army camels had been.
Guests on our treks get not only a dose of history (many are surprised to learn there is camel history in the US!), but also a study of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest of North America’s five arid zones. From the plants and animals to the modern politics that shape the border region of Texas, these treks are NOT a camel ride at the zoo, and folks really get a well-rounded experience. Perhaps my favorite thing is that our clients all go away with a new appreciation for camels. Old myths (spitting, biting) are laid to rest with our gentle, well-trained camels, almost all of which we’ve had since birth and have trained ourselves.
Guests arrive at 9:30 on the morning of day one (we offer both overnight and three-day treks) and I greet them at the ranch headquarters on private property outside Fort Davis, Texas, one of the many frontier outposts with connections to the historic camel story. Each client is paired up with his or her camel based on a few things like age, height and weight, and their gear is loaded into pairs of saddlebags that hang from the saddles. The saddles I use are custom-made, aluminum and Australian-style (an evolution of the Indian saddle) that place the rider behind the hump, over the hips, while the gear sits in front of the rider, easily accessible on the trail.
At nearly one ton, camels can carry half their own weight—so compared to a mule (three hundred and fifty-pound payload) you can see why the camels were so valuable to the US Army as they scouted new routes across the desert Southwest. I don’t push my camels to their limits, as replacing camels can be understandably difficult in America, but my biggest camels, which weigh between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds, can easily carry five hundred pounds each. Typically, they’re loaded with the guests’ gear (averaging twenty-five pounds) and the rider, and I distribute the camp gear, groceries, and water for the trek evenly across the group of camels.
A safety briefing really means things are underway and, after this, the visitor mounts up for the first time—which can be a bit exhilarating. One guest said, “I like signing waivers. It means something fun is about to happen!” The camel kneels, the rider swings his or her right leg over the saddle, and I tell them, “Hold tight, lean back.” The camel then stands with its back legs first, followed by its front end, and the rider’s head now high in the air, somewhere between eight and eleven feet above the ground. Folks say, “It’s a long way up,” and I say, “No. It’s a long way down.” While most folks come to ride camels, there are plenty of guests who want to experience the desert in a more personal way and choose to walk portions of the trek. Either way, the camels and I can certainly accommodate guests’ desires.
At some point, though, the guest’s inner Lawrence of Arabia gets the better of them, so of course they are given instruction on reins, starting, stopping and turning their camels. Our caravan is tied together, camel to camel, as you’ve seen in National Geographic or in movies. Typically, I take four camels on each trek and, occasionally, friends of mine with camels bring their own. Once on the trail, I orient the group to some of the major peaks on the thirty-thousand-acre ranch where we guide each spring and fall. These treks are in the Davis Mountains and at elevations averaging a mile high. At some points we’re in the six- to seven-thousand-foot range and it’s not uncommon to see juniper and pine trees. This is a nice contrast to some of the lower areas that support more typical desert flora like cactus, yucca, sotol, bear grass and cholla.
Desert plants may not seem palatable to us, as they sting, poke, are high in salt or are slightly toxic, but our camels love the fare and stay fat on it. We almost never pack food for the camels; instead, we allow them to graze and browse along the trail, when we stop for lunch, and when we arrive in camp. Along with those less appetizing offerings, the camels also eat the variety of grasses that grow in the area and relish the leaves of hackberry and oaks that dot the landscape.
Arrival at camp usually happens in late afternoon, when the real work begins: setting up tents, prepping dinner, and keeping an eye on the camels that are turned loose and hobbled for grazing. You can bet I enlist every person in the group for this. By nightfall, the camels will be brought back in, closer to camp, and tied to trees. It’s no fun to have to look for your camels the following morning and it really seems like I sleep with one eye open, just to make sure! The sound of the camels chewing their cud, though, is the sweetest lullaby.
At sunrise there’s coffee around the campfire and a hot breakfast, but all too soon we’re loaded and mounted up for the return to ranch headquarters. The return day is always shorter than day one (and the middle day on a three-day trek) and that’s by design. Most people don’t ride camels every day and, like any new activity, there may be some sore muscles (hopefully not too many, though). Selfies with camels and pictures of guests hugging their camels at the end of the trail record the memories folks take home with them and frequently guests become good friends of ours.
Big Bend Camel Treks are offered each spring and fall; visit www.texascamelcorps.com for more information.