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Lessons in choosing the right camel

Anna Zacharias

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AL AIN // The first encounter between Adrian Hayes and Saddam the camel did not go well.

"That one, Saddam, just hisses and spouts and spits and growls," says Mr Hayes. "Mine's OK, he knows me."

The complexity of camel relationships is just one part of training for Mr Hayes, the explorer who leaves for the Empty Quarter next week on a 1,500-kilometre recreation of Sir Wilfred Thesiger's desert crossings.

Mr Hayes has trekked to both poles and across Greenland, but when it comes to the sands he will rely on the wisdom of Saeed Al Masafri and Ghalfan Al Jabri, army officers and Bedu camel herders.

Mr Al Masafri, 26, and Mr Al Jabri, 27, were selected from a group of 20 officers for their camel know-how.

They are full of good advice: hiss to make the camel stand, click to make the camel sit, call him with a cry of "hay hay oooay". If you want him to slow down, pull the rope.

Never confuse your camel with a horse and say, "whoa". This will make him speed up and running without stirrups puts weight on the rider's spine.

Mr Al Jabri's advice is important: sing to your camel to make it forget its thirst, and don't beat him. He will remember it for 10 or 12 years and bite you in your sleep.

After a period of "agony", Mr Hayes now rides Hamlool, a retired racer, with poise and can mount a standing camel, no matter how tall.

"He can ride the camel walking or running," says Mr Al Masafri. "Do you know why? Because he loves the desert, he loves this nature. He is good because he's very happy and if he is happy all things come easily."

Camel boot camp consists of sessions lasting two and a half hours at Mr Al Jabri's farm in the Al Ain desert, where Mr Hayes applies the basic knowledge he acquired with the British army in Oman in the 1990s.

"But I don't use camels that much on the way to work so it's been a relearning," he says. "It's different muscles. Your legs are spread quite a bit so you're stretching things more. It's the same as sitting crossed legged. It's not a natural thing so you have to get used to it."

On the 40-day trek, the men will do between three and four hours on foot and camel each morning and afternoon, at an average speed of 6-7kph.

They will take basic provisions, goatskin canteens for water and wear sandals, khanjar daggers and brown kanduras in the style of Thesiger and his companions. Or, as Mr Al Masafri puts it: "My water, my kandura and my underwear. No BlackBerry."

"We'll all training, walking on sand, hiking on sand, the general fitness stuff," says Mr Hayes. "We're not on a race. Part of the thing is to experience the landscape. You can always train more but I'm relying on natural versatility and ability to adapt."

Each session presents a new lesson. On Thursday, his first practice while wearing a kandura, he learnt the importance of the traditional wrap worn as undergarments. It gives riders added modesty and flexibility.

The men will have two kanduras each. The camels will be fed dates and barley and the men will rely on basic provisions and traditional hospitality, just as Thesiger did. Mr Hayes hopes to stay as true as possible to the original crossings.

"You can do classic re-enactments on ice caps, on oceans and on mountains where you go back to completely traditional gear," he says.

"On land you can't because there are people living, there are villages, so when it's not classic we'll go with the times as it is."

The seven camels picked for the trek by Mr Al Masafri and Mr Al Jabri are young males of the soughan breed. There are in peak condition, and run of up to 30km each morning and 12km in the afternoon. Dhofari camels will be used for the rugged mountains of southern Oman. Next page

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