GIZA, Egypt — It takes adventurers of a peculiar sort to consider traveling by camel in the Sahara, and we were six nomads who did.
We thought not of the barrenness of the desert, but of caravans of another time--transporting gold and slaves, of shimmering mirages and roaming tribes. We wanted to travel where Tutmose II, his wife, Hatshepsut, and Old Testament Bedouins Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had gone long before the Turks, Persians, Greeks and Romans came to plunder.
We stored our gear in tasseled saddlebags when we assembled at Giza, behind Mykerinus (Menkaure), the smallest of the three Great Pyramids. From slender minarets, muezzins had finished calling faithful Muslims to early morning prayers. The sun was a white disk on a red horizon turning one side of each of the three Pyramids to dusty pink.
Early Morning Gauze
In the distance mosque domes, modern hotels and old houses floated in the early morning gauze of Cairo's perpetual haze.
Our caravan was made up of 10 Arabian camels, four Bedouins and we six members of the National Institute for Exploration.
Haj Kamel Abdu Pasha had been hired to guide us into the desert. He wore a faded blue galabia (long robe) and white turban with the fringe hanging rakishly over one ear. "You will be safe with me," he said. "My father and all my grandfathers were Bedouins. Call me 'Haj.' It is a title for making pilgrimages to Mecca, Medina and Jebel-er-Rahn."
He spoke to the camels with "z" sounds. Zizz meant "get down" and zist meant "get up," reinforced by a stick laid not too roughly on the animal's neck. From this rotund, effervescent Bedouin descendant, I hoped to learn about the vanishing nomadic culture.
When all gear was secured we mounted our complaining camels, then we obeyed Haj's instructions to "lean back!" to help the animals in heaving from a kneeling position to hind legs, followed by a lurch up onto all four legs.
With that accomplished, the camels were tethered together in a line and we turned away from the city and the Pyramids and headed south into the open desert. The weather was a cold 45 degrees, with a strong wind out of the west.
We soon adjusted to the easy pace and happily exclaimed, "Is this the way to go!" Led by Haj walking beside Daisy, the lead camel, we rocked in the saddle as an effusive feeling brought to mind stories of Ali Baba and Lawrence of Arabia.
In the rear, high upon loads of camp equipment and camel fodder, three wizened Bedouins rode effortlessly as if sitting on rocking chairs. When the first mile had passed under Daisy's cloven hoofs, Haj mounted and we paced faster, as we tried to synchronize our seat to a heavy-gaited pace that a companion labeled, "chucka-chucka-bang-bang."
In the sequence of movements, our upper spines performed figure eights trying to catch up with lower vertebrae.
No Riding Comfort
We knew before starting out that the journey would not be easy. We knew that there is more to riding a Camelus dromedarius than meets the seat of the pants, for they are primarily beasts of burden capable of carrying a 400-pound load for long distances. The genus is high-ribbed, vaulted with one hump, and definitely not designed for riding comfort.
For all of that, and regardless of the bad reputation that misrepresents all camels, I was prepared to become fond of Gimena, my white she-camel with long eyelashes, if she proved to be patient with my ignorance of how things are managed in her part of the world.
Gimena means "beautiful" in Arabic, and while not quite literally so--she had scabrous knees and square green teeth--she had a haughty, detached demeanor.
While still not far from the Pyramids--the last extant great wonders of the ancient world--we passed 20th Century litter. Plastic wrappings blown by the wind rolled by, non-biodegradable tumbleweed. We looked beyond the discarded shoes and rusting cans to the horizon.
Straight ahead the Sahara wrapped in undulations around Egypt. On our right a line of low white-striated limestone hills intruded on the slightly wrinkled fawn-colored carpet of sand stretching west. To the east, the entire world seemed to be half hazy sky and half flat desert.
I noticed that Gimena broke her gait frequently because she needed to adjust her stride to keep up with Daisy. I found comfort riding side saddle about the time that black clouds appeared and the wind raised a mild sandstorm. Haj assured us that his prayer to Allah for good weather would be answered.
As if fulfilling a prophecy, the wind quieted, the sun reappeared, and we felt an aura of mystique surrounding our solitary presence on this desert that is larger than the United States, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and beyond.
At rare intervals we came upon holes burrowed by small elusive animals and solitary clumps of desert grass and stunted thorn bush the same sienna color of the sand.