Location: Dahab, Red Sea, Egypt
On an ochre desert moring in Dahab, we stood by our jeeps in the shadows of the Sinai mountains, a motely bunch of eight divers and two dive masters, waiting for the Bedouins who would lead the way. After a while, a group of men in flowing robes appeared between the rocks, accompanied by a small group of children leading a train of majestically swaying camels. Soon, over a dozen camels were kneeling on the flat stony ground. We piled up our gear, tanks and provisions next to them for the Bedouins to load up. One of the animals, placidly chewing on a cardboard box, gazed at us through long-lashed, droopy eyes. Pièrre, one of the French divers, caught its gaze just as he lifted a bottle of water to his lips. He lowered his bottle, walked over and held it out. The camel dropped its snack and he inserted the bottle between its fleshy lips. It tilted back its head and upended the bottle, sucking out every last drop. Afterwards, it kept pursing and licking its lips. I had found a soul-mate and chosen my mount.
We led the heavily loaded camels over a small hill and around the rocks to the shore. There it was time to mount the animals, a moment I had dreaded. I giggled nervously as I gracelessly attempted to clamber aboard. One of the Bedouin kids gave me a shove-up, much to my husband’s amusement. I clung to the saddle-horn as the boy commanded the animal to rise. To my relief, I managed to stay on and soon settled into the gentle swagger of my camel. It was slow. The French divers had long since charged ahead and the rest of the group were overtaking one-by-one. Soon, my husband had caught up with me. More relaxed now, I began to crave a cigarette.
“John!” I shouted over to him, “are these non-smoking camels?”
He grinned, shook his curly head and lit a roll-up.
Our dive-masters, seeing that the group was safely underway, whooped and spurned on their camels to join the leaders far ahead. I was convinced my mount would doze off in mid step. John’s camel, which trotted close behind, bumped into it more than once. Periodically, one of the kids came up and whalloped it with a thin stick, presumably to keep it awake. I felt for the poor thing. It was hot and the load was heavy. Beady sweat droplets formed in a tuft of hair just behind its head. It was the first time I had seen a camel sweat.
After an hour’s ride we arrived at our dive-site, a bay named Gabr el Bint after the grave of a young girl. We kitted up under the scorching sun. I hesitated before removing my head-scarf, fearing that my brain might get poached. The Bedouins draped heavy cloth over wooden frames to provide shade. The children led the camels to the beach. It could not have been the first time that the animals encountered the sea, but they bent down and sniffed the salty water hesitantly. The kids dragged the protesting beasts into the waves and splashed them to cool them down, then bullied their favourites to kneel so they could climb onto their humps and jump into the sea, shrieking with pleasure. When we emerged from our first dive, we handed them our masks and snorkles and they were off with unbounded energy while we sought shade.
The men kept to themseves in a separate camp at the back of our shelter, but they brought us strong, sweet tea and a delicious lunch of chicken and rice mixed with pasta in the manner typical for the region. We relaxed for our surface interval, chatting and sharing the buzz which always follows a dive. Wahid’s group, on a shallower dive, had encountered a hawksbill turtle. My jealousy did not last too long as we boasted of sheer drops covered in spectacular coral, myriad reef-fish and tuna sihouetted against the blue deep.
After our second dive we unkitted and piled our gear once again next to the camels which knelt in anticipation of their load, then waited in the shade while the Bedouins took over. A joint was passed around surrepticiously. I took a quick toke then it was time to go. We rode into the light of the setting sun which painted the desert red-gold. I mellowed on my swaying camel, looking out to sea, an Arabian melody playing in my head in rythm with the camel’s gait.
Text © Dennis Schnapp 2004, All Rights Reserved