Ships of the Desert
Camel-diving can be a more rewarding experience than might seem to be the case, says John Liddiard, who gave it a try on a recent Red Sea trip. First, make friends with your camel

THE BEDOUIN SIZES ME UP AND INTRODUCES ME TO A LARGE AND GRUMPY-LOOKING MALE CAMEL. His name is Swalem; the camel that is, not the Bedouin, although Swalem is apparently a traditional Bedouin name.
     Keen to display my proficiency with camels, I pull the reins down and make a grunting, hissing noise. Swalem condescends to kneel and let me climb onboard, all the time maintaining that look of superiority with which camels favour humans.
     I am impressed with my success, even if neither Swalem nor the Bedouin are.
     I hook one leg round the front of the saddle. A couple of clicks and a lurch and Swalem is upright and I am a long way off the ground. The average camel is much taller than the average horse, especially when the hump is taken into account.
     I had expected a camel-diving safari to be a bit of a gimmick, being led along by a rope for a 10-minute camel ride to the dive site. In fact, it turns into quite an experience. We had already driven north from Dahab to the Blue Hole, as far as the road goes, watched the Bedouin load our dive gear onto the camels and then walked with them over the hill.
     Dive-kit clinks behind me in an improvised saddle bag - two polyester sacks tied together with scraggy-looking rope. Weights, cylinders and everything else are with my none-too-light camera bag on top of the pile. And me.
     I am amazed that Swalem can even stand up, but he seems used to it, cruising along at what would be a brisk walk for anyone on foot. As we plod off north along the coastal path they let me drive my own camel, or rather they let the camel drive me. Swalem knows who is in charge of this outfit.
     Forty-five minutes out, the leading Bedouin indicates that the path is too dangerous for us to stay mounted. I pull the reins tight and do my best to reproduce the grunting hissing noise.
     Swalem, inherently lazy, calculates that it would be easier to stay up now that he is there, but after deliberating grudgingly kneels to let me off. The reason for caution soon becomes apparent as we round the point. The track winds tight between rocks with a strong camber and some steep downhill bits.
     While unperturbed about carrying me uphill, Swalem is skittish about going downhill. I have to pull to encourage him as he slips and slithers, then once round the corner repeat the grunting, hissing sound to climb back aboard.
     By the time we reach a second dismount point, two divers are getting a little saddlesore and elect to walk for a while. I just relax and go with the flow. I am at one with my camel.
     I have always had a soft spot for camels. According to my mum, it started when I was little more than a toddler and she took me to the zoo. I saw the camels and from then on, whenever an adult would say the usual toddler things such as: What a nice little boy, hasnt he grown I used to reply: Im not a boy, Im a camel.
     Nowadays Im more likely to be associated with a fish.
octopus poser
Two and a half hours after leaving Dahab, the path spreads out onto a wide, flat headland. We have arrived at Ras Abu Galum.
     There is a small Bedouin village, complete with hut/tent homes, goats, tethered camels and Toyota pickups. You can get here by dirt road through the mountains, but the journey from Dahab would have taken most of the day.
     With tourists in mind, some wicker shades have been erected along the beach. We pick one close to the point and unload.
     A coral-lined gully leads out to a sloping reef of hard corals, becoming steeper and almost a wall at 20m. I am ahead of the other divers and stop by a large erg to photograph an octopus. It is remarkably co-operative, just sitting there outside a crack in the coral, not even bothering to shift from its spiky brown camouflage.
     The other divers swim past without even noticing it, assuming that I am taking pictures of fish. Having finished, I try to attract their attention, but the group is heading off along the wall.
     I make a point of staying at the top of the wall as I want to concentrate on reef fish, though I am tempted by some black corals in the gloom below. There is no shortage of choice, a good variety of butterflyfish, an unusual striped damselfish, puffers and a shoal of small barracuda. A trio of amberjacks moves purposefully past.
     On the way back, the octopus is still there. Other divers are already heading for the shore, but our guide Adel is trailing at the back and I manage to attract his attention.
     I shoot my last couple of pictures. He looks carefully, then points out the octopuss interest in that part of the reef.
     One of his arms is trailing under the ledge and linked with another octopus hidden in the crack. I remember a little titbit of octopus biology, that the third arm on the right doubles as a sex organ. I have been shooting octoporn without even noticing it.
     While we have been diving, the Bedouins have prepared lunch. Chicken, potatoes, salad, pitta and rice, and lots of it. The camels seem to enjoy bunches of dry-looking thorn bush.
     We mount up and head north again. Swalem is a bitlethargic after lunch, but most divers are also like that. Then a female camel gets in front and he speeds up to sniff her rear.
     I know a few divers like that as well.
     Once he starts nuzzling, the female takes exception and trots off, complete with diver. She isnt amused, nor is the diver for that matter. A pair of the Bedouins trot off in pursuit, the rest of us proceeding at a more leisurely stroll. In a few hundred metres it is all sorted out and the group reforms.
     I chat to the Bedouin riding alongside. A camel can go for 40 days without food or water. The trick is to starve them for two days, then let them eat and drink all they want, then off they go. An Asian camel with two humps can go only for a few days and would not last in Sinai conditions.
     I couldnt last 40 days without a pint. Perhaps as a toddler I should have wanted to be an Asian camel.

pot-luck dive
Our second dive site is pot luck, a point at random on the now broad coastal plain. Adel has never dived here before. None of the Bedouins have seen any divers stop here before. Its just that we have covered a couple of miles, the entry point looks safe, and the water looks inviting.
     We head down a dark grassy slope angled at about 40. Small avalanches of sand tumble in the wake of our fins.
     The south looks more interesting as the slope levels slightly, buttressed and stabilised by scattered pillars of coral. Enormous table corals are each an oasis for dense clouds of fish on the otherwise sandy slope. At 3:30 in the afternoon with a slight chop, the sunlight twinkles from above.
     Its one of those dives that simply clicks. I feel so focused, with the lighting just right. An excellent find. Back on the shore, Adel takes a landmark: 100 metres south of a big square rock with a powder-blue stripe.
     While it is possible to do multi-day camel-diving safaris and camp in the desert, todays is just a day-trip from Dahab.
     For the journey home, the Bedouins switch camels around. I am distraught; Swalem and I were bonding so well. My new mount is a big male called Mabu, apparently another good Bedouin name.
     He is lighter in colour and less hairy. One of the Bedouins explains: Swalem is a full-blooded Sinai camel, with smaller feet to cope with an uneven rocky terrain and a shaggy coat to cope with the cold found at altitude. Mabu is a half-cross with a Sudan camel. Most of the female camels are full-blooded Sudan camels, which have shorter, lighter coats that trap less heat, and bigger feet to cope with soft sand.
     Swalem is behind me and bites Mabus rear. While I am touched by such loyalty, Mabu isnt. The Bedouins switch us round. Mabu gets his own back. The Bedouins separate us, taking Swalem to the front and leaving Mabu with me in the middle of the group.
     As we plod home along the narrow coast path, I look into the deep blue water. The shade indicates that the wall goes almost straight down from the shore. I reckon that anywhere along here would be worth a dive.
     Back in Dahab, I pat Mabu and Swalem goodbye. I could have bought one of them for about£3000 Egyptian, less than£600 UK. Next time you have problems getting all your dive kit through the baggage check, just think how much more difficult it would be if you had a camel to take home.

  • John Liddiard was diving with Poseidon Divers in Dahab, Egypt, 0020 626 40091,

  • Arabian
    Arabian angelfish
    a lined butterflyfish
    the co-operative octopus
    Crown butterflyfish
    anthias round a coral head
    threadfin butterflyfish

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