Riding a camel proved to be one of the most uncomfortable activities of my life; neither of us had experienced the pain of giving birth, but it seemed that this particular pursuit must at least match a prolonged and painful labour.
I suppose it depends on the type of camel, the design of seat, and the suppleness of the jockey – all of which conspired to grind our hip joints into premature disintegration. I think it was even worse for Jess as she comes from a family that are no strangers to arthritis and the early onset of the most painful joint conditions.
A famous gymnast such as Olga Korbut would experience little discomfort mounting and riding one of these peculiar beasts of the desert, at least that would have been true in her youth, perhaps not during the challenging period of middle-age and beyond.
We joined several other brave souls on a camel ‘ranch’ not far from Essaouira, with the intention of trekking in the massive dunes by the wild Atlantic Ocean, then spending the night under canvas ‘away from it all.’ Perhaps not the challenge of the vast Sahara, but on first mounting my unfamiliar companion it seemed I’d be lucky to make more than a few yards.
Our guides, one of whom was a local surprisingly called Barry, told us that the ancient ruins beyond Essaouira were a popular haunt with hippies in the sixties and seventies; the kind of lifestyle that was not really compatible with the teachings of Islam. Most tourists these days were of the more well-heeled and well-behaved kind, which didn’t much apply to us two – in terms of wealth anyway.
‘Bloody hell Jess !’
‘Shit !!!’ was all she could utter as we both jerked skyward and upright, attempting not to dismount on to the rough, stony ground.
‘This is agony.’
‘Good view though.......ouch !’
We were beside the only stream in Morocco that actually had water in it, though it was possibly only an inlet of salty water. I wondered how the country could function with years of little rain, except in the mountains; in England we’re always making a fuss about water shortages, but nothing compared to this.
‘I don’t think I can stand it.’
‘Don’t be a baby !’
‘Are you enjoying it ?’
We were led in a modest camel train towards the ocean roar, the deserted shores that stretch endlessly – at least to Agadir anyway. A kind of rhythm established, but it was an uncomfortable one felt in hip joints and lower back; the sun was also getting high and hot, despite it being only late spring.
Apart from the dramatic scenery of enormous sand dunes and untamed ocean, I found some distraction in watching the arse of the Australian nurse in front – not an exceptional arse, but good enough to ease the discomfort of our jarring passage through sand and waves breaking on the shore.
After an hour or so our guides encouraged the camels to kneel, which they did fairly readily, allowing us the relief of standing tall again. The beasts were all in good humour; I’d expected a more cantankerous attitude from them, and plenty of spitting, but perhaps their reputation was not justified as pains in the arse, except literally.
‘Thank God for that’ Jess exclaimed.
‘It’d be more comfortable riding a pushbike without a saddle !’
‘I’m going to just walk with the camel on the next bit.’
It was fantastic just to lie back on the sand, drinking from a bottle of mineral water, and watching the waves crash in; a shame that the idyllic spot was spoilt by all the rubbish that had either washed up on the beach or blown from Essaouira.
‘I’m sure somebody was following us in the medina.’
‘You’re imagining it’ I replied.
‘Maybe so, but this bloke looked really dodgy.’
‘How do you mean ?’
‘I don’t know, there was just something about him.’
‘That kind of detailed evidence should really help the police.’
‘No, you’re probably right, nothing to worry about. Blokes are always staring at women.’
‘Reproduction is a biological imperative.’
‘This was just leering.’
After a short break the camel train continued through the sands a little more quickly than walking pace, which meant that Jess and I were trailing behind the main party - who were not showing the same level of discomfort in their temporary role as camel jockeys. We didn’t mind losing touch with the group, walking barefoot in the clear shallows of the ocean, occasionally looking back towards the white fortifications of Essaouira several miles distant.
‘There’s nobody out here to follow us’ Jess said.
‘No, we are the followers now. I’m ready for some grub.’
‘Always thinking of your stomach.’
We watched the camels turn inland, and we struggled to keep in touch at all through the deep, soft sand; it was well past midday, and we were both dripping with sweat, which was not a bad feeling, as if all the real and perceived toxins of daily life were being expelled through our burning skin.
Our guides had already lit a fire in the shade of some trees and placed a couple of large tagines on the embers, which were quickly releasing some wonderful smells of cooking chicken. The camels had all settled down not far from the people, who were either guzzling from large bottles of mineral water or swapping stories about their adventures in Morocco. It seemed like there was almost a competition going on – who had stayed in the most luxurious riad in Marrakech ? Who had come closest to being killed in a traffic accident ? Who had met the most amazing travellers in Fez ?
Jess was much keener to get involved in this kind of conversation, but I was happy to just lie back in the shade and listen to the food bubbling away above the now distant sound of the Atlantic breaking on the seemingly endless shoreline.
‘It’s good to be away from all the traffic’ I said.
‘I’m quite excited about camping out overnight.’
‘What are the toilet arrangements ?’
‘Trust you to break the spell of romance.’
‘These things are important, particularly as one gets older.’
‘You’re hardly a pensioner !’
‘A man reaches a physical peak in late teens.’
‘I suppose that is a long time ago for you. Women blossom much later of course.’
‘And you certainly have.’
The simple feast of tagine chicken, couscous, a variety of salad and fresh bread seemed superior to the finest restaurant cuisine, because we had already taken part in a small adventure away from our humdrum lives, an uncomfortable journey in parts, yet it felt like we were almost real travellers replicating the same kind of odyssey that had been undertaken throughout human history, in a challenging environment where nothing seems to flourish but death, under the relentless sun.