Ships of the desert

Years ago I wrote a story about a woman crossing the Sahara Desert. Part of the reason I put her there was my discovery that native desert folk could look at a camel’s footprint and tell its gender. I have no idea if this is true because I’ve never been to the Sahara, or anywhere where there were people identifying a camel’s gender from footprints. To be honest, the closest I’ve been to a camel is a zoo (the warning about spitting sign ensured I didn’t even get close to the fence). According to the reference I found years ago (and can’t find now), camels of different genders were used for different purposes, so the pads of their feet would wear differently.

The idea of camels as ‘ships of the desert’ brings to my mind lines of camels carrying exotic goods (in my mind each camel is swarming with their ‘horse fly’ equivalent). Like every school kid knows, a one humped camel is a dromedary and a two humped camel is a bactrian; I’m thinking about the dromedary camel. These camels originated in Arabia where they were domesticated over 4000 years ago. From there people took them to North Africa, India, Pakistan and Australia – then even further afield as I’ve seen them in North American zoos.

A camel can carry up to 600 lbs of freight up to a distance of 160km a day (a fact I found in a children’s book), making them outstanding pack animals already evolved for a desert environment. They can be speedy; racing camels can get up to 33 km/hr for a 10 km race. Back to their footprints: they have broad feet that are heavily padded to allow them to walk stably over hot sand. I guess if there is some humidity, they could make a pretty distinctive footprint. But, if someone told me they could tell the gender of the camel from that footprint, I would assume they were pulling my leg.

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