When there is a combination of Bedouins, racing camels, speeding vehicles, sandy wadis, desert mountains and a forecast for thunder storms you have recipe for excitement and chaos. For the past fifty or more years in midwinter, upper Wadi Zalaga in central South Sinai becomes a twenty-seven kilometre racetrack for camels representing the south eastern Muzeina and north eastern Tarabin Bedouin tribes.
My second trip to the race started midday prior from Dahab on the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba,.My companions were a mixture of foreign guests and Bedouins travelling in moderately comfortable Toyota Landcruisers towards the central desert highlands of St Katherine.
Over the years I have made numerous forays into this desert and it has never ceased to positively affect and uplift my spirit; full of light and delight it is no surprise biblical tales emanate from the Sinai. However again ominous grey clouds stretched theatrically across the vista as I recalled last year’s sleet with almost freezing overnight temperatures. I felt mentally and physically prepared however I was not so sure about some of my travelling companions in their lighter beach clothes.
On route our Bedouin organiser, Mahmoud pointed out the small rocky ravine where he had been born some thirty years before in a beit shar, ‘house of hair’ tent made from hand woven fabric of goat, camel or sheep wool. He added proudly that most women now chose hospital to deliver.
Reaching rocky rolling highlands about 1000m altitude we turned off the tarsealed road on to a rocky and sandy track which would take us to the head of Wadi Zalaga (wadi translates to valley). This is where the real fun began as Mahmoud, friend Clair and I transferred to his open Jeep. Part of the track is literally solid sandstone, the track visible only by tyres etching a white trail through the oxidised yellowed rock, testing new and old suspensions alike.
We dropped down off rocky outcrops to golden sands at the upper reaches of Wadi Zalaga as the sun lowered below the blue grey clouds delineating the skyline with golden light and long shadows.
“Everybody out and collect firewood!” For desert newcomers this sounded ridiculous as there are no trees, only scrubby sparse bushes that look like nothing to burn however we were soon out gathering.
“Nothing green!” they admonished. Again surprised looks as nothing looked green but what they meant was nothing still growing, just desiccated wood lying on the sand. The men found remains of old bushes poking from small sandy hillocks and by digging around these with hands and the ubiquitous Bedouin “whatever else is available” revealed half a meter of reasonably thick dry branches. These they kicked and hacked loose adding to the pile stuffed in the back of the Jeep.
In the fading light we searched for a suitable campsite. ‘Campsite’ had led guests to imagine an organised camping area with maybe even toilets. The reality was any topographical site that sheltered us from the elements as much as possible. Every Bedouin group likes privacy too, so it is only polite to be at least a hundred metres from the nearest group and definitely not in line of sight; a residual tradition from living in wide open isolated areas perhaps.
A perfect spot was chosen tucked away from the main wadi, sheltered and private. The beit shar was given pride of place in the small sandy hollow beneath a sentinel of rocks. It had definitely seen better days, almost double lined with patches of plastic sacking. Mahmoud remarked “This is probably the one I was born in”… thirty years ago. Poles were a mixture of planks and straight branches transported on the back of the pick-ups; tent pegs were any large rocks that could be moved into position and wrapped with guy ropes. I took my small tent, pitching it on the only other relatively flat smooth ground that I could find about twenty metres away from the beit shar yet close to the vehicles.
Within half an hour we had a cosy three sided shelter with fires blazing, inside for warmth, outside for cooking. The small twigs and resinous branches proved very effective fuel, burning surprisingly hot and long. As a mixed group of a dozen guests none of us knew everybody so we quietly gathered more firewood, gazed at the fading golden light, took photos and let the desert quiet entrance us.
Not like the Bedouin. They never stop talking when they are together and this was no exception. There were about ten Bedouin men with us – drivers, young teenage boys and other members of Mahmoud’s family – no women. Bedouin women do not come these events; they would not be permitted by their men folk and probably have no interest in coming.
In camp, the men do all cooking and huge pots of food were prepared as night fell. It was dark by 6.30pm as we sat around camp fires, lying on thick synthetic blankets that serve modern Bedouins as sleeping bags. In all seasons, they can be found covered from head to toe by these blankets; the only hint a person underneath is the shoes placed at his feet.
Most guests had bought their favourite tipple and cigarettes of various plant substances were smoked; drugs of choice. Huddled around the fires we watched lebbe bread being prepared. Dough was kneaded in a shallow metal basin then flattened on a large platter to a thickness about 1.5cm. With fire embers pushed sideways, it was placed carefully on the ashes, the embers scraped back over and left to bake. Ready in about fifteen minutes the loaf was lifted out, tapped gently to remove any sand and ash, then broken by hand into serving size chunks; Lebbe – crusty, dense and delicious.
It had been quite some hours since we had eaten anything more than a handful of snacks so the plates heaped with chicken, potatoes, mixed vegetables, rice, tahina, tomato cucumber salad were gratefully devoured. Anywhere in the world there is nothing like eating al fresco.
“Was that lightning?” a guest asked. With low cloud cover it was not immediately obvious if we had just glimpsed the lights of late arrivals. Crashes of thunder confirmed it, “10 miles away…17 miles away…right overhead!”
It was already late evening when the first drops of rain fell so I decided to make a dash for my tent; I had a sense of possible impending chaos with city bred foreigners and laissez-faire Bedouin grappling with the elements. By the time I was tucked up inside it was raining heavily. I slept fitfully from fear that I had pitched the tent too close to runoff from the rocky walls but I decided there was no point moving unless I had to.
Morning revealed that water had been flowing about one and half metres from my tent; not deep enough to be dangerous but it would have made things very uncomfortable. Two extra tents had been pitched on a slope, one with a gaping hole in the side. The beit shar had leaked and water seeped down the sandy area it had been pitched on; it was not smoothed clear by accident. A fly had been rigged between two pickups and the young boys emerged smiling from piles of blankets. Guests and other Bedouin had taken refuge in any vehicle they could find space.
No one complains about rain in the desert so we joked with each other while steam drying clothes over the smoking fire. Personal tales of disrupted sleep were regaled, “You kicked me in the head”, “I slept OK except for the steering wheel against my temples” and “My feet kept sliding out the bottom of the tent”. Damp blankets were laid out on the slopes to dry in the weak sun. A soggy, sandy headscarf was picked off the ground. “Does this belong to one of the men?” A Bedouin replied, “No way a Bedouin would ever drop and forget his head schaal.” Turned out it belonged to one of the women guests.
Breakfast was quickly prepared – feta cheese, fool (fava beans mashed with tahina and spices), halawa (sweet sesame seed fudge) and jam served with the remains of the lebbe and freshly cooked farisheer bread. Farisheer is my favourite bread in the whole wide world! (not stated lightly considering how much I love bread). I could never understand why the Lord’s Prayer says “Give us this day our daily bread” until I tasted farisheer. It is made from fist sized balls of dough that are worked by hand into thin large ‘pizza’ rounds then placed on a ‘upside-down-wok’ (or the lid of a forty-four gallon drum) over an open fire. The dough blisters and chars slightly taking on a chewy texture and distinct flavour.
The race was ‘scheduled’ – scheduled being a difficult concept for Bedouin – to start between 7.30 – 8.30am because, being Friday, everything should have been completed by midday Islamic prayer. We clambered into vehicles and drove up wadi passing vehicles and blanketed camels heading to the blue start flags.
Contrary to popular belief camels store fat not water in their humps, so humps are almost nonexistent on racing camels, their tight abdominal muscles tucking up their flanks like greyhounds. I was told even their water intake is limited during training yet I doubt that is advantageous, but on race day, most likely. The small utilitarian saddles with no colourful trappings or fringes are fitted across their loins, double girths around their bellies, some with cruppers and breast straps. The saddles are padded in such a way so that jockeys wedge their bent legs between so as not to be bounced off.
Unlike track racing in some parts of the Middle East where the camels run without human jockeys because of alleged and proven human rights abuse, these camels are proudly ridden by young tribal boys, mostly aged between 8 -12 years, tiny and tough. They wear no colours, no helmets or protective gear and the only distinguishing marks are dark blue markings painted on their camels’ necks.
As the highly strung and prized thoroughbreds they are, some camels were cool, calm and collected others feisty and eager to get going. With their jockeys perched at the back and only one long rein attached to the halter that has a metal plate and chain under the chin, some camels do not heed much direction control. I saw one determined camel break away from the group dragging his handler, with jockey on board about fifty metres before they could stop and turn him back to the start.
A hundred plus vehicles gathered around the flags and across the wadi revving engines in anticipation, not leaving much space for the animals. The event is as much about skilful driving; in front, beside, in the middle and behind the racing camels for the entire race, avoiding rocks, ruts, camels and other vehicles. One might think the event is sponsored by Toyota; their vehicles far outnumber the Jeeps, Nissans and occasional Isuzu.
Before long all were off, full speed ahead choosing their own line down the wadi. It would take just over an hour for the first camel to finish.
I was at the back of Mahmoud’s open Jeep waiting about two hundred metres down wadi. I wedged my right foot against the tow bar so with my left hand clinging to the top frame I could swing free with my right hand to take photographs with my small Canon S110. I wasn’t game to handle an SLR and enjoy the race at the same time. It is an ill wind that blows no good; the rain meant there was no dust, just a few mud clods. On drier years one only gets glimpses of camels through the choking dust clouds.
Also in back were Sulieman and Mahmoud’s brother Firaj who kept up a constant stream of directions about where and how Mahmoud should drive. I do not know if he paid any attention but I can attest to his driving skills despite it being the first time he had driven in the race.
Before many kilometres the camels were well strung out, some racing on the left, some on the right, others veered off track completely. I do not know if there was much forethought or strategic race planning or whether it was just go all out for as long as one could. Most of the camels were cruising in their long legged pace – legs on either side moving in unison, not a trot where legs move diagonally. Some were in a gallop which looked energy sapping and more difficult for the jockeys to ride.
Firaj had won the race for Muzeina as a ten year old about twenty-five years ago and I am sure he relived the entire race over every bump and sand hill as we sped along. As a foreign spectator most of the excitement is in the vehicle ride – hanging on for dear life as vehicles raced and overtook within metres and vice versa. By the end I joked that I was probably one centimetre shorter from a compacted spine.
Whereas Bedouins perched nonchalantly on the back of pickups, three abreast in perfect balance. Dressed for the chilly air, head schalls de rigueur – mostly red and white check but there were a few other colour combinations all tied or draped according to individual choice. Most wore traditional jelabeya, the ground length shirt styled garment, mostly white but some in grey, brown or black. Some, like Mahmoud had western jeans and tops and some even overalls that looked suitable for arctic temperatures.
Traditional winter coveralls looked like a cross between large overcoats and open capes, some ancient tattered fine woven wool with a thick lining of lambskin where nowadays it is often synthetic fur.
After last year’s dispute as to which acacia tree had been the finish line, this year a white line had been marked across the wadi. After twenty-seven gruelling kilometres on heavy sand it was impressive to see two camels still within racing distance of each other, foaming at the mouth, racing neck and neck, both representing Muzeina. A thrilling finish watched from the natural terrace lined with Bedouins who did not partake in the vehicle rally.
The race won, both boys dismounted quickly into surrounding supporters and were whisked to the presentation area. There was no dais, no pomp and ceremony, no weigh in – just Bedouins and the few foreigners crowding in a circle, those in the forefront crouching down on their haunches. I am envious of how they can do this for long periods without developing painful hips and knees. Short speeches in English and Arabic were made, congratulating the winners, the participants and the supporters.
There had been some doubt as to whether the race would take place this year, 2014 because of an ongoing land dispute between the tribes that threatened to escalate into violence. It is traditional for Bedouins to celebrate by firing rifles but this year firearms were noticeable by their absence, only a few random shots fired. It is a tribute to tribal wisdom and ability that customary Bedouin are best able to police themselves without any interference from outside security forces.
The camels were seemingly quickly forgotten however the winner’s value would have increased for sure. They were probably happier away from the gathered melee, recovering their breath and heading off for a well earned rest, food and water.
I did overhear a remark from a Dahab visitor, not a local tribal member, that “We should organise this a lot better”. Without knowing exactly what he was alluding to, I suspect he envisages formal advertising and more tourists but I think this would be a pity. We were there as a welcomed guests, not as a tourists expecting display for our benefit and I would not want it any other way. No whinging about the sleeping arrangements, the rain or cold. I appreciate the cultural authenticity of the event: it is about Bedouins, their culture, their traditions and their pride.
The return journey was time to catch up on sleep, to stare out the window at spectacular desert vistas, for quiet contemplation. It had been a full and satisfying twenty-four hours that left impressions far greater than time actually spent. In fact I will think about it all year and hope I get another opportunity to be a guest at the Wadi Zalaga camel race, in sha allah.