Trekking: All aboard the ship of the desert

A journey by camel across the sands offers a romantic way of escaping the noise of modern life - but don't forget to praise its beauty before you mount

It is said that man can recite the 99 Islamic names of God but the 100th name is known only to the camel. Perhaps this explains its superior attitude and inscrutable smile. When a camel looks straight at you, it leaves you with the impression that it has given a withering assessment of your character with one blink of an eye. The best response is to praise the beauty of its eyelashes and apologise when it kneels for you to mount.

It is said that man can recite the 99 Islamic names of God but the 100th name is known only to the camel. Perhaps this explains its superior attitude and inscrutable smile. When a camel looks straight at you, it leaves you with the impression that it has given a withering assessment of your character with one blink of an eye. The best response is to praise the beauty of its eyelashes and apologise when it kneels for you to mount.

Having admired camel saddles for years, I remember the horror with which I faced my first wooden saddle on the edge of the Sahara.

The rectangular crown and small, tottering tower of points and bars rising from the camel's back no longer looked like an interesting historical relic, but rather an instrument of torture. Like a condemned man I backed away from the saddle and watched in horror as my guide confidently threw his leg over the apparatus. To my immense relief he settled astride the comfy roll of blankets just behind the saddle, rather than on it, with the saddle itself acting as a large buckle, keeping the girth and blankets together.

A camel rising from a sitting position seems expressly designed to throw the novice straight back on to the ground. You lurch forwards, backwards and forwards again, to a rhythm that is different with each animal. The trick is to hold firmly on to the saddle, count yourself up the three lurches and pay no heed to your appearance. If you want to cut a dash as you mount, find yourself a horse. As for riding a camel, I am content simply to sit on top as it moves. Camels seem to have a sureness of way, a gentle dignity and a steadiness of purpose. The Arab description of camels as "ships of the desert" conjures up just the right image. Just as you surrender to the movement of a ship, so you should surrender to the swaying movement of the camel - and to the silence, introspection and erotic fantasy that it encourages.

If there is much gentle pleasure in a camel journey, of need there is none. The jeep is now master of the desert and it is a common sight to see camels being conveyed in the back of an open-top van. Less common (because it happens in the cool of the night) is it to witness the movement of an entire nomad clan, complete with tents, womenfolk and herds in a convoy of battered chartered lorries. Without the internal combustion engine the conquest of North Africa and the Sahara desert by the European powers would never have been achieved.

In 1920 there were still half a dozen Muslim states in the desert. The most powerful of these were the Senussi, a pious brotherhood of scholars, though it is the Reguibat of the western Sahara and the Tuareg of the central Sahara, that have entered the poetic imagination of the world, collectively known as blue men thanks to their use of indigo- dyed robes.

The independence of these tribes was based on navigating camel caravans along a hidden string of oases - the old trans-Saharan trade routes. Typically they would march for 10 days across total desert before resting for an equal period at an oasis. Their desert was also dotted with hidden cisterns and secret subterranean reserves and no amount of imperial bluster, armies or artillery trains could impress them. The Sahara was in the hands of those with access to water and camels. Nothing else mattered.

In 1919, however, the Asoura-Tidikelt expedition struck the death knell to this ancient desert order. Seven Brazier personnel-carriers (watched over by three Farman aeroplanes) completed a 1,700-mile expedition and three years later the "Raid Citroen" completed the first mechanised crossing of the Sahara.

This, the great grandfather of rallies like Paris to Dakar and Dakar to Cairo, was also the immediate progenitor of the armoured car patrols, lorry and bus routes that quickly proliferated across the continent. By the mid-1930s camels had been entirely ousted by the motor car. Only smugglers, raiders, slavers, salt miners and mounted police patrols still made use of the camel and, in the mechanisation process, the vital strategic role of the oasis also disappeared. The next war in North Africa would be fought over control of air fields and fuel dumps rather than water-holes.

Despite the growing dependence on motorised transport, the camel has survived. Bred largely for meat and wool (as well as for prestige), as a means of transport it is now used by tourists, travellers and writers. In an ironic twist, with every deafening new motorway that is built, the appeal of the camel grows.

A camel journey with a night or two in a traditional black tent beneath the clear desert sky offers an almost unbearably romantic escape from the noise of modernity.

When this adventure also includes a meal of lamb and flat bread baked in the ashes of a desert fire, which is then used to warm tambourines for an impromptu love-song performed against the drama of a Saharan dusk, you may become as addicted as I.

Just don't be surprised if you glimpse a lorry coming over the sand dunes to pack up your tent and roll up the carpets.

Douz in southern Tunisia is a base for camel expeditions and is the home of half a dozen local agencies such as Bechir Benslimen's Les Amis du Sahara (00 21 65 472177).

An alternative centre, completely off the beaten track, is the Hotel el Ghorfa (00 21 65 640294) at Ksar Metameur. It is run by Drifi Hachem, who has been organising camel and donkey expeditions through his native hills for years. Meanwhile, in Morocco, the prime centre for camel trips is Zagora. The hotels Fibule du Draa (00 21 24 847318) and Kasba Asma (00 21 24 847241) are among the most experienced local operators.

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