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Loading the camels comes close to a nightmare

First Campfire — 2000-05-15

We get up at 7 o’clock. No sooner do I creep out of my warm and cosy sleeping bag than I feel the cold in every limb. The thermometer shows zero degrees. “Good Lord, it’s cold. I always thought Australia was a warm country,” says Tanja trembling with cold, and slips into her fleece pullover. While she goes with Jo to mind the camels, I roll up our thermomats, pack our sleepwear into one of the waterproof Ortlieb bags, take down the two tents, make a fire and set the Billy (Australian water kettle) on the burning ash. By the time the two women come back it is already 8:30. We have a mug of tea or Nescafé and some pieces of toast and then start to assort the entire equipment. Since we have decided to set out today, we are under some time pressure. Somehow everything looks chaotic. Scattered everywhere are the large Ortlieb bags in which the various things are packed. „Where is kitchen bag no. 1?" I ask Tanja, because I want to take it to the loading place. „Which of the bags contains the film material?“ I hear Tanja ask, because she needs a film. Jo wants to know where she can pack her sleeping bag and chair.

We run back and forth like startled ants and it happens that I open one of the bags several times to see what’s actually in it. Already after half an hour I feel completely enervated, and by 10 o’clock we have not made much progress. I start labelling the bags with a permanent bolt marker while Tanja fights with our large sheet-metal kitchen box trying to somehow accommodate the boxes of dry food items that could easily burst open under pressure.

“We must precisely weigh each item of our equipment!” says Jo and explains that each of the saddle bags should have the same weight to the kilogram. We must work very accurately, otherwise it can happen that the saddles start slipping on the backs of the camels." she adds in her usual friendly manner and I’m beginning to wonder how we are ever to cover a single kilometre this way.

After we have packed all our belongings in the appropriate bags, labelled and taken them to the loading place, we start with the weighing procedure. For this purpose I use a hand scale that ends in a sort of a gambrel stick on which the object to be weighed is suspended. This old-fashioned scale consists of nothing but a heavy-duty spring. If you hang an object from the hook, a mechanical indicator shows how much it weighs. Unfortunately, the thing is not very handy, and in my first attempts of weighing I cut my hands with it.

It is meanwhile 11 o’clock, and the time of our departure today is somewhere in infinity. Some of the bags weigh over 50 kilograms, and you can imagine that at the end of the ordeal I am absolutely at the end of my tether. My back which has been injured for years, begins to ache horribly, and I am close to despair. Wasn’t it just yesterday that we had such a wonderful time and were full of confidence? And now, the dark clouds of doubt are gathering. By 2 p.m., the attritional and utterly exhausting weighing work is done, however without a single camel being loaded. Jo finally leads Sebastian to the loading place not far from the campfire. Sebastian being our lead camel will be loaded with the expensive and highly sensitive technical equipment. We have designed a special saddle for him to which we can buckle each Peli-case that contains the valuable electronic equipment individually. At the end, we attach the solar paddle with some elastic bands. Satellite telephone, computer, spare film camera, first-aid case, raingear, our daily ration of water, food for a mid-day meal, dog blanket for Rufus, dog dish, Tanja’s and my little Fjäll Räven day pack and some more small stuff are placed onto it. A tired look at my watch tells me that it took us 54 minutes for loading Sebastian. At 3 p.m. it is obvious that we are not going to depart today, as the sun will set in 3 hours time.


In order to save time tomorrow, we decide to use the rest of the afternoon for a test loading of Kadesch. Kadesch is the second in line and seeing that he was the one we had most problems with we are eager to find out how he is going to react to his saddlebags being fully loaded. Jo leads him up to Sebastian, commands him to sit with the order “Usch” and, for safety reasons, ties his front legs together with the Israeli ropes. Despite our decision not to depart today, we at least want to go through the motions, and attach the 12 millimetre rope to the two camel necks thus providing a connection from one animal to the next. We also affix Kadesch’s nose leash to Sebastian’s saddle, and another rope linking Sebastian’s saddle to Kadesch’s halter. To allow for emergencies, we have provided all ropes with a predetermined breaking point, with the exception of the main rope connecting camel neck to camel neck which cannot tear.

After we are finished with the system of ropes which is still very complicated to me we carefully set the saddle onto Kadesch. Again, he gets frightened and opens his eyes wide while his tail slings the nearly liquid excrements through the air. We are too busy and excited to react to the dark rain that goes down on us. I hurry up and tighten the belly straps while Tanja closes the tail and neck straps of the saddle. Mounting the saddle bags is easier than we thought. Being our biggest and strongest camel, Kadesch gets four of them tied to the saddle frame right from the beginning. Poor Kadesch is now trembling all over. Even though years ago he used to carry countless tourists on his back, and has passed the latest tests well, he is still very nervous. We handle him with utmost care. Jo talks to him as if he were a human being. To us she explains that it is very important always to speak to the animals. “Especially the intonation of your voice is important,” she says stroking his huge head.

Finally it is time to take off his leg ropes. While I hold Sebastian by the nose and guide leash, Jo carefully and very gently opens the leg ropes. She incessantly urges him to remain seated „Usch down, uschsch, usch, usch Kadesch!“ By persistently telling him to stay put she wants to prevent him from shooting up as if stung by a bee. Tanja is doing the cameraman’s job again, ready to document anything that happens.

“As soon as Kadesch stands up, you must make Sebastian stand up, too, right away!”, Jo calls over to me. “Okay!” I reply and my heart beats as loud as a bush drum with excitement. No sooner has Jo opened the second leg rope than the animal bursts up into the air like a volcano with such a force that I’m paralysed with fear. Sebastian is slower only by the fraction of a second and dashes forward in panicky fright. I fail to keep him under control, he pushes me aside and tries to beat it. In the last second I manage to pull the guide and nose leash towards me, and I’m surprised that he doesn’t simply run over me. With Kadesch’s front legs being hobbled he has trouble to follow Sebastian’s attempt to run away. Instead, he shoots up into the air like a rocket. „Usch him down! Usch Sebastian down!“ Tanja screams. but I have lost control over Sebastian. Kadesch’s front legs thunder to the ground, Jo saves herself by jumping aside and she, too, shouts for me to make him sit. Again Kadesch rises and lands with his front legs close to the tree trunk of a Black Boy. Sebastian pulls like a madman, and when Kadesch tries to rise again, his front legs get caught in the Black Boy. With the forceful tension of the neck-connecting rope, Kadesch is no longer able to rise and stumbles over the thorny grass tree. Suddenly he falls as if hit by an axe and crashes, with his entire load, chest first to the ground. The tremendous noise terrifies Sebastian even more and at the same time augments his energy in the attempt to run off, but the neck link to Kadesch stops him. Kadesch lies on the ground like a prisoner in bonds. His hobbled front feet wrapped around the Black Boy, he is no longer able to get up. The weight of the saddle has knocked him to the side and keeps him nailed to the ground in a grotesque position. Owing to Sebastian’s panicky pull, the neck rope is extremely tightened. Kadesch’s neck gets longer and longer, and it can only be a matter of time until it breaks in two. All of a sudden, the nose leash and the halter-connecting rope snaps at the predetermined breaking point, but the neck rope remains taut. For Heaven’s safe! A knife, quick, a knife!" I yell. While my left hand tries to hold Sebastian’s nose and guide leash, I use my right to get the knife from my belt pocket. It can only be a matter of seconds until Kadesch’s cervical vertebrae give in to the enormous pull of the rope. But before I manage to make the cut, Jo is on the spot and severs the rope in a place where it won’t be completely useless afterwards. Kadesch is out of serious danger immediately, but the neck strap of the saddle is still half strangulating him. And although with his head moving wildly back and forth, it is extremely dangerous to come near him, Jo dares to loosen the neck strap. Still Kadesch’s front legs are wrapped around the grass tree, and still the heavy burden of the saddle is keeping him on the ground. He looks like crucified and can hardly move. With the rope linking him to Sebastian being severed, I am now in a better position to help Jo. Under the great risk of getting kicked out of her senses, Jo now opens the leg hobbles without ever stopping to talk to him with her soothing voice. Then she opens the belly strap of the saddle and the two of us lift and slide the saddle including the bags over his hump. Kadesch is free at last. „Epna! Epna!“ I order him and he stands up, somewhat dazed. As if nothing had happened he remains standing quietly and gives us a chance to examine him for injuries. We are relieved to find out that he has overcome this drama without the slightest scratch, and we hope he has learned his lesson from this incident. “I figure next time he’ll think hard before he panics again after loading!” says Jo and laughs with relief. We’ve had enough for today. We unload Sebastian and Jo and Tanja go to mind the camels. It will take us all day tomorrow to repair the damage and to make some changes in the saddle design.

Day: 04

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