Question: What do camels and 4WDs have in common? BILL WATT finds the answer in the Qatar desert.
According to the Macquarie Dictionary a desert is "any area in which few forms of life can exist because of a lack of water".
Away from this pretty stark definition, the word "desert" brings to mind old movies where individuals (sometimes couples ... go figure) struggle through miles of sand dunes, battling thirst, hallucinating and generally having a pretty tough time of it. Sometimes there are camels.
In the interests of honesty, I confess my recent Desert Experience tour in the Gulf state of Qatar was nothing like this ... but there were camels.
We were in Qatar for the FIFA World Cup, and our fabulous Australian-based travel agent World of Discoveries (and its intrepid boss, Varya) arranged some time away from football stadiums in the form of a Desert Experience tour. And, wasn't it great fun.
After being picked up in Doha (Qatar's busy capital) we were driven on the highway south through bleak sandy terrain passing the occasional settlement or gas/oil refinery as we went.
Eventually the flat barren moonscape morphed into sand dunes that stretched south toward Saudi Arabia. This is what we had come to experience ... and, of course, camels.
Everyone knows a little about camels. Some have one hump, others two. They are known as the ship of the desert, and, of course, they are the traditional form of transport of many Arab peoples.
And, I was determined to have a ride on one, despite the following travel advice from the Australian government: "Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is a rare but severe respiratory illness that originated in Middle Eastern countries. It is spread through close contact with camels, camel products, or an infected person." Having survived the Covid pandemic, I reckoned camel flu was worth the risk.
Once we arrived at what appeared to be a camel carnival, off I went trying to corner an owner and his trusty steed for a ride up the dunes and back. It took a bit of chasing (there were plenty of other football tourists after the same experience) but eventually I nabbed myself a clean-looking beast with a muzzle (my concession to the Oz health warning), handed over 100 rials (about $30) to the young owner and before I know it I was on the back of the beast (they have one hump in Arabia, and you perch yourself just behind it).
Within moments I had learned about the most awkward camel riding moment. They are on their knees when you get on, before lurching to their full height in what seems like two distinct moves. Both of these are uncomfortable as you are thrown forward and then back (or was it back then forward?) as you grasp onto the strapping around the hump.
But, success, I was still on board. The camel then set off along the flat sandy floor before the dunes ... and it was deeply unsettling. I'm not a thin bloke but I reckon I have a pretty bony arse, and without the required padding it felt like any haemorrhoids I might have were being rammed back up towards my mouth. As I said ... quite disturbing.
But then everything changed. The camel hit the dunes, and the ride became almost mesmeric. They aren't called the ships of the desert for nothing. I found the rhythmic plodding of my steed up the dunes was relaxing and far from uncomfortable. Hey, maybe I could get used to this.
I even managed to snap a few pics from the back of the camel, and my camel-owning guardian successfully encouraged me to do the standard "no hands" pose while he took some shots for me. Awesome.
Then it was back down to ground level (uncomfortable again) and the final knee-bending descent to let me off. Now, this moment had worried me a bit. I had watched one bloke ejected from the camel on to his back in a very unflattering way (the landing was in sand, luckily), but I reasoned this was because he was trying to film his dismount. I would love to see that footage, though I doubt it is on his Facebook page. My dismount was less spectacular, but I'm sure it wasn't pretty as I unsteadily swung one leg over the camel as my hips creaked.
Now, it was time for the other perfect ride over the desert dunes ... by 4WD, specifically a late model Toyota Landcruiser.
Once again the ride was smooth (for the most part) and sublime, just like the dune ascent on my trusty camel. Our friendly and talented thrill-seeking driver bashed over the sand dunes - up, down and around - in a thoroughly enjoyable fashion. And, the sheer beauty of this as the sun descended was memorable.
After riding the dunes for a good while, and stopping for photo ops along the way, everyone in our group was quite hungry ... but not for long.
We were driven over the dunes, down to a beach alongside the Persian Gulf waters and to an establishment which had set up an incredible feast of local and international dishes (as well as World Cup viewing). It was the perfect end to our desert adventure.
Thank you to the amazing World of Discoveries team for all their efforts in arranging my World Cup adventure in Qatar. See https://wofdi.com/