Joe’s Discount Camels

December 31, 2008 in Africa, Travelogue, Tunisia

Ezra has been asking if we “can ride a camel yet?” for months.

It has been his major goal for the trip, I think. On hard days it is the thing that keeps him going… “Gotta pedal to get to Africa to get to the camels.” he seems to be saying to himself. You can imagine the excitement the day after Christmas when the announcement was made: “Today is the day!”

It is not difficult to ride a camel in Tunisia. Just drive south until everything turns to sand and the camels will find you. Wild ones, tame ones, caravans set up for the tourist trade and lone wolf camel owners who are happy to give you a ride… for a price. At the suggestion of our friend Peter, we headed from Douz 13 km across to the oasis town of Zaafrane, past the big set up designed to cater to the tour buses to the only hotel in the village, creatively named Hotel Zaafrane. “You shouldn’t have to pay more than six dinar,” he told us, “If they try to charge you more than that, tell them Mr. Peter sent you and ask for my special price.”

I no more than got the car door open before the camel ride salesman was at my elbow, “You want to mount the dromedaire? I make you good price… 20 dinar.” I laughed.

“I came here because we do want to ride a camel and my friend said we’d pay 6 dinar.” He laughed.
“Six dinar? No! I can’t work for that! Fifteen dinar for one hour, I make you good price.”

We kept talking as we headed for the hotel reception and I introduced myself to the lady behind the desk, quietly explaining that Mr. Peter had sent us and that we would like to ride the camels for one hour for his “special price” of 6 dinar per person. It came as no surprise that they suddenly didn’t know Mr. Peter or anything about his special price…
“But, we can make you special price of 12 dinar if the little kids ride with the parents.”
“No good. The kids want to each ride their own camel. Ten dinar is the most I’ll pay.”
“Ten dinar?!” He looked surprised, shook his head back and forth and said, “But that’s half price!”
“Yes, but it is more than the six you charge Mr. Peter.” I replied with a smile. He grinned back.
“Okay, 10 dinar. We go to the camels. Get the kids.” I hadn’t figured they’d give me Peter’s price in the first place.

Riding the camel exceeded Ezra’s expectations.

He hung on like a tick on a dog as that big beast pitched forward and then backward as it stood up. The kids laughed and hooted as copious wads of white foamy drool were spat over his a long floppy tongue at Gramps, whose camel apparently didn’t like him too much. At the mid point of the walk a half an hour of desert play was afforded the children. They immediately romped out of sight over the dunes, returning with tiny desert roses to see a desert fox that had been put on a string and was being sold as a photo prop by an enterprising native. Gramps got taken for an extra 10 dinar for a ridiculous blue “touareg” head wrap for Grammy… it was meant to be 5 dinar, he accidentally paid ten and forgot about his change.

Gramps boosted his camel boy up onto the hump in his place and walked back to the hotel, leading his blowing, spitting, growling camel. It was his observation that we must have rented from “Joe’s Discount Camels” to get such rude beasts as these. He had been hoping for a majestic white racing camel and the ones we got were the smaller brown pack camels.

Much can be said about the experience, and any of you who know our kids will undoubtedly hear the story in four versions. However, I think Gramps just about summed it up in what he wrote on a postcard to his friend and fellow adventurer, Bernard, who is well into the second half of his nineties:

“Have suffered the ultimate humiliation have ridden a camel. Reading or being warned that they bite, spit, stand up rear legs first, then front legs second cannot prepare the adventurer for the actual life experience of being tossed, head long over neck and head and landing, semi-conscious on the sand; staring up as the muzzled camel groans and protrudes his reeking, drizzling, lolling tongue above one’s face and neck and shirt front.”

Camel ride on the Grand Erg Oriental: 10 Dinar.

Gramps’ version of the experience: Priceless.

Post Script:

1. My sextigenarian father did NOT actually fall off of the camel, he favors “flavor” in his stories over strict fidelity to the facts, just ask the editor of his local newspaper.

2. No camels OR Grandparents were harmed in the making of this story.