I recently watched Lawrence of Arabia projected onto a big screen for the first time. I loved some of the early scenes in the film. To see camels and the Bedu, and the esthetic Englishman’s white robes high on the camel’s back, to hear the gentle roar of the ungulates early in the morning, and to sense the air of philosophical desolation over all… the sun’s anvil, the red rocky mountains rising from the sands.. It all made me want to know more. I then read Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, a classic about travels through Saudi Arabia in the forties with the Bedu, but was unimpressed by Thesiger’s prose style and his lack of emotional affectivity and poeticism (of course the man is to be praised for his championing tradition modes of travel and for his great spirit of adventure). Still, give me white robes, a camel to ride, a desert and an mystic resolve and I’ll be happy, I mused. The scene where T. E. Lawrence walks into the English sergeant’s mess after traveling through the desert with his Bedu friends stayed in my mind, the stark contrast between the artificial and over-civilized Englishmen and their tedious customs, and the still grand, mobile, familial, looking-towards-the-land Bedu, made me much more impressed and interested by the traditional nomadic cultures of the middle east than I ever had been before.
Continuing this trajectory of interest, I’ve just read Tracks by Robyn Davidson. This young Australian woman walks from new Alice Springs across the Gibson desert to south of Carnarvon with four camels and her dog in 1977. It is an Australia my parents knew, not I. But Davidson goes truly into Australia. She walks across its sands with the company of her intimately known and loved animals, naked to the waist, dark brown, and having shed the routines of domestic life in the suburbs of Queensland. Australia was more ocker at that time, especially in some of the towns she went through, like Alice Springs, and it reminded me of those with a literary sensibility feeling alienated from this culture – almost as though Davidson is not Australian and is looking in on the ocker culture from outside of it (actually she was as she wrote the actual book while living in London). But the main thing is walking under the sun and sleeping in the freezing cold of the desert, and knowing the ways of camels, and meeting Aboriginal elders and speaking some of their languages, and being nomadic. It really is something to have done: unlike suburban modes of existence in Australia such months under the desert sun would truly teach an urban, white coastal dweller a thing or too about the ancient identity of this nation. So I was impressed by the book. It is not great literature by any means, but it recounts an original and quite deep acquaintance with a hitherto unsung landscape in my part of the world.
However, interestingly enough, I did notice that at one point in the narrative Davidson lets slip the following: ‘I wouldn’t want it getting around… but I’m just a weensy bit tired of this adventure. In fact, to be quite honest, fantasies are beginning to worm their way between the spinifex clumps, skeletons and rocks – fantasies pertaining to where I’d like to be right now. Somewhere cool clover comes almost to your crutch, where there are no stray meteors, camels, nasty night noises, blaring thrumming cancer-producing sun, no heat shimmer and raw rocks, no spinifex, no flies, somewhere where there’s lots of avocados, water, friendly people who bring cups of tea in the morning, pineapples, swaying palms, sea breezes, puffy little clouds and mirrored streamlets’ (p.203, 1980, Penguin). This made me think, Yes, the Western Australian deserts with a company of camels and a dog and some forward movement would be a profound experience, but ultimately I too dream of much more verdant places, a mossy granite shrine on a terraced hill in Bali, or a surf strewn bay in the Mentawai Islands off the West coast of Sumatra, or the green and undulating highlands of Papua New Guinea, for example. Reading Tracks was also refreshing in the sense that it is about my corner of the globe, and not the Oregon of Barry Lopez, or the mid-west of Scott Russell Sanders, or any number of other North American places the predominantly North American tradition of environmentally attuned writers usually write about and I have often read.
Much of Western Australia is desert and there are many hundreds of thousands of wild camels roaming about it. Lawrence of Arabia appears exotic to most Westerners, but there are tracks leading from that sandy and beautiful world to my own.
And so last weekend I went to unearth some of these tracks. In the above photo you can see my left leg swinging along in the bottom of the frame. I did indeed find some camels to ride through the Darling Ranges east of Perth. These camels used to live in the wilds of Western Australia’s deserts, but these days they carry curious and paying folk such as myself and three of my friends along winding paths through jarrah forests near Kalamunda. A camel is one part of an ancient ecological jigsaw puzzle that was assembled thousands of kms to my west. As such, when I looked at these camels on the weekend I was looking into the sands of Arabia. The male I was riding goes by the sobriquet Major. Say hallo Major.
The experience of riding domesticated camels is surprisingly calming. They are such large animals that compared to humans their walking gait is noticeably languid and smooth. As the animal moves forward with you on its back the rhythmic swing of your body in the saddle is a long one, and easier to get accustomed to than the faster jolting backwards and forwards of riding horse-back. The motion of the long stride, the slow turn of the head to make sure they’re still close to the single file of their fellows, the deep tones of their roar when they want to make themselves heard, the huge, nonchalant and dark brown eyes… these beings exude a sense of calming might and majesty. I can see why they make good travelling companions. What is more, when sitting on top of a full grown camel you find yourself a long way off the ground, and the good thing about this is that you get a really nice vantage point from which to survey the surrounding landscape. Having a gentle, sensitive and quite intelligent mammal as your mode of transport, rather than an anoymous, inert, and metallic vehicle, is something hundreds of generations of humans have taken for granted. It is something I can only wonder about.