It’s funny how modes of transport considered perfectly ordinary in many countries often seem bizarre to us. And if you’re eager to give them a go, chances are your favourite memories will relate as much to those wacky experiences as to the destination itself!
Mine certainly do. Like the bone-jarring tuk-tuk journey along miles of pot-holed country lanes during a Sri Lankan monsoon. Or the “taxi” to take me and my then-toddler daughter to our accommodation in Bali, with her perched on a holdall sandwiched between me and the driver … on his scooter.
Boatmen are usually open to earning a couple of bucks on the side I’ve discovered, so bribing a Mexican fisherman late one evening to take our family to Isla Mujeres – when we’d missed the last ferry from Cancún with three jet-lagged kids in tow – seemed the obvious solution. Despite the fact there were no lights aboard and our only identifier was blaring Latino music.
And long train journeys hold particularly exotic appeal when ours in Jersey simply circumnavigates a large grassy field. One of the weirdest 23 hours in my life was on the famous Alice Springs to Adelaide “Ghan” train. We’d bought the cheapest seats available but when all the Aboriginals in our carriage were thrown out for rowdiness at the first stop, my travel companion and I had the luxury of an entire carriage to ourselves for the rest of the journey.
And once, after refusing a seat at the back of a very overcrowded bus in India, I was hastily offered an amazing substitute – sharing the plank-like bench inside the driver’s cab. Complete with a couple of his mates handing out revoltingly bitter betel nuts that certainly seemed to help them to while away the six-hour white-knuckle ride to Udaipur.
But I’ll never forget one particular camel ride. It wasn’t my first – but it’s most definitely my last.
I’d camel-ridden enough times to know there’s no elegant way of mounting; that’s a given. First you lurch forward then suddenly you’re flung backwards while the creature concertinas itself two or three times from kneeling to standing position.
Actually riding the thing isn’t a problem. It’s probably harder work for the guide in getting the stubborn creature to move! In fact, you barely need to hold onto the reins because the camel just plods along the sand on its great soup plate-like feet with an ever-so-slight swaying motion. Then follows the ubiquitous photo stop, followed by the lurching thing all over again when you come to dismount.
So I thought I had it all under control when I climbed aboard a camel in the open desert in Doha one typically scorching afternoon. Ahmed, my Arab guide, spoke very little English but that was fine with me, after all I’d done this a few times before and was even quite familiar with the different species – from the Northern African dromedaries in Morocco and Tunisia and Indian ones in Rajasthan and even the Australian version on the beaches in Broome, so this was a piece of cake. Duly we set off. Just Ahmed, the camel and me.
There was a particularly scenic dune we plodded over that I thought would make for a brilliant photographic backdrop, so I handed Ahmed my camera and motioned for him to kindly take my picture. No sooner had he released his grip on the guide rope, than the opportunistic beast took off like a cork from a Champagne bottle.
We were doing the camel version of a gallop but without any sense of rhythm. Its uncoordinated legs seemed to flail around beneath us and its neck stretched forward in a vague attempt at stream-lining. It was petrifying and exhilarating at the same time and I was clinging on for my life. Froth was even starting to come out of the mouth. Mine.
All the while, decked out in all his flowing white finery, Ahmed chased after us yelling words in Arabic that the feisty camel presumably couldn’t understand. How long this went on for seemed like eternity.
Finally, two 4×4 dune bashing Jeeps appeared out of nowhere and the camel was corralled like a docile sheep in a meadow and enticed down to its knees, all the while maintaining its haughty, supercilious look. I declined the offer to return on the camel’s back and poured myself gratefully onto the passenger seat of one of the 4x4s with legs like jelly and my romantic notions of passing time with a Bedouin tribe dashed forever.
I’ll stick to elephants from now on.