There’s not much pollen rattling the air out there. Not even heat convection can excite the molecules. The ear strains to hear the drumbeat of hooves clomp in a rising crescendo. While not an avid race goer, I’m sure it’s not like this when geldings go galloping on English turf.
A plume of the finest sand kicked up by the softest, broadest pads of all two-toed animals envelops the herd in a dust bubble. Little else competes with their approach other than the owner relaying orders to the jockey from the comfort of an all-terrain vehicle crawling alongside the track on a highway laid specially for the moving spectator.
Tall, lean dromedaries lope along on sand in teams of six. On legs taller than a man, their stride is almost exaggerated. Wearing fawn and cavalry blue Shalwar Kameez, the trainers mounted front and rear look Pakistani. Or possibly Afghani, continuing a proud tradition that began with the Afghani camel drivers who were brought to Australia in the 19th century to penetrate deep into the Outback. Nimble little stalwarts riding bareback, these trainers crouch in the brace position on the hind slope of the animal’s hump. Any more bumping and grinding and they will slip down its steep gradient and onto a painful dumping on the coccyx. Yet, few if any do.
Seeing that today’s camel jockey is a race day robot, these trainers fall short of being silicon enough to see action on the furlongs. He’s on it most of the week, because through his nurturing abilities the trainer avoids obsolescence. There to groom the dashing dromedary in a pampering exercise regime, his loving care shows in the health and well-being of this most venerated of beasts.
Camels are coated in colourful blankets with bundles for humps, great long legs made for striding and necks bowed for pipping other necks to the post. If the age of oil and the fame of the sheikhdom cities that flowed from the wells had not already put the rest of the world conveniently in the iconic frame of the Bedouin in his white robes sailing his ship of the desert, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that what they were witnessing on that track was a George Lucas re-imagining of a horse race. Weird, prehensile lips flapping at the end of impossibly outstretched necks in this all-encompassing sandscape that glares more powerfully than any bank of studio lights ever could, Lucas’ planet Tatooine was obviously a borrowed creation. A crushing reality check for anyone who remembers being a kid in 1977 when Star Wars first hit the screens.
To suck the marrow out of life first you need to splinter a few bones. If that means extending the love and attention that organic compounds have long denied the desert, then so be it. They say nothing good can come from nothing, that no good thing can grow in a desert. But they didn’t reckon for creations that don’t need a steady supply of rainwater: like memories, experience and the trickery of light on red satin snow as the sun makes its descent. There’s shrubbery in planting on these margins of life. While not a religious man, I am a devout worshipper of 60’s psychedelic rock. Here’s the book of Ecclesiastes doing The Byrds, Turn, Turn, Turn:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.
The spectre of winter can fall on places never touched by frost. This lull in the long summer gives pause to plant. In the desert of our day-to-day we plant for a tomorrow when we may uproot, the day when finally we emerge from the sea of sand with what gift of experience the Bedouin in their majlis send us away with. From dust we come, into dust we shall return. But not before we glow a little, out there in the dancing dust and singing sands where natives come for the day to relearn the custom of being at ease with their former selves in the company of the animals to whom they owe their everything; where incomers visit just to feel alive.
Sitting in a majli twirling ceremonial sticks, or standing in line in a dance ritual launching antique rifles into the air, then crouching back down on their haunches to rest against cushions and look on motionless and indifferent at the comings and goings of others, not their own, those Bedouin eyes fix watchful over their true love, the only thing capable of upstaging them in their domain: Jamal (camel to you and me).
There has to be a reason for these chance encounters. We’ll glance back over the shoulders of time one day and there he’ll be, resplendent in rags.
we’ll entreat him.
What did it mean to be there all that time ago? Why this boy of all people?
And he’ll answer, dressed head to toe in his scruffy greatcoat, worldly belongings stuffed into a haversack that makes him camel in all but name. He’ll answer:
‘Where was this? Who was there?’
It was a desert, and it was me. I was there. I was there.
And he’ll say, Then that’s what it meant. There’s your answer.
And we’ll entreat him again.
Why me? Me of all people?
And he’ll consider the question, but this time answer with less patience.
Why not you? Did you think you were the only one not meant to be in places you never thought you’d be? Does a tree have a choice in where it puts down roots? No! Only if and when.
So Tolstoy, did it mean something in the long run? To have been there?
If it didn’t you wouldn’t be asking me this question years later. Now leave me be. It’s a long way back on foot to the village from here and I have beet seeds to plant before it’s too late.