A Day At The (Camel) Races

Camel Races in Alice Springs, Australia
Kraig Becker

The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes are three of the biggest horse races on the planet, collectively making up the prestigious Triple Crown. Steeped in tradition, each of those events deftly mixes exhilarating action on the track with plenty of pomp and circumstance in the stands. With their large purses, competitive fields and rich histories these races are the very embodiment of the “sport of kings,” drawing plenty of attention to thoroughbred racing on an annual basis.

The residents of the town of Alice Springs, located deep in the heart of Australia’s “Red Center,” aren’t particularly impressed with the Triple Crown, however, mostly because they have a fine race all their own. In the minds of local residents, their homegrown event more than rivals those races in terms of prestige, action and unpredictability, while easily surpassing it in quirkiness. The Lasseters Camel Cup takes place on the second Sunday in July each year and features some of the finest camel racing you could ever hope to see. That is, if you should ever find yourself at an actual event that features those irritable, obstinate and down right mean animals pitted against one another on a racetrack. The sport seems aptly fitting for Australia, however, where they not only have an abundance of camels but more than a few jockeys crazy enough to try to ride them.Considering the fact that camels aren’t indigenous to the continent, they have still managed to play a surprisingly important role in Australia’s history. The animals were originally imported to the country from Pakistan, India and the Middle East back in the 1800s and were used in both the exploration of remote regions as well as in the building of the all-important Overland Telegraph Line. Eventually, camel breeders set up shop within Australia itself, providing local animals that were healthier and stronger than those that were being imported. They remained a popular choice for draft and riding animals into the 1920s when motorized vehicles came to prominence and began to replace the creatures. When they were no longer needed, many camels were set free into the rugged Outback and over the years they have grown into quite the nuisance. It is estimated that more than 1 million wild camels now wander the countryside and in an interesting change of fate, some are occasionally rounded-up and actually exported to other countries.

The Camel Cup has been built on the legacy that the animals have created in Australia but also has a colorful history all its own. Now in its 43rd year, the race began as a bet between two residents of Alice Springs who decided to settle a feud by racing one another on the backs of the unpredictable beasts. They didn’t know it at the time, but those two men were starting a tradition that would continue for decades to follow, carving out its own identity in the process. The original race was so much fun for the locals that they actually decided to continue with the event in subsequent years. The Camel Cup became an important fund raiser for the Alice Springs Lions Club, which has been involved with the event from the start and uses the money raised to help fund a number of local programs.

Camel races in Alice Springs, Austin
Kraig Becker

The most recent edition of the Camel Cup took place last Saturday, July 13, in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd of over 5000 at the Noel Fullerton Camel Racing Arena located in Alice Spring’s Blatherskite Park. That arena became the permanent home for the race in 1979 and is the only venue dedicated strictly to camel racing in the entire Southern Hemisphere. It features a 400-meter, oval shaped track, plenty of seating for fans and a press box where colorful commentators provided interesting and funny comments all day long. Local vendors also set up stands that offered any number of tasty delicacies to keep those in attendance happy and well fed.

Much like the Triple Crown, the Camel Cup consists of a number of races that take place throughout the day. Each of those races brings an element of uncertainty and randomness to the event leaving spectators to wonder just what they might see next. The stubborn nature of the camels often provides good comic relief because when they aren’t busy trying to throw their riders they often race in the wrong direction or simply refuse to run at all. At the Camel Cup it is possible to see more unexpected action on the track in a single afternoon than you would see in months of horse racing. You’ll also be more than happy to be sitting safely in the stands rather than astride one the more temperamental creatures making its way around the track.

Between races the crowd is treated to a number of other entertaining activities. Young children race on the track’s infield on hobby-camels while rickshaw races involving teams pulling each other around the track are hilarious to watch. There’s even a spirited competition amongst contestants looking to be named Mr. and Miss Camel Cup, which is a unique honor to say the least.

As a visitor to Alice Springs taking in the Camel Cup for the first time, I loved how there was an air of seriousness about the entire event, but not too serious. Some fans came dressed up in their finest clothes, as if they were going to the Kentucky Derby, while others wore silly costumes and became part of the show. The bottom line was that everyone was there to have a good time and no matter which end of the spectrum you were on, I think that mission was accomplished. I’m not positive, but I believe that even the camels were getting a good laugh out of the whole affair.

Transmongolia – Part Four: Traversing the Steppe


Transmongolia: Part Four – Click above to watch video after the jump

*After an extended hiatus (we blame the whole getting lost in the desert thing) Transmongolia is back. Click here for our previous coverage of the 2011 Mongol Rally.

Other than a complete break down or having to wait days for a spare part to arrive, there are few things as disheartening on the Mongol Rally as driving in the completely wrong direction for hundreds of kilometers. After recovering from a near-disastrous rendezvous with the Chinese-Mongolia border, our humble ambulance regained its eventual path toward Ulaanbaatar.

With a scheduled welcome party arranged in Mongolia’s capital just a few days away, we hurried to get back on track as fast as possible; while gradually losing more members of our convoy with every deep pit and poorly spotted rock in the road.

The end was in sight, but the final sprint across the steppe would still test the endurance of our newly formed friendships and our overworked engine.


Transmongolia – Part Four: Traversing the Steppe

As we ventured out of the Gobi and into the Mongolian steppe, the landscape shifted to sloping grasslands and sizeable hills that seemed small in comparison to the Altai range that we had grown accustomed to.

The steppe signaled several things for our battered rally team: that our journey was nearing its end and that our contact with large towns became more and more frequent. We no longer were concerned with filling up our jerrycans with the maximum levels of fuel and stocking up on food, water, and other necessities at every establishment we crossed.

With the moderate temperatures of the steppe, and the knowledge that we had only a few more nights under the vivid stars of the Mongolian wilderness night sky, we slept out in the open – with only sleeping bags, neighing horses in the distance, and the constant wind whipping across the hills.

It was bittersweet to know that we’d be back in the familiar grasp of a rapidly modernizing city in just days – one that for me, would now be revisited with an entirely new perspective.

For more information about the Mongol Rally, including how to sign up for the 2012 rally or tips for entrants outside the EU, visit the Adventurist’s website – or view the Adventurists’ 2011 trailer here!

Transportation was made possible by the scholars & gentlemen at the Adventurists. No editorial content or opinions were guaranteed, and nor was anyone’s safety or hygiene.

Ethiopia’s Somali region: a potential adventure travel destination?

adventure travel, Adventure Travel, Ethiopia, camels, Somali Region
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region. While my quest for Ahmed Guray’s castle was a failure, I did see potential for adventure travel in the region.
Adventure travelers generally are looking for three things: historical sights, interesting cultures, and natural wonders. The Somali region is a bit short of historical sights, although there are a few of interest, but it’s strong on culture and nature.

First, the historical sights. The main one is Alibilal Cave in the Erer District, about 10 km (6 miles) from Erer town. This cave is covered with prehistoric paintings of cows, giraffes, gazelle, and other figures. Last year I was amazed by the prehistoric cave art of Laas Geel in Somaliland, and I’m really curious to see this cave. I’ve seen some video footage and it looks impressive. Other historical sights include the mosque I wrote about yesterday, and some colonial buildings scattered about the region.

The Somali Region is much stronger on cultural attractions. There aren’t many places left in the world where you can see camel herders living much as they did centuries ago. You can drink fresh camel milk in traditional domed huts made of mats. Try shay Somali, Somali tea that’s mixed with sugar and camel’s milk and tastes a lot like Indian chai. The culture here preserves itself by oral traditions. Sitting with a clan elder and listening to his stories can be a one-of-a-kind experience. The Somali region is the easiest place to experience Somali culture, being cheaper than Somaliland and far safer than Somalia.Most Somalis don’t speak English, of course, but I know of at least one Somali tour guide in Harar, Muhammed “Dake” (guleidhr @yahoo.com). He even spent some of his youth herding camels in this region! Harar makes the best base for seeing the Somali region. It’s much cooler and more interesting than the dusty lowland regional capital of Jijiga, and only adds an hour to your trip.

Because the Somalis are unused to tourism, adventure travelers will be free from a lot of the usual hassles like touts and pushy vendors. Expect plenty of attention though, and a large dose of curiosity. This isn’t a bad thing. You’ll get into lots of interesting conversations that will teach you about the local culture. Virtually all foreigners they see are working in NGOs, so expect a lot of questions about your development project.

Ethiopia’s Somali Region offers plenty of natural attractions for adventure travel. There are five regional parks with various types of wildlife. The Somali officials I spoke to recommended Dado Park, which has lion, giraffes, and elephants. I also got to see three families of baboons on the highway between Harar and Jijiga. Another attraction are the Somali Region’s many hot springs. Like hot springs everywhere, they’re reputed to have healing qualities and people come from all around to “take the waters”. The easiest to get to from Harar or Jijiga is in the Erer district near Erer town, not far from the Alilbilal painted cave. The town is 113 km (68 miles) from Harar and the cave and hot springs together would make a good day trip from Harar. The Erer-Gota hot springs are located on the grounds of one of Haile Selassie’s palaces (now gone to ruin) and it’s still popular with people looking for cures of various diseases. Hot springs are popular with herders too, who wrap their lunch up in cloth and stick it in the water to cook it! Reminds me of wrapping potatoes in aluminum foil and sticking it in the coals of a campfire.

Let me stress that while I’ve been through the Somali Region twice now, I haven’t seen many of these attractions myself, only heard about them from Somalis. Hopefully next year I’ll have a chance to explore this region more thoroughly. In the meantime, if you go to the Somali Region, please drop me a line and tell me your experiences. One person already has. A member of the Ethiopia-U.S. Mapping Mission wrote to tell me that he spent a year there in 1967-68 mapping the region. He had lots of fun hunting and exploring, even though he often didn’t bathe for up to two weeks at a time! Veterans of the mission have a website called the Ethiopia-United States Mapping Mission with lots of information and photos. Be sure to check out the “Stories and Memories” section.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Not sure yet. Wherever my travels in the Harar region take me!

Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region

Somali, Somali region, camels, Ethiopia
It’s the dream of every adventure traveler–to explore a region that gets virtually no tourism, to see a culture with little contact with the outside world, to be among the first to visit the sights. It can be a thrill, an amazing rush that gives you valuable insights into a foreign culture and its history.

It can also be a major pain in the ass.

To the east of Harar lies Ethiopia’s Somali Region, a vast lowland spreading out east to Djibouti, Somaliland, and Somalia. Home to only 4.3 million, it’s Ethiopia’s most sparsely populated region, where many Somalis still live a traditional pastoral life.

To visit the Somali Region I hired a driver with a Landcruiser (the transport of choice in Africa) and Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr @yahoo.com) a Harar tour guide who is Somali and lived for many years in the region. “Dake”, as everybody calls him, may be Somali, but he’s lived in Harar and speaks fluent Harari, so he’s accepted as Harari. Nebil Shamshu, who introduced me to a traditional African healer, came along too.

We set out in the early morning, climbing up and over several large hills to the east of Harar and passing through the Valley of Marvels, a beautiful geological wonder of strange rock formations and towering pinnacles that reminds me of some parts of the Arizona wilderness. I ask our driver, Azeze, to stop so I can take pictures but he refuses. “”A few weeks ago bandits stopped a minibus here,” he says. “They killed nine men and kidnapped and raped six women.” Suddenly I don’t feel like taking pictures anymore. While Ethiopia is generally safe (I haven’t had any problems in four months travel all over the country) there are bandits in some parts of the countryside.

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Now this section of the road is quiet. After the attack the army launched a huge manhunt but the bandits slipped away into the rough terrain or disappeared into the local population. Soldiers are everywhere now, so the bandits will have to find another road for their ambushes.

After climbing a last steep hill the road winds down to a dusty plain. I remember this road from my trip to Somaliland last year. Men lead strings of camels along the side of the highway. Low domed structures called aqal somali dot the landscape. Covered with mats and bits of cloth, they look like patchwork quilts. Muhammed Dake perks up, looking around eagerly and singing along to Somali songs on the radio. He also knows the words to every Johnny Cash song. Dake is a man of the world.

Our first stop is Jijiga, a rambling town of low concrete buildings that is the region’s capital. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism is here, conspicuous by the large aqal somali in its front yard. Nearby are the foundations of the new regional museum, to be opened. . .sometime. We’ve come here looking for information about the castle of Ahmed Guray, the Somali conqueror who 500 years ago brought the great Abyssinian Empire to its knees. I’d heard his castle still stands at Chinaksen just north of Jijiga. Dake hadn’t heard of this, and the Ministry had little information about their own region, just one leaflet in nearly incomprehensible English and a promotional video in Amharic that included nothing about the castle. The officials believe it’s at Darbi, close to Chinaksen, so we head there.

The road from Jijiga to Darbi is what’s locally referred to as “improved.” That is, a steamroller has squashed a strip of ground flat and it’s used as a road. It’s not a smooth as asphalt, but it’s far better than some African roads I’ve been on. The only problem is the steady stream of dust blowing through the window and caking our hands and faces. It’s far too hot to close the window, so we just sit and deal with it.

We get to Darbi and find nothing but a village–no castle, no city walls, and nobody who knows what we’re talking about. We head to our original goal of Chinaksen and find the same thing. Confused and frustrated, we sit down to a lunch of spaghetti (eaten in traditional Somali fashion with our hands) while Dake makes a few calls to local officials. After a long wait we meet up with them only to learn that they’ve never heard of a castle here, but there’s a mosque from Guray’s time not far off. We decide to head there and one official insists on being our guide, his eyes lighting up with dollar signs.

I am not at all surprised when he gets us lost within the first fifteen minutes. He soon has us driving across farmers’ fields, insisting it’s the right way. Azeze is about to go on strike, I’m wishing I’d learned some swear words in Somali, and Dake finally gives up on the guy and grabs a local guy to give us directions.

The local, of course, knows exactly where to go and soon we make it to a strange rectangular stone building that doesn’t really look like a mosque at all. There’s no courtyard or minaret like you usually see. Another local farmer comes up to us and a long discussion in Amharic ensues. The farmer gives me a few angry looks and Nebil talks to him in soothing tones. I understand just enough to know that the guy doesn’t want me to go in and Nebil is explaining that since everyone else is Muslim, that there’s no harm in it.

Eventually the farmer relents. We take our shoes off at the nearby wall and hop across sizzling flagstones to enter the cool interior. In the narrow front hall stand long wooden boards used by religious students for memorizing verses of the Koran. They can be found all over the Muslim world. These look old, stained nearly black from generations of handling. Further on we come to the main room, a long rectangular room painted with blue crescent moons and abstract decorations. Everything emanates an air of antiquity, and I wonder if Ahmed Guray himself ever prayed here before going off to battle.

Nebil must be wondering the same thing, because he looks around with wonder and declared that he wants to pray here. The farmer is making more nasty comments and Dake is getting nervous. “No, we need to go now. Sean, stop taking pictures.” We head out and the farmer is almost shouting now. The official flashes his badge and that shuts him up. After a final poisonous look at me, he stalks off.

“What was all that about?” I ask.

“He was saying that he smashes people’s cameras if they try to take pictures in there,” Dake replies.

“Nice.” I say. “I’ve taken pictures in mosques all around the world with no problem.”

Dake merely shrugs. On the way back the official asks me for a tip. I give him 20 birr ($1.20, a day’s wage for many working class jobs).

“Only 20 birr!” he freaks out.

“How many times did he get us lost?” Azeze asks me in English so he can’t understand.

“Exactly! But he helped out by waving his badge. I’ll give him 20 birr for waving a badge,” I reply.

As we head back to Harar I try to look at the trip philosophically. I didn’t find the castle of Ahmed Guray. Maybe it isn’t there. But maybe it is. It could have stood just a kilometer away from where we were, its battlements gleaming in the sun like some Somali Camelot, but the local tourism officials wouldn’t have known a thing about it. I did get some insights into life in the Somali region, however, and there does seem to be potential here that I’ll talk about in my next post. As I shrug off my day as a fairly expensive yet educational failure, a herd of camels passes by, their tan skin turned golden by the setting sun. A little further on we spot three families of baboons crossing the road.

There are things to see in the Somali region, just not what I set out to see.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Ethiopia’s Somali region: a potential adventure travel destination?

Exploring a Somali camel market

Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, is built on an oasis used by nomads since ancient times. It’s been a center for camel and livestock trading for centuries. Hargeisa’s camel market, the Senlaola Hoolaha as it’s called in Somali, is a huge and dusty field a mile from the city center. Most of the day it´s used as playground by schoolchildren, but between 7 and 12 a.m. the scene is taken over by camels, goats, sheep, cows, their respective owners and of course prospective owners.

It´s a tumultuous place. The men are inspecting the animals or standing in groups sharing the latest gossip. The women have occupied a big part of the field for their own business of selling food to hungry traders. Some have traveled for days to sell their goods. The camel herders, who generally travel without any motorized transport, have been traveling for as long as two weeks and from as far away as the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia.

A camel can cost anything from 300 to 1000 dollars depending on its age, strength, and of course the buyer’s ability to haggle. All camels have been marked with the owner’s special sign to avoid any conflicts about ownership.

%Gallery-93036%Not everyone can learn how to recognize a good camel, says Hassan, who has been buying and selling camels and goats at Senlaola Hoolaha for twenty years. He enthusiastically shows me where to check on the camel’s back to know its age and health. You have to know how what to look for or you’ll get cheated, he says. Many camel herders give their camels extra water to make them look fatter than they really are, and only a well-trained eye can spot the difference.

To make sure that your bargaining doesn’t affect anyone else’s deals, an intricate technique of hand signs has been developed. The two businessmen put a shawl over their interlocked hands, and the bids are communicated by touch. The negotiations usually last from five to ten minutes but can take up to half an hour. The system might seem complicated at first glance, but the logic is simple and easy to learn. Every finger has a number. All the numbers from 1 to 9 represented. One, for example, would be described by grabbing the index finger at the tip. In the case bigger numbers are needed a zero can be added by grabbing a bigger part of the finger. One finger can therefore describe 1, 10, 100, 1000. Since both parties know the general price for a goat or a camel the use of zero is limited.

If you’ve ever been to the camel market at Birqash, near Cairo, you’ll probably notice one significant difference. While in Egypt you’ll constantly be followed around by hustlers, in Hargeisa you won´t be offered anything but long gazes of amazement. Here you are the only tourist around and you´ll soon find yourself, not the camels, becoming the main attraction.

(Note: the photos and much of the text in this post are the work of Leo Stolpe, a Swedish photojournalist who joined me on some of my Somaliland adventures. I merely edited the text and added a few things. Unfortunately, the program I’m using doesn’t allow me to put him in the byline. Check out Leo’s website for more great photos from his epic travels in east Africa.)