Monday, August 10, 2009

How far would you walk for a camel?

Apparently this has become a weekly blog. I reckon that’s alright, as it’s probably better to blog weekly than to blog weakly.

Ouch. Sorry you had to be there for that.

Anyway, this week found yours truly once again on my way to Khor Ambado beach. The aim of the trip was a bit more complex this time then mere enjoyment of sun, sand and swimming. There is a small group of folks here on Camp Lemonnier who will be undertaking a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in the not too distant future. Because the ascent has to take place within the 96 hours of the liberty granted to all of us temporary sojourners here at the Camp, the climb will be a bit more rigorous than it might otherwise be. A method for achieving the optimal conditioning of both prospective climbers, (and their brand new hiking boots) was arrived at by the last group of Lemonnier stalwarts to attempt the heights of Kilimanjaro. What could be a better way of conditioning then hiking 5 kilometers of truly inhospitable country under the baleful glare of the Djiboutian August sun? And what better incentive than a refreshing plunge into the welcoming waters of the Gulf of Tajoura at the end.

The plan of course involves two parties – the walkers and the drivers. Although in truth I was intrigued by the idea of the trek, I was selected – no doubt for my skill in the use of the vehicle climate controls – to be among the latter. This is why the small company of trekkers were growing smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror as the car bounced and jounced along the “road” to Khor Ambado (sounds like a Hope and Crosby movie) shortly before midday this past Sunday. All were of course amply laden with water, smeared with sun block, armed with GPS and cell phone – and some with new hiking boots. Still, I felt like one of the less savory characters in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, as I scanned the skies overhead to see if any vultures were circling expectantly.

The plan was for the drivers party to secure a spot at the beach, while the hiker party negotiated the path on foot, with the expectation of a dip in the ocean, an icy coolerful of water, soda and Gatorade and a sandwich as recompense for the ordeal. The suggestion that one might instead just follow in the SUV having been roundly pooh-poohed, with a few misgivings I gingerly threaded the vehicle past the rocks and ditches which composed the majority of the trail, and glancing once more in the rear view mirror saw that the walking figures had dropped out of sight. The drive is sufficiently challenging that in truth I was unable to spare another thought for the perspiring perambulators until the car was parked in the shade of the trees lining the marge of the beach. This is the parking area not merely for the northern end of the beach but also for one of the restaurants that sit along the shore.

I should say that, were you to arrive with a more western idea of “restaurant” in mind, you might be mystified as to where among the collapsing cement walls, windowless cinder block constructions and apparently haphazard collections of wooden planks and plywood the path to the restaurant might be found. It is only with acclimatization you realize that this is the restaurant.

As I stepped onto the sand, a figure detached itself from a small family group of figures who had been splashing and playing in the water at the beach edge. Squinting in the intense light of the noonday sun, I saw it was a shirtless Djiboutian man of middle age who strode toward me, smiled and indicated in French the vacant beach cabana that our party should occupy. The proprietor, of course. I indicated that we’d be waiting for friends, and out of curiosity asked if they were serving food and drink today (remember – there is no external evidence that there is a restaurant anywhere around, except for the hand drawn sign averring it). “Mais bien sûr”, he replied, smiling broadly. Thus it was that when the intrepid walking party toiled up, a bit sweaty but otherwise no worse for wear, I was leafing through the menu and sipping ice cold water. In fact, driving had only beaten walking by about 30 minutes – a testament both to the dreadful road, and the good time made by those who elected to travel via “Shank’s mare”. Reunited, waters and Gatorades were drunk, swimming and bobbing were accomplished, and half of us ordered lunch (the other half choosing the sandwiches we had brought along).

Despite the unpromising surroundings, lunch was quite nice. Baguettes, of course, and I had a sort of Nicoise salad, some beef brochettes and banana beignets. The breeze was onshore, and while this made snorkeling unrewarding as visibility was reduced to neglible, it made the shaded area beneath the awning quite cool. Lunch, looking over the Gulf to the faintly visible highlands above Tadjoura and Obock, cooled by the sea breeze, was as pleasant a meal as I have eaten here on the Horn. After a couple hours of lounging we packed up and prepared to head out. That’s when we had our, um, encounter.

As we packed the last of the beach accoutrements in the SUV, I spotted a couple of camels about 50 feet away. “Hmmm,” thinks I, “I’ll try to get a picture”. In my experience, camels are pretty stand-offish, so I carefully aimed my little Fuji at the beast and…click. Then she wandered closer. “Oh good”, I murmur, “This’ll be even better”. Click. Then it occurs to me that the camel is still moving closer. Quickly. And soon after that it occurs to me that camels are big. Now, I defy you to look in those big brown eyes and not imagine that a gentle soul lies behind them, but camels do have a bit of a reputation for spitting and biting…so I was hesitating between wildlife encounter and hiding in the car, when with a final burst the camels made the decision for me. As the sequence of pictures above shows, we spent a brief amount of quality time together and, while I suspect my dromedary companions of designs on my hat, in the event we got on famously until one of the boys who’d been playing in the surf earlier shooed the beasts away as one might chase a pesky rabbit out of one’s vegetable patch.

Strapped once again in the car, we rattled our way back to the paved road and then home to the comfortable, but completely camel free confines of Camp Lemonnier. It occurs to me that the camels wanted nothing other than to be fed, or perhaps some water. They are remarkable beasts up close, and at least in this case were quite as gentle as their placid gaze and long lashes suggested. Maybe next time we'll bring along camel treats...or maybe not.

Not much else of note. We watched "The Godfather" on Saturday's Wardroom movie night, and my friend Jeff and I picked up some pizzas from a nearby pizza place to lend a bit of Sicilian atmosphere to the event. The movie, despite having become a cultural cliche, is still a great cinema experience. I must admit to feeling just the slightest catch in my throat at the scenes of village life in Sicily, where we lived for 3 very happy years when Jack was a toddler.

Doubt I'll choke up when I see Djibouti on the big screen in the future...but it's been an interesting time so far.

1 comment:

  1. This is my first visit to your blog and I will return to read your words again soon. I thank you for the work you are doing!