This section is from the "The New Student's Reference Work Volume 5: How And Why Stories" by Elinor Atkinson.
It is a wonderful thing to see a camel caravan start from a town on the edge of the desert. There are hundreds of animals in a great yard, tons of goods in bales, dozens of drivers and passengers, and a swarm of dogs. The owner of the caravan is a white-robed and turbaned Arab chief. He looks over every animal carefully. There are slenderly built racing dromedaries, or one-humped camels, with hair so fine that it is used for making artist's paint brushes and dress goods. And there are stout, short-legged, two-humped freight camels as shaggy as bears. Indeed, there are as many breeds of camels as there are of horses. The fleetest of foot can travel a hundred miles a day, the slowest only twenty-five.
The first thing the owner looks at is the hump. No camel is taken with the caravan unless its hump is big and solid. The hump is the camel's pantry shelf full of fat, to be drawn upon when food is scarce. Next, the feet are looked over to see that there are no stones between the toes, and no thorns or bruises in the soft footpads. Just before starting the animals are given all the water they can drink. A camel can drink enough water to last him three days. His second stomach is a honey-comb of little tanks for storing water.
The passengers, the chief, and the women and children of his family mount the dromedaries. Half a ton or more of goods, the leather water bottles, oil jugs, tents, sleeping rugs, bags of dates and beans to feed the animals, and the baby camels in their hammocks, are loaded on the stout, two-humped camels. The drivers and herders walk, and the dogs tail in at the end of a mile-long procession. At the front rides the chief and his sons, or helpers. They carry guns, for there are robber bands on the desert—regular train-robbers who "hold up" rich caravans, and steal goods and train also.
The start is made very early in the cool of the morning, while the stars are still shining. There is no roadway or trail. The sand shifts and drifts like loose snow before every wind, filling up tracks as fast as they are made. A camel caravan travels as does a ship at sea. It is guided by the sun and the stars, and by certain hills, rocky gullies and dreadful heaps of bleached bones.
In the hottest hours of the day there is a rest for men and animals ; at night a long rest. Tents are put up and the animals are unloaded. A camp is set up under date palms beside a well. Every foot of hundreds of camels is examined. A torn or bruised pad is cleaned, dressed with healing salve and tied up in rags. The animals are hobbled by strapping one hind foot up to the knee, so they cannot stray.
For food, after a day's travel, a camel is given a small measure of hard, sugarless dates or dry beans. Besides, he crops leafless twigs, thistles and thorny shrubs. Camels will eat anything. They will chew their own leather bridles, or tent cloth. One witty writer has said that a camel can make a breakfast from a Sunday newspaper and an old umbrella. He can go without water for three days.
Day after day a camel caravan travels in this way, covering hundreds of miles, and touching at lonely green islands of oases. Sometimes a great wind storm sweeps over the desert, hiding the sun and filling the air with a blinding, stinging rain of sand. Down the animals drop, under their loads. They stretch their necks out straight, shut their eyes, close their nostrils to the narrowest slits, and lie still. The people turn their robes over their heads and huddle in the shelter of the loaded humps. Above the roar of the wind and the hissing and pelting of sand and pebbles, can be heard the low moaning and hard breathing of the camels. They seem to suffer. Yet, when the storm is over, they rise and rock on as before, across the burning waste.
Although the Bactrian or two-humped freight camel is a native of the high, cold plains of Central Asia and North China, he thrives and works just as well in the heat and drought of the desert. In his old home he is a draft animal, too. He carries burdens over snow-covered plains and even mountains. He sleeps out of doors on the snow in gales of icy wind. He eats, not only hard, bitter plants, but fish, bones and tough skins. He can go for a week without water, and when no other is to be found, can drink the salt, bitter waters of dead seas. On the desert he can carry heavier burdens and endure greater hardships than the one-humped dromedary, although he is burdened with an arctic coat of wool and hair. He is the ox of the earth's waste places, as the dromedary is the riding horse.
At night, when a caravan is in camp, the little children of the chief drink cups of the camel's thick, cheesy milk mixed with water. On the chief's table is camel flesh, as juicy and tender as beef. The herders wear robes and turbans of brown, camel's hair cloth. The master sleeps under a camel's hair tent. Without this ugly, stupid, useful beast, the hot deserts of the Old World would lie unpeopled and unknown. The camel knows nothing of his value and cares less. Like the desert itself, he submits to be used, but remains wild. Sullen and forbidding, he holds his master a stranger.
There is just one thing for which the camel has a softer feeling. The mother camel shows affection for her baby. After the day's march she has him all to herself. She nurses him, she nuzzles him with her sensitive hare-lip. He cuddles up to her for warmth. After the terrible heat of the day the night on the desert is often cold. But it is very still and clear. She can feast her eyes on her baby, for the dark, blue-velvet dome of the sky is hung all over with little golden lamps of stars. See Camel, with illustrations, Vol. I, page 313.