The Camel at Ngiouri Well
“My Gutsy Story®” by Ian Mathie
I travelled south from the Bilma oasis, in the empty wastes of the Sahara, with a small Hausa salt trading caravan. We had been going five days when we reached the well at Ngiouri. Situated below a small hillock with a stone cairn on top, the well had not been visited by anyone else for some weeks, and we found it choked with windblown sand. It took us twelve hours digging, passing baskets of sand up a human chain to the surface for disposal, before we were able to get at the water which collected in a small cleft in the bedrock.
By the time we were able to begin watering our camels, I had developed a slight fever, but still had to wait for a drink as the animals are always watered first. The well’s refill time was slow so it took almost half an hour for each of the fifteen camels to drink before any of the humans got a drop. Being an outsider who had joined the caravan for my own convenience, my camel and I had to wait until almost the last.
By the time my turn came the fever had developed, and I was confused and fumbling on the verge of delirium. When my camel had drunk the first of its intended two buckets of water, something spooked it and it shied away, wandering off into the darkness before I could get a firm grip on its lead rope. Everyone else was too preoccupied with making their own food and settling down for a good night’s sleep to notice. It was eighteen hours after arrival that I finally got a drink myself, having been without water since the previous morning when out original supply ran out.
When dawn came there was no sign of my camel, and the rest of the caravan was preparing to move on. Their party included old people who were in need of medical attention, and could not afford to delay. Hamidi, the caravan master, came to speak to me, saying they could not afford to delay. I would have to remain at the well until my camel came back, while the rest of them went on.
“Will it come back?” I asked.
“Oh, certainly,” he assured me. “A camel can only go nine days without drinking if it has had a full stomach. Yours had only had one bucket. It will be back before that as there is no other water within range. Camels can smell water from many miles away.” He said the pause would give me time to recover from the fever.
Hamidi also assured me that if anyone else found my camel they would bring it here. A white man travelling alone with a camel does not go unnoticed. I and my camel had aroused plenty of discussion at Bilma. Another caravan was due to follow this route four or five days behind us, so if all else failed I could continue my journey with them.
“Just be patient,” he said as he left me, and by noon the caravan had moved on and disappeared over the southern horizon.
Once I was on my own, I moved my camel saddle and baggage panniers onto the rising ground of the cairn topped hillock. Using a pair of four foot long poles, carried for the purpose, and a cotton sheet, I rigged an awning to provide shade, attaching the back to the saddle and weighting the corners with small stones collected from the desert around me. The shade was welcome in the rising heat, and the slightly elevated position enabled me to see some miles back down the route along which the next caravan from Bilma should come. It had the disadvantage of exposing me to the incessant grit-laden wind.
Late that afternoon as I dozed, I heard a familiar gurgling noise. I sat upright, expecting to see the second caravan arriving, but the shimmering desert was empty. When the sound came again, I scrambled from my shelter and looked around. Still there was nothing to see. It was only when I staggered further up the mound, and could look down the other side, that I saw the source of the sound.
A large bull camel was couched, its left foreleg bound with rope to stop it rising. When it saw me, it let out another gurgling bellow. It was completely alone and there was no sign of anyone camped nearby. I wondered where its owner was and how long it had been there. Had it been there before the caravan left? I had seen nobody else at the well, which was in full view of my awning.
It was quite possible the camel had been there for several days, and it had clearly not had a drink in that time. I lurched back to my awning, pulled out my canvas bucket and a half filled water skin, and dragged these over to where it sat. Its head came down immediately as I poured water into the bucket, and in seconds it had sucked this dry. I refilled it twice and as I pulled the bucked clear, the camel shook its head vigorously, its lips flapping and spraying frothy saliva in an ark which glistened in the bright sunlight.
Still not fully recovered from the fever, I lurched back to my shelter and lay down to rest. I awoke in the cool of predawn, feeling thirsty. My water skin was all bit empty, so I took it down to the well to refill it.
The wind, which never stops in this part of the desert, had deposited a generous pile of sand in the well, and it took me all morning to dig this out before I could get at the water. Even then it took the cleft a long time to refill each time I had taken a couple of bows full and decanted it into my water skin. The water was brackish, tasting very like Epsom Salts and I knew not to drink too much in one go or the results could be uncomfortable. It was almost dark by the time I dragged my full water skin out of the well, so I returned to my shelter, ate a few dates and rested.
For two more days I rested and waited. Each evening, when I climbed the hillock to look, the bull camel was still there, waiting patiently. It gurgled when it saw me, but made no effort to rise. After two days, feeling better myself, I gave it another drink.
On my seventh day at the well, the camel’s owner turned up, with two other camels and a small flock of scrawny goats. He watered his animals, thanked me for giving water to the bull and gave me a gourd of fresh goat’s milk. Then he bid me a safe journey and in minutes he and all his animals had disappeared over the horizon.
I sat, alone, through the heat of the day. Just before sunset my own camel came back. She sucked greedily at the first bucket of water I offered, and then, on a whim, I pulled the bucket aside and refused to give her more. I tucked the lead rope into her head collar and let her go. After a moment’s hesitation, she turned and ambled off into the desert as before.
Five days later there was still no sign of the second caravan from Bilma and I was beginning to wonder if I had made a very foolish mistake. As the sun kissed the western horizon, I heard a familiar gurgle. My camel had returned.
This time I watered her well and did not let her go.
Ian Mathie – Bio
Born in Scotland and taken to Africa aged three, Ian Mathie grew up in the bush. After short service as a pilot in the RAF, he returned to West Africa as a rural development officer. Well adapted to living in the bush, Ian worked with isolated societies, sharing their hardships and understanding cultures from the inside.
Following political changes, he returned to the UK and retrained as an industrial psychologist. Since then he has designed and run award winning personnel development programmes in UK, Europe and Africa.
Now restricted from travelling by a medical condition, he lives in south Warwickshire with his wife and dog, and writes books, mainly about Africa.
- Please check out Ian’s Website
- You can Ian’s books on Amazon here.
- The UK Amazon link is here.
- Also on Goodreads and Facebook.
- Not on Twitter.
SONIA MARSH SAYS: This is an unique “gutsy” story Ian. I think had I been in your place, I would not have let my camel wonder off. I know you have learned many life lessons from all your years in various parts of Africa. I truly enjoyed reading your first book, “Bride Price.”
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