The last time I was in contact with a camel I was precariously perched on one in the middle of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, braving the crest of a dune during a violent sandstorm. I don’t remember much about the Gobi (the part I rode across had few distinguishing features), but the acrid smell of the creature has stayed with me to this day.
A good month after I’d patted the Bactrian goodbye (and had received a bite from the ungrateful beast in return) I would be sat on the Moscow metro, squeezed in by babushkas and minor members of the mafia, when a change in the direction of the wind would send a stink surging towards my face. A sock, perhaps, had evaded the bleach, or a shoelace had entangled a single camel hair. No amount of scrubbing would evict the smell, and it was not until I had disposed of every single item of clothing I was carrying that the stench finally lost its vital force and gradually began to fade.
So it was with equal parts excitement and dismay that I sidled up to the Junaibiya Camel Farm. Home to 450 camels and a sheikh, the farm is to all intents and purposes a palace. High orange walls shield the camera-shy camels from prying eyes, the entrance is guarded by a somnolent security guard, and a sign screams, ‘Stop! Private Property!’ as you attempt to enter. Which is admittedly somewhat confusing, as the camel farm is widely recognised as being on a par with the Tree of Life in terms of Bahrain tourist attractions, and is open to the public from sunrise to sunset.
Camels, it must be said, smell the same the world over. Their most brilliant survival asset is also their greatest social misfortune. By retaining every single possible drop of water, allowing them to roam the desert for days without drinking, the moisture that does get released through sweat and urine is so pungent it practically knocks the enemy dead before the creature is even sighted. Not that they have many enemies, that is. Few creatures (apart from the odd Australian) go out of their way to nibble on meat that smells this strong. Karpal Singh’s sense of smell has presumably grown immune to the stench. Having been the foreman of the farm for more than 33 years, it is Singh’s job to ensure the camels’ comfort, and he excitedly shows me around the vast area that is home to Bahrain’s biggest gathering of camels.
To get to the calves (the star attraction) we must first negotiate a field of tethered males. As we pass, a sea of loose-lipped faces rear up and stare at us with an occasional groan. ‘Is this safe?’ I whisper. Karpal Singh, rotund and fearless, is unimpressed. ‘Camel is no danger,’ he says sternly. ‘Camel is friend.’ At which point a seven-foot male lunges towards us, falling short, hobbled by the chains around his legs.
Despite being called a farm, the camels here are not for eating. Sheikh Mohammed set up the farm to preserve the presence of the camel in Bahrain which, before the advent of the motor vehicle was the Bahraini’s foremost mode of transport. Indeed, the Arabian Peninsula has a huge cultural connection with the camel, and for the Bedouins of the past, the camel was revered as a sacred symbol of life amid the inhospitable desert.
Karpal unlocks the gate of the calf pen, where the stench of dung is mixed with swarms of flies to create a sordid-looking breeding harem. ‘There,’ he points, ‘that one yesterday.’ The calf is still wet with placenta, its back legs weighed down by the massive head of its mother. For a moment it looks like a pterodactyl: a small croak and a honk, and I’m Walking with Dinosaurs.
‘Stroke it,’ Kerpal commands. Terrorised by the memory of trying to catch a signet as a child only to be viciously pecked by its mother, I reach out my hand and tap it gently on its wet nose. It bleats affectionately and head-butts its mother in an attempt to escape from the huge head which imprisons it.
Another female, who until now has been scraping the bottom of an empty water trough, is alerted to the presence of a stranger and swings its neck over to bears its stalagmite-like teeth. Overpowered by its breath, we beat a hasty retreat, assured that, in Bahrain at any rate, the extinction of the Arabian camel is not going to happen any time soon.
The Camel Farm, on Junaibiya Highway, is open all day every day to members of the public. Camel rides around the farm can be arranged, and there is the occasional sale of camel milk for those who fancy a taste. For more information, call Karpal Singh on 39 808 574