#TravelTuesday: Cattle, Crude, Cotton and…Camels…?

by Doug Baum on June 9, 2020 in Living Texas, Travel,
Bob Grutzmacher e1591369183132

When folks think of Texas, camels may not immediately come to mind. Yet, the one- and two-humped animals do, in fact, have a place in Lone Star lore.

My business, Texas Camel Corps, has been keeping this bit of hidden history alive for over two decades in the form of overnight and multi-day camel treks. On private land in the Big Bend region (of late on Cibolo Creek Ranch) we guide small groups of three to eight guests across the very landscape traversed by the US Army Camel Experiment .

The Texas Camel Corps caravan crosses an earthen dam designed to hold back water for livestock, a reminder of the ranching heritage over the past hundred and twenty years in West Texas. Photo Doug Baum

You’ll be forgiven if you’re not familiar with this quirky story from the past, but on the trail you’ll learn of Texas camel tales that include such 19th century notables as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, both of whom participated in this attempt to introduce camels as pack animals for the U.S. Army prior to the coming of the railroad. These treks also broadly focus on the flora and fauna of the region (thanks to knowledge I’ve gained from growing up in West Texas), dispelling myths about camels being mean and nasty, the role camels play around the world, as well as the various cultures who have called this slice of the Chihuahuan desert home for over 10,000 years.

Camels are perfectly at home in the desert and mountains of West Texas. In the 19th century, the U.S. Army utilized camels as pack animals in this very region. Photo Chris LeBlanc

These days, you’ll find four or five camels on the trail, a small, easily manageable string that winds its way along ranch roads, through creek beds, and across the rugged terrain that seems forbidding to many. The camels, though, take it all in stride. Literally. Guests enjoy seeing the landscape from atop their mounts, covering roughly ten miles on day one, with subsequent days making slightly fewer miles. (A formula landed on in 1998 when our earliest guests actually suggested fewer hours in the saddle.)

Shadows cast by the camels are timeless. There’s nothing in the shadow to indicate whether this is 2020 or 2,000 years ago. Photo Doug Baum

Guests now get their “sea legs” on these ships of the desert in hour-and-a-half to two-hour doses. They can dismount and hike at any time if they choose, as we trek from our gathering point on the ranch to a pre-positioned camp, passing Native American historical sites and points of interest related to the ranching history and unique geology of the region.

Guest Judith Hotek of Grand Prairie, Texas reaches from her camel to get close to Richard the camel on the trail. Photo Doug Baum

Once in camp, group members are invited to rest in their tents or in the shade of nearby trees, take a hike, or spend time bonding with their camels. “I had no idea camels were so affectionate,” many guests have told me over the years. Other folks marvel at the individual personalities among our caravan. Time spent with our camels, whether riding, brushing before and after saddling and loading gear, or simply in communion in camp is time well spent and consistently ranks among the highlights for our guests.

The sun’s rays filter though smoke from a campfire during a recent trek; camels browse on the trees close by. Camp is set up ahead of time so when guests arrive after the first day on the trail (relative) comfort awaits them. Photo Doug Baum

Another thing I learned years ago was to feed folks well. To that end, our dinner offerings include, not surprisingly, Southwestern stylings, as well as Middle Eastern, North African and Indian dishes. While lunch might be a Middle Eastern mezze (pita with a variety of dips like hummus, zaatar, olive oil, tuna and red onion and fuul aka fava beans) complete with dates, all spread out on a Berber carpet or Bedouin rug along the trail, breakfasts take on a decidedly Texan twist…tacos!

Fish tacos, beans and rice. It’s what’s for dinner (sometimes) on Big Bend Camel Treks. Photo Doug Baum

All dietary needs are easily met and over the years we’ve happily accommodated vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, and halal requirements. After dinner we enjoy time around the campfire, star gazing, telling stories, further getting to know one another, and, of course, checking on the camels, generally found knelt down, ruminating and resting for the next day’s ride.

Camel prints left on the trail will be gone after the next strong wind. The padded foot of the camel doesn’t scar the landscape at all, helping to conserve fragile desert ecosystems. Photo Doug Baum

Following breakfast on our return day, guests are encouraged to help brush, saddle and load the camels, then they’re back up in the saddle for the short ride back to our starting point. Because of the distances in West Texas, guests typically stay in Cibolo’s luxurious accommodations the night before and the night after their trek, easily arranged with us at the time of booking. Long after dismounting and going home we hope our guests think fondly of their trek and how camels continue to work to assure their place in Texas history.

Texas Camel Corps has a few seats still available for treks in September 2020 dates.
Spring 2021 dates will be released in November.

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Cover photo Bob Grutzmacher

Doug Baum is a tour leader and camel trek guide in Texas, India, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Kenya, an award-winning filmmaker, and published historian.