And then..

My blogs touch myriad subjects and reach out to an equally varied audience. If you enjoy haikus, see Urban Asterisk, if travel is your thing, see 'Chicago Diaries' and 'Walking latitude 46 North'. If you are looking for short stories about everything, follow my master blog 'Xistinchaos'.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Core expedition equipment

In this piece, I’ll be listing the core equipment we took along, with its pros – cons and my observations. Some of this equipment is specific to our kind of expedition and is in part generic for all expeditions.

  • Ultra light day sack – I had taken along my a Deuter 33L sack. I could have done with a smaller capacity sack, but I noticed that when I packed in less items in mine, there was no significant weight difference between my sack and smaller backpacks carried my some of my team mates. This pack accommodated my 2L hydration pack in a special pouch of the sack, my camera + spare batteries, wet wipes, a small medicine box, rain wear, scarf, hydration salt sachets, a water bottle and a small bag of snacks. With all this in it, there was space left over. It is a good size and comfortable backpack. There is a well designed wind mesh on the surface where the sack hugs the back and loops at helpful points along the straps. A small pocket at the bottom holds the rain cover.  An opening at the top allows the hydration pack hose to travel out of the sack and can be curled appropriately to be placed on hand. The sack’s main compartment can be divided into two via a zip-able partition –this is a handy arrangement. It holds well to your body, with the adjustable strap height, and waist strap. If you want to go for a smaller backpack, just make sure it has all these features.
  • Water bladder /hydration pack – This is the inventor’s gift to outdoors persons. The quintessential item that every person who enjoys being outdoors, in the wilderness, for extended periods of time has. I use a pack that opens up entirely from the top, it has a flap with a stopper. This makes it easier to clean and dry. Also, in our conditions, I think it was good that mine has a cover on the mouthpiece. It kept the dirt and dust out.
  • Expedition backpack/ big duffle bag – I was carrying a Quechua 65L back pack. It is essentially a travel back pack and suited my purpose well. It had sturdy straps which were useful in holding the sack in place on the camel’s back with ropes. The straps ends can be moved to suit your height.  The main compartment was divided via a detachable partition which was hard but flexible enough to take in all the pokes and angles of things moving inside. Also, this compartment is accessible from the top, if you keep the sack upright, or from the front if you have it lying down with the back straps next to the ground. I find this to be a great feature. The same pack double up as a sack as well as a duffle back, with partition. And the fact that it was all closed up with zippers makes it very easy to lock up for travel. It does not have strings that bunch up or snap locking fasteners. The top flap is further covered by a top compartment with elastic strings on the very top to hold a bulky item.
  • Walking poles – It you are the type who likes to swing their arms as they walk, the poles might not be for you. Besides giving you rhythm, the poles act as support to take away some weight from your knees and give you a push ahead. They need getting used to though and you have to set a pace where your steps match the pole placement and arm position. Practice thoroughly before use. Use ones which have a grip contuoured to be held for long and also has loops to rest your hand from time to time. All that gripping day after day can be tiring.
  • Spade – To dig holes in the ground for poo! J Handy for other circumstances as well, like digging yourself out of a snowed in tent, or a sanded in tent!
  • Document wallet -  a very handy addition to your kit list..since you want to keep all your documents in one place. This is applicable when you feel the need to rummage through your sack everyday to fish out something and loose papers just get in the way. I used one and kept it neatly folded in an inner pocket of my expedition backpack. Everything stayed intact till the very end.
  • Compass / G.P.S – if you are keen on plotting your own course take one along. A compass is better, and it’ll help improve your plotting skills. A GPS needs batteries every few days so keep this in mind while choosing. I had both a compass, that I used occasionally and a GPS watch that gave out as soon after the solar rechargeable batteries refused to work as expected.
  • MP3, Ipod -  Extremely useful to keep your mind occupied with songs, audio books. Lauren, one of my Australian team members listened to a lot of audio books and talks of her selections here.
  • Camera -  with it comes cables, batteries, and memory cards – all of them can add to the weight so be sure you want to lug along that DSLR. Charging camera batteries and keeping it clean are the biggest challenges. Make sure you have a cleaning kit too.
  • Solar panels and battery – I saw two varieties on my expedition. The hard panel kind and the soft foldable panel kind.  Both are good depending on where you are placing the panels. I used the hard kind that were sponsored for us and we placed the solar panels on the camel back and the batteries in their saddle bags. What often went wrong was that the cable connecting the two became undone with even a slightly jerky movement and that meant the battery did not charge. Faraz tried putting the panel on his backpack and the battery in it. That stayed connected because he was careful. But make sure you buy something with a firmer connection for sure. The soft paneled one was used by Yihui and it came with an array of connectors to get a decide to charge right from the panel or charge the supplied battery. The surface area of her panel was more and thus ensured effective charging. Also since the panel was soft, it adjusted to the camels movement well. I would vote for the soft panel ones.
  • Net book, laptop, PDA – carry these if you must, because like the camera, they come with cables/batteries and other paraphernalia. We had some in the team carrying the Macbook Air and Peter carrying only his iPhone. Each to his won I guess. Charging becomes a major hurdle, right after keeping the device clean and dust free.
  • Water bottle – besides the hydration pack an water bottle serves to contain your hydration mix to replenish salts and such. You can attach it to your sack’s straps so that it is within handy reach. This can be the PBA free plastic varierty or a metallic one with a glove. Though I took a plastic one along, I'd reccomend the metal one with glove. It comes with a handy lid, attached to the bottle so there is not fear of losing it. The glove keeps the water warm/cold, as required for sometime.
  • Head torch (rechargeable batteries) – Keeping aside the issue of power to charge the batteries, the head torch keeps your hands free for chores when you want to operate in the dark. You can buy torches with adjustable beam power, saves you battery charge. The basic torch has this feature and some even come with focus enablers—giving you a wide or narrow beam. I think you can safetly stick with the basic. In our case the sun was up until almost 10 pm, so the torch requirement was minimal.
  • Small trek towel/Napkin – I vote for cotton ones, not too rough though. These are cheap, quick to dry, absorbs a lot and are very dispensable. I took along 4/5, ended up using only 2.
  • Sleeping bag   - I for one prefer sleeping On the bag, than in it. The ones with a mummy shape constrict movement. Maybe that is a fine fit for polar regions. You can look for sleeping bags meant for specific temperatures so that they don’t end up being a burden. Wherever it is, I doubt I can sleep well in a bag. I prefer a mat and my own light rug to cover myself.
  • Sleeping mat – When you have a floor full of lichen clumps, bumpy rocks pebbles and uneven contours, a sleeping mat is very handy. We used the kind that was inflated when in use and rolled up into a handy bun when not. It is very light too. Besides evening our your bed, it serves as an insulator—prevents heat or cold from the ground to reach the body. Usually these mats are made of tough material and small thorns or rough stones did not puncture it in anyway. You can also take a carry mat along, it is very light but adds volume.
  • Tent – Bases your decision of a tent on how many people will share one, what area you are visiting and what weight can you carry. If you are heading for extremely windy areas, make sure you by a low tent which you need to crawl into and has extremely flexible, but sturdy poles. If you are visiting an area which, along with being windy, is hot, use a layered tent. You can remove the top covering and expose the mesh to let air in. If it rains too, the cover will be good protection. I saw Agii use such a tent and it was better than any of ours. We had one with a separable sleeping area with some space for luggage. By the end of the expedition, the poles were bent beyond repair. The pegs to fasten the tent to the ground also have to be of a quality with address the area you are pitching it in—light aluminum ones for soft soil, iron ones for hard ground. The tent material also has to be tough enough to bear tugs and jerks due to the wind or sand deposition. Make sure the tent has wind pockets on top for some ventilation and that they are placed such that cross ventilation occurs. Else be prepared for a sticky night ahead.

As usual, comments and questions are welcome.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Choosing an expedition - some guidelines

After I was back from the Gobi, I had one of my closest friends come over to meet me. He is a veteran of high altitude expeditions, an A grader from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. If there was anyone I'd always listened to it was him. I was all excited about what I had just completed and was already moving on to my next. We got talking about long duration expeditions in general and I asked him about typical expeditions - the planning, leading, logistics, support. On popular request, captured below are snippets from our conversation. 

Hear about people leaving managers and not the company? Well, don't be surprised if it is the same for expeditions. Besides choosing an expedition, it is choosing who is leading it. Here are some guideline that my friend suggested to follow when you come down to the final choice between a couple of expeditions you like. Before you pick one, apply these criteria and choose wisely.

If the expedition leader considers team safety paramount, then by the time the expedition is underway, all the team members should have been through a briefing of possible scenarios they will be a part of, the safety response to those and demonstration of first aid procedures specific to the terrain they are travelling through. It cannot be left to the leader alone to manage the crisis. What if s/he is the affected party? A safety plan looks great on paper with phone numbers of people and standby services, hospitals, doctors—but none of these are within range of immediate help. The team HAS to have an idea of ‘what to do if’ kind of procedures. And demonstrating a mock up of these in the very environment has the maximum impact.

This can only happen if the team is being led by someone who has the experience to lead a team in the first place and who has the vision to foresee the difficulties that the team might encounter. Over ambitions statements have a tendency to fall flat on its face at the first sight of a malady. This, apart from being a sign of immaturity, also shows that safety is being taken very lightly by the leadership.

Promises made and expectations set before the expedition begins, have to be adhered to under all circumstances. If not, they have to be accompanied by plausible explanations and alternatives. This is the second most important action item for the expedition organizer.

The third most important the team leader can do during the expedition is continually show the team the bigger picture and encourage them. Every individual can make daily goals for themselves and try to achieve those. The idea of how these daily goals put together will look as a whole has to come from the person in charge. Not only is this motivating, because there is a sense of purpose, a journey to the goal, but the enormity of everyone’s individual achievement is understood.

A lot of people who claim to lead expeditions often are victims of their own insecurities and web of lies built up to maintain a certain reputation. They cannot defend the claims they have made when questioned and fall prey to prejudices, play favorites and love sycophants. This damages their reputation in the eyes of the team and the world at large. Then come the lies to protect previous lies, or telling opposite things to different parties to confuse them.  Eventually, the team realizes the leader’s worth and shows him/her their place. The team, through an individual with stronger will power or each member by themselves, begins to manage the expedition, takes decisions and decides the general strategy. One such expedition he knows about is the story of exactly this—the end of the team’s patience to bear with amateur planning, lies and false expectation setting. The team managed to enjoy their time with the natives and take in other sights, managed themselves and their wellbeing better and worked together to get to the end. All because they took things into their own hands from incapable hands.

Great and true expeditions steer clear of claims to ‘exploration’ of certain areas of the world and working for sustainability or being carbon neutral. If they do indeed make the claims, there is indisputable evidence to support it. There are now very few areas on the land mass that remain to be explored in the true sense. It is downright fancy to call oneself explorer, and then claim to ‘explore’ areas which are less popular just be virtue of seeing no or very little tourist activity or not being written about much. Using jet fuel to get to the locations, having gas guzzling support vehicles escort you as you go cannot make an expedition carbon neutral. My friend tells me that the world is filled with expeditions making fancy claims of “studying” the complex indigenous ecosystems, of cultural immersion, of low carbon footprint and responsible tourism. Another very popular expedition aim that goes unsubstantiated by far is to bridge the cultural divides between the natives and the exploring team. He feels that documenting the indigenous lives is another such frivolous and loosely worded aim, besides the now beaten-to-death topic of climate change and how we can learn to be responsible about it. Only if one of the expeditions that claims to have these among its raison d'etre, can prove it, it’ll be such a relief to the adventure community. If you see any of these claims being made for an expedition, make sure there is irrefutable evidence to back it up, else just have the expedition for the sake of the adventure. Nothing wrong with that. Read my friend, Al Humphreys' blog about his golden rules and you'll know what I mean.

One thing my friend swears by is to always plan ahead. Always, always. A true leader does not let day to day setbacks distract him from looking ahead. Nor does he ignore the small matters to not account for them in the larger scheme of things. A happy team is the one which knows exactly what they are doing, how they are doing, what is to be expected and what to do during the unexpected. Constant and universal communication, a point whose importance cannot be overstressed, is key— as much before the expedition as during. A poor leader reacts on the go and an even poorer one depends on others to take charge and sort out a solution. 

Not being in synch about decisions with the support staff and the team can prove costly in terms of loss of trust and harm the well being of some team members. Plan, visualize, communicate, improvise and repeat the cycle. Such leadership can be expected from individuals who have led team expeditions, have marked leadership traits or have been in decision making roles in their professional lives. It can hardly be expected of someone who, for instance, may have studied human sciences or has very briefly been a part of the armed forces. It is one thing altogether to take survival, or first aid courses and something else entirely to lead an expedition successfully. My friend has met several people who by virtue of being in rescue, emergency medicine, or bring a life guard think that they are prepared to lead. Such folks are highly mistaken. These courses teach those particular skills maybe, but not decision making or leadership. 

He further advises that, always check out who is leading your expedition by researching all you can about the person. If you find that the web is littered with pages after pages of varied claims about the same person, stir amply clear. If people have pasted vastly varied facts about themselves and equally assorted expedition statistics, it is time to ditch them. And finally, if records of past achievements suddenly go missing, you know what you need to do.

There, of course, will be other criteria as well, but these are the crucial few.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The kit list and equipment I - Clothing

There have been a lot of requests to share the kit list and the equipment that we carried, individually and as a team. I am detailing it all out, by category, with observations, pros/cons. Hope it will be of help to future adventurers to any desert region and if you have any questions, leave a comment. Though this is an exhaustive list meant only for warm climate treks/expeditions, but it cannot claim to cover all requirements. 

Clothing: Considering the duration of the trek, 2 months in our case, we could have been easily tempted to carry more of this. More so since washing opportunities were next to nil. But thankfully for our camels, we did not. I laid down simple math-  a change of inner wear every 15 days, a change of outer wear every 30 days.
The second thing we had to account for was the weather - both warm and cold, with occasional showers. Layering your clothing is always a good idea instead of wearing one bulky item. If you need to be weight sensitive, always keep more of the inners over the outers. 

So my clothing list finally looked like this:
  • ·         Lightweight trousers - 3 - I carried two Adidas track pants and 1 cotton trouser, both worked fine to beat the heat as well as the cold. These types are tough and withstand rough use.
  • ·         Cotton shirts / kurtees- 3 - These were all full sleeved and made of cotton. My experience with Kurtees was great, they are a good substitute for shirts. I would not recommend a salwar-kurta combo because firstly, the kurta is longer and can hamper your stride and second while using the salwar, your thighs tend to rub raw within hours. Avoid these. I also purchased a Northface all weather ultra shirt with a SPF of 30. It has great wind vents on the sides and handy pocket near the hip.
  • ·         Underwear - 5 pairs – go for cotton, always. You can go for thicker weave if you prefer, over thinner/less dense material.
  • ·         Light sweatshirt/fleece jacket – 2 –this is type that is light on weight and bulk, yet good with keeping you snug.
  • ·         Lightweight wool socks - 2 pairs, not the very thick ones, they cramp our feet all day long. Or just use them in the night.
  • ·         Cotton socks - 4 pairs – cotton so that they keep your feet dry. These tend to bunch up sometime, and as soon as they do, either wash or discard.
  • ·         Rain protection – 1- nothing that will flail, or be dragged with the wind. Bring something light, that clings to the body and has a hood.
  • ·         Bandana/scarf – 2/3 – can be used for keeping unruly hair in check, covering the neck and ears if your hat is not big enough, to wipe sweat and tie things up. Even if you don’t use one, take a couple along, they can be used in a lot of ways.
  • ·         Beanie – 1 – merino wool will be great and light too!
  • ·         Wide brimmed hat – 1 – with a fastening band that goes around your chin. Running after the hat in the desert wind is tiresome business.
  • ·         Woolen neck gaiter – 1 – I did not carry this personally, but will come in handy in a lot of ways. It can cover your neck, warm your hands, and even your ears.
  • ·         Buff – this is one versatile piece of clothing at my team mate Carrie gifted me. It can be used in several different ways and can be a beanie, gaiter, tube top, hair band, ear protection..all in one. Must have, carry several.
In my next, I'll elaborate about baggage to contain your personal effects and equipment.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Tri - color flies high in the desert..

A flag can come to your rescue in unknown ways.

The team had walked ahead that day, with the van following us later after picking up supplies. By 4.30 pm, there was no sign of the van. We found a good pasture for the camels and set up camp. The much touted satellite phone was not in the van, as the leader claimed. So all we could to was wait for the van to turn up and spot us.
A little later, we saw it at last, heading in our general direction, but not particularly towards us. Due to the desert heat, visibility is limited to not more than 2 km over a flat landscape. Out came the tent pole and the flag. I hoisted it high and waved madly to get the van's attention. Needless to say, it worked and we were sipping hot tea soon afterwards.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A leap of imagination

For those of you who have been reading the previous post about the daily twists and turns in the Gobi, take a minute to read a narrative of what I had imagined it would be like here. Some interesting comparisons.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A day in the life this desert nomad…

The rainbow spans the entire horizon ahead of me, to the east. The rain has just abated, though it continues to threaten in the form of dark clouds further north. As I sit at the table, munching biscuits lathered with apricot jam and my book for company, the loneliness and the enormity of the plains I am walking on is brought home to me. There is no one to share the rainbow at the moment; it does not matter. Some things are best enjoyed with self, good food and memories of those I love. And yes, good music, that is missing. Nevermind. Far away to the north, I can see the rain pelting down on the plain and the mountains that rise from it. The wind is beginning to pick up as the sun played hide and seek behind the clouds. It might reach us in the night, maybe not. I am learning to live with the unpredictability, live in the moment. It is time to make a dash back to the tent, keep my book away, and fetch the beanie. Soon we will have dinner.

The walking for the day had halted at 4.30 pm. The first half of the day had been very sunny and hot. Reaching the van at lunch had taken a good discussion with Sim about life in Singapore/India, a dash of pep talk to self, a lot of shooting from the camera and some expletives to complete. The idea of seeing the van, a small dot on the horizon at times, and a mirage at others seemed to motivate and anticipation of lunch was indeed a good push in the right direction. Funny how the thought of lovingly cooked food helps me overcome any lows at all times. I’d imagine my Aai had called up a little earlier, saying that she was making pohe, my favouritest snack of all times and inviting me to partake of it. Coming Aai, I’d say, I’ll be there in less than 4 hours. Make sure it’s ready and piping hot for me to eat straight away. Alright, she’d respond, come quick. And my feet would obey. The van became of symbol not of a free ride into camp, or a means of rescue, but it was a symbol of sustenance. I almost always walked into camp expecting to see Aai, standing hand on hips ready to scold me for being late and then proceeding to serve hot pohe. And she was almost always there in the form of Janka, the cook. Where there is a van, there is sustenance. 

By this time, typically, we would be 22-25 kilometers down.
The lunch boxes were handed out to all of us. Chris’s lunch had double helpings and we would share what we had left with Faraz. Both of them, fastest walkers, always ahead of the pack, and therefore their need for additional carbs. Peter would be done quickly with his and move to reapplication of suntan lotion. Sim would always help pack up once she was done, sorting the boxes and the tea mugs. Lauren, Flo, Chris and Faraz would go after grazing camels with Albekh to tie them up in groups. I’d some of everything, refolding the camp chairs was my favourite chore. The support staff would also have wrapped up their lunch by this time and Wontok would be busy reloading the van. Sucheta would be putting on her shoes and helping around. Almost all of us refilled our hydration packs with the elixir of life. There were some who claimed to survive on one litre of water a day, but then they met their downfall in suffering from acute constipation.

Agii would help decide where we would camp at by the end of that day. This was always determined by where we would find grazing for the camels. If we had to make camp late one day and early the next, it was only because we had met grazing ground at that point in the walk and that time in the day. A few times, the availability of a water source nearby played an important role in where we stopped. The water source was usually a public well, or a stream of melted snow when we were in the mountains. The van would go and fetch it for us—4 drums full with a capacity of 20 litres each. If the grazing was spread across a bigger area, we would do close to 12 or 15 kilometers post lunch.
The van would drive off after lunch, making sporadic stops along the way and make camp earlier than us. Janka would get the fire going on her portable stove, complete with chimney. The fuel would be dried camel dung from the plain around. If there was no dung, she’d settle for thorns and bramble from the spiky bushes. She used this stove to heat water mostly, for our thermos, for washing plates & mugs and for cooking. For our eager eyes, the blue kitchen tent fluttering in the distance signaled camp. And for me, sustenance. Sometimes the tent would appear too soon. Our hopes would be dashed for it always turned out to be a mirage. With time, we learnt not to believe everything we saw. Or believe everything we heard from people who had claimed to have passed this way before.

The first thing we did after walking into camp was not removing our shoes or throwing away our back packs. The camels had to be unburdened and set to graze. Much was dependant on their cooperation the next day and we had bore the brunt of their distress several times now. The ropes came off, the pack bags we pushed over for the fastest unloading ever. No sooner had we done this, than the camel got up and moved forward to join its friends among the bushes. Albekh usually secured them all with a rope to their foreleg, so that a gallop would be impossible.

The table would be set up with a neat row of camp chairs on either side. A batch of fresh flour biscuits would be frying in the tent, their smell carried over to our noses by the wind. It was so tempting to just go sit at the table, but there were other things to take care of first. Getting the tent up was the next item on the to-do list. As soon as I managed to retrieve my luggage, we’d choose a relatively flatter patch, remove any big stones and unpack the tent. The wind would pick up right around this time, in keeping with Murphy’s law and almost blow us away, tent and all. Just keeping the tent steady would be a challenge. Sim then taught us how we could anchor one side and secure the other with the poles. Soon, we’d have the tent up in no time. There is much to be learnt from this tough girl, the veteran of an Everest climb and a privilege to know.

In went the luggage and belongings, time for a good wet wipe-ing session to get rid of the grime. In the middle of this all, Agii’s voice would carry over-“Tea/Coffee”. A mad scramble to get things sorted, undress, dress for the night, arrange things and make for the table would follow. For those who slept under the open sky, it was simply a matter of getting up and walking to the table. Peter would already be there, downing cups of hot tea. We’d all dig in to the jams, biscuits, chocolates or washing it down with tea or coffee.
I make my way back to the tent, keep my book and come out well wrapped to beat the rising chill. During this short time, the rainbow has disappeared and the sun has come out in full strength towards the west. The wind is still blowing but is no longer strong enough to blow clouds our way. Looks like it’ll be a rain free night, better for those of us who sleep in the open. The setting is made for a magnificent sunset, one of many I have seen so far in this fabulous country. It is close to 7 pm and the light will be around almost till 10 pm. On days that I have slept outside, I’ve always faced the setting sun. It is a great view to look at as my eyes close and sleep takes over. I can imagine my friends and folks in India looking at the same view and thinking of me.
There is sometime between tea and dinner and most of us use it to write journals, taking care of our feet, or logging on the web via the B’GAN. Besides these, I also prefer to walk around, shoot a video of the campsite, and sort my photos.

Dinner is called around 8.00 and those of us, who are not already at the table, make our painful way there. It is pasta today, with cabbage, onion, capsicum and tomatoes. The pieces of dry meat floating in the soup add variety to the taste. People are livelier now, than they were at tea and stories are shared. The expected briefing for the following days never comes and never did.
By the time it is 9.00, we are feeling the weight of the day and our eyes start looking in the distance. It is time to get cozy in the sleeping bag, read a page of two on the iPhone/Kindle or enjoy a last minute coffee.  Sleep is quick to come and I believe not even an earthquake would rouse us. 

The new day will dawn as early at 4 am, but I won’t have to be up until 6. The glow of the Nite watch will tell me when it is time and I hate it already. Right after I am sitting up, the mat will need to be deflated and the sleeping back tucked in for the day. The change of night dress into walking gear is necessary before I exit the tent. Brushing teeth is next on the agenda, will be followed by dismantling tent, and arranging the luggage for loading. Then it’ll come to my favorite part, you guessed, breakfast. Janka thinks up the most delightful and nutritious items to get us going. And she’s sharp too- plates start coming to the table at 7 am, no later. A quick coffee follows. It is now time to fill up the water for the day, apply sunscreen and get the camels for loading. Loading takes about 20-25 minutes depending on how much cooperation we get and by the time it is 8, we are ready to take on a new day.

New day. Endless possibilities.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Our ships of the desert

Besides the homo sapiens on our team, we each had an animal counterpart in one double humped Bactrian camel. Like the humans though, they came with colorful and varied personalities and abilities. 

It was the first time for all of us at handling camels. Agii, Albekh, Janka and Wantok were the only folks who had lived and breathed camels all their lives.

On the eve of day one, we met them all from a distance. At the camp by the lakeside they were lined up and roped to a common line. There was even a calf running around in the camp. As far as I know, our team was all males so the calf was probably only a temporary attraction. It was strange to see the small one gallop around and imagine him as a big fully grown camel one day. They really are huge. The family which owned the camels had come to say hello and see which crazy people would now own their livestock.

Faraz was encouraged by the townsfolk who had gathered to greet us to climb and ride a camel. He tried unsuccessfully to get on one thrice. Much to the amusement of everyone, especially the kids, he was thrown off each time.

The next day, we had time before we left since the camel ownership papers were some time in coming from the town of Bulgan nearby.  The day dawned at 4.40 am so it was bright and sunny by the time all of us made rounds of the camels. There was one which was whiter than the others; that was Shadow. Another had a blue ribbon tied around its neck. He soon came to be called Blue B**tard due to his habit of kicking and spitting. But he is turning out to be the strongest of them all. Lauren choose hers—Bumblebee—a mild mannered and golden haired specimen. There was one whose twin humps were sharp and triangular, (No, I don’t mean to describe anything else other than camel humps :P) and he was appropriately named ‘Toblerone’. There were several more that remained nameless.

I did not choose Oliver right away. I was prepared to change the name to Olivia, should my pet turn out to be a she. But I was saved the trouble. I thought I’d watch all the camels in action, while grazing and on the line eventually choosing Oliver.

Our first lesson in “cameletiquetts” was to make it sit and stand. “Chhugh” is what you need to say with some amount of force while pulling the rope downwards to get the camel to sit. When the camels are young, a wooden peg is passed through their nasal cartilage, just above the nostrils to secure a rope. The Mongolian camels are not really used to a halter or a bridle. One side of the peg is a thicker, preventing it from slipping out and on the other the rope is tied with special knots. To prevent the knot from slipping, the camel handlers push a cork or a plastic bottle cap up the peg. So the camels permanently have a rope attached to their pegs and this is the one we pulled on.

If you wished to have him get up and follow you, all you need to do is hold the rope and start walking in the front. The camel will get up and follow, unless he wants to cause trouble or protest.

There are several ways to handle the camel depending on what you want to make him do. All Mongolian camels are usually used to being, mounted and loaded from the left side. They get nervous if you approach from the right side. I noticed that if I walked along their right side, they would all move away from me and bunch up, requiring the person who was leading them to sort them out. If a van, motorcycle passed nearby, they would act the same way irrespective of the side. But this was more due to the noise of the vehicles than the side they were approaching from.

We always needed to approach a camel from the front and then head to his left if we wanted to lead him, untie him, tie him or rope him to the line. They also like being nuzzled along the length of their necks, again from the left.

A loose camel will always run on further, if chased from behind. A trick we learnt effectively from Albekh was to run away from the camel first, convincing him that he is not being chased and then circle back to approach him from the front. If you are in front, the camel will not usually challenge you and run towards you. He might shake his head to prevent you from catching hold of his rope, but the running effectively stops.

As days passed, we moved quite a distance away from the habitats the camels were used to and also they began missing their usual grazing grounds. When this happened, they started getting nervous day after day. This nervousness manifested itself in team members receiving some kicks. A lots of spitting, grunting, and moaning began happening around loading time every day.  On some days a camel sat down bang in the middle of nowhere and had to be coaxed to get going once more, causing some delays. In such situations, Agii and his team were always at hand, helping and guiding. If the load was not properly balanced, the camels would stamp their feet, refuse to move ahead or grunt a lot.

Like most cattle, the camels regurgitate their fodder and keep chewing on it. This habit gives their thick lips and green/yellow ting and their phlegm also takes the colour. Though being spit at seemed disgusting at first, I realized that the green slim dries and falls off your clothes and the phlegm leaves no odour whatsoever.

With camels, you have to be agile and very watchful. They can pull themselves loose in the wink of an eye and run on till they are dead, which can be several days. If you are riding them, they can act weird and be upset by the slightest of things like you trying to adjust your perch. If a fellow camel is acting mad, stomping his feet or kicking wildly in the air, you need to quickly isolate them from each other so that they all don’t react and do likewise. To help this, camels are not tied to each other or to the holding line with a tight knot. Their knots have to be of the type that cause the rope to be completely free in one pull. Only this way can you isolate them or lead them quickly away should trouble arise.

It is the same principle with the loading. The camels already have a thick furry blanket on their back, anchored to their humps so that it does not slip off. Over this, we used to put a canvas loading bag with two big pockets on both sides, and a bridge between. They also had flaps to cover the luggage that went inside. Once everything was placed on both sides, making sure the loads were equal, the flaps were closed and the bag was closed by securing the nylon tabs sewn on the bags to each other. After that came the rope that had been passed under the camel’s belly. First the bags were lifted, the ends of the rope was passed to the other side and pulled well to make sure the bag on either side did not hand too much. Then the rope was passed under the bag and looped at the top. Once more it was pulled up to prevent the bags from sagging and then a knot was formed on top with a loop, a figure of eight or any of the climbing knots was never to be used.  Through fragile to look at, the knot stayed the whole day without slipping. This whole procedure though hard during loading, was a breeze when unloading. We just had to loosen the ropes, untie it completely, hoist the bag from the camel’s bag and lo, the animal was free to get up and graze.

Most of the camels we had were fairly behaved with occasional spitting and grunting. BB spitted the most but is a strong contender to last till the end of the expedition.  Towards day 25, a lot of them started groaning like a human would, with loud, distinct and clearly protesting noises rising from their throat. One of them moaned every time he was loaded, mounted or unloaded. Though there is much respect, the Mongolians have no attachment to their camels or pet dogs for that matter, more than necessary. They don’t give them names or pet them often. I have seen Ger owners throw stones at their own dogs to prevent them from charging at strangers (us!), if the scolding has no effect. And I think the pets don’t expect any fondness either, they are usually collarless, wild, stinky and flea ridden.

About 4-5 camels have already been sold to people along our way since they 
had grown weak or had a drop foot.

Which bring me to how I chose Oliver. Well, he was the one leading the pack at all times and was ridden by Albekh. We never loaded him until much later in the expedition, when some of the camels could not carry much loads. First out of camp and first into the next camp.

I think he looked handsome in the neck decorations I had taken along and separated him from the rest. I'll miss you when we cut you loose, Olly!