Dear Smitty

Our authors write Smitty, our travel editor, about their journeys

Our Travel Editor, Smitty
Although British by birth like his namesake James Smithson, Smitty is a gadabout who is at home anywhere from a palace to a rain forest. He sends our writers and photographers around the planet—he'd much rather be sending himself, of course, but someone has to stay home and mind the store. Still, Smitty likes to be kept abreast of what's going on in far-flung places, and so our authors write him letters about their journeys.

Dear Smitty:
Have you ever considered owning a camel? Or maybe giving one as a Christmas present?

Actually, since they're herd animals, you'd need to get, or give, more than one—let's say half a dozen at least. What handy and independent pets they'd make, and what a stately addition to the garden. They are quiet and need no maintenance. They'd trim lawns and prune trees. And there has never been a better time to buy them. Elsewhere in the world, they may be considered the possessions of royalty, but Australians are literally giving their dromedaries away. Here, you can take a "humpy" home for only $160, or better still, catch your own for free. The Aussies would love for you to take as many as you can. They have about 400,000 in stock.

If I sound like a used-car salesman, it is because in Australia the dromedaries are indeed vintage all-terrain vehicles, the original Landcruisers. Before cars and trucks, camels were often the only way to travel in the outback. A camel can take you up a steep sand dune like no other four-wheel drive, dropping down to its front knees (engaging the low-range, as it were), pushing up with its hind legs, climbing steadily no matter how soft the sand. Camels fuel themselves and don't break down or have flat tires. At times, they may be a little temperamental under the hood, but the only real problem is that they don't have much in the way of steering or brakes. A few days into my three-week trek, a lead camel named Bliss decided she'd had enough of me (see my story for all the details). "If a camel doesn't want you on its hump, you're not going to stay there. That's why there are no camel rodeos," says cameleer Neil Waters.

The incident was all the more surprising because I had ridden this camel several times before, and earlier that day she and I seemed to be the best of friends. I led the entire train, and when you do that, the beasts effectively accept you as the dominant camel and follow in a graceful line. You stop, they stop. You turn, they turn. There is a sense of flow and wordless understanding. The lead rope was almost redundant as Bliss kept up a good pace. A friendship with a camel was obviously as shifting as the desert sand. After a month with the humpies, I still cannot say that I got to know them well. They are complex animals, with intelligence and personalities few people give them credit for.

On reflection, you may want to settle for something cuddlier, less independent and more agreeable, like an Angora rabbit or a chinchilla. Because, you see, camels don't really spit or bite or kick in all directions. Not really. Most of the time they are placid, lovable, gentle and affectionate creatures. Unless, of course, you upset them. And did I mention that they get easily upset?

Derek Grzelewski

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