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Local crosses Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia with camel caravan

April 12, 2019

In mid-February, Calhoun resident Joe Norman was beside his mother at a Rome hospital — a place he had frequently been since she was admitted on Dec. 11 — when he got the call. The person on the other line was extending the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to join a camel caravan crossing the Rub al Khali desert in Saudi Arabia. But with his mother’s health on his mind, he turned them down.

While Norman was on the phone, his mother was listening. So when she heard him turn down the offer, she looked to him and mouthed out the words, “You need to do this.” She could not speak, a hole in her throat prevented as much. But the message from her was clear enough — go.

“I asked her another 20 times to the point I annoyed the hell out of her,” he said, still worried about leaving the side of his mother, who had suffered from pulmonary edema, cardiac arrest, pneumonia and ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome).

Norman called back, and three days later he was on a flight from Atlanta heading for Saudi Arabia.

“I almost didn’t go to Saudi Arabia because of her experience,” he said. “It was a very whirlwind trip.”

A new adventure

Norman — a native of Charlotte — had only recently received word of the Rakayib camel caravan, which was set to become the first international caravan of its kind, at the last minute. A friend of his had shared the link to the application web page with him, thinking it would do him good. His friend had hiked the Pacific Crest Trial with a Saudi Arabian man who had talked about the trek across The Empty Quarter, as it’s known. So he applied, but did not think he would be selected.

Between Norman and his friend, he was the one chosen. And two days after being accepted, he received a short email, requesting a copy of his passport and a photo of him. He found himself wondering if this trip was even real, with the email not displaying the formal language of an invite to a trip of this size. A few quick internet searches led him to conclusion that it very much was real, and he suddenly had to find money for a flight to the Middle East.

With half his ticket paid for by the Camel Club of Saudi Arabia, which is overseen by the king and prince and was organizing the caravan, Norman found him once again flying over Europe, specifically the Balkans, which he had just recently called home.

“It was really cool because when I was flying there we flew over the Balkans, where I was living for the last year abroad. It was cool to flyover where your last adventure was and … know you’re starting a whole new adventure,” he said.

Even though Norman had found himself in Muslim countries before — Bosnia, Morocco and Albania — he was still nervous about the unfamiliarity of Saudi Arabia.

“Going to the middle east is something I think a lot of people have a misconception about,” he said. “You start thinking the worst aspects of it all.”

But soon after being picked up from the airport in the country’s capital Riyadh, Norman saw something absolutely American — fast food, lots of it. Driving through the city he saw Chuck E. Cheese’s, Cheesecake Factory and Church’s Chicken, which actually goes by the name Texas Chicken in Saudi Arabia. It seemed this country knew much more about America than he originally believed, particularly many of the locals he met on the trip had at one time been students in the United States.

After two days in Riyadh, ensuring he had the supplies needed, Norman flew to the town of Wadi ad-Dawasir. From there, he went 15 hours by bus to reach the start of the journey, 20 miles north of the border with Yemen (it was north of any combat zone in the ongoing war between the two nations). And it was there, “in the middle of nowhere,” where Norman began to realize what he had committed to was actually happening.

“That’s when it actually felt like this a legit thing,” he said of looking out into the expanse of the desert and seeing a large tent camp set up. “It made you feel very small and very humbled.”

Finding a camel

There in the camp with Norman were 19 other international participants — from places like Mexico, Russia, Croatia, Germany, New Zealand and Australia — as well as 57 participants from the Saudi Arabian Peninsula. More than two dozen more people made up the support team.

The Bedouin, the camel herders who reside in the desert, were fascinated with foreigners, Norman said, since tourism to the country is virtually nonexistent. He shared a meal with them and the other, eating sheep and rice with his right hand — the left hand in never used for eating since it is the hand used to clean oneself.

On his first morning, Norman awoke to see more than 100 camels off in the distance. This first day was laid back, other than having to select a camel for the journey. He walked the lines of the camels, eventually coming upon an elderly-looking fella. He saddled it up and took it around the valley, seeming to find his match.

On his second ride on the camel, two of the locals had approached him to tell him the camel he’d chosen had a bad attitude. Norman brushed their words off, believing he had made the right choice. However, the next day when he went out, he could not find it.

After talking with the Sudanese men who cared for the camels, Norman was able to find the camel he’d chosen, in the hands of the two men who warned of him of it the day before.

“They wanted the camel so they were trying to do a little trick on me,” he laughed.

Following a talk with the organizers, the camel found its way back to Norman, something it seemed to be grateful for. However, this little bonding moment did not last long.

“The bonding moment lasted for two days and then after that it became a grumpy and ornery camel,” Norman said.

The journey

After two days in camp, the caravan started out on the 375-mile journey, leaving in the morning before the sun reached its burning peak. Over the initial days, the caravan traveled for 15 to 20 miles each day, moving up to 25 miles in the later stages. For three to five days, they would ride, followed by a day of rest. On rest days, Norman would catch up on sleep, wash clothes, eat, journal and play chess, he said.

In the early stage of the trip, the group ran into trouble — a water shortage. It seemed in calculating the water supply, organizers had failed to account for the water used in preparing the MREs, the ready-to-eat meals rationed for the group. Desperation set in, people positioned to take other’s water and some drank camel water, “which came from wells and could irritate people’s stomachs.” However, the situation was corrected, and the caravan moved on.

One of the biggest challenges of the journey was learning how to ride a camel up and down the endless dunes of sand, said Norman, who had some experience in riding camels in Morocco. His experience with horses — he works at Iron Gate Horse Sanctuary in Waleska — helped in the process.

“I loved it,” he said of learning to ride the camels, some of which were retired race camels. “It was definitely a good challenge.”

A support crew followed the caravan, providing generators to aid the media members reporting on the historic journey while also providing charging capabilities for participants’ cellphones. At times, he was not a fan of the support crew, as watching vehicles drive across the natural landscape seemed to disturb the serenity of the trek. But he understood its purpose, as the group was taken through a foreign and hostile environment, he said.

For much of the journey, all to see is the sand and the sun, Norman said. Though at one point, the caravan came upon a well of sulfur water, essentially a contraption of pipes sticking out of the desert floor. It was like a hot spring shower, he explained, refreshing after a day of riding.

During the day, temperatures reached above 100 degrees, but at night the temperature would drop and the air carried a chill, Norman explained. The temperature would also drop during sandstorms, which clouded the sky with sand. He explained the occurrence to being outside during a cloudy day, when you know the sun is there but you can’t see it. The visibility is limited and the line of sight is enclosed, he added.

At night, when out looking at the stars, Norman said the horizon is clouded due to the sand in the air, unlike big sky country in the west, where stars can be seen from the horizon to the Milky Way.

The significance

Part of the significance of this particular trip was that a woman with royal blood rode it all the way through, becoming the first female to do so. Norman said this symbolized the changing social landscape of a country which has been seen on the world’s stage as restrictive to women.

Another aspect was the journey’s promotion of the cultural importance of camels to the region, a major component of the Camel Club’s purpose. Also, having international participants went along with the intent of the country to show its openness to welcoming foreigners.

Of the three Americans in the caravan, Norman was the only one to complete its course. Stephen Bennett, an American artist, had to pull out early from riding due to back troubles, but stayed with the support team to continue his work on a project for the prince. Bennett painted a number of laminated boards, which members of the caravan each personally decorated one apiece, and when piece together, formed the face of the prince.

By the end of the trip, despite coming down with a throat infection, Norman had looked into staying in the Middle East for a wider tour. However, with the health of his mother on his mind and the expense of delaying his flight, he returned to Calhoun.

What’s next

Over the coming weeks, Norman hopes to help his mother return home and then aid them in their transition back to Charlotte, following his stepdad’s retirement in June.

But the next adventure for Norman remains on his mind. There has been talk of sailing around the South Pacific Ocean in traditional boats or riding a camel around the world, but those are just thoughts shared while journeying across the desert on the back of a camel. He’s also looked to complete another thru-hike — he hiked the Appalacian Trail in 2005 and has since completed portions of the International Appalachian Trail in Quebec, Newfoundland, Ireland and Scotland.

“It feels good just to see the world. Some people feel content with staying at home and doing the same thing. Panama City in the summertime, Dollywood for springtime. The same vacations a lot of the time. That’s fine, as long as they are happy and content,” Norman said. “Some people have a natural gypsy, roaming heart, and I guess I have one. There is always a call to go — this desire for new adventures.”

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