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T. E. Lawrence, Notes on Camel Journeys

Arab Bulletin No 111, 24 May 1919, p. p 71-2.

I have been several times lately asked for figures of camel-journeys, both for speed and for endurance, and no doubt therefore the following notes on the subject will be of interest. In all cases she-camels only are concerned.

For speed, the best performance I know was the 39 hours' ride of Sherif Barakat ibn Smeiyah, from Medina to Mecca, by the Rabegh road a few years ago. It was a race, and camels were changed at Rabegh, 154 miles from Medina. The total distance works out at about 280 miles, and it was covered practically without a stop, except for a few minutes at Rabegh. The average speed was thus over seven miles per hour. A race of this sort is a test of the man's endurance, rather than that of the camel. Another equally fine ride was that of Aissa, a Harb tribesman, who came from Zilfi in Qasim to Yenbo in three days, and returned to Zilfi in four more, making a total of seven days for the round trip of 900 miles, an average of 130 miles a day. Aissa used four camels.

Rides on single camels are more interesting as records. One of the Atram family of Fitenna Abu Tayi Howeitat, on a home-bred pedigree camel, rode between sunset and sunset from Nebk abu Gasr to Bair and Jefer, a distance of 143 miles. He rested in Jefer one day and returned on the third day to Nebk on the same camel. I owned this camel some years later, and found by experience that it would keep up a comfortable and steady trot of seven and a half miles per hour for hour after hour without special urging: but I never had need to do a trotting journey of greater length than from Rum to Akaba (39 miles) on it. It did this in a little under five hours, carrying a good deal of kit besides myself. Mesnid, a Sherari, took a message from Jefer to Akaba for me. He left Jefer at noon, and returned with the reply two days later at noon, doing 220 miles, and his errand also, in the 48 hours. He rode a Sherari four-year-old.

The fast time for a camel-postman from Medina to Mecca is three days. This is an average of about 95 miles a day.

With one servant I rode from Azrak through Jefer, Shedia, and Rum to Akaba (290 miles) in three days and a half. This is an average of about 84 miles a day. We rode Beni Sakhr camels.

One of the Harith Sherifs of Modhig rode from Akaba to Mecca in nine days. The total distance is about 690 miles, which gives him an average of 77 miles a day. He rode a Sherari camel, and the trip is one of the finest I have heard of.

Exceptional performances of this sort cannot be expected of the ordinary camel in ordinary condition. When riding ghazzu with the Howeitat or Beni Sakhr I found that for long journeys camels were never permitted to trot, since it interrupts the chances of grazing on the march. They do a steady walk of nearly four miles an hour, and keep this up for from sixteen to twenty hours daily, giving them an average mileage of from 64 to 80 miles. The smaller of these distances can be counted on as an average for perhaps ten or twelve days. For a month's riding day by day, it would be unwise to expect more than 50 miles a day from a camel in good condition. Weak camels cannot be expected to do more than about 40 miles a day average. With strong camels my experience has been that the man gives in sooner than the camel. My longest month was 1,400 miles, and I found it very difficult. A bad or inexperienced rider will wear out a camel very quickly. Arabs mostly ride light, about eight or nine stone, and their clothes and kit are usually less than we can do with. I carried little, and yet managed to use twice as many camels as my men.

For a disciplined camel corps, forty miles a day is a fair march, and that this average was passed for three days on end by Colonel Buxton's column of ICC when going north from Bair speaks very well for the riders and the animals. The latter (and indeed the former) were all male, were all unaccustomed to desert conditions, and were carrying heavy loads. A column marching in the Arab formation of small independent groups of ten or twelve will make better way than a column that tries to keep in regular line. An Arab party of 20 men (my servants) marched once with all their kit from Abu el Lissan to Akaba (60 miles) in just over five hours, as the last stage of a journey of five 50-mile marches. The camels were all fit to start the next day. Needless to say they were all pushing their camels on this last occasion. A stripped camel, racing, will do something like twenty miles an hour for nearly two hours. For a short burst I have timed them trotting at 22 and cantering at 26 miles per hour.

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