Last weekend I traveled to Maralal, Kenya to participate in the 2010 Maralal Camel Derby. That’s right – I entered a camel race.  If I could have imagined it, it definitely would have been on the life checklist.  What an incredibly unique and adventure-filled weekend!

The Road to Maralal…

is not really paved with anything at all.

Friday was the road trip that just wouldn’t quit.  Our group of 25 left Nairobi at 11am, stopped for a nice local lunch a few hours outside of Nairobi and made it to the “halfway” point, Nyahururu, by 4:00.  Now this was when our driver told us that we couldn’t stop again until we arrived – bandits frequently roam the area.

Our bus trekked on as we left the lush, green Rift Vally for the arid Samburu desert.  Several hours later we stopped to ask for directions and headed off down a rather rocky dirt path – concerning, but I brushed it off.  On and on we went.  After thoroughly catching up on six months of American gossip thanks to multiple back editions of People and US Weekly imported from the States, I was starting to wonder why this trip was beginning to feel like a journey into a black hole.  What I didn’t know at the time was that we took  a “shortcut” through the bush in an attempt to make it to camp before dark.

Just…. bad idea.

An African shortcut in the middle of the desert means you are bush-whacking on two tracks, avoiding mud pits and crossing streams all while driving very very slowly.  We managed to accomplish all of that while watching the sun go down and the stars (amazing stars!) come out.  So much for making it before dark.  Twice we disembarked (remember the bandits?) to give the bus a higher chance of crossing whatever obstacle blocking our path.

That was about when I figured I shouldn’t rule out the possibility of sleeping outside with the animals (or in the back of this unfortunate truck stuck in out path).

Made it through the mud and kept driving and driving and driving and driving until we were met by three men with AK47s – our armed escort – had arrived.  I’m still not convinced they would have been able to do anything if anyone with more guns decided they wanted to rob our clown car, so it was only slightly comforting knowing they were trailing us for the next two hours until, 12 hours from start time, we finally arrived in Maralal, which is a lot like a ghost town I once visited in Nevada.

Stayed at a nice little joint called La Shang-Ri-La Inn, self-titled the heart of Maralal. By nice I mean there was hot water.

Its Camel Time

Arrived at the Yare Camel Club and registered for the amateur camel race, ie. The Mzungu race.  All the locals we waiting around outside and it became very obvious that we were going to be the entertainment for the day – if not the whole year.  (The staring was similar to the phenomenon that occurs when I go into the slums in Nairobi, magnified by 10.)

I picked out my camel and tried to bond but he was really more interested in sitting and hissing.  Decided to leave him be.  Tried to discuss race strategy with my camel handler but he didn’t really speak English.  “Wing it” strategy?  Check.

My camel, handler and I getting ready for the ride.

The hilarious part was definitely the starting line.  Up until this point I had been putting a lot of faith in the fact that I wouldn’t fall off because the camel would only be able to run as fast as the handler in from of him.  WRONG.  Instead, when the flag went up my handler (and everyone elses) drops the rope, takes his stick and gives the camel a giant whack on the butt, sending him into full gallop and the racers into a chorus of screaming and hysterical nervous laughter.  Did I mention this was a 10k race?  That’s 6.2 miles of bouncing (almost) uncontrollably on the back of my dromedary camel.

Ready... set... go!

I kind of figured out how to jockey, but riding a camel for almost and hour at full gallop is seriously exhausting!

All in all, we did reasonably well, though!  Sixth place finish and I did not fall off, get thrown off or come in last  🙂

Crossing the finish line!

The rest of the day was filled with more camel races, including the infamous tri-camel-thon (that’s right, run – bike – camel!), and a cultural festival featuring the Samburu and Turkana tribes.  This was actually my first time to spend a chunk of time “upcountry” in a rural setting.  The outfits they were wearing are what many of the men and women still wear every day.  Their culture and traditions have remained very much intact.  It was really like stepping back in time, and then realizing that people do still live, and in their own ways, thrive, in similar settings every day around the world.

Samburu woman in traditional clothing. (The missing front tooth is an important part of the culture. I have been told it is pulled out so that even on the deathbed milk can be poured into the mouth so that one never dies on an empty stomach.)

Turkana women dancing.

The day was over too quickly before we have to make the long trek back to Nairobi (which fortunately was four hours shorted thanks to better route choice and tarmac roads).  All it all it was quite an unforgettable weekend!