One of the first questions I’m often asked when some finds out about Ezra Adventures, these Chocolate Fish Tales or my documentation work in the Middle East is “what is the craziest thing you’ve done there?”. Of my top 3, the camel races in Jordan is one of my favorites, at least of ones I can share publicly. The reason being, like all good stories, what I was expecting was not what happened.
I was leading a family of 6 with 4 school-age children on a 3-week excursion through Israel and Jordan. While in the vast red sand expanse of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan with our Jordanian guide, we stayed in a Bedouin-style “glamping” site, in the middle of nowhere with all comfortable amenities. It had been a long hot day of exploring the ancient wonder of Petra and were ready to eat. The moment we walked into the dining tent, the intoxicating aromas told us it was time to recline at this low set table and settle in for a desert feast. Having worked with this guide before, he knew our Ezra style of travel- local, wholeheartedly experiential, and unique. This was a good spot.
After the boast-worthy meal, the family got settled on colorfully rugged cushions by the campfire where the freshly brewed tea had been waiting in the glowing coals. As the tea was being poured, my guide discreetly motioned me to the side with a compelling grin. “I know we have a 4x4 desert tour and camel caravan ride planned for tomorrow, but I may have another option that might interest you.” Intrigued by his baited comment, he had my full attention. “Tomorrow morning there are camel races nearby. This only happens a few times a year. As a Jordanian, I have only seen them on TV, never in person. If you like to see them, I can arrange the 4x4 driver to pick us up early and we can go there first. What do you think?” He had me at “camel races”. I didn’t care when, where, or how, or what we had to change on our schedule- “Yes, we need to do that.” I emphatically replied, faster than a camel can spit. I could already feel my boyish delight arising in me, wondering what exactly we were getting into. “Ok, no problem, I will arrange it” my guide replied with a chuckle and a playful slap on my back.
7:30am could not come fast enough. Our 4x4 driver arrived in an old 90s Toyota pickup truck, dented and weathered, but fully capable. Benches with worn foam cushions were built into the bed of the truck with a canopy frame fashioned from old pipes that could provide sunshade from the intense afternoon sun when needed. This was our open-air 4x4 for the morning. “Let’s quickly get in…” my guide said as he kindly gestured us towards the back of the truck while he climbed into the front seat with the Bedouin driver. Soon we were off into the morning desert sun with a dusty cloud behind us.
3 minutes later from the back of the pickup, I could see on the horizon what appeared to be a horse racing track beside a large open yet empty grandstand that could seat 1000s with an enclosed press box at the top. Yet, it was in the middle of nowhere. No parking lot, no main road or entrance, or no attractive landscaping. Just a big track in the middle of the desert. We weren’t even driving on a road. As we got closer to the grandstands, I assumed that was our destination and place to sit while we watched the races. However, we didn’t slow down and continued driving around the back portion, seemingly looking for someone. We soon pulled up to what looked like the “pit crew” section where racing teams gathered to prepare before their race.
Different colorful flags from Bedouin tribes staked out their specific areas. Serious looking Bedouin men focused on their jobs. Young camels wearing decorative hand-woven regalia, numbers spray painted on their sides and nibbling on grain. And curiously strange mechanical boxes with long leather straps and some type of wheel on the side lay on the ground beside them. This was unmistakably a testosterone-driven atmosphere with lots of boys and their toys. From my western expectations and novice knowledge of horse racing, there was one thing that was noticeably absent- the riders.
Before we could decipher all of this, our driver started yelling excitedly in Arabic and pointing to the far end of the track where there was a cloud of dust. “Everyone ok?” our guide yelled out the window to us, not listening for an answer. “Good, hold on to something!”. It was good advice, as we quickly sped off on our off-road mission thru the desert towards the large commotion at the far end of the track. As we got closer, we realized that the back of this beat up desert 4x4 Toyota WAS the grandstand. We were actually chasing the racing action outside of the track, as we pushed to keep up with the racing camels inside the 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) oval track fencing. The problem was that so were about 40 other 4x4s. Doing about 45-50 mph (70-75kmh) on the back of the truck, tearing through the desert, we were literally pursuing into a cloud of camel and vehicle desert dust. It was a surreal setting, like an apocalyptic chase scene out of the movie “Mad Max”.
Just about the time we caught up with pandemonium, the camels had turned the final corner and crossed the finish line, to the honks and cheers from the men in the trucks in front of us. While still trying to figure out what was going on, our Bedouin driver turned around our 4x4 to get us into a better position for the next round, this time in front of the pack of camels and drivers. Regardless of feeling completely clueless in this foreign world, this was simply an exhilarating rush. Lucky for us, another heat was about to start.
As we got ourselves ready and set about 100 meters ahead of the action, different race teams were getting their desert steeds in position. Camels were lining up side by side behind the starting gate that looked like a large volleyball net stretched across the track. From the back of our desert pick up truck, that now doubled as our front row exclusive box seats, I could piece together what we had seen in the pit crew area and what was about to happen. No camel jockeys were riding the animals. Strapped to each camel’s back, was that strange mechanical box with a small wheel on the side that now contained some type of jockey’s whip. Those off-road trucks that we were chasing 10 mins before, weren’t just spectators, those were “jockeys” and camel crews.
Each camel had a designated 4x4 with their training crew of at least 3 men that would race alongside the camel pack on the outside of the track. 1 man was the driver. The passenger held an old-style remote controller in his hands that controlled the mechanical whip box thing on their camel’s back and God knows what else. The last guy was the designated yeller, who held on in the back of the truck bed or hanging out the backseat window, yelling at their camel or the guys in the front seats or just yelling for fun. And that’s not counting any actual spectators packed onto the back of other trucks. All of this was ongoing where there weren’t roads and at speeds of at least 65 km/h, the average speed of a camel. Yet these were not average camel speeds but ones bred for racing. This was serious business with big prizes at stake, including the rumor of a new Toyota 4x4 truck.
“POW!” The starting gun jolted us all, including the camels. The volleyball net starting gate immediately dropped to the ground, the thundering of pounding hooves erupted and the crazy fun train began with a tangible fury. At this point, I almost died and went to insane adventure heaven with the amount of gleeful adrenaline that started pounding in my heart.
The camels charged off down the track, the engines of the chase vehicles roared to life and yelling and cheering began. Initially, the drivers had quite a challenge maneuvering their trucks in the starting traffic chaos just to keep up with their camels who were now galloping forward, being incessantly whipped by the small remote-controlled box on their backs. To add an extra element of distraction to this particular race, everyone had now noticed our wide-eyed white faces holding on in the back of the lead Toyota truck, camera phones in hand, trying to take it all in.
There was so much to absorb. A dry warm desert wind, the inescapable feeling of dust, and hanging on through the off-road bumps in the back of an abused pick up truck. A giggling family, a faint yet odd combo of camel and diesel smells, and high pitched shrieks of excited Jordanian men acting like fanatical schoolboys. All of this while driving 4x4s around a camel track in a reddish tan and desolate landscape that was stunning enough to have been movie sets for “The Martian” and a recent Star Wars film. The exhilaration was palpable. Even now, these descriptions still fall short for me to accurately describe our sensory overload experience that morning.
Soon the final turn came and the finish line neared. While inside the track, the camels could race over the line and slowly come to a stop in the oval. On the outside, the drivers sped towards the concrete wall of the empty and useless grandstands. As the lead truck, we had a clear view of this gray monster getting closer and closer at an uncomfortable speed. We weren’t slowing and either was the dust cloud of shouting and seemingly unaware Jordanians behind us. About the time I was envisioning a 40 truck pile up into an obviously massive barrier with random remote control parts flying thru the air, heavy brakes were applied, stopping us less than a meter from the wall. The 4x4s behind us, followed suit, their strong brakes stirring up even more dust and packing us in like sardines. As the dust settled, they were so close that we could have reached out and touched the rumbling trucks beside us. Though we had all stopped, the arm waving from these mobile bleachers and yelling in Arabic continued.
Some seemed elated at the race results, others were upset and probably blaming the white-faced distractions for their camel’s loss, still, others quickly claiming money on noticeably illegal bets. Some were yelling to our guide, ignoring the race, and fascinated that we were even there. After a few moments, the trucks started backing up, one by one and releasing us from our spot between tough desert trucks and a hard place.
As the races were ending and the sun was getting hotter, we left the track and moved on to our regularly scheduled adventures. Yet somehow, traversing sand dunes in the back of an old 4x4 Toyota, local tea in a Bedouin market and even camel rides in this stunning landscape, as cool as that was, just didn’t compare. It looked great on paper but after those camel races, the rest of our day started to feel quite average.
For me, experiencing a foreign landscape, culture, and having my pre-conceived expectations turned upside down was a large part of the fun. Thankfully, we captured a few clips of our morning races that you can view on the Ezra Adventures Facebook page. Feel free to hop in the back of our desert 4x4, chuckle at our embarrassingly elated comments and join me in our unexpected and unforgettable day. I hope you don’t mind the dust.
Doug Hershey is the author of Israel Rising, conference speaker and founder of Ezra Adventures, an Israel focused travel and education company. From years of hands-on experience, cultivating unique relationships in Israel and a love for history, Doug provides a rare perspective on the connection between the Jewish Scriptures and present day Israel. When he is not in Israel, he is speaking in churches and synagogues about the prophesied restoration of Israel.