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One Hump Or Two

Thursday August 31, 2006

One Hump Or Two

Lanzarote´s Camels

For many tourists a visit to Lanzarote just isn't complete without a camel ride around the islands main attraction, the Volcano Park at Timanfaya.

Lawrence of Arabia

Here visitors can emulate Lawrence of Arabia, albeit amidst a sea of lava rather than sand. All day long the somewhat cantankerous camels plod up and down the volcanic dunes.

Animal Aphrodisiac

Woe betide the unsuspecting rider wearing perfume or after-shave. This will improve the camel's mood no end, as they find scent a powerful aphrodisiac.

Camels move differently to most mammals. Right legs together, left legs together, creating the rolling motion that has earned them the title of Ships of the Desert.

The English Chair

Riders at Timanfaya are invited to sit in an English Chair in order to increase their on-board comfort. This simple wooden device sits astride the camel and allows two people to hitch a ride at once. The camel drivers weight the chair in order to ensure an equal distribution of load.

This contraption was named after the few slightly effete Victorian tourists, such as novelist Olivia Stone, who visited Lanzarote in the late 19th century. The scratchy experience of bare back riding favoured by the locals was just too much for them.

Camels in Combat

But whilst Lanzarote´s camels provide amusement and transportation for tourists they have also played a little known but vital role in both the defence and the development of the island.

Getting the Hump

Opinion is divided over how these single humped dromedaries arrived on Lanzarote in the first place. Because of the islands proximity to the coast of Africa you could be forgiven for thinking that they were indigenous.

But as there is no mention or representation of them in pre-Spanish Guanche culture this is almost certainly not the case.

Some historians believe that these animals arrived as part of the force that first conquered Lanzarote in 1402. The expedition was apparently forced by stormy weather to take refuge in a Moroccan port. Here their leader, Juan de Bethencourt, is said to have purchased some camels.

Camel Rustling

Other authorities believe that camels were introduced in the late 15th century, by one of the first Spanish Governors of the Canary Islands, Diego Garcia Herrera. Still thirsting for further conquests after subduing the Canaries, Herrera started to conduct raids along the nearby African coastline.

He was primarily on the hunt for people as Herrera deemed the Canary Islands to be too sparsely populated. Historians postulate though that he also returned with camels.

According to Antonio Rumeau de Armas, author of The Canaries and the Atlantic.  That was the beginning of this long series of unexpected ambushes and attacks that during three centuries alternatively drenched the coast of Berberia and the defenceless islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura with blood, open grounds for the heroic deeds of the Herreras and Saavedras, that there encountered slaves with whom they increased their small population and rich booty consisting of grains, camels, sheep and horses.

Camels and Canaries

Camels were then introduced to the rest of the Canary Islands and even taken to the New World, where they didn't adapt well.

However Lanzarote´s camel population grew rapidly from the 16th century onwards, as these animals were obviously well suited to the dry and arid conditions so prevalent on the island.

Adaptive Animals

The camels also adapted well to the major volcanic eruptions of the 1730´s which left around one third of the island buried beneath a sea of lava. The eruptions obviously forced local farmers to explore new methods of cultivation.

The ingenious islanders soon discovered that they could use granules of volcanic rock, or picon, as a type of porous mulch.

The picon absorbs moisture from the air, releases it into the ground and prevents evaporation. This enables a method of dry cultivation known as enarenado which is completely unique to Lanzarote.

The only drawback to this new method of cultivation was that most work had to be done by hand and little in way of machinery could be used for fear of crushing the volcanic stone altogether, so preventing water dispersing into the soil.

Enter the island's camels, which had already been used in the fields and as beasts of burden for a couple of hundred years. Now they led the ploughs through fields of picon.

Plague of Pirates

Lanzarote's camels were also engaged in less peaceful, non-pastoral activities.

During the 17th and 18th centuries pirate raids continually plagued the island. English privateers were particularly persistent, often sacking the ships sitting in the natural harbour at Arrecife.

The Camel Light Brigade

The Spanish garrison based in the Castillo San Jose overlooking the harbour managed to famously repel an English raiding force in the 1790´s by using their camels like tanks, driving the invaders back into the sea.

This tactic became common practice amongst all of the militias on the other islands. Making a somewhat bizarre footnote in the Canarian book of battle plans.

By the 1960´s Lanzarote´s camel population was some 6,000 strong.

Chop For Crops

But this figure declined rapidly over the coming decades as the islanders progressively abandoned agriculture in favour of tourism. New forms of transport also arrived on Lanzarote, so further reducing the need for camel power.

As a result there are only now around 300 camels left on the island.

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