A life of extremes

2012-03-26 00:00

THE Gobi Desert is a land of extremes. In the summer months 50°C highs are not uncommon, but come winter it switches from oven to freezer, with temperatures dropping to minus 40°C.

Sudden sand and snowstorms whip through this barren place, sometimes causing the mercury to plummet 35°C within 24 hours. It blends vicious weather with harsh beauty. None of its 500 000 square miles, stretching across Mongolia and China, are quite alike.

The Gobi’s landscapes change from vast gravel plains to chiselled desert mountains, looming sandstone bluffs to towering sand dunes up to 200 metres tall.

It is in the last of these inhospitable landscapes — the Khongoryn Els or “Singing Sands”, inside Gurvan Saikhan National Park — that a scattering of Gobi camel herders make their living.

Ganbold is the head of one such family. A big, jovial bear of a man, Ganbold’s survival depends on his livestock. He and his family have 1 000 animals, including cashmere goats for income, sheep for food and 50 Bactrian camels for riding, wool and milk.

“There is no need for a motorbike or a jeep when we have camels,” he says. “Our camels listen to us well. Even little babies can ride them.”

In winter, Ganbold moves his family, his ger (a felt-insulated canvas tent) and his livestock across the Khongoryn Els dunes to the foothills of the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains.

If it snows, this is where the flakes will linger — a godsend in this parched land, which gets only 200 mm of rain a year. “The snow is like a family member who waters our flocks,” says Ganbold. “Snows are collected in dips by wind, and in the springtime it melts so that our animals can drink.”

Two humps and a shaggy winter coat make Bactrian camels very warm and comfortable mounts, and Ganbold rides his steed with style. He does own a truck, but prefers to travel by camel since they can go anywhere. He steers using a rein attached to a wooden pin through the creature’s nose.

As Ganbold pushes the herd over the dunes, the camels’ big soft toes occasionally reveal patches of snow covered by a layer of windblown sand. Six of the camels are pregnant, so they take it slowly and stop to eat snow where they find it.

But the sand also reveals a less welcome surprise — the tracks of a predator. In the Gobi, grey wolves roam alone, in pairs and in packs. Preying on livestock such as sheep, goats and camels, they are the nemesis of the herders.

And with the paw prints indicating the presence of a wolf pack nearby, Ganbold faces a dilemma. In chasing the snow that will give his camels essential water, he is moving them further into enemy territory.

With his prize camels about to give birth, the risk is huge. A lone wolf will make easy prey of a newborn camel, and a pack working together can take down an adult with ease.

The wolves are Ganbold’s constant preoccupation as he sits with the other herders in the ger, talking in the fading light of a fire as a storm brews outside.

Among the men is a wiry septuagenarian, with a wisp of a grey beard and a burgundy dell coat lined with corkscrew-curled lamb’s wool. This is Badamtseden, the most respected wolf hunter. “In the sand dunes, there were over 30 wolf tracks,” he warns Ganbold. “Drop your gaze, and the wolves might kill all your animals.”

As he smokes his pipe and adds his pearls of wisdom to the discussion, between rounds of camel milk vodka and warm mutton dumpling soup, Badamtseden has a sage-like presence. “The wolves prefer to catch young animals because they are not strong enough to run away. Also, the wolves are greedy for their soft flesh.”

Around the men is other livestock in need of protection: lambs and kids just a day old, brought inside to shelter from the desperate night temperatures and the building storm. Ganbold’s sons, Usuhbayar and Otgonbayar, hug the baby animals as they watch TV. Via a rusted satellite dish and bare wires, Mongolian sumo wrestlers fighting in Japan appear on their portable set.

Outside the winds rage, blowing away the snow and making it difficult to hear what is happening among the livestock. In the calm of dawn Ganbold finds that one of his pregnant camels is missing.

Whether she has wandered off to give birth alone (as Bactrian camel mothers prefer) or has been chased and killed by wolves, he will not know until he finds her. If she has delivered her young it is a race against time. If wolves find the newborn before Ganbold, he will probably lose them both.

Ganbold is pained to contemplate their fate. “The camels give birth when the weather is bad. If the camel gives birth far away, the baby could be eaten by wolves. If that happens, the mother will suffer. She will leave the dead baby’s body only when her milk dries up. A camel that loses a baby is the saddest animal. Even at night they search for the baby and cry out, making very sad sounds.”

The storm has blown over any tracks left by the missing camel, so Ganbold must use his knowledge of both the landscape and the animals’ behaviour to find them.

He grabs his rifle and binoculars, and mounts his fastest camel. With Badamtseden and a neighbour, he rides to the highest ridges to scan the epic panorama. Stretched across the horizon are great dunes, gravel plains and mountain gullies — 1 000 places for a camel to take shelter, or for wolves to attack.

Ganbold raises his binoculars and holds them vertically, peering through the top eyeglass like a telescope. The fox-fur trim of his hat dances in the icy breeze. He can see nothing. Badamtseden walks along the ridge, a thin trail of pipe smoke giving away his position. He watches and waits. It is minus 15°C.

Ganbold’s connection to his camel means he will not give up. The three of them ride down from the ridge and head to the dunes, hoping to pick up new tracks. But the only footprints they find belong to wolves, and over the ridge of a dune they spot one of their number. Swiftly taking aim they let fly two bullets, but succeed only in scaring the wolf away.

After five hours searching, the men finally spot a speck of brown in the distance, but can’t tell straight away if it’s moving. They race over, their cantering camels kicking up dust as they go.

Dismounting, they see the massive placenta: one square metre of bloody tissue, already frozen solid. Twenty metres beyond stands the russet, haughty mother with her wobbly newborn, only a few hours old. Its head and neck seem birdlike, and its emerging humps are little more than flaps of curly-haired skin. The infant topples to its knees, and Ganbold smiles with relief.

Balancing the calf across the back of his own camel, Ganbold climbs up behind and wraps his warm arms around the newborn. With mum in tow, the group can finally return to the relative safety of their ger.

Here, Ganbold pays homage for his good fortune: circling and kneeling before his ovo, a sacred stone cairn decorated with royal blue prayer flags. If his luck holds, in two years this latest addition to the herd will become a riding camel, invaluable to his continued prosperity in the Gobi.

— Extract from the Human Planet series first published in the Radio Times.


• Catch Human Planet on BBC Knowledge (DStv channel 251) on Tuesdays at 9 pm.

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