MANAMA, BAHRAIN -- Even as the Calgary Winter Olympics were under way in frigid Canada, camel riders in the sun-drenched Persian Gulf region prepared to set off for a warmer competition in Korea -- riding their camels.
Saleh Al Shammari, 30, and his cousin Amer plan to complete the 10,000-mile journey from Qatar to Seoul for the Summer Olympics on the beasts tradition calls "ships of the desert."
Their six-month camel trek, scheduled to begin this month, will take them across the snow-peaked Himalayas, endless deserts and dense forests.
The cousins and their four camels intend to travel overland across the United Arab Emirates and Muscat, then by ship to Karachi, Pakistan, then overland again through India, Bangladesh, Burma and China, then by ship across the Yellow Sea to Korea and the final phase of the journey.
"In Seoul," Saleh said, "I will represent every young Arab, and my camels will represent the proud history, heritage and tradition of our race."
To prepare themselves, the two Arabs from the tiny Gulf state of Qatar successfully crossed North Africa on camels last year, riding from Oman to Morocco.
By reaching Korea in time for the Seoul Games in September, the Arab adventurers say they hope to put an end to Western scoffing at camels -- and have some fun on the way.
"I am not seeking fame or fortune for myself," Saleh said. "I am doing these things to show the world the great Arab tradition and value of the camel. Our message to the world is to show the true capability of the camel, and to put an end to the Western view that it is an unmodern means of transport."
The message is aimed at Arabs as much as Westerners, however. Many desert nomads have long since abandoned the camel in favor of Jeeps and trucks.
The Qataris said their camels proved their worth more than once during the difficult North African journey.
"We had reached the village of Al Sekhnah, about 30 miles from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, when three ferocious wolves attacked us," Saleh said. "We were only carrying traditional daggers and swords and had no way to defend ourselves -- when an amazing thing happened.
"Our camels came to the rescue, shielding us from the attack for over 15 minutes until the pack gave up and went elsewhere for their dinner. The camels actually saved our lives."
Crossing the Sinai desert in Egypt, the riders faced another unexpected deadly hazard -- mines.
"The ground was littered with Israeli mines left in the desert when Israeli troops withdrew from the area in 1972," Saleh said. "Scattered around were skeletal remains of arms and legs, torn from the bodies of unfortunate Sinai Bedouin who had stumbled across the explosives.
"Luckily for us, the wind had exposed most of the mines, so we were able to pass through the area without injury."
The men said they also came close to death in the Libyan desert when they ran out of water. A passing shepherd saved their lives by filling their water skins.
They said they ate once a day -- the traditional Arab diet of bread, dates, coffee and tea. They baked bread over a log fire, slept four hours at a time and took turns guiding the caravan while the other rested.
"Our camels were able to travel 5 miles an hour, so each day we traveled about 75 miles in 20 hours," Saleh said.
To entertain themselves, the men would race each other. "The winner was proclaimed king of the desert for the day, and the loser had to feed the camels, start the fire and prepare our food," he said.
The cousins said their North Africa journey relived the days when "the Islamic word and culture was spread across the world" through the only possible means -- the "ship of the desert."
The trek followed the track of a 14th century Arab adventurer, Ibn Battutah, whose travels included Morocco and China.
"Born in Tangiers in 1304, Battutah devoted 30 years of his life to travel," said Eman Al Bak, a Dubai-based expert.