Meridian Writers’ Group
COOBER PEDY, Australia — We rolled out our swags beneath the shade of a coolibah tree, and waited while the billy boiled. We might have burst into a chorus of Waltzing Matilda except for one jarring, seemingly un-Australian note – the chime of a camel bell.
In fact camels have been part of Australian life since 1840, 50 years before Waltzing Matilda was written. Shipped over en masse from what is now Pakistan, they carried freight to railheads, delivered mail and even provided mounts for the police. But when the plodding camel train was overtaken by the internal combustion engine, more than 10,000 animals were turned loose and bred themselves into the world’s largest wild population, numbering at least 200,000 beasts.
Rounded up on motorbikes and re-domesticated, camels now provide visitors to Australia with everything from stately rides to dinner to serious wilderness treks. There are camel farms and camel museums, and camel racing draws large crowds to tiny towns whose populations usually struggle to make three figures. There’s no better way to get close to the outback than on camel-back.
My choice of trekking company was Phil Gee’s Explore the Outback Camel Safaris. "Camels are highly intelligent creatures," said Gee, who catches and trains his own stock. Bearded, wearing a check shirt and tall, rabbit-felt hat, he looked the part of a man more comfortable in the bush than at home.
The paying guests rose at dawn to help assemble the 10-camel string. We approached each camel gently, reached up to scratch below one of its ears as a greeting, then knelt to undo the leather hobbles around the forelegs. We led them back to camp where they were assembled in order next to their waiting saddles.
To cries of "Hoosh down" the beasts dropped suddenly to their front knees, clumsily concertina-ing their back legs. When we loaded baggage they occasionally roared, revealing the long, greasy caverns of their mouths. Then we plodded off into the vast emptiness, startling kangaroos and emus used to having the arid landscape to themselves.
Riding a camel involves using a well-padded seat mounted just behind the hump and hoping for the best. My mount, Wally, perhaps bored with his current job, decided to go to the left of a large shrub when the rest of the string had gone right. As I prepared to fall off the ground looked far away and very stoney, but the only damage turned out to be to the uprooted shrub. Wally had a noticeable smirk.
Mostly, though, we walked rather than rode, as the old-time cameleers did. This too had its dangers. Once, a perfectly timed sway of Wally’s hips knocked me, oh-so-accidentally into the middle of a prickly acacia.
The evenings, after the camels were unsaddled, hobbled and let loose, were spent around a camp fire, enjoying not the original swagman’s basic "bush tucker," but a memorable curry or stew, decent Australian red out of chipped enamel mugs, with port and chocolate to finish off. Sleep, even with the odd chorus of distant dingoes, was never hard to find.
For more information on Explore the Outback Camel Safaris visit www.austcamel.com.au/explore.htm .