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Volume 39, Number 1January/February 1988

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Camels Down Under

Written by Arthur Clark
Photographed by Steve Strike
Additional photographs by Arthur Clark

In central Australia today, you can "take a camel to dinner," and have a meal at a vineyard-bordered chateau after a two-hour ride. Or race a camel around a 400-meter (quarter-mile) track against international competition. Or buy 100 camels - or 1,000 - from outback entrepreneurs, including Aborigines, whose derring-do outdoes Crocodile Dundee.

In Australia? You bet.

The one-humped dromedaries, roving in the only wild herds of their kind in the world and reckoned to number between 43,000 and 60,000, are descendants of camels imported into Australia, beginning in the mid-1800's, to help lay the foundations of the nation. Shipments came largely from the Indian subcontinent, but animals were also landed from Muscat, Yemen, Iraq and the Canary Islands.

Arriving in a trickle that swelled to a flood by the early 20th century, the camels were often guided and cared for by Muslim cameleers. Handlers came from lands as far away as Egypt, Turkey and Persia, though most - with their camels - hailed from northern India and what today is Pakistan. But the men were all, almost always incorrectly, called Afghans or simply "Ghans."

The name stuck to a section of the 2,900-kilometer (1,800-mile) transcontinental Central Australian Railroad linking Port Augusta in the south to Darwin in the north. Camels hauled material and supplies to the men building that line beginning in 1879, and the segment of track from Port Augusta to Alice Springs was called "The Ghan" until it was relaid about a decade ago.

In fact, it could be argued that the town of Alice Springs owes its existence to the hardy camel and the equally hardy cameleers. It was founded in the early 1870's as a repeater station for the Darwin-to-Adelaide Overland Telegraph Line - which was also built by men who depended on dromedaries for supplies and equipment. Plodding camels not only helped establish "The Alice," they brought it civilization - or at least music. The first piano arrived in the 1880's, the story goes, strapped to the back of a camel.

Aptly, the city holds a state legislative district, a primary school and a major thoroughfare all named after cameleer Saleh "Charlie" Sadadeen, who came to Alice Springs with his team in 1890. "Children were enthralled with his distinctive, flowing robes and intrigued with the long-stemmed pipe he smoked," reports the Alice Springs Centralian Advocate.

Men like Sadadeen came to Australia on two- to three-year contracts but often lived out their lives in the country, writes American geographer Tom McKnight in The Camel in Australia. While a handful became wealthy, deploying "thousands of camels organized into the backbone of corporate business," most toiled from dawn to well past dusk for low pay, and lived near outback towns in little communities distinguished by the "tin minarets of their hastily constructed mosques."

Wherever the cameleers settled, writes McKnight, "they would soon construct a place of worship. In every case the mosque was a focal point of community life in Ghan Town."

Australians first heard about camels in 1837, just 49 years after Europeans arrived on the continent, when the governor of New South Wales received a report recommending the importation of camels from India to Sydney. The Sydney Herald (today's Sydney Morning Herald) took up the call, arguing that camels were "admirably adapted to the climate and soil" of the unexplored country.

Though it wasn't until the 1860's that dromedaries were brought Down Under in any numbers, the first camel - named Harry - arrived in 1840, the sole survivor of a group of four loaded aboard ship at Tenerife in the Canary Islands. And though they would soon prove vital to the country's development, their first representative hardly set a good example.

On a surveying expedition to the Lake Torrens area of South Australia in 1846, Harry bit the tentkeeper, grabbed a goat by the back of the neck and "chewed a hole in a bag of flour, leaving a white trail along the route," according to an account of the journey. But the straw that broke Harry's back came when he bumped his owner, John Horrocks, just as Horrocks was loading his rifle.

Horrocks lost two fingers and several teeth in the ensuing blast, and died a month later of gangrene. The camel was executed at his express wish.

In May 1841, between Harry's arrival and his premature departure, two female camels acquired from the Imam of Muscat arrived in Sydney via India - the fourth and fifth dromedaries to reach Australia. (The third and fourth were landed in Hobart, Tasmania, from Tenerife, but there is no record of what happened to them.) A male companion from Muscat had died en route. Seeking buyers, the animals' importer shuttled the camels back and forth between Sydney and Melbourne several times, but, despite the Herald's counsel, no one was interested.

Finally, the governor of New South Wales bought the animals, along with a replacement male, and ordered them pastured on the Sydney Domain - government property in the capital. Two were painted nibbling on the lawn there in 1845, and the oil hangs today in Sydney's Mitchell Library.

In 1860, the camel was first called on to do the work for which it was ideally suited: long-distance exploration in a continent of some 7,000,000 square kilometers (about 2,700,000 million square miles) - roughly the area of the 48 contiguous states of the United States. But here, too, first results were far from promising.

A total of 26 camels, several originally imported from Aden in 1859 to perform in a show in Melbourne, were included in the 20-man, 23-horse Burke and Wills Expedition that set off from Melbourne in August in a bid to cross the unmapped continent from south to north. A picked team of four men, six camels and a single horse made the last 1,600-kilometer (1,000-mile) push from a base camp at Cooper's Creek, reaching the north coast in February 1861. But none of those camels - and only one man - made it back. Two of the camels were eaten, two were abandoned and two were destroyed when they became too tired to continue.

Instead, the relief mission that departed from Adelaide under John McKinlay in 1862 first proved the value of camels in rough terrain - for a novel reason. McKinlay never found Burke and Wills but did return with valuable reconnaissance, and he praised his camels for their ability to move over stones and through muddy, flooded country. "The camels acted famously," he wrote, "...from their great height they were as good [in protecting the expeditions stores] as if we had been supplied with boats."

Further camel-mounted expeditions helped unlock the secrets of the vast, arid interior of the country, pushing in the 1870's through South and Western Australia and what, in 1909, became the Northern Territory. Indeed, the first Europeans to set eyes on magnificent Ayers Rock, the 350-meter (1,140-foot) sandstone monolith on the central Australian plain, were the members of the camel-borne 1872 Ernest Giles expedition.

Australia's first large-scale camel importer was Scottish-born Sir Thomas Elder, whose interest in dromedaries can probably be traced to his own experience in the Middle East. Nine years after an 1857 camel journey from Cairo to Jerusalem, Elder started a stud farm about 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Port Augusta with 121 camels shipped in from Karachi.

That first shipment, chosen with care to meet a variety of outback needs, included light camels for riding, medium-weight pack animals and heavy Kandahar dromedaries able to carry loads up to 650 kilograms (1,440 pounds). Elder's enterprise wasn't trouble-free, either: His herd was immediately struck by mange and reduced by almost half.

But with the animals that remained, supplemented by additional imports, he produced carefully bred beasts that consistently brought higher prices than any others, home-grown or imported.

The firm Elder founded continues today. And even though it long ago phased itself out of the camel trade, it has retained an interest in the animals. For example, the company supplied 10 camels for a 3,426-kilometer (2,124-mile), 117-day walk from Darwin to Adelaide by the Northern Territory and South Australia police forces. The expedition's arrival on January 1,1988, was timed to kick off Australia's bicentennial celebrations. In 1986, Elders also aided a central Australian Aboriginal community trying to sell several thousand camels to the Moroccan government.

With Elder leading the way, Australian camel importers began to buy in earnest as the 19th century drew to a close. Between 1894 and 1897 alone, says McKnight, 6,000 camels were shipped from India directly to Western Australia, mainly to serve the booming gold camps. In 1910, there were more than 8,400 camels in the country. Numbers peaked around 1920 with some 20,000 in harness.

The Sydney Herald was vindicated. Camels, able to carry heavy loads over long distances and go for days without a drink, proved better adapted than horses or bullocks to working in a continent half of which is arid or semi-arid, where summertime temperatures often soar beyond 35 degrees Centigrade (100°F).

Camels did a variety of important jobs. They hauled the casings that lined the wells that tapped the underground water that opened wide areas to the livestock industry that is vital to the Australian economy to this day. They carried the fencing - and later the fence riders - that held back rabbits from the newly opened ranges; they lugged supplies to sheep ranches and mines and returned with bales of wool and wagonloads of ore; they dragged scoops to carve out lake basins; they pulled passenger coaches between towns where there was barely a road; and they transported policemen and postmen on their appointed rounds far from cities or towns.

Outback journeymen even found that the trails pounded smooth by the padded feet of hundreds of dromedaries made excellent routes for bicycling hundreds of kilometers between jobs.

The early camels weren't dawdlers, either. In a famous race, the mount of a cameleer named 'Abd al-Wadi was beaten by a horse in a 176-kilometer (109-mile) run between Bourke and Wanaaring in New South Wales, completed between sunrise and sunset. But the horse died the next day, while 'Abd al-Wadi proudly rode his camel back to the starting point.

At their zenith, dromedaries were in use in some three-quarters of the continent. And, in a bit of irony that Sir Thomas Elder might have relished, the Australian Camel Corps even served in Egypt and Palestine in World War I as part of Great Britain's Imperial Camel Corps. The force consisted of three companies of Australian Camel Corps to one British, and a company of Hong Kong artillery.

But by the middle of the 1920's the future was looking cloudy for Australian cameleers and camel ranchers - clouded by the choking waves of red dust sent up by automobiles and trucks, the new wave of imports into the outback. From the 30's on, in all but a few long-distance, off-road cases, the camel was a museum piece.

Camel men watched the value of their stock plummet. Many abandoned their beasts to the wild. But the feral camel thrived in the bush, "and he's still laughing there today," says Nick Smail, an Alice Springs camel-farm owner.

Recent surveys show wide camel ranges extending from the Northern Territory and South Australia in the center of the continent well into Western Australia, with pockets of animals also reported in the northeastern state of Queensland.

Smail, who buys young, wild-caught animals for his tourist business from bush-country camel-catcher Ian Conway for $500 (US $360) each, is one of a number of outdoor businessmen who cater to visitors to the outback. He offers short camel trips, including a camel-train stroll down the dry, sandy bed of the eucalyptus-lined Todd River to a hearty Australian dinner.

More adventurous travelers can take longer safaris into the bush. Some outfitters, who learned their skills from the sons of those original Muslim cameleers, offer treks of up to six months, though week-long or two-week trips are most popular.

Sunburned back-country ranchers who ride the ranges in four-wheel-drive vehicles have already rung up sales of dozens of animals to specialized buyers in the United States and Japan. And they're eyeing much bigger transactions, involving thousands of animals, that would send camels back to the Middle East - as top-quality livestock.

One of those deals, under negotiation with the Moroccan government, fell through in 1986 despite the involvement of the Australian Ministry of Trade. That five-year contract, for 10,000 camels to replace transport and work animals that had perished in a long-running drought, would have brought new jobs and much-needed cash to an Aboriginal community centered in Docker River, on the eastern flank of the Gibson Desert some 750 kilometers (465 miles) southwest of Alice Springs. But price was the snag.

The cost of sending a camel from Australia to Morocco was calculated at $l,680 (US $1,200). "The Moroccans ended up walking camels up from [neighboring] Mauretania instead," explains Roz Mitch-elson of the Australian Trade Commission's Middle Eastern-African Region.

Last spring, attention turned to the Aboriginal community of Amata, several hundred kilometers southeast of Docker River, where an Iranian group was discussing the purchase of 2,000 meat camels. But that deal, too, was hanging in the balance over the question of prices.

In Canberra, Mitchelson isn't positive about camel sales. "We're not going into the camel industry as a means of saving Australia's trade imbalance," she says. But the dream of marketing Australian camels in the Middle East is still very much alive.

Rather than shooting for pie-in-the-sky, 10,000-camel deals, it makes much better sense to look at "top-end" sales of high-quality animals, argues Tom Bergin, a Canberra-based camel expert who has served as an advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture and Water in Saudi Arabia and who once successfully doctored the Amir of Bahrain's prize bull camel.

Bergin, a veterinarian, is also a firsthand historian when it comes to camels in Australia. In 1977, he led a camel expedition in the footsteps of the ill-fated Burke and Wills Expedition from Cooper's Creek to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, burning off 18 kilograms (40 pounds) of his own bulk in the process.

Bergin believes there is promise in camel sales abroad, but he insists any program must be tailored to the strong points of Australia's herds. "The basic demand for camels in the Middle East is for racing, meat and milk," he says. "But the market is astute. They don't want just anything that's been hauled out of the bush." Trade between Australia and Saudi Arabia, for instance, makes no sense "unless it is going to be top-quality trade with a superb milking breed or very good racing animals."

Australians in Saudi Arabia point out that big camels recently shipped from Down Under to the United Arab Emirates to race were left so far behind on the track that they were laughed at. Bergin counters that the dromedaries used by Australian police and postal authorities up until the 1950's "are descended from some very, very good Indian and Omani types," and that those light, fast animals are still represented in certain herds of wild camels.

The biggest Australian camels, descended from Kandahar animals imported from India, weigh up to 900 kilograms (1,980 pounds), Bergin says. That's more than twice the size of a North African or Arabian dromedary, with comparably more meat. Females weigh in at 400 to 600 kilograms (880 to 1,320 pounds) and should be able to produce more than twice as much milk as their smaller cousins.

But that's only in theory. Bergin says pilot projects with fenced-in herds would be required to get a true picture of the animals' productivity. He thinks worthwhile results from such studies could be available two years from the start of work. There is a potential home market for camel products, too, Bergin believes: It just wants promoting. "If you talk to Australians and say, 'What about drinking camel milk?' they'll laugh at you," he says. "But camel milk is very good when babies are allergic to cow's milk."

Aborigines far from supplies of fresh milk on isolated outstations, where infant mortality is high, could find camel milk a lifesaver, he says. "It's exceptionally high in vitamin C, and vitamin C is especially hard to come by in desert areas."

In Alice Springs, Aboriginal affairs authorities are working to target Middle Eastern nations for camel sales. Central Land Council land management officer Steve Roeger says the aim of the effort -which would enlist support from the Trade Commission and from experts like Bergin - "is to establish something that's going to last and be effectively producing camels at a reasonable price," to bring economic benefits to the Aborigines who live in camel country.

Roeger estimates it would be at least three years before the first camel could be sent overseas - if research into camel supply and demand, and the technical aspects of marketing, proved positive.

In Perth, the capital of Western Australia, the Ministry of Agriculture is carrying out preliminary research to identify markets for camels caught in the wild. Particular emphasis there is on raising breeding camels which could be exported to the Middle East for milking and racing.

Meanwhile, smaller-scale operators are already counting some profits from camel-catching enterprises, researchers are watching the dromedary from space and on the ground, and Australians in general - and tourists - are having fun with their long-legged friends.

Soft-talking Ian Conway, who runs King's Creek Station, a 800-square-kilometer (300-square-mile) ranch dotted with acacia trees and saltbush some 240 kilometers (150 miles) southwest of Alice Springs, supplies camels to several Northern Territory safari operators and to buyers abroad.

He and the young ranch hands he describes as "a good team of blokes" track down feral camels in the bush with motorbikes and off-road trucks for buyers and researchers alike.

Conway, who's proud of the "dash" of Aborigine blood in his veins, had 54 young female camels - collected in two months of chasing - in his corrals this spring, all set to airship to a purchaser in Galveston, Indiana. "Catching's not hard once you know what you're doing," he says with an understated grin. He and his hands head into the field with two four-wheel-drives and several motorbikes, locate a herd, "and quite often the boys jump off the bikes onto a camel," catching it rough-and-tumble if it's small enough. Big beasts are roped from bouncing Toyotas.

"We've had no major injuries - just a few broken bones. That's the good thing about having 'a dash' in you."

While catching camels may not be too hard on humans, it takes its toll on vehicles. "We spend two days at a time in the field, maximum, before going in for repairs," says the rancher. "You're always under the bonnet fixing something."

Conway's "blokes" are currently breaking in camels for use on safaris on King's Creek Station, on the edge of the planned King's Canyon National Park, and getting ready fora run at the $100,000 (US $71,500) Great Australian Camel Race, another event timed for the country's bicentennial. The course covers 3,260 kilometers (2,025 miles) from Ayers Rock to the Gold Coast in the east, beginning in April.

The camel man says the race will draw about 300 riders, including "60 Arabs, Americans and Japanese." He claims the race will be "the biggest publicity thing Australia has ever produced, even bigger than the America's Cup because it's so unique." If he can find a sponsor willing to put up A$50,000 (US $35,750), Conway plans to start training six riders and animals in earnest this month. "We're going in to win it, not for our health," he says.

Conway's camel-catching forays have also been undertaken in the name of science. In the spring of 1986, he and his crew captured two females from separate herds so that accompanying biologists from the University of Sydney could attach radio collars around their necks.

That operation, directed by Gordon Grigg, an associate professor of biology, has enabled researchers to track camels by satellite through country rarely frequented by man, opening up a new chapter in wildlife study.

Radio signals are transmitted every three days to two U.S. weather satellites in polar orbits, and then sent through the joint U.S.-French ARGOS satellite data-processing center in Toulouse, France, to a desk-top computer in the university's zoology building. The computer readouts give the latitude and longitude for each animal, locating the camels to within a kilometer (1,100 yards).

The information is important in itself, since wild camels have never before been tracked over the long term, but it also has a very practical application: Camels are considered pests in Australia because they break down fences and can compete with livestock for food. Solid data about their ranges are critical to ranchers and conservation authorities.

One of the A$4,000 (US$2,860) camel-collar radios went off the air last spring after 11 months of broadcasting, but the second was still sending strongly in midsummer. Up to that time, the camels had moved less each day than anecdotal information had earlier suggested. However, each had moved more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) from its release point.

At the same time, ground-bound camel researchers from a zoological institute in Braunschweig, West Germany, have begun taking notes on the activities of a herd of 36 camels at Babbler Bore, some 350 kilometers (220 miles) northwest of Alice Springs. The Germans plan to study the herd's behavior for two years.

But in Alice Springs itself, last May, attention was on races, not research. The annual Alice Springs Camel Cup went international, presided over by safari operator Noel Fullerton - dubbed the "Camel King" by the press - and U.S. Ambassador William Lane, with a team of riders from Virginia City, Nevada, in the running.

The Americans even brought along a meter-high (three-foot) International Camel Cup trophy - and they left it in Alice Springs.

"They lost abysmally" by Down-Under rules, comments one of the local riders. Says Fullerton, a bushy-bearded, pony-tailed cameleer who's been in the business for 20 years, "It was a joke. I rode backwards and still won." But, he adds, "They were all very nice people - excellent ambassadors for America."

And it's just possible that Fullerton may get much more than he's bargained for the next time Alice Springs' International Cup rolls around. According to the Northern Territory Tourist Commission spokesman in Alice Springs, the commission's London office has received inquiries from Saudis, Kuwaitis and Japanese riders about participating in the races.

"The event is becoming widely known," says Denham Jones, adding, with a touch of Australian understatement, "Saudi participation would certainly add a whole new dimension."

What would Harry, Australia's calamituous first camel, think of all this? That's hard to say. But Alice Springs' turn-of-the-century cameleer Charlie Sadadeen would probably just puff on his remarkable, long-stemmed pipe - and smile.

Arthur Clark, an Aramco staff writer in Dhahran, visited Australia last spring. He has previously encountered camels during his years in Morocco and Egypt.

This article appeared on pages 16-23 of the January/February 1988 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1988 images.