The critters who make their lives in the sands of the Australian outback are not by nature publicity-seekers. Shy, discreet, and often nocturnal, they are, with the exception of the occasional cunningly-camouflaged lizard, rarely seen, but their journeys are recorded, with astonishing diversity, in the sand.
Birds, dingoes, lizards, insects, snakes, dingoes all leave their tracks and trails. But what of the print in the photo at the head of this post? Any guesses?
The Aborigines of Western Australia had an explanation: these are “little fellah bums,” the tracks of small spirit-beings who make their way across the sands on their backsides. This is a delightful and culturally sound interpretation, but the truth is that these are the footprints of change, and a change that would contribute to essentially dismantling the lives of those indigenous inhabitants forever.
Here’s another clue, the prints this time crossing a dried-out playa lake bed:
You’ve probably guessed by now – here are the culprits:
For a hundred years, camels were the engines of the opening up of Australia’s interior, enabling early exploration, construction, mining, and, vitally, water-supply. In the initial expeditions into the “ghastly blank,” horses and mules had proven more of a liability than an asset, and it was in 1839 that importing camels was first suggested as a solution. The first camel to be imported into Australia was named Harry, and he accompanied John Ainsworth Horrocks on his venture into the unknown in 1846, an ambassador for his kind. Harry proved his worth, but, unfortunately, decided to lurch as Horrocks was re-loading his gun: the consequence would prove fatal to the explorer and, very unfairly, to Harry. But, as a Melbourne newspaper reported, camels could carry
from seven to eight hundred pounds weight ... they last out several generations of mules ... the price paid for them does not exceed one half of that paid for mules ... and it is proved that these 'ships of the deserts' of Arabia are equally adaptable to our climate.
This heralded the forced immigration of large numbers of camels whose stamina, fortitude, and – generally – good nature, would support the development of the country’s economy for almost a century. And, vitally, along with the camels came the men who knew them and could handle them, the cameleers. Although collectively referred to as “Afghans,” they, together with their camels came from essentially anywhere that the ships of the desert did - Baluchistan, Kashmir, Sind, Rajastan, Egypt, Persia, Turkey and Punjab, as well as Afghanistan. Australia’s iconic trans-continental railroad, “The Ghan,” is named after these workers and its emblem is a camel with an “Afghan” rider. The tragically disastrous yet successful Burke and Wills expedition of the 1860s was made possible by 24 camels and three cameleers. All the heroic early infrastructure projects that opened up the outback – the telegraph, the railroads, the mail, mining – were only possible through the efforts of the camels and their masters.
The Australian Government has a fascinating and informative website on the history and culture of this extraordinary community. By the 1930s, the heyday of the camels and cameleers was over (except for a few, largely tourism-based, operations here and there). From the website:
The last of the cameleers
By 1940, few cameleers remained. Philip Jones relates the tale of some of the last of the Afghan cameleers in reCollections, the Journal of the National Museum of Australia:
In the Adelaide summer of 1952 a young Bosnian Muslim and his friends, newly arrived immigrants, pushed open the high gate of the Adelaide mosque… As Shefik Talanavic entered the mosque courtyard he was confronted by an extraordinary sight. Sitting and lying on benches, shaded from the strong sunshine by vines and fruit trees, were six or seven ancient, turbaned men. The youngest was 87 years old. Most were in their nineties; the oldest was 117 years old. These were the last of Australia's Muslim cameleers... Several had subscribed money during the late 1880s for the construction of the mosque which now, crumbling and decayed, provided their last refuge.
It is only in recent years, with the South Australian Museum's Australian Muslim Cameleers exhibition (developed with support from the Visions of Australia program) and book, that the story and the contribution of these pioneers to Australia's history and development has been told.
The primary (and largely accomplished) goal of my recent foray into the ghastly blank, was to travel the Canning Stock Route, “one of the toughest and most remote tracks in the world.” Developed in the first decade of the twentieth century by Alfred Canning, the 1800 kilometres of strategically spaced wells allowed a route to move cattle from the Kimberley to Perth that avoided the tick-infested coastal regions. The project, and particularly Canning’s methods in terms of treatment of the indigenous inhabitants (who were, after all, the people who knew where water was to be found), will perhaps be the subject of a later post. But for now, it’s the fact that, yet again, it was camels that were the key to it all. There are 51 wells along the route, and it was not only their construction that was made possible by Camelus dromedarius, but their operation. Here, from Gordon Grimwade’s survey, The Canning Stock Route: Desert stock route to outback tourism, and from the collection of Perth’s Battye Library, camels set out in 1908 carrying materials for the wells:
Many of the wells are now in complete disrepair, but a number have been restored:
The canvas bucket in the photo is for the hand windlass only – the main means of drawing water for the cattle was a much larger canvas or sheet metal bucket. Thirsty cattle need to be watered quickly in order to avoid chaos, and these buckets, of a couple of hundred litres capacity, were beyond any manual ability. Each well was therefore equipped with a “whip pole,” the angled and pulley-wheeled feature in the photo. An animal was attached to the rope that ran over the pulley to draw the massive bucket – and you can probably guess what animal did the work.
As their usefulness drew to a close, most of Australia’s camels were simply set loose. It is estimated that more than a million wild camels now roam the outback, and they have become a nuisance. At one point on our journey, the tranquillity of the desert was rudely disrupted by the sound of a helicopter, and we shortly encountered the camp of those responsible: they were camel-shooters, culling dozens each day from the air, and leaving the carcasses for the dingoes.
I hope that the group of camels I showed above haven't fallen victim to this pragmatic necessity – but, if they sadly have, perhaps their spirits still roam the sands as little fellah bums.
[For further information on Australia’s Muslim cameleers, see https://www.cameleers.net/; images of camels and cameleers above from the remarkable image collections of The State Library of South Australia. For a modern tale of travelling with camels, read Tracks by Robyn Davidson – it’s compelling, much more than just a travel book.]