Don’t Let the Camels Bite You, and Other Lessons from a Long Walk in the Outback

Coolgardie, Australia, Camel Team (photo in the public domain)

On The Monthly, Robert Skinner reluctantly agrees to join his parents on a camel trek in South Australia. While the participating humans walk, the camels pull carts that carry their gear for the trek.

My dad’s cousin Robyn had married a bushman called Don, and together they raced camels and went on wagon expeditions. This was the first time they were bringing other people along. There would be between 9 and 14 people on the trek. Being in such close quarters with strangers for ten days was not my dad’s idea of a good time. He would have preferred to be at home with a book or tinkering in his shed. But his own dad had a reputation for disappearing out the back door every time someone showed up at the front door, and my dad was forever trying not to be that guy.

The night before we left Adelaide he did that thing nervous parents do, where they start fussing over their kids instead. He looked at me gruffly and said, “Now listen, Bob. What are you going to do out there for entertainment?”

“I dunno. I brought a few books.”

“You understand that these are country folk we’ll be travelling with. They like different things to us.”

“Well, what about you? What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to look at the fire,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

Before traveling in Australia myself, I’d read two books by the Australian novelist Peter Carey — Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda.  I did not quite believe the characters. I have since crossed the Outback three times. It is populated by the kinds of people that choose to live in difficult and remote places; it’s weird in its own rough way.

On one of my trips through I saw a camel cart, piled high with a living room furniture set. The last time across I met three ancient women sitting in low rocking chairs, knitting in the heat while a blonde girl child ran around in the dust underneath the raised house. I’d stopped to ask about short-cutting through their cattle ranch on the private road traversing their land. They were not at all surprised by my appearance and asked merely that I be sure to close the gates. I remain convinced that they were the fates, spinning my destiny in this flat treeless place, hundreds of miles from anywhere.

Thanks to my own adventures, I found this description of one of the camel drivers — and all the other absurdities in Skinner’s story — completely plausible.

Brian or Nat usually drove the main wagon. Nat was a bosomy powerhouse who raised a family, kept a menagerie of pets and broke in camels for a living. She wore the same singlet, shorts and thongs the whole trip. Even on frosty nights. One evening she reached into her bra looking for a cigarette, and I saw her pull out a lighter, a tobacco pouch, a packet of tissues, a hunting knife, $20 (in change) and a bundle of keys before she looked up and said, “Oh, here it is. It’s in my fucking mouth.” On the fourth day she got kicked full in the face by a camel and just started kicking it back.

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