From 1860’s to the early 1900’s camels, together with their handlers (cameleers) were imported into Australia from Afghanistan. The Australians knew nothing about camels so their cameleers were also recruited to care for these animals and accompany them wherever they were required to go. Also I would guess that they could only respond to instructions in their native language……..you can’t teach an old camel new tricks!
Australia has vast tracts of desert and it did not have the roads or a railway system to carry merchandise from town to town or to explore the dry interior. These animals were housed in various parts of our country and used as they have been for centuries in, Central Asia, for transportation. The camels were able to do what the horse and oxen could not do which was accompanying exploration parties. They carried water, supplies and mail to remote settlements. They were used to carry surveying and construction equipment for some of Australia’s earliest infrastructure projects such as the ‘Overland Telegraph’ and the ‘Trans Australia Railway’. They carried all the equipment needed for the construction of the rail link from Port Augusta to Alice Springs. This was known as the ‘Afghan Express’ and later changed to the ‘Ghan’. Today (February 2014) the Ghan runs from Adelaide through Alice Springs to Darwin. It is now 10 years since the connection to Darwin and it was given a welcome in Darwin from some locals. The locals gave a quick ‘flash” of some flesh as the train come into Darwin. The emblem of the Ghan is an Afghan camel.
The early explorers used horses and to a lesser degree donkeys and bullocks for transport. The biggest problem was that horses needed lots of water and feed and found it hard going on the desert sands and rough terrain. The first time a camel was used for transportation was in 1846 by the Horrocks Expedition – the camel was named “Harry”. A Melbourne newspaper reported that the camels could carry:
From seven to eight hundred pounds weight….they last out several generations of mules…the price paid form them does not exceed one half of that paid for mules…and it is proven that ‘ships of the deserts’ of Arabia are equally adaptable to our climate’.
In 1860 24 camels and 3 cameleers were imported to join the Burke and Wills expedition. Although the expedition ended in tragedy and Burke and Wills died the camels proved their ability to survive the harsh and dry conditions of the Australian outback. By the late 1860s most Australian states were importing camels and cameleers. It is estimated that between 1870 and 1900 more than 2,000 cameleers and 15,000 camels were imported into Australia. Although the cameleers were collectively known as ‘Afghan’ cameleers they also came from other countries such as Baluchistan, Kashmir, Sind, Rajasthan, Egypt, Persia (Iran), Turkey and Punjab. Their common bond was their Islamic religion and they were mostly young or middle aged.
The cameleers were frowned upon by the Europeans and the population was isolated into three separate areas – the Europeans, the Aboriginals and the Cameleers. Some of the Cameleers had left wives behind and only came to Australia for a three year stint. Others married Aborigines as the Europeans were not accessible. They built mosques and used them for prayer as well as community gatherings. When the Cameleers set up their own business in competition with the Europeans they were vilified. The Europeans accused them of acts of aggression including monopolising and befouling waterholes. A police investigation proved that the allegations were untrue and that the Cameleers had not forcible taken possession of dams or polluted the waters.
A letter was written to the Attorney General stating that:
‘It is no exaggeration to say that if it had not been for the Afghan and his Camels ,Wilcannia, White Cliffs, Tibooburrra, Milperinka and other Towns, each centre is of considerable population, would have practically ceased to exist”.
The immigration Restriction Act of 1901 disallowed the Cameleers, who had returned home after their three year contract, to return to Australia. They were either not granted permission to return or they were given a dictation test which kept out new Cameleers and denied re-entry to those who had left. Many were denied naturalisation due to their ‘Asian’ statuses. When the rail and road transport was up the Cameleers became redundant. Some returned home and others stayed and turned to other trades. Rather than see their camels shot they released them into the wild.
The Situation Today
Today the camels roam the country in large numbers and across 3.3 million square kilometers (1.3 million square miles) of outback. Australia is either flooded or in drought. Currently the ‘top end’ is in drought and in one area the thirsty camels have knocked down fences and broken into homes in an effort to quench their thirst. The Northern Territory town of Docker River is under siege and the CEO Graham Taylor said,
“I think the words ‘under siege’ are good words because it talks about people being stuck in their homes and looking out and seeing just numbers of camels at your front door,” he said. “And if they get anxious and want more water and stick their head through the window, I suppose you’ve then got another problem, so they’re still chasing the water.”
The Territory Government is spending $50,000 on a cull in the next week. Helicopters will herd the camels 15 kilometers outside the community where they will be shot and left to decay. It is estimated there are more than 1 million camels roaming through a vast area in the outback. The chief executive of the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association, Luke Bowen, says,
‘pastoralists in the north are fed up with the damage being caused to their stations’. “This is a plague of biblical proportions laying waste to a sensitive and arid environment,” he said. “It has been something that has been too hard to deal with; it’s been duck-shoved around from state to state and nobody has been able to stand up and cooperatively, collectively do anything about it.”
Last August, the Federal Government announced a $19 million grant for camel control to go to the corporate arm of the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research center. But the company is yet to receive the money because the contract is still under negotiation. Ms Ferguson says even with the $19 million program in place, other measures to control feral camels will still be needed.
The Overlander Steakhouse in ‘The Alice’ (Alice Springs) serves up Camel steaks and shanks! The “Today” show on Channel 9 showed the result. The Camel leg was cooked by Wayne Crafty Craft the owner of the ’Overlander’ Steakhouse and it took 3 days to thaw and 10 hours to cook. You could understand this when you know that the total weight is 32 kilos. The shank is called the ‘Jurassic’ Lamb shank. It is lean and low in cholesterol and has less fat than any other animal – even the kangaroo. The ‘shank’ tastes like lamb and the steaks taste like ‘beef’ – what a versatile animal. The restaurant has operated for 43 years and I am sure with Camel on the menu it will be around for a long time to come.