My enormous beast was an arrogant gelding named Sandy. I had been told he was once a nasty camel and had little use for humans. But after two full years of training he easily "whooshed" down to the ground to be mounted, and with a tremendous jolt and violent pitching fore and aft, he lurched back up when asked, until the ground was 12 feet below his rider's eyes. Sandy was to carry me and my belongings, plus a metal can of water, for 300 miles across the Australian bush on an "adventure safari."
I knew very little about camels. For the past 30 years I have wandered America. I immigrated to the U.S. in 1958, a typist from Birmingham, England, and in the land of opportunity found work as a pig feeder, jazz agent, chauffeur, secretary and snowmobile racer. I have edited a magazine, built a car from a kit, tested the lunar rover, kissed Willie Nelson and, until I got thrown out of the Sacramento arena by a bull named Sixty-Six. worked as a rodeo photographer. For three weeks in 1975 I thought I was a tuna fisherman, until I became violently seasick into the Pacific. I figured I could handle an "adventure safari."
It was late November when I arrived in Alice Springs, a town of 26,000 in the Northern Territory, to join Camel Outback Safari. The temperature hovered around 100° ("This is cool, mate"), and the Todd River, which slices the town in half, was a pathway of dry gravel. In the riverbed, small groups of Aboriginals sat in the shade of giant eucalyptus trees.
The bush town was interesting, because even though money from big-city developers and designers had done away with most of its outback charm, it had not yet crushed the town's spirit. Before I joined Sandy and the 14-day Across the Ranges Safari tour, I spent a few days in Alice Springs, staying at the Diplomat in a black-and-pink air-conditioned chamber outfitted with a wet bar, snacks, tea, coffee and a Jacuzzi.
The hotel swimming pool was just outside my door. Within walking distance was the Yeperenye Shopping Center (owned by Aboriginals), tourist shops, supermarkets and several pubs. A mile away was Laseters Casino. It is appropriate for Alice Springs to offer gambling, because just being out in the town's heat is something of a risk. "If you get dehydrated out here," one local informed me with a smile, "you'll be dead within eight hours."
Sandy and I were going on a walkabout, an Australian term that loosely means we were going pretty much wherever we wanted at our own pace. Our terrain was to be the southern edge of the Simpson Desert, a region so ancient, and with air so dry, that geological and climatic changes offer an exotic range of wildlife and flora, depending on whether the desert is in drought or flood.
An outback guide would lead five adventurers, two camel handlers and 14 dromedaries through the most extraordinary parts of the bush, spending nights wherever there was feed for the camels. The handlers warned us to respect our mounts. "Camels may seem docile enough," one said, "but they can kick in any direction, they bite, and they can crush you to death with their chest pedestal."
This conversation didn't make me feel very secure, because Sandy was the largest of the long-lashed, long-necked mammals, and his dislike of humans—me. in particular—seemed intense. Each morning when I showed up to tie my canvas bags onto his saddle frame, he would regurgitate and let out an agonizing wail.
Sandy and I lurched on together anyway, along the sandy bottom of the Hugh River, which was dry as usual, with pale-green mulga stretching for miles on either side. Reins of light nylon rope were attached to a thin string connected to a peg through one of his nostrils. I sat behind my luggage and Sandy's hump. As we slowly moved westward, the camel would throw his big soft lips over a few thin branches of mulga and pull off all the leaves without missing a step. All day he munched as I jolted forward and back, slipping and sliding in sweat-soaked clothes, chafing everything that touched the sheepskin saddle. His small ears were in constant motion, reminding me that he preferred a gentle hand on the reins.
For three days, as we passed through several areas, the colors changed from the silvery-green acacia thickets of the James Ranges to the vivid red and violet canyons of Finke River Gorge. During this time our group found no fresh water. We were confused as to the time of day, and the intensity of the heat and the consistency of our camels' lurching made our journey a bit surrealistic. But the more I missed water, the worse I felt, the better Sandy seemed to like me.
The big event of each day occurred when we dismounted and boiled the billy, a tin can containing water, for tea. Food was taken mostly in the dark of night because otherwise the ever-present flies demanded the lion's share.
The man who gave the order to rest or to make camp was Noel Fullerton, our guide. I had first met this bushman at the Virginia City (Nev.) International Camel Races, which I was covering, and he had encouraged me to try the tour out of Alice Springs. "You'd do well, mate, on our camel safari," he said, and smiled as he gave me his brochure. But when I signed up for his December trip, he scolded: "That's the bloody worst time to come. It's hot and dry, and there are lots of flies, and we might not find any water."
Few Australians know the Northern Territory as well as Fullerton; even fewer know as much about camels. For decades he has been catching wild dromedaries on the Angas Downs Cattle Station, then training them to race and ride. He has organized, and won, some of the world's great camel races. He has traveled to the Middle East to discuss camel fodder with Dubai's royal family.
During our trek, Fullerton shared legends of the territory, and at Scorpion Hole, an Aboriginal campsite, he showed us some Aboriginal cave art. "This was a sacred place in the old days," he said. We stayed one night in Cocky's Camp, then we crossed the Finke, which Fullerton reckoned is the world's oldest and driest waterway still running its original course. "When it's got water in it, it's quite spectacular," he said.
Boggy Hole, a long, skinny water hole on the Finke, was an immense relief, our first sight of water in several days. One fellow trekker, a cheerful 22-year-old Melbourne lab technician named Pierot, said he signed up to get out of the city and the rain but was elated when he saw the brown, bug-covered water of Boggy Hole. "I wouldn't have considered drinking water from anything other than a tap before," he said after we had made camp at Boggy Hole, "whereas now I revel in the fact that we get to drink green slimy water with tea leaves in it. You have to change your perspective and be grateful for what you've got because there's nothing else, pal."
Fullerton is a man who enjoys letting people know that he's tough and that his way is law. "There's a right way," he told the group on several occasions, "there's a wrong way, and there's my way. Always do it my way." He could be generous and kind, sharing everything he owned, but he could also be stubborn and moody, and he was less than tolerant of any show of weakness.
On one of the hottest days—around 120° at midday—Fullerton scampered up a rocky cliff to show us a dozen handprints of some ancient Aboriginals. As our suffering increased, so did his energy and glee. We found a water-filled crevice in the rock, and when he pushed one trekker, a beautiful stewardess from Sydney, into the water hole, she was introduced to black mud and leeches.
I had no interest in giving blood to those slimy suckers. At that point I was shaking, swaying, hallucinating; my skin was sweatless, my fatigue absolute. On the way back to camp I fell asleep on Sandy's back. When I awoke my hands were blistered from holding on to the hot metal saddle frame, and I was looking down at a world that had earlier offered violent color but now appeared in shades of gray. Fullerton gave me a potion for heatstroke. It tasted of limes. "You should know that if you don't sweat, you're in trouble," he told me bluntly. "You're dehydrated. You should be drinking more water."
A few days later, we were no longer in danger of becoming dehydrated; weather conditions had changed suddenly to the opposite of those we had experienced on the first part of the expedition. Rain turned the rock-hard ground to mud as we crossed the three high peaks of the Ranges. It was dangerously slick for the soft pads of the camels, and their flat, two-toed feet slipped and slid on the rocky trail. On steep downhill treks, Sandy's body tilted so far forward that I often lost sight of his head as it disappeared below the rest of him. While he carefully stepped off four-foot ledges, fear eliminated any desire in me to inspect my surroundings. I could feel Sandy starting to tremble.
"Keep your feet loose in the stirrups, and if the camel falls down, stay with him," Fullerton called. "He'll just go down on his knees, then stand back up again." To our south, we could see the storm. Thunder rolled across the ridges, and lightning struck the bush. Directly below us we could almost make out the bottom of the canyon we were heading toward. It was as yet a gray blur, but it would eventually become the entrance to an insect-ridden valley. "Centipedes come above ground in the rain because they're afraid they'll drown," said the not-so-comforting Fullerton. To calm our nerves when we were finally off those treacherous cliffs, we boiled the billy and sat in a cavern for an hour, catatonically watching the rain beat down.
"The old German missionaries used to bring their camels down that trail through the Ranges in the early days," said our guide with a peculiar smile. "It was originally a native track, but when it's raining it's the worst possible time to come through that part.... I'm surprised you all made it."
When the rain stopped, I combed the hair at the top of Sandy's long blond neck behind his ears. I used twigs from a eucalyptus and gently scratched all the brush, dirt and burrs from his mane. I had finally discovered his soft spot. Mesmerized, his gorgeous lashes dropped; he closed his eyes and laid his big flat head on the ground.
Late in the afternoon a couple of days later, we passed through Areyonga, an Aboriginal settlement in the Krichauff Range. The camel handlers filled our water bottles while Sandy and I gave rides around the village square to half-naked children whose bodies were covered with sores. The Aboriginals' government-issued houses were empty because the people preferred living the old way, sleeping on the ground outside.
The Wallara Ranch, a motel and saloon 130 miles from Alice Springs, was our final destination. The trek to the rustic inn at the corner of Angas Downs turned out to be a crotch-busting, 40-mile ride on what may well have been the hottest day of all. By 10 a.m. our jaws were set, our butts scarred and sore, our legs partially paralyzed. And there was too little time to boil the billy.
By the time we got to Wallara late that afternoon, we had to be helped off the camels. I was more than willing to pay for a shower, so I left Sandy in a big corral with his favorite tucker and rented a motel room. It didn't matter much that the door to the bathroom didn't close, that the water in the shower only dripped, that the generator broke down so the air conditioner was off for most of the night and that when it did come on the noise was deafening. I wasn't even bothered that the room cost more than a suite at Harvey's in Lake Tahoe.
Still, that upscale night in the outback was, of the 14 I spent there, about the worst. I missed the stars. I missed the fragrance of the bush, the shuffling and murmuring of the camels. I missed the sight of the Australian outback at dawn, its reds, oranges, golds and greens. I missed the eerie light, the kangaroos, lizards, eagles, brumbies and parrots. I missed tea from the billy. Most of all I missed cud-chewing, two-toed Sandy.
Sandy wasn't overjoyed with his charge until Hadley discovered the big beast's soft spot.
Fullerton (on his ancient steed, Mirindi) knows plenty about camels and the outback.
C.J. Hadley plans to purchase a camel for her ranch in Nevada's Washoe Valley.