Sundown in the Australian desert. Outback Australian Camels
We are a small group of four strangers. Curly-headed Margaret is a fit, feisty, adventure-loving 60-something Aussie, around my age. Olaf, a thin, wiry septuagenarian has flown from Finland to join the trek. And Russell, our skilful, 40-ish guide is an experienced cameleer, published author and long-time outback explorer. We have come to try our hand at camel trekking with his company, Outback Australian Camels.Trish Clark shares her story of crossing part of Australia’s rugged Simpson Desert, while pushing body and mind to the limit.
We gather at Beltana Station, a sheep and cattle “ranch”, after a 600-kilometer drive north from Adelaide. Sprawled on the sandy banks of Lake Torrens, it is almost half a million acres of sand, red dirt, spinifex and saltbush. In a good – meaning rainy – season, the station runs up to 10,000 sheep and hundreds of head of cattle. All four of us bond over a dinner of red wine, saltbush lamb roast and damper, a traditional Australian soda bread baked over the hot coals of a campfire.
Started in 1854, Beltana Station today incorporates guest accommodations and a range of visitor activities into its working station business plan. Trish Clark
Eager to get started, I wake first in the former shearers’ quarters. After taking my last shower for the next week, I pull on my long-sleeved hiking shirt, lightweight walking trousers, well-worn ankle boots and my much-traveled waterproof, oil skin hat. Outside an ear-splitting commotion shatters the early morning tranquillity. As I spot somebody at the controls of what looks like a flying lawnmower; he is kitted out in leather gloves and headgear and wearing a pair of goggles. The station owner is on his way to help muster sheep!
After a quick breakfast of tea and toast in Beltana’s kitchen, we pile excitedly onto the tray of a rusty jalopy. An hour-long ride over bumpy, dusty tracks takes us to the camel-holding paddock near Lake Torrens to rendezvous with our new four-legged companions. Powerful and wise, Jack, the lead camel in the train is followed by eager-to-please Sahid, lanky Taggles, easy going Baci, flighty Coco, placid Queen Sheeba, gentle Neddy, haughty, out-of-sorts Camilla and ever-curious baby Euco.
Margaret, Olaf and I are all keen to get going, but Russell sits us down for some important desert craft instruction. He explains how much water we need to drink – a minimum of 3 liters per person each day. He demonstrates the most effective way to make a campfire. He shows us which buttons to press on the emergency radio if he comes to some sort of grief. He introduces us to the soft, roomy swags, made of durable canvas on the outside and soft, pliable foam on the inside; these will be our beds for the next week.
Camels must lie down to be loaded. Outback Australian Camels
Margaret asks a critical question: ‘How do we go to the toilet in the desert?’ Rule #1, says Russell, notify the trek guide, then grab the toilet bag carried by Jack which holds a trowel, biodegradable toilet paper, matches and disinfectant wipes. Find a suitable bush, check underneath for snakes (at night a head torch is imperative) and dig a pit. When finished, set the paper alight, allow it to burn, then cover the ashes and the rest with sand. Simple, hygienic (in a desert kind of way) and environmentally friendly!
At last we set off, trekking alongside the camel train or from a safe distance behind. We carry water in a camelback (water bladder) stored in our backpacks together with snacks brought from home. With only three toes on each broad cushioned foot, lumpy knees and rangy legs, the camels seem to float silently over the dunes, effortlessly heaving our food provisions, swags, picnic table, gallons of water and a securely-stowed rifle in case we happen to be charged by a wild bull camel.
A fly net is essential; swatting is useless. Unfortunately, Olaf has come without one but he doesn’t complain. It is such a bonus that we all get on well. While there is only necessary chatter when walking in the debilitating heat, cosy evenings around the campfire draw us all out while we eat, talk and laugh together. In no time, Olaf becomes a more relaxed ‘Ollie’ and Margaret a laid-back Margie as we fall into a daily routine. Russell, however, never becomes ‘Russ’.
We wake with the sunrise, as do the camels, and our first task is to untether them so they are free to graze on leaves and stringy grass. We sit around a glowing campfire which somehow Russell has soundlessly rekindled before we wake. Temperatures at this early hour are near zero. We defrost our chilled fingers around tin mugs of hot tea and eat thick slices of toasted bread spread with energy-boosting peanut butter. Russell insists that we follow the ‘leave no trace’ rule of the desert.
Breakfast over, it’s time to round up the camels which have now wandered some kilometers away. Russell points each of us in a different direction with instructions to take hold of the rope hanging from the camel’s neck and lead it back to camp.
Trish rolls up her swag after a night’s rest. Margaret Hay
I finally spy Euco in the distance and decide to aim for him. Just as I reach him, my eye catches some movement behind a large clump of trees and I notice Camilla standing perfectly camouflaged amid the desert colors. I decide to video her while she’s seemingly feeding contentedly. But Camilla has other ideas. She isn’t at all fond of Euco and, as I’m filming, she charges at him with a deafening roar. He panics and takes off, sand flying and I take off too! Having achieved her goal, Camilla wanders off and, nose higher than usual in the air, disappears. Not feeling inclined to test her tolerance levels of me, I grab hold of Euco’s rope to return to camp.
Russell and the haughty Camilla. Kathleen Wright
But where is camp? It’s just Euco, me and an ocean of sand. The nothingness is deafening. My heart slips up to my throat and for the first time since we left Beltana I feel quite nervous. Not sure which direction to head off in, I sit on the sand holding the rope while Euco, quite unconcerned, munches away on something appetising. After at least ten long, soundless minutes (except for Euco’s noisy chewing), Russell appears like magic on top of a sand dune in his wide-brimmed Akubra hat.
It’s unnerving, that feeling that you’re stranded in the desert. Even though I know Russell would never leave me behind, I learn a valuable lesson that morning. When we arrive back at camp Russell teaches us how to ‘mark’ territory with our eyes so as never to become lost again.
The Simpson Desert is the largest dune desert in the world, covering 176,500 square kilometers of red sand and wilderness in the north of the state of South Australia, and extending into the Northern Territory and Queensland. It is one of Australia’s most remote and desolate regions as well as the driest and hottest, averaging only 150 mm of rainfall each year. It includes Lake Eyre, Australia’s largest inland lake (9500 sq km), Lake Torrens and the rugged Flinders Ranges, South Australia’s largest chain of mountains.
The first motor vehicle crossing of the desert was in 1962. While there are no maintained roads even today, crossing the Simpson Desert attracts many adventurous 4WD drive enthusiasts. (There is a seasonal summer closure from 1 December until 15 March each year). Not without risk, the vehicle crossing takes about four days. Detailed information can be found on the South Australian National Parks website.
Photo Credit: Outback Australian Camels
We walk until lunchtime. Russell finds a sandy shelter with a few shade trees. Once he’s settled on the perfect site, the camels rest on their haunches and we busy ourselves gathering armfuls of dry, brittle wood so we can boil water for tea in a blackened tin ‘billy can’. We are always ravenous. And so are the flies. Like Kamikaze bombers they rain down on the slices of cheese, tomato, cucumber, tinned meat and fruit cake Russell sets out on the collapsible picnic table. After lunch we rest in the cool of a sandy ‘bed’ made by scooping out handfuls of hot red sand.
To my surprise, the desert is full of life. Every day we are greeted by bashful kangaroos, nosy emus, basking monitor lizards camouflaged in desert browns, and dive-bombing eagles. More than once I step over troughs of irregular depths and widths, not knowing if they’ve been etched in the sand by the Inland Taipan, the deadliest snake on the planet or some harmless reptilian relative.
Temperatures are taxing: 35-degree days and zero nights are the norm. Each day I look forward to the evenings when coolness descends. Somehow Russell always finds a sheltered sanctuary for us to camp overnight. He makes sure there are trees to tether the camels and lots of room for us to spread out with our swags, ensuring a little privacy. As soon as the temperature drops the flies miraculously disappear making it much easier to complete our evening chores.
We unload the camels and let them roam for food. They don’t drink at all during the trek. Contrary to general belief, water is stored in a camel’s bloodstream, not in its hump(s) which hold fat stores. Russell sets up the table and unpacks the provisions while we find a flat stretch of sand to roll out our swags. Margie and Ollie gather wood and I pick up the shovel and dig a deep, wide hole in the sand for the fire.
Always hungry, we make short work of Russell’s delicious one-pot meals. One night Margie and I find some potatoes in the provisions bag and make spud and onion mash to accompany Russell’s lamb shanks. After a tough day, a giant block of chocolate divided into four is reward enough. After doing our best in the way of ablutions, we collapse into our swags.
Dinner in the desert. Outback Australian Camels
Trekking in the blazing sun, up and down sinking slopes of hot, shifting sand for a week might not be everyone’s idea of a break. It is hard work, but in the long run physically and mentally restorative. The joy is in the journey, as the saying goes, and tough, unexpected challenges can make the journey even more satisfying.
Russell and Margie do the washing up. Trish Clark
On more than one occasion, I am convinced I’ll collapse and die of exhaustion, certain that I have reached my mental and physical limits. But calling on that extra reserve of willpower, I resolve to keep placing one sinking foot in front of the other, and crash through the limits of capability. The trek becomes a triumph of sorts for all three of us ‘seniors’.
We arrive back at the enormous camel holding paddock we set out from seven days and an eternity earlier. We’re dirty, and we stink. We are sunburned, wearied and footsore but our spirits are soaring. We say our goodbyes to the camels, pile back into the truck and head to Beltana where real toilets, showers and hot water await us.
Outback Australian Camels, www.australiancamels.com, is a camel trekking operation run by experienced cameleers Russell and Tara Osborne. The trek Trish took was over 7 nights and included accommodation before and after at Beltana Station, www.beltanastation.com.au.
Trekking season is May to early September. Some treks have a theme and upcoming treks include Father and Son treks, Photography, Yoga and every year at least one charity trek. Trekking with a pack of camels offers a unique outback experience, creating a bond between animals and humans while exploring the desert.
Russell reports, “A good 80% of our safari trekking participants are between 45 and 80 years old. Most are at a stage where they are looking for something different, are at a crossroads in life and even fulfilling a personal dream. The experience for most is life changing.”
Russell and Tara are major supporters of the Children First Foundation, assisting the Foundation through their desert adventure treks. Russell is author of Camelman Dreaming, the story of his 7,000 kilometer camel trek from Darwin to Melbourne in 2009 to raise money for the Children First Foundation.
Photo Credit: Outback Australian Camels
Trish Clark is the author of the Good Night and God Bless series of guidebooks. She has published a France guide to convent, monastery and religious guesthouses between Paris and Provence, and one reflecting similar budget travel themes in Italy will be unveiled shortly. Her latest book, Guide to the Camino, tracks her solo adventures along the famous pilgrimage walk from St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in western Spain. Trish lives in Australia.