Alice Springs: All aboard the ships of the desert

By Jenny Tabakoff

It takes time for the eyes of a visitor, fresh off the plane at Alice Springs, to become accustomed to the subtlety of Central Australia's flora and fauna. But there's no mistaking a camel when you see one.

Exploring Alice Springs by camel. Photo / Supplied
Exploring Alice Springs by camel. Photo / Supplied

About a million camels live in Australia, the only continent where they roam wild.

Our first stop on the 440 kilometre drive from Alice to Uluru is Stuarts Well camel farm. Here, NZ$9 ($7.70 for children) buys a short ride around an enclosure on a dromedary.

Instead, we wander inside, order camel burgers, and read a sign that addresses "the 10 most asked questions about camels". (What's in the humps? Fat, not water.)

We eat the burgers, which are juicy and pleasantly gamey, watched by some disapproving dromedaries.

Camels have been making their home in Central Australia for 170 years. Today's herds are descendants of the 19th-century steeds that pushed through the Overland Telegraph and the railway.

Australia's first camel, Harry, was the sole survivor of a group shipped over from India.

Harry became the death of its owner, explorer and pastoralist John Horrocks.

One day, as Horrocks took aim, the grumpy beast he was riding moved unexpectedly, causing Horrocks to shoot himself. The dying man proved unforgiving, and ordered Harry to be destroyed.

But there were plenty more camels where Harry had come from.

The "Afghans" who were our first cameleers have vanished, but the camels remain. If you keep your eyes open, you'll see Camelus dromedarius swaying through the desert oaks and mulga. (The two-humped bactrians didn't thrive in Australia.)

A few days later we see a line of wild camels at sunset, stalking through scrub near Kings Canyon. They look utterly at home, but are a pest in this semi-arid but fragile landscape. A thirsty camel can drink 100 litres at one sitting, so a herd can swiftly empty a waterhole. That's bad news for native fauna.

In recent years, Kings Creek Station has taken to rounding up feral camels and exporting them to Saudi Arabia. Coals to Newcastle? Australia's camels are valued in the Middle East - not for racing but for disease-free meat.

Our camels aren't fast by world standards (they come from stock noted for strength, not speed), but every July the Camel Cup is fiercely contested in Alice Springs.

Feral or not, they are magnificent animals. It's hard to resist a dawn camel ride at Uluru Camel Tours, part of the Voyages Ayers Rock Resort at Yulara. Here 40-odd "ships of the desert" will take visitors on anything from short walks around an enclosure to five-kilometre treks through the dunes.

The minibus picks us up in the dark from our hotel, Sails in the Desert, to drive the short distance to the farm. The camels are already saddled up and loosely tethered in a long line. They kneel patiently in the dust, occasionally emitting a guttural cry.

Our cameleer says camels don't spit. When they want to make a point, they might spray some cud.

We sort ourselves into pairs. Each camel can take two riders, but the heavier person must ride on the back. Many riders seem reluctant to take the rear position, but things are eventually sorted out and then, one by one, the camels get to their feet.

Steel yourself for a rocking ride aloft: just hold on tight with both hands and lean back. Right back. The camel straightens its hind legs first, then its front. Soon we are all two metres above the ground, smiling tensely.

The camels set off just as the horizon starts to glow. The legs on each side rise and fall in unison, creating that distinctive swaying motion. The resultant ride is oddly restful, and the camels move at a leisurely pace, perfect for taking photos and listening to the informative cameleer who strides alongside.

We reach a ridge of dune just as the sun pops its head above the horizon. The patient camels are used to the sight, but their riders go wild as reality dawns: there is nothing more photogenic than a snaking camel train in the foreground as Uluru and Kata Tjuta blush pink in the first rays of a new day.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Tiger Airways recently resumed direct flights to Alice Springs from Sydney and Melbourne. tigerairways.com

STAYING THERE: All accommodation at Uluru (Sails in the Desert, Desert Gardens Hotel, Emu Walk Apartments, Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge, and Ayers Rock Campground) is at Yulara. Contact Voyages Ayers Rock Resort. Kings Creek Station has "safari cabins" and a campground. At Stuarts Wells, Jim's Place offers camping and dormitory-style accommodation.

PLAYING THERE: Temperatures soar in summer, and the most comfortable months are from April to November. However, temperatures plunge at night in the desert, so take warm clothes for those dawn camel rides.

Uluru Camel Tours, 10 Kali Circuit, Yulara offers daily camel tours. The "Camel to Sunrise" ride takes two and a half hours and includes a one-hour pre-dawn ride through the desert and breakfast.

Stuarts Well Camel Farm is on the Stuart Highway 90km south of Alice Springs.

Kings Creek Station, 36km from Kings Canyon on Luritja Road, is about to resume commercial camel rides.

Find out more at Australia.com

- AAP

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