Here be camels
By: James Aitchison
Think of the one-humped dromedary and images of the vast Sahara, the swirling sands of the Middle East, and the legendary Silk Road spring to mind. But Australia?
In truth, Australia today can lay claim to possessing more than one million feral camels. One million beasts, each hoovering up twenty gallons of water in minutes and denuding the wilds of vegetation. Small wonder Australian graziers face financial ruin at the hands (or mouths) of camels. Meanwhile, wildlife experts and conservationists warn that a million camels are leaving native species such as kangaroos and emus in peril.
The first camels and their Muslim cameleers arrived on 9 June 1860 in Port Melbourne to join the ill-fated Burke & Wills expedition. The explorers intended traversing Australia from south to north, crossing the harsh central deserts for the first time. While the expedition was a disaster, it proved the worth of camels in the arid wastes of central Australia.
Within a few years, a vast network of camel routes crisscrossed inland Australia, carrying wool from far-flung sheep stations and cargoes of ore to bustling railheads, and returning with supplies — food, water, tools, and even the odd pianola. By the 1890s, Australia’s camel teams rivaled anything the Silk Road had seen. The development of inland Australia very much rode on the camel’s back. Soon, agents traveled to the Peshawar camel market to purchase more and more animals for Australia.
Between 1870 and 1920, two thousand cameleers and 20,000 camels arrived in Australia. Collectively referred to as “Afghans”, they belonged to four main groups: Pashtun, Baluchi, Punjabi, and Sindhi. Despite the racist attitudes common at the time, the cameleers were respected for their skills and carried an air of mystery and intrigue. Afghanistan was in the news. It was where England and Russia played the Great Game, and Afghan soldiers had defeated General Roberts at Kandahar.
Sadly, public acceptance of Afghan cameleers was tested at the outbreak of the First World War.
In 1914, Britain declared war on Turkey. On 1 January 1915, two cameleers, Mullah Abdullah and Gool Mahomed, displaying the Turkish flag, opened fire on a picnic train at Broken Hill carrying 1,200 holiday makers. The two assailants and four passengers died. Community anger flared, demanding retribution against the town’s Afghans. Fortunately, the mob realised the two attackers were Turks, not Afghans, so it burned down the German Club instead.
As the 1920s progressed, motor transport replaced the camel. By the 1940s, the camel train was a thing of the past. Many cameleers returned to their home countries, while others stayed, found new employment, and started families.
Rather than shoot their beloved camels their owners released them into the desert. At one time in recent years the feral camel population exceeded two million animals. Nowadays wild camels are hunted down and exported to Saudi Arabia which has a shortage of camels for milk, meat, hair, and hides. Others go to feed the Moroccan Army. The humble camel, it seems, still contributes to the Australian economy.