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The ancestors of Australian feral camels were dromedary camels imported to provide transport through inland Australia, which their feral descendants have since made their domain. The increasing numbers of camels, and their impact on native vegetation, is of concern, and feral camels have become minor agricultural pests.

Many different types and breeds of camels were brought into Australia, but most were from India. They included the large, fleece-bearing, two-humped Bactrian camel of China and Mongolia, the elite Bishari riding camel of North Africa and Arabia, the pedigreed Bikaneri war camel of Rajasthan in India, and the powerful, freight-carrying lowland Indian camel, capable of moving huge loads of up to 800 kg or 1,764 lb.

The feral dromedary camels found in Australia are a meld of these breeds but can be split into two types: a slender riding form and a heavier pack animal.

Thousands of camels were imported between 1840 and 1907 to open up the arid areas of central and western Australia. They were used for riding, and as draught and pack animals for exploration and construction of rail and telegraph lines; they were also used to supply goods to remote mines and settlements.

HistoryEdit

Camels in Australia are the only feral herds of their kind in the world and are estimated to number more than 1,000,000 with the capability of doubling in size every nine years. The Australian camels are descendants of camels imported into Australia, beginning in the mid-1800s, to help lay the foundations of the nation. Shipments came largely from the Indian subcontinent, but animals were also landed from Muscat, Yemen, Iraq and the Canary Islands.

Arriving in a trickle that swelled to a flood by the early 20th century, the camels were often guided and cared for by Muslim cameleers known as 'Afghans'. Handlers came from lands as far away as Egypt, Turkey and Persia, though most - with their camels - hailed from northern India and what today is Pakistan. But the men were all, almost always incorrectly, called Afghans or simply "Ghans." The name stuck to a section of the 2,900 km (1,800 mi) transcontinental Central Australia Railway linking Port Augusta in the south to Darwin in the north. Camels hauled material and supplies to the men building that line beginning in 1879, and the segment of track from Port Augusta to Alice Springs was called "The Ghan" until it was relaid about a decade ago.

It could be argued that the town of Alice Springs owes its existence to the hardy camel and the equally hardy cameleers. It was founded in the early 1870s as a repeater station for the Darwin-to-Adelaide Overland Telegraph Line - which was also built by men who depended on dromedaries for supplies and equipment. Plodding camels not only helped establish "The Alice," they brought it music: the first piano arrived in the 1880s, the story goes, strapped to the back of a camel. Aptly, the city holds a state legislative district, a primary school and a major thoroughfare all named after cameleer Saleh "Charlie" Sadadeen, who came to Alice Springs with his team in 1890. "Children were enthralled with his distinctive, flowing robes and intrigued with the long-stemmed pipe he smoked," reports the Alice Springs Centralian Advocate.

Men like Sadadeen came to Australia on two- to three-year contracts but often lived out their lives in the country, writes American geographer Tom McKnight in The Camel in Australia. While a handful became wealthy, deploying "thousands of camels organized into the backbone of corporate business," most toiled from dawn to well past dusk for low pay, and lived near outback towns in little communities distinguished by the "tin minarets of their hastily constructed mosques." Wherever the cameleers settled, writes McKnight, "they would soon construct a place of worship. In every case the mosque was a focal point of community life in Ghan Town."

The first camelEdit

The first suggestion of bringing camels to Australia was made in 1822 by Conrad Malte-Brun, whose Universal Geography contains the following;

"For such an expedition, men of science and courage ought to be selected. They ought to be provided with all sorts of implements and stores, and with different animals, from the powers and instincts of which they may derive assistance. They should have oxen from Buenos Aires, or from the English settlements, mules from Senegal, and dromedaries from Africa or Arabia. The oxen would traverse the woods and the thickets; the mules would walk securely among rugged rocks and hilly countries; the dromedaries would cross the sandy deserts. Thus the expedition would be prepared for any kind of territory that the interior might present. Dogs also should be taken to raise game, and to discover springs of water; and it has even been proposed to take pigs, for the sake of finding out esculent roots in the soil. When no kangaroos and game are to be found the party would subsist on the flesh of their own flocks. They should be provided with a balloon for spying at a distance any serious obstacle to their progress in particular directions, and for extending the range of observations which the eye would take of such level lands as are too wide to allow any heights beyond them to come within the compass of their view."

The first serious Australian suggestion for using camels was 1837 when Governor Bourke of New South Wales received a report recommending the importation of camels from India to Sydney. The Sydney Herald took up the call, arguing that camels were "admirably adapted to the climate and soil" of the unexplored country. Though it was not until the 1860s that dromedaries were brought to Australia in any numbers, the first camel - named 'Harry' - arrived in 1840, the sole survivor of a group of four loaded aboard the SS Appoline at Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Though they would soon prove vital to the country's development, their first representative hardly set a good example.

On a surveying expedition to the Lake Torrens area of South Australia in 1846, 'Harry' bit the tentkeeper, grabbed a goat by the back of the neck and "chewed a hole in a bag of flour, leaving a white trail along the route," according to an account of the journey. But the straw that broke 'Harry's' back came when he bumped his owner, John Horrocks, just as Horrocks was reloading his muzzle-loader with fine shot to take a bird as a scientific specimen. Horrocks lost two fingers and several teeth in the ensuing blast, and died a month later of gangrene. The camel was shot at his express wish, not as revenge, but because 'Harry' was clearly a bad specimen who would give camels as a whole a bad name.

In May 1841, between 'Harry's' arrival and his premature death, two female camels acquired from the Imam of Muscat arrived in Sydney via India aboard the SS Malta - the fourth and fifth dromedaries to reach Australia. (The second and third were from Tenerife and landed in Hobart, Tasmania from the SS Calcutta, but there is no record of what happened to them). A male companion from Muscat had died en route. Seeking buyers, the animals' importer, Captain John Martin Ardlie (1793-1872), took the camels from Sydney to Melbourne, but despite the Herald's counsel, no one was interested in purchasing them. Ardlie returned the camels to Sydney where Governor Gipps bought the animals, along with a replacement male, and ordered them to be pastured on the Sydney Domain. Two were painted nibbling on the lawn there in 1845, and the painting is held at the Mitchell Library.

The camel as a beast of burdenEdit

In 1860, the camel was first called on to do the work for which it was ideally suited: long-distance exploration in a continent of some 7,000,000 km2 (2,700,000 sq mi). But here, too, first results were far from promising. Twenty-six camels, several originally imported from Aden in 1859 to perform in a show in Melbourne, were included in the 20-man, 23-horse Burke and Wills expedition that set off from Melbourne in August 1860 in a bid to cross the unmapped continent from south to north. A picked team of four men, six camels and a single horse made the last 1,600 km (990 mi) push from a base camp at Cooper Creek, reaching the north coast in February 1861. But none of those camels - and only one man, John King, - made it back. Of the six camels who crossed Australia, two were eaten, two abandoned and two destroyed when they became too tired to continue. Further information: Burke and Wills expeditionInstead, the relief mission that departed from Adelaide under John McKinlay in 1862 first proved the value of camels in rough terrain - for a novel reason. McKinlay never found Burke and Wills but did return with valuable reconnaissance, and he praised his camels for their ability to move over stones and through muddy, flooded country. "The camels acted famously," he wrote, "...from their great height they were as good [in protecting the expedition's stores] as if we had been supplied with boats." Further camel-mounted expeditions helped unlock the secrets of the vast, arid interior in the 1870s, pushing through south and Western Australia and what from 1909 became the Northern Territory. Indeed, the first Europeans to set eyes on magnificent Uluru, the 350 m (1,150 ft) sandstone monolith on the central Australian plain, were the members of the camel-borne 1873 William Gosse Expedition. The 1894 Horn Expedition to the MacDonnell Ranges used camels for transport of people and equipment.

Australia's first large-scale camel importer was Scottish-born Sir Thomas Elder, whose interest in dromedaries can probably be traced to his own experience in the Middle East. Nine years after an 1857 camel journey from Cairo to Jerusalem, Elder started a stud farm about 400 km (250 mi) north of Port Augusta, with 121 camels shipped in from Karachi. That first shipment, chosen with care to meet a variety of outback needs, included light camels for riding, medium-weight pack animals and heavy Kandahar dromedaries able to carry loads up to 650 kg (1,400 lb). Elder's enterprise wasn't trouble-free as his herd was immediately struck by mange and reduced by almost half. But with the animals that remained, supplemented by additional imports, he produced carefully bred beasts that consistently brought higher prices than any others, home-grown or imported. With Elder leading the way, Australian camel importers began to buy in earnest as the 19th century drew to a close. Between 1894 and 1897 6,000 camels were shipped from India directly to Western Australia, mainly to serve the booming gold camps. In 1910, there were more than 8,400 camels in the country. Numbers peaked around 1920 with some 20,000 in harness.

The firm Elder founded continues today as Elders Limited, and even though it long ago phased out its camel trade, it has retained an interest in the animals - the company supplied ten camels for a 3,426 km (2,129 mi), 117-day walk from Darwin to Adelaide by the Northern Territory and South Australia police forces. The expedition's arrival on 1 January 1988 was timed to kick off Australia's bicentennial celebrations. In 1986, Elder also aided a central Australian Aboriginal community trying to sell several thousand camels to the Moroccan government.

Camels were able to carry heavy loads over long distances and go for days without a drink, they proved better adapted than horses or bullocks to working in a continent half of which is arid or semi-arid and where summertime temperatures often soar beyond 48 °C (118 °F).

Camels did a variety of important jobs. They hauled the casings that lined the wells that tapped underground water, which opened wide areas to the livestock industry vital to the Australian economy to this day. They carried the fencing - and later the fence riders - that held back rabbits from the newly opened ranges; they lugged supplies to sheep stations and mines and returned with bales of wool and wagonloads of ore; they dragged scoops to carve out lake basins; they pulled passenger coaches between towns where there was barely a road; and they transported policemen and postmen on their appointed rounds far from cities or towns. Outback journeymen even found that the trails pounded smooth by the padded feet of hundreds of dromedaries made excellent routes for bicycling hundreds of kilometres between jobs.

The early camels weren't dawdlers, either. In a famous race between a camel and a horse, completed between Bourke and Wanaaring in New South Wales and back again, the camel mount of Abdul Wadi (1866-1928+) won when the horse died from exhaustion at the half-way mark. Abdul Wadi proudly rode his camel to the finish.

Today camel races are popular, and include the annual Imparja Camel Cup raced with up to 15 camels At Blatherskite Park in Alice Springs and the Boulia Desert Sands Camel Cup.

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