Of Camels and Cars …


The Victorian Exploring Expedition known to posterity as the Burke and Wills Expedition was the first in Australia to make significant use of camels. They proved to be very suitable for use in the arid zone and went on to play a fascinating role in the early days of settlement. But the camels imported for that adventure were not the first in Australia or the first used for exploration. That honour goes to Harry.

Four camels were purchased at Tenerife in the Canary Islands and shipped to Adelaide. Three died en route, Harry was the sole survivor. On the 12th October 1840 Harry became the first camel in Australia.

In 1846 John Ainsworth Horrocks set off astride Harry to find new agricultural land near Lake Torrens in South Australia. Harry was not a well behaved camel and had soon inflicted injuries on one of the goats taken along for food as well as on the man who was supposed to cook the goat, but that was just the beginning. On 1 September Horrocks was preparing to shoot a bird on the shores of Lake Dutton. The kneeling camel moved while Horrocks was reloading his gun, the gun discharged.

Horrocks wrote two letters after the accident. The first was to his family and the subscribers to the expedition apologizing for its early termination. The second relates the chain of events that led up to the accident. The letters can be seen on this South Australian Website, and to think that people criticise doctors’ hand writing. Although, in defence of Horrocks it should be said that the discharge had blown off the middle finger of his right hand before entering his left cheek and knocking out some of his upper teeth. He died from his injuries. Harry was executed for his crimes.

Saddles came with the camels. They were traditionally stuffed with vegetation. Many of the exotic weeds of Australia’s arid zones were introduced that way, including the Paddy Melons.

Since there were few people in Oz that were experienced in the handling of camels cameleers were also imported, many from Afghanistan. They, too, played a fine role in developing the arid zones. The train that links Adelaide with Darwin was named the Ghan in their honour. That is a trip that should be on my bucket list, yours too, you can book online.

Cadelga Outstation

Cars are more reliable than camels and these days have largely replaced them. Although they are not without their problems.

The biggest problem in the arid zone is rain. Heavy rain can render your 4WD immobile. There is little you can do if you are caught out but wait. Therefore make sure you have plenty of food and water for any outback trip and some means of communication that is not dependent on a mobile phone tower. Satellite phone is first choice although HF radio will still answer the purpose.

Here comes the rain

I have found country pubs to be valuable sources of beer and also to be very accommodating with weather forecasts. At Innaminka one time the bar staff advised me to either leave immediately or camp near the pub. If I didn’t make the bitumen that day I wouldn’t be going anywhere for a week. They hoped I would stay. Information centres in outback towns will also print you off a weather forecast although they’re not so good with the beer.

The best defence against mechanical failure is proper maintenance before leaving home and your radiator needs to be protected from animal strike by a robust bullbar. Leave word of your intended route with a friend. Drive according to the condition of the road. Should you become stuck despite all this then stay with your vehicle.


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