Speed humps

Discover the camels that draw a crowd and the Afghan settlers that led the way there in Marree, South Australia

An edited version appeared in the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald's Traveller section on 8th May 2011

“Don’t stand too close!” warns Pete Chantler, looking over his troupe of dromedaries (one-hump camels) as a crisp desert dawn breaks in Marree,  685 kilometres north of Adelaide where the outback anecdotally begins.
An impressive two or more metres high at the hump, Chantler’s 10 charges seem placid enough, but he is adamant they’re not to be trusted – and perhaps he’s right.

Since arriving in Australia in 1860 to serve as the main mode of transport for the ill-fated Burke and Wills’ expedition into Terra Australis’ vast inland, they’ve gone feral. More than a million roam wild in our arid regions, and occasionally, Chantler and his best mate Greg Emmett catch one and race it in the Marree Camel Cup, held annually in July. It’s this sleepy desert town’s busiest weekend, and the first in a chain of camel races peppered throughout the Outback in the temperate winter months.

I take Chantler’s advice on getting too cosy with the camels, and take in the magnificent gibber plain desert surrounding us instead. It stretches out like a great ochre canvas, broken only by scrubby outcrops of acacia and clusters of corrugated iron and stone buildings, like the Marree Hotel. Built in 1883, it’s the oldest stone building in town and a remnant of Marree’s heyday between 1860 and 1930 when Marree was home to the hundreds of Afghan settlers – and their camels – who carried supplies between towns, stations and rail workers on the old Ghan rail route.

Hailing mostly from northern Indian and modern-day Pakistan, they laboured to open up the Outback from Marree’s pivotal point at the juncture of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks. They also built Australia’s first official mosque, and a sturdy mud brick replica sits in the middle of modern day Marree.

Visitors to this part of the country are often on long, self-catering road trips through the arid Simpsons and Sturts Stony Deserts. No need to ask which way they’re travelling – just take a look at their 4WD. If it’s clean, they’re just starting out; if it’s caked in red dust, they’re near the end. Most come via a visit to scenic Lake Eyre 90 km north along the Oodnadatta Track and many time their visit to take in the famous Marree Camel Cup.
Around noon when the sun sits high in the clear blue sky, things kick off. The ladies in the roller-shuttered cafe alongside the racetrack throw the first batch of chips in the fryer, the bookie sets up shop in the shade, and race caller David Bell gets busy on the mike. Bell comperes the entire day’s events: the camel races, tug-of-war, children’s donkey races, dog and foot races and a fashion in the field contest. Bell has been coming to the Cup from the nearby family station since he was a kid. “It’s a great day for catching up and saying g’day,” explains the farmer, whose closest neighbours are 25 km away. There’s even an el fresco after dark disco, when the bar opens and the sound system cranks up.

Bell’s cadent drawl focuses the Akubra-hatted crowd of festive country folk, city folk on safari, tourists, locals and Afghan descendents on the dusty racetrack, where the first batch of camels are being led 400 metres to the starting point and “hooshed down” (made to kneel) by their handlers.  The starter pops the pistol, propelling the camels to lumber to their hoofed feet and take off in the general direction of the finish line at speeds of up to 65 km an hour.

“What will you get if you win on her?” I ask one of the jockeys, Brett Scott. “A sore back and a sore arse,” he answers, and he’s not joking. Scott and his fellow jockeys cling valiantly on behind the jiggling humps of their charges; grace is not the camels’ strong point. They’re hard to control too; today’s event is strictly spectator-only.

In fact, the idea of a jockey being able to steer a camel is a joke. “If they run in a straight line, it’s a bonus,” says Chantler, recalling the years one of his camels, Dish Dash, took a short cut through the middle of the race track to the finish line, or all the camels – his, and his competitors’ – turned around in the middle of a race and went back the way they’d come. Then there’s Roxy’s bad habit of running towards the crowd and stopping just short of the finish to be admired, and Trigger’s penchant for “going stupid” and zigzagging his way to the finish line. 

 The Cup is an important day for the town since the Ghan was redirected away from Marree in 1980 reckons Sister June Andrews, Marree’s community nurse for the past 25 years. Marree doesn’t have a local council, so the community – 70 per cent mixed Afghan/Aboriginal (Dieri) descent – use it to raise funds for special projects, like street lighting. The Cup is also a way of reminding people that camels were once a major part of life in Marree. “I rode one once,” she confides. “I thought I was going to topple over its head!”

Fast facts

Getting there: Marree is 685 km north of Adelaide, and 79 km (by dirt road) from Lyndhurst. Air access to Marree is by charter flight only.

Staying there: Accommodation in Marree is limited, so book ahead. The Marree Hotel offers double/twin self contained units for $130 per night; singles $85; triple $150. Double/twin hotel rooms are $100 per night; single $80 per night; triple $135 per night, with continental breakfast included. Call (08) 8675 8344, or see www.marreehotel.com.au. The Oasis Town Centre Caravan Park offers motel units $100 double/twin; singles $80, breakfast included, and campsites for $10 per person/night, power $5, call (08) 8675 8352 [no website], or simply bring a swag to roll out under the stars. Indulge in an Outback adventure at the self-catering Clayton Station $220/night for two and $33 for each extra person, call (08) 8675 8311, see www.claytonstation.com.au, or the Coward Springs Camping Ground for $10 per person/night (children under 15 half price) call (08) 8675 8336, or see www.cowardsprings.com.au.

When to go: Between November and March the days are often 40C+, so between April and October is best; daily temperatures average 16-20C.
Camel races: The 19th Marree Camel Cup will take place on 9th July 2011. See www.marree.com.au. Outback camel races also happen in Alice Springs, NT on 9th July www.camelcup.com.au, Bedourie, Qld on 9th July 2011 www.diamantina.qld.gov.au; Boulia from 15th to 17th July www.boulia.qld.gov.au; Winton, Qld on 23rd July www.experiencewinton.com.au; Tara, Qld from 5th to 7th August www.tarafestivalncamels.org.au.

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