Why 60yo’s Go Camel Trekking

outback camel trek

Article Feature in ‘The Australian’ By Trish Clark (Outback Camel Trek Participant)

WE are a small party, and complete strangers. Margaret and I are both in our 60s; Olaf, a septuagenarian, is fresh from Finland. Russell, the final member of our group, is an experienced cameleer, author and adventurer.

But we aren’t strangers for long. In the shearing shed of Beltana Station, a working sheep and cattle ranch 550km north of Adelaide in the Flinders Ranges, we bond over red wine, damper and saltbush lamb roast. We sleep in the shearers’ quarters and at dawn climb eagerly into the back of a ute to be driven to a holding area near Lake Torrens for our rendezvous with a camel train, where we will begin a week-long outback trek.
Wise Jack, the leader of the herd, is accompanied by Sahid, Taggles, Baci, Coco, Sheeba, cranky Camilla and half-tonne baby Euco. Russell instructs us on some of the finer points of desert-craft — how to make a fire, boil a billy, roll up a swag, which buttons to press on the emergency radio if he comes to grief, and how to use a desert loo (find bush, check for snakes, dig, execute, set alight, cover up).
The camels do all the heavy work as we trek alongside or at a safe distance behind them, carrying only water and fruit. With broad, padded feet, knobbly knees and full loads, the animals glide ­silently over the dunes, effortlessly lugging our food, swags, picnic table, gallons of water and a securely stowed rifle in the unlikely event we are charged by a bull (camel). A fly-net is a necessity — swatting an utter waste of energy.
Soon Olaf becomes Ollie and Margaret is Margie, as each day follows the same routine. We wake early, nudged from the comfort of our swags by a benevolent desert sunrise. After untethering the camels so they can roam for food, we toast bread and brew tea for our own breakfast, cosying up to a glowing campfire in the near-zero temperatures. We pack up camp following the “leave no trace” rule of the desert, lining up bundles of equipment for easy loading.
Then we set off, spreading out in all directions to round up the camels, which have often wandered some kilometres. At times we lose sight of each other. It can be frightening — all the rippling dunes look exactly the same; there are no landmarks — but Russell always knows which dunes to look behind. Finally the camels are loaded and we restart our trek.
The scenery is unchanging: clear blue skies, mounds of ochre sand dunes, smatterings of saltbush and shade trees. We cross dry river beds scattered with Aboriginal grinding stones churned up by the elements and odd pieces of broken crockery, possibly from the early settler days. We pick our way through vast tracks of stone and shale.
Each day we walk until lunchtime, when we search for a protected clearing. We gather wood, light a fire, boil the billy and devour flatbread stuffed with tinned meat, slices of cheese, tomato and cucumber followed by fruit cake. Flies are a constant. As Russell cuts up the food they rain down. At first it is off-putting, but with stomachs grumbling Margie and I soon overcome our city-girl sensitivities. After lunch we scoop out handfuls of red sand, hot on the surface and cool beneath, and lay in the refreshing burrow.
Each day, we march until late afternoon, climbing the rolling dunes, straining as our feet sink into the soft sand. To my surprise, the desert is alive; we meet shy kangaroos, curious emus, sunbaking lizards, wedge-tail eagles and more than once step over alarming troughs etched in the sand by snakes whose domain we ­temporarily share.
Temperatures reach more than 35C most days, only to drop dramatically during the night. Each evening Russell finds a sheltered oasis where we set up camp, with trees for tethering the camels, a spacious sandy area to unload and room to roll out our swags. The flies disappear and we prepare for nightfall, pulling on extra clothes and relaxing around the fire. Sharing stories, eating ravenously and sipping a hot drink are our rewards for a tough day chasing eight dromedaries. Against all odds, Russell creates delicious one-pot meals. Occasionally Margie and I make potato and onion mash to accompany meatballs or lamb shanks. Dessert is always a giant block of chocolate divided into four. Later, we snuggle gratefully into our super comfy swags, gazing at the most extraordinary light show in the sky.
Trekking through the desert in the wake of a roaming camel train is not everyone’s idea of fun. It is the first time I have gone more than a week without a bath or changing my clothes, that I have slept in a swag under the stars, or been ­wedded to a fly net. It’s also the first time I have helped care for a herd of headstrong but lovable camels.
One gruelling, hot day when the herd wanders farther than usual and the dunes resemble quicksand, I feel I have reached the limits of my physical and mental endurance. But crashing through the boundaries of what you think you’re ­capable of leaves the spirit soaring.
And I have met Margie, who is very much like me. Her family and friends thinks she’s crazy, too. We’re going to hire a Jeep and drive across the Nullarbor next.
Trish Clark is the author of the Good Night and God Bless series of guides. Her latest book is Guide to the Camino: St-Jean to Santiago de Compostela. More: guidetothecamino.com.

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