Days 3 and 4: Learning the Ropes


Days 3 and 4: Learning the Ropes
Sleeping in a swag means you wake at first light; no matter what you do it’s impossible to keep your eyes shut once the sky starts brightening, when the sounds of the crew – and the camels – become evident. It’s actually a great time for photography, although you need a tripod to steady the camera in low light levels.

Sunrise is gradual in winter, even near the tropics. From first light it takes almost an hour for the sun to clear the horizon. During that time you are serenaded by the dawn chorus of parrots, finches and other birds, punctuated by the soft clang of the camel bells as the camels graze on the local vegetation.


A view of the campsite from the western dune, taken just after sunrise.
Camels can appear to be savage grazers, seizing mouthfuls of foliage from low herbs and bushes and occasional small branches or clusters of leaves from taller trees. However, they don’t crop down to ground level like sheep or cattle and are often very gentle when they take a bite. Overall, the total environmental damage caused by a small herd would be roughly equivalent to a minor local storm.


Our first encounter with the camels, who were grazing on the slopes of the dunes and enjoying the warmth of the rising sun.

Breakfast consisted of a bowl (or mug) of muesli and a cup of billy tea, consumed while standing around the campfire.


Breakfast around the campfire.

On our first morning in the camp, the crew were busy preparing for the trek, while Brendan unpacked the supplies from the OKA and loaded the items that had to be taken back to Birdsville for disposal (rubbish) or storage. Andrew and Brendan spent some time planning the location for our pick-up in 10 days’ time, when Brendan would reappear with the OKA.


Andrew and Brendan planning the pick-up at the end of the trip under the tarpaulin that had been put up for protection against the rain that had occurred on the previous days but which was not used again on our trek.

After that it was time to meet the team – and get to know the camels. When they work, the camels are linked by rope into one or more strings. On our trip we had two strings, each with eight camels, managed by five cameleers.


The team. Front row from left: George, the kelpie; Andrew, Istan (the camel), Ingrid, Alison. Back row: John and Ryan. (This shot was taken at the end of the trek.)

Andrew, assisted by our camp cook, Alison, was in charge of String A, while Ingrid and Ryan managed String B. An additional camel, Istan, was provided for our senior cameleer, John, who at 86 was an inspiration to us all. John has worked in the outback for most of his life and served in Papua-New Guinea in World War II. As well as providing assistance with the camels and general advice on various aspects of trip planning and camel management, he was a great source of campfire stories and, towards the end of the trek, gave participants rides on Istan for a short time.

Camel herds are naturally hierarchical, with a leader and ‘board of management’ dictating the behaviour of the rank-and-file camels. A definite pecking order exists in every herd of both wild and working animals. T.C. was the lead camel in String A, with Morgan keeping order at the end of the string, while Jaffa led String B with Nugget at the end. The others had their own pre-determined places in each string.


Morgan, the largest camel in the herd and the end camel in String A. His placid personality made him a favourite with us all.

We had a couple of new camels in our trip’s herd and it could be amusing watching the sort out their places. To complicate matters, ours was the first trip of the season and the camels had spent most of the past 6-8 months at leisure. It would take a couple of days for them to settle down into the normal working routine. This was complicated by our lack of experience in working with camels.

And work we did! These trips are about as far from a resort-based holiday as you could get. Instead of lazing by a pool, participants enjoy a lifestyle that is based on a traditional outback stock droving camp. The only vehicles involved are those that bring you into and out of the desert camps. Between those times, everything from food and water to accommodation is carried by pack camels. You walk alongside them carrying a day pack with your camera, mug and essential clothing.

Each day on the trek has much the same structure. You are up at dawn and, after a hasty breakfast, have to pack up your swag and load the camels. Loading takes between 45 minutes (once you know the ropes) and more than two hours. And you soon understand why camels are known as ‘ships of the desert’; loading them involves a lot of ropes – plus a considerable amount of fine-tuning of knots and tensions. By the time it’s all finished, everybody is ready for a rest!

On the first morning we didn’t need to roll up our swags as we would remain at the camp for the entire day. However, we did have to bring the camels in and sit them down in their lines ready for loading. This sounds more difficult that it actually was because most of the camels responded well to a gentle tug on their ropes. (Those that didn’t were handled by the cameleers.)

The camels’ front legs are hobbled during the night to prevent them from straying too far from the camp. These hobbles are removed before the camels are sat down for loading. The command for making the camels sit is “oosh”. Most camels respond promptly – although some became restless in the early days of the trek when they were required to sit for an hour or more.

On this first day, the cameleers evaluated the two strings, changing the positions of some camels and adjusting the saddles to make them fit better. The saddles were then removed and the camels were strung together for a walk on the dunes to prepare them for the ‘proper’ trekking on the following day. After lunch, the cameleers were busy re-adjusting the saddles and harness ropes while we were free to explore the area around the camp.


Linking the camels in String B together for a walk after fitting their saddles (which are seen on the ground beside the string). John checks the ropes on lead camel, Jaffa.

The camp was located at the northern end of a dune known as ‘Big Red’, which rises to approximately 40 metres above the desert and is located roughly 40 km west of Birdsville. This dune is one of the largest in the Simpson Desert and extends for more than 15 kilometres. Most of the Simpson Desert is covered by parallel dunes that run north-south in the direction of the prevailing winds. Their eastern faces are usually steeper than the western faces, although we were to learn later in the trek that it is often easier to cross some dunes in a west to east direction and others from east to west.


Andrew Harper with T.C. and Bindii at the start of the morning walk.


Ingrid and Ryan lead String B down the side of a dune.

The entire trek took place on the Adria Downs pastoral lease, with permission from the owners, David and Nell Brook. The Brook family have lived in the area since 1885 and run Adria Downs since the early 1920s. The station is run as an organic beef property and small herds of Hereford cattle were seen occasionally as we passed through some parts of the dunelands.

Most trek participants (who are traditionally known as ‘cobs’ for some inexplicable reason) decided to spend the afternoon exploring the top end of Big Red. This provided some great photographic opportunities.


Looking south along Big Red, the largest dune in the area.

On return to camp we were treated to afternoon tea and allowed a little free time to ready our swags and sort our equipment before dinner. Some ‘cobs’ volunteered to help Alison chop up meat and vegetables for dinner while others helped with shepherding the camels and tying them to the trees where they would spend the night.

At dusk, once everyone had gathered by the campfire a cry of ‘Cups up!’ from John signalled for everyone to produce their mugs for a pre-dinner ration of port, which was dished out with studious fairness. Once dinner was over, there was sporadic conversation around the campfire. However most people were in their swags by 9.30. This pattern was repeated throughout the trek.