Tracks II: The Last Camel Walk
In 1977 Robyn Davidson, then 27, trekked more than 2700 kilometres across the western desert from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, accompanied by only four camels. The courageous solo expedition made news around the world and Robyn's account of it, a book called Tracks, later became a best seller. Robyn went on to other accomplishments, but she never forgot the spiritual bond she had forged with the much-maligned desert creatures. In 1986, for Australian Geographic she told the story of her last walk with them, a funny/sad journey back to their Northern Territory home.
WHEN I LEFT MY FOUR camels on the Indian Ocean coast seven years ago, I thought they could retire in dromedary paradise forever. They had carried me and my baggage almost 3200 kilometres across various deserts and I felt they deserved the pampering they received from their new protectors, who loved them as I did.
But Jan and David Thomson had to sell their property and move to Perth. There were then threats that the camels would be hot, so I had to think of a way of getting them to safety, namely, putting them on a truck bound for Alice Springs. But that cost a lot of money and I didn't have enough.
My friend Eric Hansen came up with a brilliant suggestion. "Why not," he said, "walk them from Alice Springs to where you want to leave them and take along some paying guests?" So, after spending years trying to bury the camel lady, I swallowed my pride, dug her up, dusted her off and with only a twinge of conscience, put her to work.
We chose six guests for what we called 'The Last Camel Walk', a 312.km stroll north-east from the Alice to Delmore Downs cattle station. I decided to take along a dozen friends to act as guides, cooks and entertainment officers.
It was an organisational feat. Eric, on the east coast, dealt with the business side of things. David Thomson and his brother John worked on the west coast, converting their cattle truck into something that could transport camels. With great genius on their part, and much trepidation on mine, the myriad jobs were done. I flew to Western Australia, the camels were persuaded aboard a very odd looking truck, driven to Kalgoorlie, then loaded onto a goods train heading across the Nullarbor.
Meanwhile, Eric had bought enough food and equipment for 1500 meals and was waiting in the Alice to meet us at dawn.
Our first camp was set up east of town in a creek bed; the truck was cleaned and converted into a pantry-cum-kitchen, complete with deep freezer, ropes, hooks, woks, crates of food and secret stocks of champagne. I had an afternoon alone with my adored animals; the guests were ferried out to meet us all, and hey ho, the last camel walk had begun.
I can't say I wasn't worried. One of the problems I foresaw was that the staff, my friends, were an unlikely mix of urban radicals and country conservatives who were going to be forced to be tolerant of one another's view for three long weeks. It is to everyone's credit that although the tolerance stretched like chewing gum, it never actually snapped. Then there were the guests. "What if they are awful?" l thought. "What if they hate every minute of it? What if they can't take the heat and the flies and the dust and the 25 km a day slog? What if they blame me?" What was bliss to me, might be anathema to them.
As it turned out, it was my bones that creaked, my temper that frayed, my skin that wrinkled, my hips that gave up the ghost, while the guest strode off at a blistering pace, climbed mountains at the end of a day and stayed up late drinking and singing.
We could not have found six more sweet-tempered, tolerant and entertaining people had we searched for a year.
The routine went something like this. Up at dawn (well, some of us up at dawn), a three-course breakfast prepared over fire and served on a trestle with generous helpings of flies, a mountain of washing up, packing completed, swags rolled, camels taken out of the portable electrified enclosure, lunch prepared and packed on camel back, final check and then off down a station track into a smiling desert morning.
When smiling desert morning turned into surly midday, we would wolf down gargantuan lunches, slake massive thirsts with billies of tea, send up a few snores to mingle with the hot drowsy sounds of midday, then head off again for the night camp, where the truck would be waiting.
Every now and then, we would have a few days' rest. This usually depended upon the state of blistered feet, beauty of camp spot and density of cloud cover. As the Australian desert normally lives under a perennially cobalt sky, rain was the one thing we hadn't considered. It rained non-stop for the first five days.
There were other unexpected chores too. We burnt cattle carcasses near our camp spots, tracked up strayed camels, smoked out bull ants' nests, hunted for bush tucker with our freshly made and not terribly adequate digging sticks, refilled water drums, boiled vats of water for elaborately constructed bush showers, and searched for roads that only existed on maps.
However, there were compensations for this grueling work -lots of those highlights which make such trips unforgettable. Like the day some of us were sent up a tree by a scrub bull, or the night that everyone got more drunk than usual and ate Jan's camp-oven chocolate cake, while Rosie did her fire-eating trick, an all-female chorus worked out their routine, and a fireworks rocket landed in Ranald's sarong and set it ablaze. Luckily, he was not in it at the time, but was ballroom dancing through the river gums with Leone.
The entertainment officers often worked overtime.
The country we walked through was ever-changing, both physically and in its mood. It sent its powerful tendrils deep into the heart. There were the mountains of Harts Range, which roared and thundered in the wind, mulga forests and grass plains, wide river-beds glittering black-red with garnet chips and open downs dotted with bloodwood, corkwood and kangaroos. At one camp, near an abandoned and decaying homestead, which cowered against a sheer face of rock, a forlorn and stony barrenness stretched away to the horizon. I'm sure that most of us felt overwhelmed by a feeling of insignificance, of being lost in an infinity of space.
By the time we reached the penultimate camp, I wanted some time to myself, so I climbed aboard Zeleika and headed off into the heat shimmer, leading Dookie and Bub. It was a way of saying goodbye to these wonderful beasts, without having to hide my trembling chin.
The final evening was spent buying silk batiks from local Aboriginal women and having a last, rather desultory concert in a Delmore Downs creek bed. Donald and Janet Holt, the new guardians, were, I could see, in the process of falling in love with my camels. Although I knew that I could not have found a better home for them, the trip back to Alice in the back of the truck was painful.
Had I abandoned them to a terrible fate or could they now face Mecca forever and contemplate the growth of their humps in peace? I have since been informed that it is very much the latter.
This article was originally published in the April/June issue of Australian Geographic 1986.