Australian Geographic Society Gala Awards 2022: Spirit of Adventure, Sophie Matterson

By AG Staff 28 October 2022
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As Australia bunkered down in lockdown, Sophie Matterson was experiencing a different type of social isolation.

Across 13 months, in 2020–21, Sophie solo-trekked 4600km across the width of Australia, accompanied by five camels she had mustered from the wild.

Sophie discovered her passion for working with camels in 2016 when she took a hiatus from her media career to milk camels at a dairy on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. 

“Camels are amazing to work with,” says Sophie. “They’re intelligent, they’ve got amazing memories and they can also be very affectionate. If you treat them well and with kindness, they are incredibly willing and compliant for such large animals.”

With her newfound love of camels, Sophie travelled overseas. In 2017 she went to the USA to milk camels on a Mennonite family farm in Michigan. In Texas, Sophie worked under Doug Baum, a cameleer who runs historical camel tours and hosts the International Camel Conference. From there, she went to Rajasthan in India to stay with Raika nomads.

In 2018 she returned to Australia and ran camel tours in the Flinders Rangers and at Uluru. Here, the crazy idea – to one day trek right across Australia with a band of camels – began to take shape. 

“Camels just make sense for a crossing of Australia,” says Sophie. “They are so well adapted to our landscape; they can go an incredibly long time without water and basically survive on whatever feed is available.” 

In January 2019, five feral camels were spotted at Mulga Park station, south-east of Uluru. Sophie and her team pursued the camels on four-wheel-drives and motorbikes, pushing them into cattleyards during a bumpy, hair-raising ride through spinifex country. The mustered camels were named Jude, Delilah, Clayton, Charlie and Mac. 

Sophie spent the next year training the camels to sit on command, wear a halter, walk in a straight line and become accustomed to carrying weight on their backs. It was a learning curve for Sophie, too, getting to know each camel’s unique quirks and personality. 

“I felt I was the only person on earth with my camels. It was eerie, but beautiful at the same time.” 

When not training her camels, Sophie was poring over maps, arranging permits, contacting station owners to obtain permission to cross their lands and creating a giant navigational sheet that stipulated every detail, from water drops to roads.

Sophie and her five camels set off from Shark Bay, Western Australia, in April 2020, walking from the Indian Ocean to Coober Pedy, South Australia. She and her camels rested over the summer months, resuming their trek in May 2021.

Image credit: courtesy Sophie Matterson

Sophie completed most of the trek alone. For a 1350km stretch on the Anne Beadell Highway, an unsealed road connecting Laverton to Coober Pedy, her only social contact was during water drops from the Indigenous community at Oak Valley. 

“Walking at night in the Great Victoria Desert was just magical,” says Sophie. “I felt like I was the only person on earth with my camels. It was eerie, but beautiful at the same time.”

Sophie viewed the deserted roads of the COVID lockdowns as an an advantage. 

“To begin with, the camels spooked at everything – a building, a piece of shade cloth, a shed, a water tank. A lot of their training just came from pure experience,” she says. By the time she reached the east coast, the camels were sharing main roads with cars, and were comfortable with people crowding around and touching them. 

Sophie and her entourage of camels arrived at Byron Bay’s Tyagarah Beach in December 2021.    

Related: Heroes all: Meet the 2022 Australian Geographic Society Gala Award winners