From Alice Spring to Shark Bay: A camel odyssey

By Esther Nunn with Liz Ginis 16 June 2009
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Inspired by Robyn Davidson’s 1977 epic camel trek, Esther Nunn led three camels 3000km from Alice Springs to Shark Bay, WA.

I’M ABOUT TO WALK from Alice Springs to the sea. Standing on the outskirts of Alice, three heavily laden camels in tow, I’m embarking on a six-month journey through desert country, where temperatures soar to 40°C before smoko and plummet below freezing under an enormous star-spangled night sky. I wonder if the Aussie adventurer who’d inspired my current madness, Robyn Davidson, felt the same nauseating mix of excitement and trepidation when she stepped out on this path 30 years ago? I wonder if she felt both optimistic about and oppressed by the enormity of what she was about to do.

It’s 25 June 2007, and after 10 months of sweaty preparation, everything is ready and it’s time to go. I walk away from civilisation. I am free.

Springing from Alice

I’d arrived in Alice on a retina-searing morning in August 2006 to acclimatise and get organised for my trek. I planned to leave in early winter 2007, so I’d walk in the cooler months and have the Gibson, Great Victoria and Little Sandy deserts crossed before it got too hot.

The pressure was on to organise travel permits through Aboriginal lands; gather safety equipment – which included learning how to use a gun; plan and buy 200 kg of food and box it all up for delivery by mail-plane to four Aboriginal communities en route; research my water points; and choose my four-legged travelling companions. All this while working at three jobs to pay for my folly. Despite the relative safety net of modern technology – satellite phone, EPIRB and GPS, all unavailable to Robyn 30 years ago – I still took to heart the fearful stories everyone fed me. I worried about losing my camels, having to shoot wild camels, getting lost, running out of food or water, even going mad out there. In the middle of the night I’d often wonder if I’d finally bitten off more than I could chew.

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The camel trail  View Large Map

With the departure date approaching like The Ghan, I still had no camels and learned there weren’t many good ones for sale. I thought that would be the easiest part – that all I would have to do was select the one with the longest eyelashes and who liked having his belly rubbed. Silly me. But, it seems, no-one trains camels for the purpose of selling them, and no-one wants to sell their good camels. It takes a lot of time and patience – and a fair bit of luck – to produce a camel that is sound, friendly and has trekking experience. So what I found to be on offer was the leftovers.

Enter Sultan, a 500 kg delicate flower who got fear-induced diarrhoea every time I went near him with a saddle. I knew nothing about how to win the trust of an animal that could fit my entire head in his mouth and crack it like a walnut. All I could think to do was pat him. He soaked up the love, lowering his long neck for me to stroke while his lips gently nuzzled the ground. Sultan taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life: patience. There were a few tiny steps forward and a few big hooves back as I worked out his boundaries.

Then Kawali, the frustrated teenager, came yelling into my life. She had a hump so plump she looked like a beach ball on sticks, and opinions she felt compelled to express loudly and obstreperously (accompanied by litres of green, stinky spittle). King Sammy Big Boy materialised on Good Friday. The size of a small truck, he could carry a house and loved to work – or so I was told.

On track in the Western Australia outback

I’m thriving out here. My time’s my own, removed from the stress and madness of everyday life. To me, daydreaming is one of the most delightful pastimes. My thoughts can roll around for hour after wonderful hour, day after glorious day. I have a rare opportunity to spring-clean my mind’s annals as the red sand shifts beneath my feet.

Sometimes I walk along, filthy and grinning, thinking about the mates who are cheering me on. Sometimes I practise slowing my thoughts down, or my breathing, inhaling and exhaling on every eighth step. And sometimes, just for the sheer fun in silliness, I attach ockie straps to my sandals, hold the other ends and walk along as though my legs belong to a puppet. And I dream about the ocean, about its soothing cool blueness.

My skin is fast becoming sun-wizened and stained black and red. I’m crisscrossed with scratches and scabs, a moving feast for a corroboree of flies. I resemble desert art; a scarred walking songline of the toil, mishap and joy of adventure. My ‘beauty’ regime is restricted to five baby-wipes a day, and it’s sometimes weeks between showers. I’m lazy with teeth-brushing, and don’t even have a hairbrush. After a month or more, I arrive in a community, catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and burst out laughing.

Travelling through Aboriginal lands on foot, I enjoy an extraordinary reception in every community. Many old fellas still recall going walkabout with camels, and the children are ecstatic to see us. They’ve all seen wild camels but few have touched one. Some cry “monster! monster!” until Big Sammy sits down and stretches his great long neck out on the ground for everyone to pat and fuss over.

It’s wonderful living beneath the huge outback sky. Laying pinned to the skin of the earth, snuggled up in my swag, I feel the planet spinning. My most treasured memories are sharing that silence with the cud-chewing silhouettes of Kawali, Sammy and Sultan. It’s as close to heaven as I’ve come.

Trouble in paradise

On the 26th night I’m just drifting off to sleep when I hear the deep thunder-like rumbling of an enraged bull camel growing louder and louder. I’m up and standing with my .308 in hand within 20 seconds. Usually, one loud warning shot is enough to make these aggressive males head for the hills. They either wanted to mate with Kawali or drive away my two boy camels. This one is still coming after four warning shots. I fire the fatal shot when it’s just 50 m away.

The very next morning, this scene plays out again. This time a bull charges full-tilt at Sultan, and I have only a few seconds to act before he mashes my boy. I aim for his heart/lungs and drop him like a lead balloon. We walk away from what I call “Death Camp” leaving two huge carcasses to return to the dust. I’m amazed at how smoothly I clicked into survival mode and how calm I was.

Melt down

Eighteen hundred kilometres and three months into my trek I have piston-like legs that chew up 35 km a day. Temperatures begin to soar above 40°C.

The flies dive-bomb me en masse, zooming into my nostrils and mouth, and skate across my eyeballs. My limbs feel as though they’re forged from molten lead, my thirst is never quenched despite the 6–7 L of water and electrolytes I guzzle every day, and my brain, shaded by an Akubra, is slowly but surely baking.

Three times I sob uncontrollably from exhaustion, and being stretched to the limit, day after difficult day. I ache for something more – relief from the desert, a familiar face, an escape from the monotony. I’m humbled and then empowered as I learn to boil things down to basics: I’m completely alone; no-one can help me but me and the only option is to keep going one step at a time.

Our schedule needs restructuring because of the heat. From here on in, we’re all up before dawn, loaded and stepping off at first light, clocking up our daily kays before the searing heat wilts all beneath it.

I spend the afternoons lazing on my little blue tarp beneath stands of desert oak, marvelling at dazzling green flocks of budgerigars soaring above golden spinifex, which bursts forth like fireworks from the red landscape. I’m witnessing nature at its finest. Roaring across it in a 4WD would only scratch the surface. Desert country has been walked for millennia and slow travel weaves me into the magic of this country’s heart.

On day 101, I celebrate my 30th year by walking up the Gunbarrel Highway in my birthday suit. I enjoy the simple honest loveliness of being naked in nature.

From the Red Centre to the west coast of Australia

3 December 2007: Shark Bay, WA. Finally, after 162 days, I step over the last dune and the red sand gives way to the blessed blue expanse of the Indian Ocean. We’ve made it! Good mates embrace me, blindfold me then stuff me full of ice-cream, fresh nectarines and berries before I leap, yahooing, into the sea.

As the sun dips beneath the waterlogged horizon, I shed a few tears while hugging Sultan, Kawali and Sam goodnight. No-one asked them if they wanted to be led halfway across the continent, but they did it with such good-humoured endurance. I give endless thanks to my camels, the best companions I could have conjured. They are the perfect gypsy travellers.

Source: Australian Geographic Apr – Jun 2008