Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Walking a Mile on a Camel

As I mentioned a few posts back, early explorers of Australia often used camels to get around because they could handle the desert conditions much better than horses. Camels were also used to help transport people and supplies when rail lines were first being laid in Australia.

When the bulk of the exploring and building was done, a lot of camel drivers made the grimly practical decision to let the camels go free, even though there was no reason to think the domesticated animals would survive in the wild. But they did, to the point that today there are so many camels in Australia that some are exported back to the Middle East.

No one knows how many camels there are down under. Estimates run from the tens of thousands into the hundreds of thousands. All we can say for sure is that with this many camels, riding one isn’t really an exotic experience. But it felt like one when we went for a sunset camel ride at a farm just outside of Alice Springs.

Luckily the riding didn’t involve a lot of skill—the camels just loped along very slowly in a single-file line, led by a rancher on foot. It wasn’t even very hard to get up on the camels. Unlike horses, camels can kneel right down on the ground, making it really easy to step into the saddle. The only hard part came when the camel stood up. They’re really tall, and they rock forward and then back as they stand up straight. The lurch is a little bit scary and so is being up so high, but we got used to it quickly.

Pipi and I both rode a big guy named B.J. Like all the camels there, B.J. had one hump, which I rode in front of and Pipi sat behind. I’d heard that camels can be foul tempered, but B.J. was nothing but accommodating, and by the end of the ride we decided that we liked camels almost as much as kangaroos.

We wandered through the desert for about an hour, watching the sun set through increasingly atmospheric clouds. We saw wild kangaroos. Afterward, we got to stick around and help feed the camels hay with the rancher and his wife, a self-described Bondi Beach girl who still can’t believe life led her to the desert. Apparently she came to Alice Springs on vacation, and like Mary Anne Singleton in reverse, realized she’d found her place and decided to stay.

We liked Alice Springs, but not enough to do anything rash. We would be sticking to our itinerary, and early the next morning we departed for Uluru, or Ayers Rock, the giant, mysterious monolith that pops up out of the desert in the middle of the country

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