Friday, November 21, 2014

Train reading: the Corner Country 2 - camels and cameleers

Camels have acquired a very bad reputation. They are smelly (horses hate the smell), are claimed to be bad tempered, uncomfortable to ride and like to spit. Variously attributed to Vogue magazine, July 1958, to Sir Alec Issigonis and also to University of Wisconsin philosophy professor Lester Hunt, the phrase “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” reflects this reputation.

In fact, camels are very useful and indeed fascinating beasts. Superbly designed for hot climates, they provide transport; their milk is a high quality food resource; the hair can be woven, while the average camel carcass can provide a large quantity of meat. Perhaps design by committee is not so bad after-all!
I mention this now because camels are central to the next part of my Corner Country story that began with Train reading: Australian life - the Corner Country 1 drawn from John Gerrison's Tibooburra - Corner Country (Tibooburra Press, Tibooburra, 1981.

Gold was discovered in the Corner Country in 1880. Within a short, while the population of the Albert gold fields had swelled to perhaps 2,000. Temperatures were high, water and wood scarce. That water that was available could be quickly polluted, leading to disease such as typhoid fever.

In 1882, continuing drought became so bad that horse and bullock teams were stopped by lack of food and water. Near starvation conditions emerged on the gold fields. At the request of the NSW Government, a camel team laden with supplies left Sir Thomas Elder’s Beltana Station in South Australia arriving at Milparinka in April 1882.

The photo from Gordon Smith is of the Albert Hotel, Milparinka, first opened in 1882.

The first reference I have seen to camels in Australia was one apparently imported from the Canary Islands in 1840. Then camels were especially imported in 1860 for the ill-fated Bourke and Wills expedition. Between 1860 and 1907, an estimated 10-12,000 camels were imported into Australia.

Sir Thomas Elder had a particular interest in the possible use of camels to open up arid Australia. In 1866, he and a partner imported 109 Afghan cameleers along with 124 carefully selected camels, setting up a stud at Beltana Station as well as providing transport services. The camels quickly became indispensable across arid Australia including far western NSW and the Corner Country.

While motor lorries started to appear from 1918, it would take some time for them to have an impact. The peak year for camel transport came in 1924 when several thousand camels based on Bourke and Broken Hill alone handled the trade of the Corner and south West Queensland runs. The photo shows a team carrying beer from Broken Hill’s Waverly Brewery.

Some teams were owned by individual Afghans, but most were owned by various carrying companies set up to break the earlier monopoly of the horse and bullock teamsters.

John Gerrison records that the biggest and one of the oldest was the Bourke Carrying Company. Founded by Abdul Wade and grazier G W Tull, they imported camels direct, set up a breeding station at Wangamanna where they ran 350 head and had over 400 camels working on the road as well.

From 1924, camels declined quickly in importance. An era had ended. If you want to find out more about the cameleers, this is not a bad site.

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