August 2017


Lessons from camels

By Robert Skinner
A 10-day camel trek through the South Australian outback. With your parents.

For reasons that are still unclear to me, I agreed to go on a 10-day camel trek with my parents. When they invited me my initial reaction was I’ve got a whole LIFE going on here, I can’t just take off. I had a pile of junk mail to read and some pretty firm dinner plans. A few weeks later I was at a party where I didn’t think much of the people. Or, more accurately, I didn’t think the people thought much of me. So I wandered outside, thought, Phooey to you, city living, and texted my parents. “I’m in.”

A week before departure they called me from Adelaide, huddled together and shouting into the speakerphone.

“When you get here, we need you to pick up 30 kilograms of potatoes. We’re in charge of the potatoes.”

“Don’t stress him out,” said my mum. “You just bring yourself.”

“Yeah, yeah, but just – and the potatoes.”

My dad explained where we’d be going: from Orroroo in the Flinders Ranges, east towards Yunta, north to Koonamore, and then south-west along Pipeline Road.

“It’s a triangle, Bob. We’re doing a triangle.”

I asked how far we’d be riding, all up. There was a moment’s silence.

“We’re not riding, mate. They’re wagon camels.”

We would be walking, said my dad. Next to the camels, and for 25 kilometres a day. He paused.

“You have been training, haven’t you?”

I said yes, in the sense that I’d managed to keep my legs in pretty much mint/unused condition. I started to panic.

“I thought I was supposed to be practising sitting down.”

My dad’s cousin Robyn had married a bushman called Don, and together they raced camels and went on wagon expeditions. This was the first time they were bringing other people along. There would be between 9 and 14 people on the trek. Being in such close quarters with strangers for 10 days was not my dad’s idea of a good time. He would have preferred to be at home with a book or tinkering in his shed. But his own dad had a reputation for disappearing out the back door every time someone showed up at the front door, and my dad was forever trying not to be that guy.

The night before we left Adelaide he did that thing nervous parents do, where they start fussing over their kids instead. He looked at me gruffly and said, “Now listen, Bob. What are you going to do out there for entertainment?”

“I dunno. I brought a few books.”

“You understand that these are country folk we’ll be travelling with. They like different things to us.”

“Well, what about you? What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to look at the fire,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

My parents and I drove north from our house in Adelaide to meet up with the crew in Orroroo. On the way we picked up a 31-year-old cameleer called Brian. He had a huge camel-coloured beard, and a smile that took over his whole face. “G’day folks,” he said as he climbed in.

We drove for four hours through small towns and low ranges, alongside dry creek beds and stubbly wheatfields. We peppered Brian with questions about camels. (“Is it true that they spit?” “Can Jewish people eat them?” “Why don’t you ride horses instead?”) He had two camels of his own, Firestorm and Vicky, and every time he talked about them he got a faraway look in his eyes.

In the late afternoon we drove down a dirt driveway and pulled up outside a big shearing shed. The head of our expedition, old bushman Don, came up to the car. From where I was sitting I could only make out his waistline. His jeans were covered in dirt, and were about six sizes too big. They were held up by a rope, a belt and a pair of braces.

He leaned in through the window and said, “Now, the important thing about this trip is not to panic.”

The first thing we were supposed to not panic about was the state of one of the wagons. It had been refurbished by Greg, a local naturalist and council worker who would be joining us on the trek. “You can tell he worked on the highways,” said Don, pointing at the wagon. “It’s all held together by street signs.” That wasn’t the problem so much as its rickety, lopsided canopy. The wagon looked as though it wanted to veer off into the bushes and lie down.

I walked over to the holding pen to see if maybe I had a magic touch with camels. This is the persistent dream of dilettantes: that we will, at some point, uncover a superpower that will make sense of lives filled with false starts, failures and endless dabbling.

I stood up on the railing and said “Hello, ladies!” to what I would later learn was mostly a bunch of bullocks. The camels looked at me with long-lashed eyes. The biggest camel, Weet-Bix, came over and nuzzled my hand. I stroked his fleshy lips and hummed a Middle Eastern tune I knew; he bit me affectionately on the arm. Things were looking good!

On the morning of departure I asked Brian if he wanted some help wrangling the camels. “I’ve got kind of a special rapport with them,” I said, and explained about the deep looks, the nibbling and so forth.

“They’ve been biting you? Mate, you can’t let them do that!”

So I went and helped my dad instead. He had designed and built a solar-powered electrical system and was ready to install it. I wanted to be useful, so I kept suggesting we bolt things to hard-to-reach poles that only I could climb up to.

Our procession was two wagons long. The main one had a canvas roof and was fitted out with bench seats from an old Kingswood. The smaller wagon was still looking pretty rickety, but they’d braced it as best they could.

We spent the rest of the morning loading the main wagon with our worldly possessions, and then (it sounds crazy when you see it written down) attached the wagon to four camels. Those outback camel trains look so stately and peaceful in the photographs! But when our camels felt the weight of the wagon they bolted, and took the wagon bouncing through bushes and rabbit holes. One of the camels started bucking wildly, throwing his head around and generally not taking very good care of our things. Brian was pumping the handbrake and hanging on.

“Pull ’em up, Brian!”

“I’m fucking trying!”

In the ruckus, another four camels broke loose and charged off in the direction of Brian and the wagon. They were tied together but going at high speed. Brian had, by now, managed to stop the wagon/get tangled in a fence line, but the four-pack of rogue camels headed straight for him.

Don yelled out to me, “Get between them and the wagon, Bob! Head ’em off!”

Leadership is a hard-to-pin-down quality. But if, after two days of knowing someone, they tell you to jump in front of a pack of charging camels and you find yourself willingly obliging, then they’ve probably got it.

The camels were looking like a pretty dumb idea, but we were on to a good thing with Don.

We managed to round up the camels and get the wagons back on track. Don took his hat off and wiped the sweat from his face. “That’s normal,” he said. “They always start off like that. Let’s push on.”

One of the reasons we go bush is to trade our old, boring problems (scrounging for rent money, beating the traffic) for new and refreshing ones. On our daily treks we had to pull down stock fences, navigate creek crossings and get cooking fires started in the rain. This is living! I thought to myself. My dad didn’t quite share my enthusiasm. He was up to his neck in living already. What he really wanted was a nice sit-down.

Getting the camels mustered every morning was a real snafu. There was one problem-camel called Blister who’d been raised as a pet and suffered all the same problems as a trust-fund kid. Don was trying to break him in as a wagon camel and get some herd mentality back into him. One morning Blister was really making him sweat. Don was yelling “Fucking hoosh down, you bird-brained bastard!” and the camel – stubborn, outraged – was bellowing back. Meanwhile, Brian and his friend Chantelle (a dreadlocked camel racer) were trying to corral the two lead camels, who’d gotten tangled up somehow.

My dad saw me writing in my diary and came over. He stood next to me for a while. Just the two of us.

“If I was writing a book,” he said, “I’d call it Why We Invented the Internal Combustion Engine.”

Brian or Nat usually drove the main wagon. Nat was a bosomy powerhouse who raised a family, kept a menagerie of pets and broke in camels for a living. She wore the same singlet, shorts and thongs the whole trip. Even on frosty nights. One evening she reached into her bra looking for a cigarette, and I saw her pull out a lighter, a tobacco pouch, a packet of tissues, a hunting knife, $20 (in change) and a bundle of keys before she looked up and said, “Oh, here it is. It’s in my fucking mouth.” On the fourth day she got kicked full in the face by a camel and just started kicking it back.

The smaller wagon was driven by the camp cook, who drank white wine and soda with one hand and swished the reins around with the other. She shouted so relentlessly at her camels (Chrystal and Sapphire) that they could no longer tell what was a command and what was general chitchat. So they ignored her completely and just ambled along cheerfully at their own pace. If you really wanted the camels to do something you had to put on a high-pitched voice or a foreign accent to get their attention.

Don was in charge of getting us out of trouble (“If Plan A doesn’t work there’s always Plan B, and if that doesn’t work, well, there’s plenty of letters in the alphabet”) and Robyn made us welcome wherever we landed. She was tireless and enthusiastic, looked out for everyone, and had none of the high-school bluster and faux toughness of other people we met along the way.

The walkers usually went up ahead, or drifted along between the two wagons. We passed through mallee country, sheep stations, along ancient valleys and across plateaus covered in saltbush. If you got far enough ahead there was a strange buzzing stillness. When it was overcast you didn’t even hear bird calls. Just the gentle clanking of the approaching wagons, and the muffled shouts, like a distant football game, of people urging the camels up a hill or over boggy ground.

We’d stop once for morning tea, once for lunch, and whenever something went wrong. It never felt we were covering any great distances, but the nubs of old mountains would appear in the morning and disappear behind us by the end of the day. Greg, a birdwatcher, would come up to us in camp and say, “Twenty-seven kilometres today, as the crow flies.”

When I got fed up with walking, or with being awake, I would climb into the back of the main wagon, curl up between rifles and saddlebags, and go to sleep. The wagon rocked back and forth and I dreamed endlessly about women. Of soft voices and deep looks. I dreamed of the brownest eyes I’ve ever seen, of blonde-haired guitar players kissing me behind stage curtains, of great poets reading in small, smoke-filled rooms, and looking up coyly between stanzas. I dreamed of warm bodies tangling up in soft sheets, of curved shoulders and plunging necklines. The relentless masculinity of the bush was starting to wear me down.

In the afternoons we’d pull up an hour or two before sunset and let the camels out to feed. They’d trundle off and start pulling apart the native vegetation, and we would start a fire and get cooking. The camels didn’t need to drink once for the entire trip, though I can’t say the same for their handlers. They started drinking port from a goon sack at lunch, and were pretty much trolleyed by the time dinner was served. Sometimes around the campfire we heard bush stories: about desert crossings, about a guy who had to shoot the bull camel he was riding in the head because he couldn’t get it to slow down. But mostly we got the Nat and Chantelle show. They had shouting matches about semen swallowing. (I remember this particularly well because it was the same high-volume argument, almost verbatim, three nights in a row: Chantelle was for, Nat was against. It was Chantelle who kept bringing it up.)

My mum loved it. She thought they were hilarious. But it was all too much for my dad. (I think it was being twerked on that finally broke him.) It will come as a surprise to anyone who’s been to a dinner party with my dad that he actually has quite delicate sensibilities. One morning he said to me, “That Chantelle’s got a mouth like a sewer.” Which was a bit rich coming from a guy who got up at my brother’s 21st birthday dinner and – reminiscing on the night of conception – said, “Yep, we should have settled for hand jobs that night.” But I got his point, which was that he really wanted to be alone for a while and there was nowhere to sit.

It was a gruelling regime for my parents. They were hardly sleeping at night and were walking all day. When the wagons stopped for lunch, the cameleers would climb down to stretch their legs, and my parents would look around desperately for somewhere to rest. My dad didn’t want to sit on the ground because he honestly thought he wouldn’t be able to get back up. I started climbing onto the wagon at lunchtime and pulling down camp stools.

On the fifth day I was walking with my dad and he said that he wanted to go home early. I was shocked. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad give up.

“What does Mum think?”

He grunted. “She won’t even talk about it.”

He was looking pretty beaten. He’d walked 30 kilometres that day, and was chilled to the bone. (For days after the trip he would walk around our house shivering and trying to get warm. “It’s cold,” he kept saying, when it wasn’t.) He’d developed cracked lips, a patchy white beard and various other ailments that had afflicted the early white explorers. My mum wasn’t looking crash hot either. Her face was red and puffy because, for complicated reasons, she didn’t believe in sunscreen.

There’s a peculiar anguish to seeing your own parents suffer. If it’s your children suffering, you know or hope that it’s because they’re still building their characters, that the world will accommodate them somehow. But if it’s your parents, you know that things are probably only going to get harder for them. The world for them is a cruise liner steaming towards the horizon, leaving them bobbing alone in the vast, lonely ocean with only each other.

My dad said, “Jesus Christ, Bob, do you have to say this shit out loud? It’s pretty bleak.”

We trudged through flat, heavily grazed country that had the feeling of a ghost town. Rain had washed out some tracks ahead, so when we reached the ruins of the Waukaringa pub we turned around and started back the way we came.

The camels never trudged. They held their heads up high like queens at a ball, for days. A horse pulls in a straight line. But the camels were always looking around as they walked, with a prospective optimism that eluded us now that we were heading back the way we came.

I tried to entertain my dad with half-baked theories about possessions. I had visited a camping store on the day before the trip and everything in there had felt so essential. I got so excited by the gadgetry that I would have blown all my money in one go, if I’d had any. And what you realise, once you actually leave the city, is that it’s all crap. That’s why they never have those stores out in the country. I can’t think of one thing in those shops that we could have used out there. What we needed was a pair of pliers and some wire. Throughout the journey we fixed everything with that combination. The broken steering column, the billy can, the bracket on the solar-powered system. I remember being impressed by the quality of Don’s camp oven. It was a thing that would last a lifetime. I’m through with flim-flam, I said. What is it about city living? All I want to do when I’m there is buy stuff. What I want is just a few beautiful, useful things.

My dad asked, “Is that why you bought that camel skin?”

Well, OK. So you can get fooled in reverse, too. At the campfire one night I was talking to the manager of the local meatworks, and got a great price on a camel skin. Twenty-five bucks! Say what you want about my decision-making, but don’t tell me that’s not a bargain. When I arranged to buy it I honestly thought, This will become one of my most useful possessions.

I’ve been back home for two months now and I’m lumbered with this camel skin. I also find myself in the ridiculous situation of trying to find an apartment big enough to keep it in. Too many people have gone to too much trouble for me to throw it away. Robyn drove it from the Flinders Ranges to Adelaide. My parents – who did finish the trek, and walked the whole way – salted it themselves and sent it to a tannery. But I have it rolled up in the corner of my room. Just as I have the vision of my dad and mum on the last day of the trip, utterly miserable, but walking side by side and leaning into each other on the road to Orroroo.

Robert Skinner

Robert Skinner was born and raised on the Adelaide Plains. He is now based in Melbourne.

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