The descendants of Australia’s “Afghan” cameleers get together in remote South Australia
By Sam Vincent
- 1 of 2
- next ›
The Marree roadhouse in outback South Australia is the last service station for 203 kilometres. From across the street, Mathew Zada watches the grey nomads pull in to refuel. “See that?” he says of a LandCruiser towing a jacked-up caravan. “Way too high for the speeds that they want to drive at. As soon as they hit the sand it’ll become unstable.” Same goes for the next caravan, apparently. And the next. Mathew knows about these things: his family has been “getting stranded explorers out of trouble since before the White Australia policy came into force”.
Every winter, Mathew and other descendants of “Afghan” cameleers congregate in Marree, 685 kilometres north of Adelaide, for a catch-up and a curry on the site of the town’s old camel yards.
Between the 1860s and the 1920s, around 2000 cameleers and 20,000 camels arrived from Afghanistan and British India; if “without trucks Australia stops”, without camels it would’ve stalled. The introduction to the desert of the truck and the train (named after the “Ghans”) – and the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 – sent the majority of cameleers home, but some settled, mostly with Aboriginal women, in remote towns such as Marree.
Mathew throws a fence post on a fire, its flames translucent in the bright desert afternoon. Benches are carried into place to form a square. In a nearby demountable cabin, women talk and cook.
The Zada family lived in Marree when it was an important hub at the junction of the Oodnadatta and Birdsville tracks. The town was also a rare source of spring water for cameleers and drovers alike. But, like many of those coming for dinner, the Zadas left after the railway was rerouted in 1980, when Mathew was nine. Since then, Marree’s population has shrunk from nearly 400 to 150.
Mathew’s great-grandfather Khan Zada arrived from Afghanistan around 1891, aged 14. He worked delivering the mail in western New South Wales, before settling in Marree with his Aboriginal wife. When Mathew takes off his sunglasses I notice his eyes are emerald green.
Like her cousin Mathew, Corina Jenkins has travelled from her home in Port Augusta. She pulls out her phone to show me a photo of a plaque recounting how in 1900 Khan Zada “astride a big bull camel delivered the mail from Broken Hill to Wilcannia, a distance of nearly 200kms, in one day!” Corina then shows me a photo of a letter sent in 1921 to inform Khan Zada that his application for Australian naturalisation had been rejected. “My other cameleer great-grandfather [Dadleh Balooch, from Baluchistan in present-day Pakistan] was allowed to stay because he married a white girl,” she explains.
Nowhere on the Australian frontier was too remote to be segregated, and Marree’s camel yards, now a sandy clearing between corrugated-iron shacks, is part of what was known as “Ghantown”. The area used to be separated from the rest of the community by train tracks and a turnstile sometimes smeared with pig fat to keep the Muslims in their place. The Aboriginal part of town was further back in the desert.
As night falls, the crowd builds. Here’s big Abdul Sultan, a former steelworker from Whyalla; there’s bigger “Butch” Bejah, the grandson of Bejah Dervish (a sergeant in the British India army) and son of Jack Bejah (a member of Cecil Madigan’s 1939 expedition that gave the Simpson Desert its name). Rick Dadleh introduces himself and tells me that the camel yards were once home to an establishment known as “Deano’s Casino”. It was owned by his late great-uncle Dean and famous for drinking benders and two-up, fortified by chapattis, damper and curry.
Somewhere behind the camel yards in the dun-coloured scrub lie the foundations of Australia’s earliest recorded mosque, believed to have been built in the 1860s, but no one seems to know exactly where. A 1980s reconstruction sits opposite the roadhouse. Built of hardwood posts, mud and thatch, it looks like a giant nativity scene without the figurines.
Within the space of a few generations, the devout first generation of cameleers had given way to something uniquely Australian, encompassing Aboriginal, European and outback culture. Nobody at the dinner identifies as Muslim, but Mathew tells me his grandmother would never whistle, believing it forbidden by Islam. One woman tells me of a man here tonight who drinks alcohol but doesn’t eat pork. (“I didn’t know that,” says another cameleer descendant, overhearing our conversation. “I brought heaps of bacon for tomorrow morning.”)
Beneath a full moon and before a crowd of perhaps 70 (made up of cameleer descendants and their friends and families) stands Reg Dodd, an Arabunna elder who worked on the railways with many people here. He strums a guitar while singing cowboy ditties, Johnny Cash covers and – with another former railway worker, Larl Zada, on accordion – the old Afghan love song ‘Khala Khala’.
Reg stops playing when the curries are brought out along with steaming bowls of rice and flatbread. “Alright, you fellas at the back,” he says, leaning into the mic. “Come have a feed.”
Later, I talk with Larl Zada, who once had to dress as an “Afghan guard” for passengers on the Ghan. I ask him if the curry is camel. He replies, with a serious air, “You gotta be kiddin’!” The cameleers, explains Larl, didn’t eat their best mates.