Seven walkers (Heysen 12), eleven camels, two Cameleers and one small dog set out to walk 230km of South Australia’s arid north. We had never walked with camels before, but we were excited by this new opportunity.
After completing the Heysen Trail in 2012 over a period of 65 walking days, we looked for the next challenge. The Heysen Extension is a 230km trek from Parachilna to Arkaroola in the Northern Flinders and poses particular difficulties for support vehicles, as access in this far northerly part of the State is very limited, and water sources non-existent. A camel train would be able to provide the support we needed through this very arid region.
The 16 day walking Trek was organised through Flinders and Beyond Camel Treks, operated by Ryan and Natalie McMillan, Cameleers of Blinman, South Australia. We met Ryan and Natalie and their intrepid little dog, Pixie, in May 2014 at Parachilna (where we had finished two years before) and we met our camels, who were grazing nonchalantly in a patch of harsh acacia scrub. On first meeting we were a bit overwhelmed by the size of the camels and wary of them; they towered over us. At first glance they all looked pretty much the same, but we were told we would soon learn their names and grow to love them (?????). We were fascinated by the texture of their coats (tight curls), their long eye lashes and their bifurcated lips which moved independently. We were introduced to the pack camels Victor, Bubbles, Henry, Taipan (males), and Mona, Nari and Polly (females), and to the juvenile camels Mindy, Roly, Timmy and Thomas – eleven camels in all. Polly was pregnant and birth imminent, so we expected a baby during our trek. We even made bets on date, time and gender of the baby. However, Polly waited until the return trip and gave birth to a little male (called Cracker) in the quiet of her home paddock.
The morning rituals did not change much over the Trek. While we became a little more efficient, it still took a substantial amount of time from rising in the dark with head torches, swags rolled, breakfasted, packed and loading the camel string ready for departure.
Ryan and Natalie brought the camels into camp early in the morning and Huushed them down onto their knees and hindquarters ready for loading. Wearing gloves, we rubbed them down to remove sticks and burrs out of their coats that might irritate them under their load. Protective blankets and a large compressed straw-filled wooden harness were fitted tightly over the hump (traditional Afghan harness), designed to carry the weight evenly distributed on each side of the camel and which eventually settled to the shape of the camel’s hump. The heavy loads were lifted on and secured by ropes while the camels were kneeling. Each camel was loaded with up to 200kg of water, food, swags and kitbags. Some mornings the camels were very fractious, and Natalie and Ryan showed considerable skill and patience in dealing with them. They often jumped up during loading and because they were linked, the whole string stood up and had to be calmed down and reloaded. We learned a line of camel talk to calm them – Huuush Huush– keep quiet, sit down (accompanied by wiggling fingers at eye level for mesmerizing effect); Oooodleooo – stop, stand still (holding hand above head to appear bigger; Ibna – get up; Vamoose – let’s go. As time went on and we became more experienced and the camels more used to us, the loading became easier.
We set off each morning and walked for about 3 hours, taking an hour for lunch to rest the camels, organise a fire to boil the billy and have lunch. Our lunch stops were spectacular – in creek beds, under huge gums and on hillsides with panoramic views. Another 2 to 3 hours walking brought us to our overnight campsites and we unloaded the camels, set up swags for the night and sat out under the stars before a blazing campfire, enjoying gourmet food and a glass of wine.
All food was prepared by Natalie and Ryan over an open campfire. We considered that the meals provided were, without exception, excellent. We marvelled that they had been able to provide meat, fresh, crisp cold salads and fresh fruit and vegetables and such delicious meals on a campfire. Natalie explained that the food boxes were so designed that if strategically placed flaps were left open in the cool night air, and then closed during the day, they would retain their temperature. Hence the food was always fresh and cool.
Walking through the Northern Flinders Ranges is an experience not to be missed! There was no observable track, but Ryan led us, with only a few mishaps, to our destination. We travelled through wide dry creek beds lined with enormous River Red Gums, many hundreds of years old, their huge boles scarred by rocks and debris from periods of extreme floods for which the region is known, despite its aridity. The walking was rough, over broken rocks, slate, sand and gravel. We walked over low hills covered in Native Callitris Pine and wildflowers, and because we experienced one very wet and stormy night and several days of light rain, pools of water accumulated on the track and in some of the creek beds and providing the camels with lush, green overnight forage. As we trekked further north the country became drier – low hills covered with native grasses, bluebush, Casuarina and tracts of very prickly Kangaroo Bush (Triodia irritans, a variety of tussock Spinifex); we walked on old 4WD tracks through lonely outback cattle stations where we occasionally came across an old water tank for cattle and were grateful for a quick wash (water carried by camels was for drinking only). After 9 days we did experience very well-appointed accommodation in the shearer’s quarters at Angepena Homestead, with showers, beds, electricity and a dining table.
The beautiful colours of the rugged ranges and rocky gorges were a highlight of walking in the Flinders Ranges. Beautiful sunsets and sunrises where the country turns orange and red and gold, mornings of low mist and long hot days of Mediterranean blue skies, copious flies, and fine, warm autumn days.
The camel trek offered the opportunity to pass through otherwise inaccessible areas, giving a unique experience and bringing a new love and appreciation for camels and the spectacular arid mountain ranges. We survived and are enriched.
More than a walk – an experience not to be missed.