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Into the Simpson Desert: Dr Mike Smith

Recorded at the National Museum of Australia, Wednesday, 5 September 2007

CAROLYN FORSTER: Good evening. We are so delighted tonight that Mike Smith is going to speak to us. If you have been following Mike’s blog you will know that he’s been sleeping under the stars and travelling with camels in the Simpson Desert.

Many of you will have read Mike’s work, but I will mention a few things about him. He has been a pioneer of research in the Australian desert. He is an archaeologist and a senior research fellow at the National Museum of Australia’s Centre for Historical Research. For more than 30 years he’s been piecing together a picture of the human and environmental histories of the Australian desert. Mike has worked on some of the oldest sites of human settlement in Australia, tracing 50,000 years of occupation at remote locations from south of Perth through to Kakadu in the Northern Territory. He travelled to remote oasis in Africa and South American deserts while working on the National Museum’s Extremes exhibition. This was a wonderful exhibition which looked at survival in the great deserts of the Southern Hemisphere.

Apart from his current work at the National Museum, Mike is also an Adjunct Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. He has published widely and recently contributed a chapter to the National Museum of Australia Press publication A Change in the Weather. He has also co-edited 23 Degrees South: Archaeology and Environmental History of the Southern Deserts. I might add that ‘23 Degrees South’ was also the working title for the Extremes exhibition, which I personally thought was a wonderful title for an exhibition, but in the end we went for Extremes. Mike is also a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities and of the Society of Antiquaries in London. In 2006 the Australian Archaeological Association awarded Mike the Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology.

Tonight we are delighted that Mike has come to speak to the Friends of the National Museum. Thank you.

MIKE SMITH: Thank you for coming to listen to me tonight. It is always a great pleasure to come and talk to the Friends. I can see many of my old friends amongst the audience. And it is also a pleasure to come and talk to you about one of my favourite topics, the deep history of the Australian desert. Tonight I will be talking about a desert journey. There is no better way to travel the desert than to walk it with a string of pack-camels. It is a very special way to travel the desert. But I speak to you about this journey with a little trepidation, because the Friends are an elite group and many of you will have your own association with the desert. Some of you may have travelled the Simpson Desert; some of you may have relatives who were involved in the phase of mineral exploration that swept across the Simpson Desert in the 1950s; some of you may be experienced cameleers. There are always surprises amongst the Friends, I find.

Perhaps some of you are here because you followed my little audio blog, which was an audio diary of the trip, which the Museum asked me to do and which I enjoyed doing and felt went rather well. Certainly it got a following in the Museum. There are lots of people on staff, some of whom I don’t know very well, who smile at me a lot now.

You may have also seen the piece in the Weekend Australian magazine by Nicolas Rothwell, which nicely captured the flavour of the trip. Nicolas was the journalist on the trip and the beautiful photos that accompanied his article were taken by his colleague, Peter Eve. Nicolas very kindly called me ‘the Renaissance man of Australian desert studies’. I was a little nervous - he might have called me a lot of other things, but I was quietly pleased with that label.

For those who share my interest in deserts, there are more interviews - not so much about this camel trip, but about other aspects on the Australian desert - on Radio National’s Hindsight. This is a program put together by Gretchen Miller called ‘White Bone Country’ and it is available on the web for download as a podcast.

I would like tonight to be a fairly informal chat. First of all I will tell you something about how the journey was initiated, talk a bit about the blog and then play you one of the audio blog entries. I will then talk about the three stories that intersect in this journey:

  • the story of the desert and its history
  • the story of actually travelling the desert itself
  • and of course the story of the people on the trip and the personalities. And included amongst the personalities are the camels, which are the most charismatic animals with personalities of their own.

The location for our expedition is well in the heart of the arid zone, not so much in the heart of the continent but in the driest part of Australia in the Lake Eyre Basin. It is an interesting region because it is the part of the basin where annual rainfall is down to around 100mm per annum - which is the boundary between arid and hyper-arid country. This is really the ‘bottom end’ of the desert system.

On the map is Lake Eyre. The Warburton River is one of the rivers flowing into Lake Eyre with the Cooper a bit further over. Coopers Creek is of course famous for the Burke and Wills episode. The Kallakoopah is an old fossil anabranch of the Warburton. It leaves the Warburton, flows north into the desert, does a big bend and turning south, doesn’t join the Warburton but flows into the Macumba, which flows into the top end of Lake Eyre.

The Simpson Desert is one of the great deserts of the world. As you probably know, it is a triangular shape bordered by the Finke and the Macumba on one side, and by Eyre Creek, the Mulligan, Georgina and Warburton rivers on the other. It has the MacDonnell Ranges and those northern rivers – the Plenty, Hay, Hale and Todd - to the north. It is a big triangular area of linear dunefield, an area that has become a magnet for outdoor adventurers and four-wheel drive enthusiasts who see it as the most remote place in Australia and the desert they most want to cross. Of course, there are other places in the desert that are actually more remote, lonelier and quieter: there are parts of the Simpson Desert where you could get run over if you weren’t careful these days.

The southern apex of the triangle is rather special. It does not have the red sand and spinifex that you have further north: it has white sand. White sand because of its history. Because of the ancient rivers that once flowed through this region, bringing down fresh sand which was then blown up into the dunes. So the colour of the landscape reflects its history. It is also much more barren than the landscape in the north. And there is an awful lot of salt and gypsum - again from the rivers and the lakes, and blowing out of Lake Eyre. It is a very special part of the arid zone.

It has been quite difficult to get into the loop of the Kallakoopah. Four-wheel-drivers sometimes get to the peak of the river, sometimes they get to the eastern end and certainly palaeontologists and other scientists have pretty well explored the river. I don’t want to pretend there is anything overly special about this trip. But for me it has been a wonderful opportunity to do an extended walk and to look at an entire landscape.

It is an area of very regular linear dunes - typical desert dunes. Through this threads the Kallakoopah. There are occasional flood plains, blow-outs and big salt pans. This whole part of the Simpson Desert is an old depositional basin: it is sinking with the weight of alluvium and has had quite a complex alluvial history.

The start of the trip was a rendezvous near Kalamurina station on the Warburton River. Kalamurina was a cattle station, but has recently been sold to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. The lower Warburton - our departure point - is really the ecological keystone for the whole region. All the flood waters that come down from Queensland and enter Lake Eyre go across Kalamurina station through the Warburton or through the lower Cooper.

From Kalamurina we moved north through the dunefield until we could intersect the Kallakoopah. We then followed the bend of the channel around from its northern-most point and down the western side. Then we had to cut back across the dunefield. We could only get across the Warburton in one place because of all the flood waters down from Queensland. This was at a place called Stony Crossing. In fact, it was a very special time of year to travel because the country had had local rain and also had had flood waters through.

You can find a map on the National Museum’s website, associated with the audio blog that the Public Programs people of the Museum asked me to do of this route [Simpson Desert map]. Audio blogging is not my natural habitat, so again I was a little apprehensive. One of the great things about working at the National Museum is that it is a place that opens up possibilities and ideas, not closes them down.

Certainly, I like to do my bit to encourage new ideas and I enjoy working with Public Programs. I was duly equipped with a satellite phone with a little solar re-charger and asked to phone in every couple of days, twice on each occasion, once to give my latitude and longitude so the position could be plotted on the map. The second call was the actual diary entry. I tried to think about how to tell the story of the trip and composed the blog in my mind. However, in the hurly-burly of a camel trip there are very few points in the day where you can skive off with a satellite phone and have a quiet moment. Usually I was out shepherding camels - the camels were a bit bemused by what was going on - and I would do my audio blog. Often it was bitterly cold and it was hard to remember your lines. So have a look at the audio blog if you haven’t already heard it. If you have followed and enjoyed it - thank you! One of the things I learnt in the whole process from our Multimedia and Web people is that apparently there is a whole website devoted to museum blogs.

I am going to play one of these audio blogs to give you the feel before we go into the main talk. This entry is from 17 July 2007. I have chosen this blog because it was a fairly typical morning. It is early morning light and I am standing out on the dunes looking after the camels - I’m not the only person looking after the camels. Our camp is down below me in the dune valley, just little lines of camel gear and a little gleam of fire. The whole romance of being part of a pastoral encampment like this caught my imagination.

This is a familiar morning scene, but I want to describe it one more time. We have a little encampment on a flat between high dunes. It’s early morning. We have had minus 2.1 [degrees Celsius] overnight. There is a little camp fire gleaming in our camp. Smoke is rising and flattening out as it hits the inversion layer. You can see the long lines of pack saddles with the sun picking out the red of the saddle blankets.

On the high dunes surrounding our camp the camels are grazing. Picked out on the sky line you can just see the shepherds standing like sentinels, their hands thrust deep into their pockets against the cold. The dingoes are howling like wolves in the dawn light. Camel bells are jangling as the camels feed happily here.

As I watch you can see people moving around the camp in the valley floor. You can hear just a faint hum of voices, laughter and good fellowship. As I watch, a couple of figures detach from the fire light and move off into the darkness, setting out to relieve the shepherds so they can come in and warm their hands at the fire and have a cup of tea. This must be a scene repeated in scores of nomadic pastoral encampments over the centuries - in central Asia, Iran and Rajasthan. But THIS is the Simpson Desert. I think we will have camels sharing our desert for quite a while to come.

There is also a sense now that our little caravan will soon disband. Probably in a day or so we will be at the base camp where there will be another mob of cameleers coming in, another mob of travellers, and our little fellowship will disband. People are beginning to exchange addresses and emails, promising to keep in touch and so forth. There is a sudden sadness in that. There is also the anticipation of a wash and a good coffee somewhere down the track.

Travelling with camels is physically hard. You are very exposed in this open desert country, open arid steppe, to the cold and wind. You can pick that up in that blog. It is very exhilarating country to travel through.

As I mentioned, there are three intersecting stories that I would like to talk to you about today: the desert and its history; my fellow travellers, the people and the camels; and the actual journey, what it is like travelling with camels through the desert.

Those of you who have heard me speak before know that reconstructing the environmental and the human history of the desert is a consuming interest of mine. But I would like to stress I think it is a worthwhile interest and not just a tragic obsession. The Australian desert is the largest desert in the Southern Hemisphere and one of the largest in the world. It is five million square miles of quite diverse desert country. It has dunefields, stony desert, some fantastic desert ranges and arid rivers. It is a continental desert with a great deal of diversity and it covers 70 per cent of the Australian land mass, so it is a very significant Australian habitat. It is also one of the world’s most distinctive habitats. It is very important also for understanding the Australia that most of us live in - the Fertile Crescent in south-eastern Australia - because there are two great dynamics that structure the world we live in. One is the expansion and contraction of the desert over the last few thousands years, and the other is the rise and fall of the sea level. And between these two lie the woodland habitats and the river systems that we mainly live in. So understanding the desert and what it is doing on our borders is really quite important. Deserts are a grand passion but a grand passion with some justification.

I have been trying to pick through the human environmental history of Australian deserts for some time now and I like to think of the desert as a series of different deserts stacked on top of each other in time. I like to think of the desert as document. It has a history: a human history, an environmental history and you can see traces of older deserts in the current landscape. It is a palimpsest just like a medieval manuscript, where you can glimpse the older writing underneath the newer writing.

In the southern Simpson Desert we have an opportunity to glimpse three of these past deserts, three windows on the past. The first one is the last interglacial. It is the time before there were people in the desert. It is the last of the great climatic wet pulses that periodically reactivate the river systems and the environments on the desert margin. It is a rich time in the southern Simpson Desert because the rivers are flowing down through this region into Lake Eyre. We are talking 100,000 years ago.

Lake Eyre itself has a very interesting history, because the lake is essentially a gigantic continental rain gauge. It is fed by all the summer rainfall coming down those rivers into Lake Eyre. The filling and emptying of Lake Eyre is a very good indication of the long-term environmental history of the continent - or at least the summer rainfall part of the continent. During the interglacial when all of this system was active, the Kallakoopah, the Warburton and the lower Cooper were known to be quite rich habitats. It was quite a diversified region with coolibah swampland, open grassland, low savannah and quite a range of fauna - many species of which are extinct now - including giant marsupials and other large animals. In this area we know there were Diprotodon, which was a bullock-sized arid savannah marsupial; Procoptodon, a giant short-faced kangaroo; and Thylacoleo, the marsupial lion, a panther-sized relative of the possum with teeth like bolt cutters. Other animals in the river systems included crocodiles, saratoga-sized fish, large freshwater turtles, the chelids, and freshwater crayfish. You can get the sense that although this was a semi-arid system, it was extraordinarily rich. This whole system ground to a halt as the interglacial came to an end. Its heyday was probably 100,000 years ago but its death knell was around 65,000 years ago when Lake Eyre also filled for the last time and then dried.

For me, as I am researching the desert, I am interested in what the desert was like on the eve of human settlement. Travelling through the Kallakoopah has given me the opportunity to look at a landscape which we know was very rich in animals at one stage - we might think of it as Australia’s Serengeti - and where fossil remains are known to be quite abundant. That proved to be the case. I will tell you a bit more about that in a minute.

The second window is on the last glacial maximum, an exceptionally dry time period in Australian deserts. We know large parts of the desert were probably abandoned by people. We know that people persisted in some areas like western and Central Australia, but what happened in the Kallakoopah region? There are massive exposures of the dune sands that built up during this time. So the trip was a very good opportunity to see any evidence of human occupation.

The third window was on the recent prehistory. The southern Simpson Desert was occupied by Aboriginal people in historic times, a group of people called Wangkangurru. They were classic desert people living in very small numbers in a very lean landscape but this was their land and traces of their occupation are scattered through the Simpson Desert. The trip allowed me to get some measure of the density and distribution of archaeological remains relating to this historic use of the desert.

This was an Australian Desert Expeditions trip. Andrew Harper runs one of the two or three commercial long-distance camel operations in Australia, Outback Camel Company. But recently, as he’s become more secure in his business, he is pursuing his own interest in the desert by establishing a research arm. I received an email one day saying, ‘We are running this expedition. Would you like to join us as a researcher as our guest?’

It was a wonderful opportunity. Of course, an invitation like this comes with no control over where a trip goes - It goes where the camels can find food. It goes where Andrew needs to go because he has to get back to a useful point to start the next trip with paying customers. But it is a wonderful initiative on Andrew’s part and I was very pleased on my part.

Research runs in cycles - I am sure you know this - and at times you are focused on writing your book, digging your trench, focusing on a region and trying to pick it apart. But every so often you have to step back from that; every so often an archaeologist has to get out of the trench and walk across an entire landscape and get the measure of it. This trip gave me a wonderful opportunity to do that through Australian Desert Expeditions.

What did we find? What were the results broadly on those three windows? What did we learn about the history of the desert? Firstly, we quickly found that fossil remains were very widely distributed. There is an old land surface which is a reddish alluvial deposit that is cemented with gypsum, so it dates from the time when the rivers were drying and gypsum was being deposited under seasonally wet, but very hot dry conditions as well. On this surface we would find bits of the large animals. If you walked over pastoral country or cattle country today, you would occasionally find the bones of cattle, maybe just an isolated jaw, perhaps the backbone of a sheep or a leg of a kangaroo. On the Kallakoopah, we were finding isolated skeletal elements scattered across the country - but they were elements of Genyornis, Procoptodon, Diprotodon and crocodile. Occasionally we would find remains of old river channels cut into that land surface and there we would find fish vertebrae, catfish spines, crocodile teeth, bits of crocodile skull and so forth - a vivid indication of this wetter landscape.

There were also extensive exposures of tough, laminated late glacial dune sands, pale in colour, and I thought we must find a prehistoric fireplace or something. But these sands are entirely sterile - no sign of people in these late glacial dune sands. But this is understandable given our own experience out there. Even today (under a much warmer climate) it was intensely cold - minus four degrees one night - and there was not much fuel wood. You are pretty exposed. If you drop down into a glacial period, which is four or five degrees Celsius below today on average, and it is also drier and windier, then the lack of fuel wood may be a limitation as much as anything else. It is likely to be a very tough environment.

I logged all the artefacts and remains I saw. They give a consistent picture of the recent human prehistory of the desert. Once you get to the first major waterhole on the Kallakoopah, you have all the signs of it being a focus for occupation: little fireplaces with the clay that was used as a heat retainer; the grindstones used for grinding seeds; the Tula adzes, one of the classic desert woodworking tools, and a good indication that people are spending a bit of time repairing their gear, and you have Pirri points, which are spear points, again, the sort of thing you expect to find where people are spending a bit of time repairing their gear so they are sitting down for a while.

As we moved further into the desert the artefacts got sparser and sparser until we got to the northern bend of the Kallakoopah. There we started to see a lot more artefacts again, as well as a greater diversity of material because this is where people from across the wider desert were coming down to the river channel.

On the return trip, artefacts again seemed very sparse - and then over a few days we began to notice larger and larger pieces of artefactual stone. Remember, this is a stone-free area. But by and large, people seemed to be throwing away a lot of stuff in this area. We could see that they had also brought in big cobbles of silcrete. I said to my companions that we just had to be near a quarry. Then, a couple of days later, we crossed the dune and there it was - an outcrop of silcrete, a gibber surface with the remains of the old quarry pits, probably the only source of stone north of the Warburton. It was nice to be proved moderately right instead of wrong! So we have a very interesting picture now of the distribution of recent archaeological remains in the Simpson Desert, and that will build as we get other information.

Travelling with camels is by now an Australian tradition after 150 years of travelling the interior with camels, walking with pack-camels carrying your gear. Many of the cameleers were Muslim from north-western India or Pakistan - but not all. There were other groups, including Anglo-Australians, as cameleers. It is a marvellous way to travel but you are walking all the time. Almost everything you do involves walking - or is done ‘on the walk’. You are shepherding the camels, walking during the day and shepherding at night. We covered 300 kilometres in our trip. We were walking with two strings of packed camels. When we say a ‘string’, it is the old way where the camels have a head rope and the head rope of one camel attaches to the head rope of the camel in front, and so forth. Camels characteristically will have nose pegs through the septum of their nose. These are not used a lot nowadays, but there is an opportunity to attach a string from the nose peg to the head rope if a camel is being a bit bolshie. But you generally don’t have that problem with well brought-up camels.

The trip took 23 days, 23 days without a wash. We weren’t walking for 23 days because we had a couple of days when we were in a camp waiting for something to happen. Initially when we set out on our first day it was a bit of a shambles. The camels had had five weeks holiday and were all frisky. They didn’t have their mind on the job and didn’t know who we were, and we didn’t know how to handle the camels, so we only made four kilometres. However, we quickly got into our stride, and were soon making 18 kilometres a day, which was not bad.

There were 17 camels, 16 people plus Mr George the dog, who was Andrew’s dog. Mr George had a self-appointed duty statement to herd the camels: The camels totally ignored him. He was an eye dog who was very keen to make eye contact with camels and control them that way, but they just didn’t make eye contact. So it was totally hopeless. He was what is known in the trade as a ‘camel ineffective.’

Of the people there were six cameleers, more than the usual number for a trip of this size. But that was to compensate for the fact that we had four researchers, who it was expected would have their hands full with their own research so would not be available to handle the camels. We had two journalists, Nicolas Rothwell and Peter Eve, and we had four paying travellers - who were travelling for the sheer pleasure of travelling in the desert. Mainly they were repeat travelers - people who have the bug. I know there are people in the audience who travelled with Andrew on the trip following this trip, and two of my guests here tonight were on the trip with me as well.

Let me give you a bit of sense of the daily routine. Pardon me if you are experienced camel travellers and this is ‘camel travelling 101’. Usually what would happen is that we would rise fairly early. In my case, I was keen to pull my weight as a quasi-cameleer so when Wilko, our 86-year-old cameleer who was ex-World War Two military in the New Guinea Rifles, would spring out of bed with military precision at 6am, I would follow him out. I would roll out of bed when Wilko got up and I would have a quick cup of tea. It was dark and cold. I would go out and shepherd the camels. It didn’t seem right for a researcher to lie around the fire having a meal and chatting while an 86-year-old is out there doing all the hard work minding the camels. So I would go out and Wilko and I would have a good time minding the camels. Then gradually other people would come out and relieve us and we would go in and have our breakfast. Everyone was very supportive, looking out for each other.

Then you have to pack all the camel gear. It always goes in the same packs; the packs always go in the same order; and they always go on the same camel because the weight of the packs is important and you have to get the balance right. On a good day, we might be ready to head off by about 9am. The camels need plenty of time to feed. You have to unhobble them when you bring them in, sit them down in their lines and load them up. Some of the camels, only cameleers unhobbled because they were either trainee camels - so a bit nervous and were likely to say ‘that’s a lion trying to get my foot, I have to kick it’ - and others were just grumpy. There were a couple of camels that tended to be a bit fractious.

Then you set off and you are walking at a fairly brisk pace, maybe four kilometres an hour. Andrew is picking his route. You always have one cameleer leading each string. You have the other cameleers working up and down the string, enveloping the camels in commands and a sense that they are part of a herd. They can be like pushy school-kids crowding forward and you have to get them back into line. The lead cameleer would pick the route. Four kilometres an hour doesn’t sound much but it is a fairly cracking pace. If you stopped to look at a plant or something, the whole string is going to disappear over the horizon fairly quickly so you don’t have time to dillydally.

We would sit the camels down at lunchtime and have a quick lunch. We had a small folding table, so it was quite luxurious. The food was pretty good, but you are burning a lot of energy because you are in the cold wind and walking all the time. You can feel yourself getting smaller and tightening your belt. Then around about 4pm we would pick a place where there was good forage for the camels and we would make camp. Then you have to sit the camels down and unload the camels. The camp was always laid out in the same way so it had the same social geography. You knew where people were if you had to go to the loo at night so that you didn’t fall over anyone. You knew where the gear was if a rainstorm came in so there wasn’t too much chaos. The camels were then released out to graze or browse. That was the routine.

I found that some nights were dark, really dark. When you had a moonlit night it was beautiful, but some nights were so dark that if you went for a walk away from your swag you had Buckley’s chance of finding your swag again. So I had a strobe light which I would put on, like a flashing bike light, and that allowed me to find my swag. You want to go for a walk because you want a bit of privacy. After you walk over two or three dunes you have no idea where your swag is by the time you are coming back. Unless you want to walk around for four or five hours in the dark it is good to have a flashing light.

We set out from Kalamurina, and the first leg of the journey was walking north crossing the dunefield. We were trying to avoid a part of the Kallakoopah where the channel is very diffuse and has lots of flood plain. We wanted to get to where the channel was entrenched. And when we did, to our surprise there was a lot of water there. It did not seem to be flood water flowing down the channel; it mainly seemed to be water coming in off the surrounding country. So the river channel is acting like a rock hole and there is freshwater sitting on top of the salt. There were birds - water fowl, ducks, pelicans, black swans - which was rather lovely. You are walking through country rich with yellow daisies. It was like The Sound of Music and you expected Julie Andrews to come over the dune.

When we found our first big waterhole it was fresh, so we thought we would go for a swim, but unfortunately one of the other researchers, Deb, a biologist from the Department of Environment and Heritage in South Australia, slipped on the mud. It was very treacherous around the edge of these waterholes. You couldn’t get near the water for the soft mud. She slipped and fell backwards and broke her wrist. We were four days walk in and four or five days walk from where we could get the nearest vehicle to come. That was an example of what can happen.

Although I have often felt very comfortable in the desert, when something happens like that you realise how remote you are. Fortunately, Michael who is with us today is an ex-Royal Flying Doctor Service doctor and he knew exactly what to do and was able to reduce the fracture. Joe, one of the cameleers, was an ex-nurse’s aide and he did a very good job of splinting the arm up. Andrew, who had never had this sort of problem on a trip before, had a very good contingency plan and got on the satellite phone and rang around the stations. We got a helicopter. Within a day we had a helicopter from Birdsville to evacuate Deb out. She was very lucky; otherwise she would have had to walk for five days with a broken wrist, which would have been unpleasant for her. We had a couple of days while we sorted that out.

As we moved further north following the channel it was very pleasant country and we eventually got to the top of the end of the Kallakoopah where it bends around. Here there is some old evidence of four-wheel drive access and some traces of the oil and gas exploration of the 1950s and 1960s. This is where Nicholas left us and where a couple of other biologists, Andrew Black and Nerisa Haby, joined our party. The biologists were plant collecting, recording birds and doing a bit of night-time trapping to identify what small marsupials were on the dunes. But it was very lean country, and the major animals were rabbits, camels, dingo and emu. There was plenty of small bird life - the wrens and chats were quite prolific - but it was very lean country. Coming down the western side the country was much, much more barren as no rain had fallen there. It gave you a real sense of what the country would normally look like.

I have already said a little bit about the people on the trip. The other personalities were the camels. Camels have been domesticated for quite a few thousands years, maybe about 5000 years in the Middle East, but they did not spread into the areas we most associate them with like North Africa and the Sahara until the Arab invasions in 700AD. In Australia, they started to be introduced from about 1840 onwards and the numbers built up to the 1900s. They are very charismatic and intelligent animals - but slow revving. A camel knows what you want him to do, but it is going to take him a while to do it. Like turning an ocean liner, they turn slowly. However, they WILL do it, and you don’t want to bully them. If a camel is being slow to respond, sometimes there is a good reason: it may be thinking about urinating, or perhaps the camel knows he has a few more minutes before he has to get into line and wants to finish eating that delicious plant. Within limits, you have to roll with whatever the camel wants to do.

Although they are big animals, they seem quite fragile mentally. They are easily unnerved by episodes of bad handling, and that maybe explains the bad reputation they have in Australia, where camels are regarded as being cantankerous, bad-tempered animals. Our camels were marvellous animals but, because I had travelled before, I could see the changes in some of them. A couple of years ago, Sang was a lovely camel and very steady, a good lead camel, very relaxed. But since that last trip Sang has had some bad experiences with handling and is now a bit nervy and a bit likely to snap - never making contact; you just hear the teeth connecting near your ear. Sang now is number two from the end of the string - so poor Sang has had a fall from grace.

Some of the camels in the string were new recruits. Mojo, who is the son of Morgan, one of the big camels, looks like his dad, a strawberry blond camel with a stocky build. He was very keen to do the right thing,but nervous. Mojo is going to be a really good camel. He badly wants to do the right thing - and puts himself in the line by himself in the morning. Then there is Gus, a ginger-haired camel with lovely soft eyes and personality but very nervous when you put the crupper strap around his tail. He is very nervous about people touching his rear end. When you are loading him up, he sometimes tries to grab you by the ankle. Joe used to joke that he will grab you by the ankle and throw you in the air. He is not a sinister camel, just nervous. He was growing in confidence as the trip went along.

Older camels that have their own way of doing things: Nugget was the rear camel of the ring: a real gent but an older camel, doesn’t want to be mucked around, doesn’t want to be cuddled too much, doesn’t want to be talked to much, knows the ropes, just wants to be left to get on with it. Morgan, big bull camel, strawberry blond and father of Mojo is a very steady camel, with just occasional moments of idiocy. Other good camels were TC, the lead camel, Woody, and Char, who carries the big wooden pack boxes. Char is totally imperturbable. An ‘astral traveller’, he always seemed to be off somewhere else. Wilko rode Istan. Istan is a lovely camel, very sweet natured, very steady but a real foodie. The only time he disobeyed a command when he was after food. He has this funny broken nose – like a boxer. Then there are larrikins like Banjo. Banjo is a good-natured camel, but now and then you can see the gleam in his eye and just knew he was going to roll over with his saddle on, which happened time and time again. Colston was the bad boy of the class. If he was in a class he would be the boy pushing forward sticking his pen into someone, one moment being good and the next moment burping; the lout of the string. Sultan was just a bad-tempered scum bag - no other word for it. I had to work Sultan and he was really hard work.

The camels all have their own personalities. It is very important to learn to recognise camels as individuals and learn their strengths and weaknesses. There is another aspect to this: you are safer if you know where you stand with a camel. You know which camels to stay away from. Which camels are likely to kick you and which camels are very forgiving. Although there is a lot of anthromorphising going on here there is an important edge to it.

[slide show and commentary]

MIKE SMITH: I have run a bit over time so I will finish there. It’s been a great privilege for me to be able to travel the country, just to walk for an extended period across such an interesting bit of desert, courtesy of Australian Desert Expeditions. We hope to develop more of a research partnership with them in coming years. If you ever get the chance to walk the desert with camels, I recommend it. The desert has its own personality but it is also worth getting to know camels and how they operate. I think they are very interesting animals. Thank you very much.

CAROLYN FORSTER: Thank you so much for sharing that with us, Mike. We feel we have had a little touch of the desert. We are all still keen. I imagine quite gritty and uncomfortable at times. You did not mention any of that - just said you didn’t wash. Not quite as pleasant all the time. Amazing to have that window into that unique part of Australia. Thank you very much for helping us understand a little more about our wonderful country. Thank you all for coming.

Date published: 31 March 2008