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It is about 1900: the outback town of Oodnadatta is where young Aboriginal girl Ruby Baker is brought by her dad to work. Ruby comes from Alice Springs; she misses her mum and doesn’t like the Nortons, the family for which she does domestic work. Ruby is at her lowest ebb when she meets Idris Sayed, the son of Taj Sayed, a local Afghan cameleer. Idris and Ruby have quite a bit in common: outsiders, displaced and struggling to make sense of their lives.

Ruby makes friends with Idris and finds out about the camel trains that carry goods through the harsh Australian outback. Idris is looking forward to his first camel train trip with his father and older brothers. He feels he is ready and well up to the task of taking a camel from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs. His mother is less enthusiastic; she is worried about her young son and gives him a ‘barakah’, or special blessing to keep him safe and make sure he returns.

Ruby sees a chance to get back to her family, so she hatches a secret plan to stow away in the camel train. Her plan will cause a major disruption and put a strain on Idris’ relationship with his father. Zainie, Idris’ red camel, ends up carrying the box in which Ruby has hidden. Ruby’s choice of hiding place is both good and bad, as the events that follow her discovery bring rapidly changing fortunes.

The expanse of central Australia forms a stark backdrop for the conclusion of the story. Camel trains, the timeless landscape and the human need for love and family are a potent blend for adventure.

Discussion questions

  • Idris meets Ruby when he is evading the ‘rough boys’ who are chasing him. Suggest why they were chasing Idris.
  • Idris and his family live in ‘Ghantown’, 1 km outside of Oodnadatta. Why are the Afghan cameleers living this distance from town? Suggest the reasons that may be behind this situation.
  • A camel train can cover the same distance in 12 days that takes a bullock team five weeks. How can the camels manage that? Why is the bullock team slower?
  • Uncle Bob appears sad as he tells Ruby he will relay her message to her mother in Alice Springs. Why would he be sad? How would you feel if you were Uncle Bob or Ruby in that situation?
  • The camels drink from a bore water trough at Charlotte Waters station. What is bore water? How is access gained to bore water reserves?

Classroom activities

1. Construct a timeline

  • Ask your students to research the camel train era in Australian history.
  • Have them construct a timeline that sets out information such as the beginning and end of the era, major developments, significant individuals and locations, incidents, and reasons for the decline of the camel trains.
  • They may also like to show any camel use in Australia in the present day.
  • Suggest to them that the timeline can be a combination of written and visual information, for example, text, photocopied images, drawings, photographs, magazine cut-outs and images created using computers.

2. Write a letter

  • The Afghan cameleers were a long way from their homeland. Ask your students to imagine that they are an Afghan cameleer living in Oodnadatta around 1900.
  • Have them write a letter to their family or friends back in Afghanistan.
  • Suggest that the letter could describe life in Oodnadatta, the camel train trips and their thoughts and feelings in regard to central Australia and the people that live there.
  • The students may like to read each others letters and write a response letter from the point of view of a friend or family member in Afghanistan.

3. Write a poem

  • Ask your students to go to the National Museum of Australia’s A Different Time: The Expedition Photographs of Herbert Basedow website.
  • Have them select the 1920 May Expedition page from the exhibition contents list. The first image in the slide show for that exhibition shows Aboriginal man Arrerika watching camels as they drink from a waterhole.
  • Ask your students to imagine what it would have been like standing next to Arrerika at that time.
  • Suggest that they consider other senses apart from sight: the sounds, the smells, the textures of the landscape, the air temperature, the way the landscape may have made them feel (eg isolated, excited, small) and any tastes (for example, the water from the waterhole or their previous expedition meal).
  • Have them use their imaginings as the basis for a poem. Encourage them to use one of a range of poetry styles, for example, acrostic, ballad, free verse or haiku.

4. Produce a poster

  • Ruby uses her tracking skills to find Zainie, the red camel that has disappeared from an overnight campsite. Ask your students to investigate the tracks made by camels and other animals found in central Australia.
  • Have them use the Following tracks worksheet (PDF 952kb) to compile examples of the tracks. They will find space on the sheet to suggest what tracks might be made by other animals, for example, pets, livestock or imaginary animals such as dragons or phoenixes.
  • Ask them to investigate how Indigenous people track animals in central Australia.
  • Once they have compiled some information, have them work in small groups to produce posters that explain Indigenous tracking techniques for particular animals.

5. Design a front and back book cover

  • Ask your students to use the Taj’s journey worksheet (PDF 915kb) to design a front and back book cover.
  • Have them imagine that a book telling the story of Taj Sayed’s (Idris’s father) journey from Afghanistan to Australia as a young man is to be published; your students have been given the job of designing the book cover and writing the blurb (short description of the story) for the back cover.
  • Encourage your students to research the arrival of the Afghan cameleers in the early years of the camel trains in Australia; have them seek information that may help them to write the ‘blurb’.

Book details

The Red Camel by Kirsty Murray
illustrated by Teresa Culkin-Lawrence

ISBN 978 1876944 69 8
198mm x 130mm, 64 pp.
RRP $11.95

Published 2008. This book is out of print.

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