The big event of each day occurred when we dismounted and boiled the billy, a tin can containing water, for tea. Food was taken mostly in the dark of night because otherwise the ever-present flies demanded the lion's share.
The man who gave the order to rest or to make camp was Noel Fullerton, our guide. I had first met this bushman at the Virginia City (Nev.) International Camel Races, which I was covering, and he had encouraged me to try the tour out of Alice Springs. "You'd do well, mate, on our camel safari," he said, and smiled as he gave me his brochure. But when I signed up for his December trip, he scolded: "That's the bloody worst time to come. It's hot and dry, and there are lots of flies, and we might not find any water."
Few Australians know the Northern Territory as well as Fullerton; even fewer know as much about camels. For decades he has been catching wild dromedaries on the Angas Downs Cattle Station, then training them to race and ride. He has organized, and won, some of the world's great camel races. He has traveled to the Middle East to discuss camel fodder with Dubai's royal family.
During our trek, Fullerton shared legends of the territory, and at Scorpion Hole, an Aboriginal campsite, he showed us some Aboriginal cave art. "This was a sacred place in the old days," he said. We stayed one night in Cocky's Camp, then we crossed the Finke, which Fullerton reckoned is the world's oldest and driest waterway still running its original course. "When it's got water in it, it's quite spectacular," he said.
Boggy Hole, a long, skinny water hole on the Finke, was an immense relief, our first sight of water in several days. One fellow trekker, a cheerful 22-year-old Melbourne lab technician named Pierot, said he signed up to get out of the city and the rain but was elated when he saw the brown, bug-covered water of Boggy Hole. "I wouldn't have considered drinking water from anything other than a tap before," he said after we had made camp at Boggy Hole, "whereas now I revel in the fact that we get to drink green slimy water with tea leaves in it. You have to change your perspective and be grateful for what you've got because there's nothing else, pal."
Fullerton is a man who enjoys letting people know that he's tough and that his way is law. "There's a right way," he told the group on several occasions, "there's a wrong way, and there's my way. Always do it my way." He could be generous and kind, sharing everything he owned, but he could also be stubborn and moody, and he was less than tolerant of any show of weakness.
On one of the hottest days—around 120° at midday—Fullerton scampered up a rocky cliff to show us a dozen handprints of some ancient Aboriginals. As our suffering increased, so did his energy and glee. We found a water-filled crevice in the rock, and when he pushed one trekker, a beautiful stewardess from Sydney, into the water hole, she was introduced to black mud and leeches.
I had no interest in giving blood to those slimy suckers. At that point I was shaking, swaying, hallucinating; my skin was sweatless, my fatigue absolute. On the way back to camp I fell asleep on Sandy's back. When I awoke my hands were blistered from holding on to the hot metal saddle frame, and I was looking down at a world that had earlier offered violent color but now appeared in shades of gray. Fullerton gave me a potion for heatstroke. It tasted of limes. "You should know that if you don't sweat, you're in trouble," he told me bluntly. "You're dehydrated. You should be drinking more water."
A few days later, we were no longer in danger of becoming dehydrated; weather conditions had changed suddenly to the opposite of those we had experienced on the first part of the expedition. Rain turned the rock-hard ground to mud as we crossed the three high peaks of the Ranges. It was dangerously slick for the soft pads of the camels, and their flat, two-toed feet slipped and slid on the rocky trail. On steep downhill treks, Sandy's body tilted so far forward that I often lost sight of his head as it disappeared below the rest of him. While he carefully stepped off four-foot ledges, fear eliminated any desire in me to inspect my surroundings. I could feel Sandy starting to tremble.
"Keep your feet loose in the stirrups, and if the camel falls down, stay with him," Fullerton called. "He'll just go down on his knees, then stand back up again." To our south, we could see the storm. Thunder rolled across the ridges, and lightning struck the bush. Directly below us we could almost make out the bottom of the canyon we were heading toward. It was as yet a gray blur, but it would eventually become the entrance to an insect-ridden valley. "Centipedes come above ground in the rain because they're afraid they'll drown," said the not-so-comforting Fullerton. To calm our nerves when we were finally off those treacherous cliffs, we boiled the billy and sat in a cavern for an hour, catatonically watching the rain beat down.