"The old German missionaries used to bring their camels down that trail through the Ranges in the early days," said our guide with a peculiar smile. "It was originally a native track, but when it's raining it's the worst possible time to come through that part.... I'm surprised you all made it."
When the rain stopped, I combed the hair at the top of Sandy's long blond neck behind his ears. I used twigs from a eucalyptus and gently scratched all the brush, dirt and burrs from his mane. I had finally discovered his soft spot. Mesmerized, his gorgeous lashes dropped; he closed his eyes and laid his big flat head on the ground.
Late in the afternoon a couple of days later, we passed through Areyonga, an Aboriginal settlement in the Krichauff Range. The camel handlers filled our water bottles while Sandy and I gave rides around the village square to half-naked children whose bodies were covered with sores. The Aboriginals' government-issued houses were empty because the people preferred living the old way, sleeping on the ground outside.
The Wallara Ranch, a motel and saloon 130 miles from Alice Springs, was our final destination. The trek to the rustic inn at the corner of Angas Downs turned out to be a crotch-busting, 40-mile ride on what may well have been the hottest day of all. By 10 a.m. our jaws were set, our butts scarred and sore, our legs partially paralyzed. And there was too little time to boil the billy.
By the time we got to Wallara late that afternoon, we had to be helped off the camels. I was more than willing to pay for a shower, so I left Sandy in a big corral with his favorite tucker and rented a motel room. It didn't matter much that the door to the bathroom didn't close, that the water in the shower only dripped, that the generator broke down so the air conditioner was off for most of the night and that when it did come on the noise was deafening. I wasn't even bothered that the room cost more than a suite at Harvey's in Lake Tahoe.
Still, that upscale night in the outback was, of the 14 I spent there, about the worst. I missed the stars. I missed the fragrance of the bush, the shuffling and murmuring of the camels. I missed the sight of the Australian outback at dawn, its reds, oranges, golds and greens. I missed the eerie light, the kangaroos, lizards, eagles, brumbies and parrots. I missed tea from the billy. Most of all I missed cud-chewing, two-toed Sandy.