My enormous beast was an arrogant gelding named Sandy. I had been told he was once a nasty camel and had little use for humans. But after two full years of training he easily "whooshed" down to the ground to be mounted, and with a tremendous jolt and violent pitching fore and aft, he lurched back up when asked, until the ground was 12 feet below his rider's eyes. Sandy was to carry me and my belongings, plus a metal can of water, for 300 miles across the Australian bush on an "adventure safari."
I knew very little about camels. For the past 30 years I have wandered America. I immigrated to the U.S. in 1958, a typist from Birmingham, England, and in the land of opportunity found work as a pig feeder, jazz agent, chauffeur, secretary and snowmobile racer. I have edited a magazine, built a car from a kit, tested the lunar rover, kissed Willie Nelson and, until I got thrown out of the Sacramento arena by a bull named Sixty-Six. worked as a rodeo photographer. For three weeks in 1975 I thought I was a tuna fisherman, until I became violently seasick into the Pacific. I figured I could handle an "adventure safari."
It was late November when I arrived in Alice Springs, a town of 26,000 in the Northern Territory, to join Camel Outback Safari. The temperature hovered around 100° ("This is cool, mate"), and the Todd River, which slices the town in half, was a pathway of dry gravel. In the riverbed, small groups of Aboriginals sat in the shade of giant eucalyptus trees.
The bush town was interesting, because even though money from big-city developers and designers had done away with most of its outback charm, it had not yet crushed the town's spirit. Before I joined Sandy and the 14-day Across the Ranges Safari tour, I spent a few days in Alice Springs, staying at the Diplomat in a black-and-pink air-conditioned chamber outfitted with a wet bar, snacks, tea, coffee and a Jacuzzi.
The hotel swimming pool was just outside my door. Within walking distance was the Yeperenye Shopping Center (owned by Aboriginals), tourist shops, supermarkets and several pubs. A mile away was Laseters Casino. It is appropriate for Alice Springs to offer gambling, because just being out in the town's heat is something of a risk. "If you get dehydrated out here," one local informed me with a smile, "you'll be dead within eight hours."
Sandy and I were going on a walkabout, an Australian term that loosely means we were going pretty much wherever we wanted at our own pace. Our terrain was to be the southern edge of the Simpson Desert, a region so ancient, and with air so dry, that geological and climatic changes offer an exotic range of wildlife and flora, depending on whether the desert is in drought or flood.
An outback guide would lead five adventurers, two camel handlers and 14 dromedaries through the most extraordinary parts of the bush, spending nights wherever there was feed for the camels. The handlers warned us to respect our mounts. "Camels may seem docile enough," one said, "but they can kick in any direction, they bite, and they can crush you to death with their chest pedestal."
This conversation didn't make me feel very secure, because Sandy was the largest of the long-lashed, long-necked mammals, and his dislike of humans—me. in particular—seemed intense. Each morning when I showed up to tie my canvas bags onto his saddle frame, he would regurgitate and let out an agonizing wail.
Sandy and I lurched on together anyway, along the sandy bottom of the Hugh River, which was dry as usual, with pale-green mulga stretching for miles on either side. Reins of light nylon rope were attached to a thin string connected to a peg through one of his nostrils. I sat behind my luggage and Sandy's hump. As we slowly moved westward, the camel would throw his big soft lips over a few thin branches of mulga and pull off all the leaves without missing a step. All day he munched as I jolted forward and back, slipping and sliding in sweat-soaked clothes, chafing everything that touched the sheepskin saddle. His small ears were in constant motion, reminding me that he preferred a gentle hand on the reins.
For three days, as we passed through several areas, the colors changed from the silvery-green acacia thickets of the James Ranges to the vivid red and violet canyons of Finke River Gorge. During this time our group found no fresh water. We were confused as to the time of day, and the intensity of the heat and the consistency of our camels' lurching made our journey a bit surrealistic. But the more I missed water, the worse I felt, the better Sandy seemed to like me.