Driving through the desert today, Claudia pulled over and turned the car around when she spotted wild camels among the bushes close to the road. She has a hunter’s eye for animals when driving. There they were, a group of healthy, woolly, leggy animals. Two of them were much smaller, with finer, lighter-coloured coats. They all had dark tufts, like a pile of coconut fibre on the top of their humps and their heads. Claudia approached them across the road with her camera. “I’m not going to hurt you. Just looking for a portrait. You’d like that wouldn’t you? Oh, I do like it when you look straight into the camera like that, very good,” she called, cajoling her placid models.
The sun was low and the light was so sweet you could almost taste it. The camels were enjoying a meal of foliage that was clearly very satisfying, stripping most of the green off a tree with their prehensile lips. As Claudia got close, the young camels turned away with their mother, climbing up into the safety of the sand dune behind them. The two adult camels feeding on the tree looked down Claudia’s camera lens with their black, thickly-lashed eyes. In the photo here the second camel seems to smile because he is hiding.
Encountering a camel on the road is not always so harmonious. Camels tend to stand their ground when challenged. A bull might charge at you. So if you drive over a rise or around a rock to find a group of camels on the road you stop, daunted. And wait for them to go away.
We live close to Australia’s biggest camel farm, where camels are trained to carry people and things. Many of the camels there have been on long journeys across the continent, but their regular work is taking tourists and travellers across the dunes at sunrise or sunset to enjoy the experience and the view. I’ve been on the camel ride sometimes with visiting family. Even with a little experience, sitting on a camel when it gets up is unnerving. You want a secure saddle with something to hang onto, a cameleer who confidently signals the animal and a cooperative camel. A camel is much taller than a horse. The big beast gets up elegantly with you sitting on it, back legs first, pitching and tilting the rider as you lean back in the saddle. Suddenly you’re up and can see a long way over the desert landscape. A camel’s walk is measured and rhythmic. Being there gives you a lofty and mellow perspective.
The cameleer walking by my side on my last camel ride was in love with the animals. “We need to be eating them,” she said, surprising me. “Their meat is good, full of good quality fats. Their skin and hair make wonderful textiles. Camel leather is fine. Their milk can help diabetics stay healthy. Every part of them is useable.”
I looked out over the sand hills at the big red rocks glowing in the setting sun. Below me, the desert flowers contrasted bright yellow, mauve and white against dark red sand. The desert was benign, nurturing delicate growth. But the Central Australian camels trample the flowers, eat the tender growth on the trees and befoul waterholes. “They do less damage than the cattle,” my guide continued. “But there are more than a million of them and we don’t eat them. We should.”
She went on, “They’re really healthy too, these camels. They don’t have the diseases that camels in other countries are affected by. We should be exporting them back to their home countries for breeding and other things.” She patted the huge rump of the camel I rode affectionately. I have eaten camel meat in a delicious spicy stew. I know the meat is good.
The camels of Central Australia are wild descendants of the domesticated animals of the Afghani and Pakistani traders who were the suppliers and newsmen of the inland in the 19th and early 20th century.
The camel farm near my place is run by dedicated people who capture wild camels and train them using methods descended from those of the original cameleers. I first learned about these important people in desert life from friends who are of Aboriginal and Afghani ancestry. Central Australia has more than a few of these handsome people. I learned about the training and companionship of camels in Robin Davidson’s impressive book, Tracks, which I first read as a young woman.
It seems to be true, too, that camel milk is showing promise as a treatment for diabetes.
Apparently, the insulin in camel milk is usable by humans. To put this in context, one of my mentors when I was a junior doctor in Aboriginal health told me that when he talked to patients with a new diagnosis of diabetes he spoke of their susceptibility to diabetes as a sign of adaptation to scarcity. “In the old days when they were hunting or gathering, they needed to go for days with very little food and still keep travelling,” Dr John said. “That’s why their bodies are able to keep their blood sugar up over a long period.” I talk to my patients about that idea, too. Now we have food available every day and we like to eat every day. But that sustained, elevated blood sugar can harm us. Some of the foods Indigenous people are sold now aggravate the tendency to elevated blood glucose. The years of being paid for labour by sugar, tea and tobacco didn’t help. This historical and social context can form the start of an intelligent conversation about managing this tricky, sometimes devastating disease.
It makes sense that a baby camels’ food allows it to maintain a steady supply of glucose in their blood stream as they travel long distances in harsh conditions growing up. I’ll be thrilled to see the camels put to good, sustainable use — taking their rightful place in the ecology of this big red island. I feel grateful for the broader perspective they give me.