Lessons from camels

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - ROBERT SKIN­NER

For rea­sons that are still un­clear to me, I agreed to go on a ten-day camel trek with my par­ents. When they in­vited me my ini­tial re­ac­tion was I’ve got a whole LIFE go­ing on here, I can’t just take off. I had a pile of junk mail to read and some pretty firm din­ner plans. A few weeks later I was at a party where I didn’t think much of the peo­ple. Or, more ac­cu­rately, I didn’t think the peo­ple thought much of me. So I wan­dered out­side, thought, Phooey to you, city liv­ing, and texted my par­ents. “I’m in.”

A week be­fore de­par­ture they called me from Ade­laide, hud­dled to­gether and shout­ing into the speak­er­phone. “When you get here, we need you to pick up 30 kilo­grams of pota­toes. We’re in charge of the pota­toes.”

“Don’t stress him out,” said my mum. “You just bring your­self.”

“Yeah, yeah, but just – and the pota­toes.”

My dad ex­plained where we’d be go­ing: from Or­ro­roo in the Flin­ders Ranges, east to­wards Yunta, north to Koon­amore, and then south-west along Pipe­line Road.

“It’s a tri­an­gle, Bob. We’re do­ing a tri­an­gle.”

I asked how far we’d be rid­ing, all up. There was a mo­ment’s si­lence. “We’re not rid­ing, mate. They’re wagon camels.” We would be walk­ing, said my dad. Next to the camels, and for 25 kilo­me­tres a day. He paused.

“You have been train­ing, haven’t you?”

I said yes, in the sense that I’d man­aged to keep my legs in pretty much mint/un­used con­di­tion. I started to panic. “I thought I was sup­posed to be prac­tis­ing sit­ting down.”

My dad’s cousin Robyn had mar­ried a bush­man called Don, and to­gether they raced camels and went on wagon ex­pe­di­tions. This was the first time they were bring­ing other peo­ple along. There would be be­tween 9 and 14 peo­ple on the trek. Be­ing in such close quar­ters with strangers for ten days was not my dad’s idea of a good time. He would have pre­ferred to be at home with a book or tin­ker­ing in his shed. But his own dad had a rep­u­ta­tion for dis­ap­pear­ing out the back door ev­ery time some­one showed up at the front door, and my dad was for­ever try­ing not to be that guy.

The night be­fore we left Ade­laide he did that thing ner­vous par­ents do, where they start fuss­ing over their kids in­stead. He looked at me gruffly and said, “Now lis­ten, Bob.

What are you go­ing to do out there for en­ter­tain­ment?” “I dunno. I brought a few books.”

“You un­der­stand that these are coun­try folk we’ll be trav­el­ling with. They like dif­fer­ent things to us.”

“Well, what about you? What are you go­ing to do?”

“I’m go­ing to look at the fire,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

My par­ents and I drove north from our house in Ade­laide to meet up with the crew in Or­ro­roo. On the way we picked up a 31-year-old cameleer called Brian. He had a huge camel-coloured beard, and a smile that took over his whole face. “G’day folks,” he said as he climbed in.

We drove for four hours through small towns and low ranges, along­side dry creek beds and stub­bly wheat­fields. We pep­pered Brian with ques­tions about camels. (“Is it true that they spit?” “Can Jewish peo­ple eat them?” “Why don’t you ride horses in­stead?”) He had two camels of his own, Firestorm and Vicky, and ev­ery time he talked about them he got a far­away look in his eyes.

In the late af­ter­noon we drove down a dirt drive­way and pulled up out­side a big shear­ing shed. The head of our ex­pe­di­tion, old bush­man Don, came up to the car. From where I was sit­ting I could only make out his waist­line. His jeans were cov­ered in dirt, and were about six sizes too big. They were held up by a rope, a belt and a pair of braces.

He leaned in through the win­dow and said, “Now, the im­por­tant thing about this trip is not to panic.”

The first thing we were sup­posed to not panic about was the state of one of the wag­ons. It had been re­fur­bished by Greg, a lo­cal nat­u­ral­ist and coun­cil worker who would be join­ing us on the trek. “You can tell he worked on the high­ways,” said Don, point­ing at the wagon. “It’s all held to­gether by street signs.” That wasn’t the prob­lem so much as its rick­ety, lop­sided canopy. The wagon looked as though it wanted to veer off into the bushes and lie down.

I walked over to the hold­ing pen to see if maybe I had a magic touch with camels. This is the per­sis­tent dream of dilet­tantes: that we will, at some point, un­cover a su­per­power that will make sense of lives filled with false starts, fail­ures and end­less dab­bling.

I stood up on the rail­ing and said “Hello, ladies!” to what I would later learn was mostly a bunch of bul­locks. The camels looked at me with long-lashed eyes. The big­gest camel, Weet-Bix, came over and nuz­zled my hand. I stroked his fleshy lips and hummed a Mid­dle East­ern tune I knew; he bit me af­fec­tion­ately on the arm. Things were look­ing good!

On the morn­ing of de­par­ture I asked Brian if he wanted some help wran­gling the camels. “I’ve got kind of a spe­cial rap­port with them,” I said, and ex­plained about the deep looks, the nib­bling and so forth.

“They’ve been bit­ing you? Mate, you can’t let them do that!”

So I went and helped my dad in­stead. He had de­signed and built a so­lar-pow­ered elec­tri­cal sys­tem and was ready to in­stall it. I wanted to be use­ful, so I kept sug­gest­ing we bolt things to hard-to-reach poles that only I could climb up to.

Our pro­ces­sion was two wag­ons long. The main one had a can­vas roof and was fit­ted out with bench seats from an old Kingswood. The smaller wagon was still look­ing pretty rick­ety, but they’d braced it as best they could.

We spent the rest of the morn­ing load­ing the main wagon with our worldly pos­ses­sions, and then (it sounds crazy when you see it writ­ten down) at­tached the wagon to four camels. Those out­back camel trains look so stately and peace­ful in the pho­to­graphs! But when our camels felt the weight of the wagon they bolted, and took the wagon bounc­ing through bushes and rab­bit holes. One of the camels started buck­ing wildly, throw­ing his head around and gen­er­ally not tak­ing very good care of our things. Brian was pump­ing the hand­brake and hang­ing on.

“Pull ’em up, Brian!”

“I’m fuck­ing try­ing!”

In the ruckus, an­other four camels broke loose and charged off in the di­rec­tion of Brian and the wagon. They were tied to­gether but go­ing at high speed. Brian had, by now, man­aged to stop the wagon/get tan­gled in a fence line, but the four-pack of rogue camels headed straight for him.

Don yelled out to me, “Get be­tween them and the wagon, Bob! Head ’em off!”

Lead­er­ship is a hard-to-pin-down qual­ity. But if, af­ter two days of know­ing some­one, they tell you to jump in front of a pack of charg­ing camels and you find your­self will­ingly oblig­ing, then they’ve prob­a­bly got it.

The camels were look­ing like a pretty dumb idea, but we were on to a good thing with Don.

We man­aged to round up the camels and get the wag­ons back on track. Don took his hat off and wiped the sweat from his face. “That’s nor­mal,” he said. “They al­ways start off like that. Let’s push on.”

One of the rea­sons we go bush is to trade our old, bor­ing prob­lems (scroung­ing for rent money, beat­ing the traf­fic) for new and re­fresh­ing ones. On our daily treks we had to pull down stock fences, nav­i­gate creek cross­ings and get cook­ing fires started in the rain. This is liv­ing! I thought to my­self. My dad didn’t quite share my en­thu­si­asm. He was up to his neck in liv­ing al­ready. What he re­ally wanted was a nice sit-down.

Get­ting the camels mus­tered ev­ery morn­ing was a real snafu. There was one prob­lem-camel called Blis­ter who’d been raised as a pet and suf­fered all the same prob­lems as a trust-fund kid. Don was try­ing to break him in as a wagon camel and get some herd men­tal­ity back into him. One morn­ing Blis­ter was re­ally mak­ing him sweat. Don was yelling “Fuck­ing hoosh down, you bird-brained bas­tard!” and the camel – stub­born, out­raged – was bel­low­ing back. Mean­while, Brian and his friend Chantelle (a dread­locked camel racer) were try­ing to cor­ral the two lead camels, who’d got­ten tan­gled up some­how.

My dad saw me writ­ing in my di­ary and came over. He stood next to me for a while. Just the two of us.

“If I was writ­ing a book,” he said, “I’d call it Why We In­vented the In­ter­nal Com­bus­tion En­gine.”

Brian or Nat usu­ally drove the main wagon. Nat was a bo­somy pow­er­house who raised a fam­ily, kept a menagerie of pets and broke in camels for a liv­ing. She wore the same sin­glet, shorts and thongs the whole trip. Even on frosty nights. One evening she reached into her bra look­ing for a cig­a­rette, and I saw her pull out a lighter, a to­bacco pouch, a packet of tis­sues, a hunt­ing knife, $20 (in change) and a bun­dle of keys be­fore she looked up and said, “Oh, here it is. It’s in my fuck­ing mouth.” On the fourth day she got kicked full in the face by a camel and just started kick­ing it back.

The smaller wagon was driven by the camp cook, who drank white wine and soda with one hand and swished the reins around with the other. She shouted so re­lent­lessly at her camels (Chrys­tal and Sap­phire) that they could no longer tell what was a com­mand and what was gen­eral chitchat. So they ig­nored her com­pletely and just am­bled along cheer­fully at their own pace. If you re­ally wanted the camels to do some­thing you had to put on a high-pitched voice or a for­eign ac­cent to get their at­ten­tion.

Don was in charge of get­ting us out of trou­ble (“If Plan A doesn’t work there’s al­ways Plan B, and if that doesn’t work, well, there’s plenty of let­ters in the al­pha­bet”) and Robyn made us wel­come wher­ever we landed. She was tire­less and en­thu­si­as­tic, looked out for every­one, and had none of the high-school blus­ter and faux tough­ness of other peo­ple we met along the way.

The walk­ers usu­ally went up ahead, or drifted along be­tween the two wag­ons. We passed through mallee coun­try, sheep sta­tions, along an­cient val­leys and across plateaus cov­ered in salt­bush. If you got far enough ahead there was a strange buzzing still­ness. When it was over­cast you didn’t even hear bird calls. Just the gen­tle clank­ing of the ap­proach­ing wag­ons, and the muffled shouts, like a dis­tant foot­ball game, of peo­ple urg­ing the camels up a hill or over boggy ground.

We’d stop once for morn­ing tea, once for lunch, and when­ever some­thing went wrong. It never felt we were cov­er­ing any great dis­tances, but the nubs of old moun­tains would ap­pear in the morn­ing and dis­ap­pear be­hind us by the end of the day. Greg, a bird­watcher, would come up to us in camp and say, “Twenty-seven kilo­me­tres to­day, as the crow flies.”

When I got fed up with walk­ing, or with be­ing awake, I would climb into the back of the main wagon, curl up be­tween ri­fles and sad­dle­bags, and go to sleep. The wagon rocked back and forth and I dreamed end­lessly about women. Of soft voices and deep looks. I dreamed of the brownest eyes I’ve ever seen, of blonde-haired gui­tar play­ers kiss­ing me be­hind stage cur­tains, of great po­ets read­ing in small, smoke-filled rooms, and look­ing up coyly be­tween stan­zas. I dreamed of warm bod­ies tan­gling up in soft sheets, of curved shoul­ders and plung­ing neck­lines. The re­lent­less mas­culin­ity of the bush was start­ing to wear me down.

In the af­ter­noons we’d pull up an hour or two be­fore sun­set and let the camels out to feed. They’d trun­dle off and start pulling apart the na­tive veg­e­ta­tion, and we would start a fire and get cook­ing. The camels didn’t need to drink once for the en­tire trip, though I can’t say the same for their han­dlers. They started drink­ing port from a goon sack at lunch, and were pretty much trolleyed by the time din­ner was served. Some­times around the camp­fire we heard bush sto­ries: about desert cross­ings, about a guy who had to shoot the bull camel he was rid­ing in the head be­cause he couldn’t get it to slow down. But mostly we got the Nat and Chantelle show. They had shout­ing matches about se­men swal­low­ing. (I re­mem­ber this par­tic­u­larly well be­cause it was the same high-vol­ume ar­gu­ment, al­most ver­ba­tim, three nights in a row: Chantelle was for, Nat was against. It was Chantelle who kept bring­ing it up.)

My mum loved it. She thought they were hi­lar­i­ous. But it was all too much for my dad. (I think it was be­ing twerked on that fi­nally broke him.) It will come as a sur­prise to any­one who’s been to a din­ner party with my dad that he ac­tu­ally has quite del­i­cate sen­si­bil­i­ties. One morn­ing he said to me, “That Chantelle’s got a mouth like a sewer.” Which was a bit rich com­ing from a guy who got up at my brother’s 21st birth­day din­ner and – rem­i­nisc­ing on the night of con­cep­tion – said, “Yep, we should have set­tled for hand jobs that night.” But I got his point, which was that he re­ally wanted to be alone for a while and there was nowhere to sit.

It was a gru­elling regime for my par­ents. They were hardly sleep­ing at night and were walk­ing all day. When the wag­ons stopped for lunch, the cameleers would climb down to stretch their legs, and my par­ents would look around

des­per­ately for some­where to rest. My dad didn’t want to sit on the ground be­cause he hon­estly thought he wouldn’t be able to get back up. I started climb­ing onto the wagon at lunchtime and pulling down camp stools.

On the fifth day I was walk­ing with my dad and he said that he wanted to go home early. I was shocked. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad give up.

“What does Mum think?”

He grunted. “She won’t even talk about it.”

He was look­ing pretty beaten. He’d walked 30 kilo­me­tres that day, and was chilled to the bone. (For days af­ter the trip he would walk around our house shiver­ing and try­ing to get warm. “It’s cold,” he kept say­ing, when it wasn’t.) He’d de­vel­oped cracked lips, a patchy white beard and var­i­ous other ail­ments that had af­flicted the early white ex­plor­ers. My mum wasn’t look­ing crash hot ei­ther. Her face was red and puffy be­cause, for com­pli­cated rea­sons, she didn’t be­lieve in sun­screen.

There’s a pe­cu­liar an­guish to see­ing your own par­ents suf­fer. If it’s your chil­dren suf­fer­ing, you know or hope that it’s be­cause they’re still build­ing their char­ac­ters, that the world will ac­com­mo­date them some­how. But if it’s your par­ents, you know that things are prob­a­bly only go­ing to get harder for them. The world for them is a cruise liner steam­ing to­wards the hori­zon, leav­ing them bob­bing alone in the vast, lonely ocean with only each other.

My dad said, “Je­sus Christ, Bob, do you have to say this shit out loud? It’s pretty bleak.”

We trudged through flat, heav­ily grazed coun­try that had the feel­ing of a ghost town. Rain had washed out some tracks ahead, so when we reached the ru­ins of the Waukaringa pub we turned around and started back the way we came.

The camels never trudged. They held their heads up high like queens at a ball, for days. A horse pulls in a straight line. But the camels were al­ways look­ing around as they walked, with a prospec­tive op­ti­mism that eluded us now that we were head­ing back the way we came.

I tried to en­ter­tain my dad with half-baked the­o­ries about pos­ses­sions. I had vis­ited a camp­ing store on the day be­fore the trip and ev­ery­thing in there had felt so es­sen­tial. I got so ex­cited by the gad­getry that I would have blown all my money in one go, if I’d had any. And what you re­alise, once you ac­tu­ally leave the city, is that it’s all crap. That’s why they never have those stores out in the coun­try. I can’t think of one thing in those shops that we could have used out there. What we needed was a pair of pli­ers and some wire. Through­out the jour­ney we fixed ev­ery­thing with that com­bi­na­tion. The bro­ken steer­ing col­umn, the billy can, the bracket on the so­lar-pow­ered sys­tem. I re­mem­ber be­ing im­pressed by the qual­ity of Don’s camp oven. It was a thing that would last a life­time. I’m through with flim­flam, I said. What is it about city liv­ing? All I want to do when I’m there is buy stuff. What I want is just a few beau­ti­ful, use­ful things.

My dad asked, “Is that why you bought that camel skin?” Well, OK. So you can get fooled in re­verse, too. At the camp­fire one night I was talk­ing to the man­ager of the lo­cal meat­works, and got a great price on a camel skin. Twen­ty­five bucks! Say what you want about my de­ci­sion-mak­ing, but don’t tell me that’s not a bar­gain. When I ar­ranged to buy it I hon­estly thought, This will be­come one of my most use­ful pos­ses­sions.

I’ve been back home for two months now and I’m lum­bered with this camel skin. I also find my­self in the ridicu­lous sit­u­a­tion of try­ing to find an apart­ment big enough to keep it in. Too many peo­ple have gone to too much trou­ble for me to throw it away. Robyn drove it from the Flin­ders Ranges to Ade­laide. My par­ents – who did fin­ish the trek, and walked the whole way – salted it them­selves and sent it to a tan­nery. But I have it rolled up in the cor­ner of my room. Just as I have the vi­sion of my dad and mum on the last day of the trip, ut­terly mis­er­able, but walk­ing side by side and lean­ing into each other on the road to Or­ro­roo.

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