The Marree roadhouse in outback South Australia is the last service station for 203 kilometres. From across the street, Mathew Zada watches the grey nomads pull in to refuel. “See that?” he says of a LandCruiser towing a jacked-up caravan. “Way too high for the speeds that they want to drive at. As soon as they hit the sand it’ll become unstable.” Same goes for the next caravan, apparently. And the next. Mathew knows about these things: his family has been “getting stranded explorers out of trouble since before the White Australia policy came into force”.
Every winter, Mathew and other descendants of “Afghan” cameleers congregate in Marree, 685 kilometres north of Adelaide, for a catch-up and a curry on the site of the town’s old camel yards.
Between the 1860s and the 1920s, around 2000 cameleers and 20,000 camels arrived from Afghanistan and British India; if “without trucks Australia stops”, without camels it would’ve stalled. The introduction to the desert of the truck and the train (named after the “Ghans”) – and the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 – sent the majority of cameleers home, but some settled, mostly with Aboriginal women, in remote towns such as Marree.
Mathew throws a fence post on a fire, its flames translucent in the bright desert afternoon. Benches are carried into place to form a square. In a nearby demountable cabin, women talk and cook.
The Zada family lived in Marree when it was an important hub at the junction of the Oodnadatta and Birdsville tracks. The town was also a rare source of spring water for cameleers and drovers alike. But, like many of those coming for dinner, the Zadas left after the railway was rerouted in 1980, when Mathew was nine. Since then, Marree’s population has shrunk from nearly 400 to 150.
Mathew’s great-grandfather Khan Zada arrived from Afghanistan around 1891, aged 14. He worked delivering