Heart of the Nation
When the starter pistol goes off at the Alice Springs Camel Cup today, who knows what will happen? Some of these camels – a mix of farm-bred, rescued and wild-caught beasts – are natural racers and will launch from the sitting start with gusto, hitting their straps at over 60km/h, their jockeys hanging on for dear life. But they’re just as likely to not get up, or to run in the wrong direction, or to start strong but lose interest halfway through the race and sit down again. And woe betide any jockey who whips them too hard. “I had one bloke who did that, and the camel reached round and chomped his foot!” says Neil Waters, who’s been supplying animals to the riders – seasoned competitors and have-a-go novices alike – for years. Even this veteran cameleer Alice Springs 0870 admits he can’t pick the good runners by looks alone. “They either have the heart for racing or they don’t,” he says.
The Camel Cup, which began in 1971 as a duel between two members of the local Lions Club, is traditionally held on a 400m circuit at Blatherskite Park, but this year it’s been moved to a 300m straight course at the Alice Springs Turf Club. (Waters isn’t happy about that. “I’m not interested in straight racing,” he grumbles). Still, fans of this odd sport have plenty of other options: over in Queensland, Bedourie holds its annual camel races today, with Boulia and Winton to follow later this month.
So, any tips for novice jockeys? “Just sit back and ride ’em like a horse,” offers Waters – but he admits that seeing city types “with their bum three feet off the saddle because they’re bouncing that hard always gives the crowd a good laugh”.