On a path less travelled
THE FAMILY TOURIST
IN all the time we’ve spent together as a family driving in the Australian outback, we’ve seen some amazing things. Not least have been the majesty of the desert in full bloom; burrowing frogs freshly emerged from their slumber like glistening, brown golf balls; trees that seem to explode with the green of budgies; and the unsettling, white desolation of South Australia’s Lake Frome.
Then there was the comedy of optimism that was a very determined crow trying to lift a big, dead python off the road and fly off with it; if you can picture a sparrow trying to make off with a sausage roll, you’ll get some some idea of the scale of the operation.
Nothing, however, has quite prepared us for Klaus Menzel, who appears, in his unique conveyance, as a puzzling lump on the southwest Queensland horizon on the road between Eulo (‘‘est. population: 50 people & 1500 lizards’’, according to the sign) and the turn-off for Currawinya National Park.
Daisy, 10, Leo, 7, and wife Bel (age not given, but looking as delightfully fresh as she did in her 20s) have been scanning for flocks of baby emus, which have been appearing with almost metronomic regularity since we left Charleville. The sight of what we are fast approaching, however, makes the emus take their leave from our brains and the words evaporate from our tongues. It’s enigmatic and slow-moving, and it’s only as we zip past that the vision of a grey-haired German driving a car powered by a pair of camels is seared into my brain; I react in the most natural way possible and nearly drive off the road.
Once I recover and the subsequent volley of recriminations in my direction draws to a close, we unanimously agree to stop. We pull over and everyone leaps out of the car to watch. The camels sway hypnotically as they plod towards us. The car — an old, Japanese four-wheeldrive that’s had its engine removed — is tethered to them with ropes and straps and a pair of long, wooden poles. Above it all is a boxing kangaroo flag, jaunty even in this breezeless heat.
Klaus, as he soon introduces himself, hops out without any further ado (the driver’s door has been removed) and greets us cheerily. He’s sensibly dressed — hat with a neck flap, high-vis shirt, gaiters, boots and a pair of canvas trousers that may once have been white but are now turning the colour of his camels. Willy and Snowy, the camels, gaze at us insouciantly, then get bored and turn their attention to the blond grass. That doesn’t hold them long, either, and they stare at the road ahead. True travellers.
Klaus shows us how it all works and hands Leo the leash that hangs from one of the camel’s halters. Leo is very pleased with this turn of events. Daisy soon becomes fixated on Klaus’s lifestyle: getting by on his savings or his pension, living on the road with his camels and meeting people along the way. For the next few hours, Daisy gives us the strong impression that she’s radically rethinking her life plans.
Klaus explains he’s on his way to Alice Springs but will stop somewhere soon to ride out the summer. It’s a good strategy; amid the enjoyable heat of springtime in the desert, we’re already starting to feel the first furnace-like overtures of summer.
Eventually we say our goodbyes and as we drive off towards Currawinya, we glance back at the trio rocking gently towards Alice.
Klaus Menzel’s camel-powered four-wheel-drive