At the heart of Australia is a tale that plots camels, Middle Eastern cultures and an iconic, transcontinental rail trip in its path. In Alice Springs, Karen Fittall discovers a town where all three parts of the story converge, more than 170 years since the tale began.
By
Karen Fittall

14 Jun 2013 - 3:44 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 5:01 PM

For a girl, Pixie has an impressively hairy neck. Accompanied by a set of curled eyelashes with fake proportions, the fact that she could, if asked, carry more than 400kg is admirable. Added to the fact that the view from her back, looking out towards the Red Centre’s famous MacDonnell Ranges at sunset is as textbook Central Australia as it is breathtaking, and Pixie is fast becoming a new friend.

Pixie is a camel, one of the million-or-so that now call Australia home, and one of the dozen that make up cameleer Marcus Williams’s herd on the outskirts of Alice Springs. A calm and gentle girl, Pixie’s personality is all her own, and Marcus knows her well. “Every animal can talk, including camels. They all have their own language. You just have to sit back and listen to them for a while to work it out.”

Marcus has been listening for the past 30 years. Describing camels as his “fun and adventure” back in the ’80s when he first learned their ways as an 18-year-old in Broome, the decades since have seen him catch his own camels, “hang out with them in the desert for a few years”, and establish Pyndan Camel Tracks, a camel tour operation in the heart of Australia. “They’re working animals, but I have huge respect for them as individuals. They’re loyal and I admire their endurance.”

It was these very same traits that brought the first camel to Australia 173 years ago. The beginning of a largely little-known chapter in Australia’s history, camels were put to work all over mainland Australia during the mid-to-late 1800s and early 20th century to do what horses couldn’t in the absence of motorised transport – move things. And specifically heavy things for months on end over inhospitably hot country, a skill-set that cemented their ‘ships of the desert’ nametag.

With the camels came cameleers. At their height, more than 2000 camel drivers arrived in Australia from countries such as Afghanistan, India, Egypt and Turkey, to wrangle the 20,000-something camels that were imported. They were hardworking and perhaps in search of a different life and they changed the lie of the land in Australia and, in turn, the lives of Australians. Without them, the Overland Telegraph that ran through the heart of our continent, connecting Adelaide and Darwin and making communication between Australia and the rest of the world possible for the first time, wouldn’t have happened. Without them, the unveiling of the Red Centre’s beauty to the rest of Australia wouldn’t have happened – or at least not when and how it did.

Settling in what became known as "Ghan towns", the cameleers made places like Marree, Oodnadatta and eventually Stuart – the town we now know as Alice Springs – their home. More than a century later, many of their descendants still do. “I’m like a league of nations, but I guess I’m more "Afghan" than anything because that’s on both of my parents’ sides,” says 70-year-old Steve Satour, who was born and bred in Alice. Around the turn of the 20th century, both of Steve’s grandfathers came to Australia to work as cameleers, one marrying an Aboriginal woman, the other, the daughter of an English soldier and an Indian mother.
“I’m not 100 per cent sure where my grandfathers came from. People have said different things. I’ve never known for sure.”

Like all cameleers, Steve’s grandfathers were known simply as Afghans in Australia. “It’s a bit sad, that. They were all bunched together, when they all had different cultures and stories.”

Twenty-three-year-old Natalie Satour is determined to uncover more about those stories. The grandchild of Steve’s brother, Natalie was also born in Alice Springs but moved to Adelaide five years ago. “Alice is proud of its cameleer heritage, and it’s well known among the locals who is from a cameleer family. Since I’ve moved away, I’m even more appreciative of it, and am passionate about finding out as much as I can because the details about my ancestors have largely been based on hearsay rather than fact.”

Natalie’s research has already revealed that Sayed Satour, her great-great-grandfather – and Steve’s grandfather – was actually born in Pishin, a village which is now part of Pakistan, but prior to 1947’s partition, was Indian. “So I believe we’re of Indian heritage, which made even more sense when I discovered that Satour is the anglicised version of our family name, which was originally Sidhu.”

Natalie is passionate about Islam too, a religion she inherited from Sayed. “My ancestry has influenced my perspective of culture and my identity greatly. I identify as a Muslim woman and practise Islam, which means I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t eat pork.”

Steve remembers his father’s diet being the same. “I’m not a practising Muslim, but my dad had a strict upbringing and life was pretty tough for him in Marree where he was raised by my grandfather, a traditional man with very Muslim beliefs. So Dad wouldn’t touch pork.  

“Dad had a lot of stories about riding camels with his father,” adds Steve, “but you had to ask him and out of respect, you usually didn’t. It’s only when they’re gone that you start to wish you’d asked more. And, of course, now it’s too late.”

Where the ride provided by Pixie was all open air and a swaggering gait, the one offered by The Ghan is much more refined. Dining is an experience swathed in linen tablecloths topped with three-course meals, while sleeping is all cotton sheets and air-conditioned goodness. Watching the ever-changing scenery slip by the train’s windows holding a glass of something cold and bubbly is quite magical.

It’s also a far cry from the train ride people experienced on the original Ghan line track that was first laid in 1878 and finally linked Port Augusta with Alice Springs in 1929, a monumental achievement helped in no small way by the cameleers: "The Ghan" is a shortened version of "Afghan Express", the train’s original name, inspired by the cameleers and their contribution to developing inland Australia.

Ironic then that it was the train they helped make possible that eventually saw an end to Australia’s reliance on camels for transportation in the desert. That left tens of thousands of animals without a purpose, a number that mushroomed into the estimated one million that roam remote Australia today. Capable of causing damage to the environment they live in and with a population that doubles every nine years, camels have become the subject of a federal management and culling program. But in recent years, the Australian Camel Industry Association (ACIA) has been trying to find an alternative.

“At the moment, it’s such a waste,” says ACIA chair, Lauren Brisbane. “Camels are a production animal and people have been drinking the milk and eating the meat for thousands of years around the world – Australia has just been slower to cotton on. We live in a country where cattle is king. We’re not used to considering camel, a meat that contains 85 per cent less fat than beef and when treated with respect, is lovely to eat.” But slowly that’s changing – a move welcomed by Lauren. “Seeing camel meat pop up on restaurant menus in big cities is a positive step. And a growing interest in camel milk means three Australian camel dairies have products in the pipeline, which should hit the market in the next year. It’s a developing industry, but it’s encouraging to think that the country’s camels might eventually be better utilised rather than wasted.”

It was a similar desire to make good with a second resource Alice Springs inherited from the cameleers, that sprouted another local industry – fresh dates. Date palms are dotted all over town, descendants of trees grown by the cameleers. “You can grow a palm by planting the seed inside a date in the ground, and that’s what the cameleers did back in the late 1800s,” says Dave Berrick, owner of The Desert Fruit Company, one of Australia’s two commercial date farms, which are both planted near Alice Springs. The story goes that the original palms were planted both for food and to act as markers for water.

“Many years later, the locals started to take an interest in the fruit which the palms continued to produce, and that idea to grow them commercially came to the couple who established my farm back in 1991.”

Nine years earlier, the same idea had struck Tim Micklem. He’s been growing date palms on his 120-hectare property, 70km south of Alice Springs, ever since. Today, he tends palms that produce 20 different varieties of dates including the one his farm takes its name from – Aridgold. It’s a large, locally bred, soft variety that carries DNA from the coveted medjool date, and tastes distinctly of honey.  

But for now, local farms can’t meet local demand for the labour-intensive crop. Australians eat up to 7000 tonnes of dates a year – in a good season, Dave picks just 10 tonnes. The shortfall is supplemented by dates grown, harvested and imported from overseas. Still, our ever-growing love affair with buying homegrown means both Dave’s and Tim’s dates have found markets in every corner of Australia. Strike it lucky the next time your tastebuds have a craving for the sticky-fleshed fruit, and you might get the chance to sample a date grown where the country’s first date palms broke the soil. Be sure to give a nod to the cameleers when you do.

 

The hit list

Do
The Ghan
In late 2003, the line between Alice Springs and Darwin was finished, making good on the dream that began in 1878 to link one end of Australia with the other by rail, and creating the world’s only transcontinental train trip that dissects a continent from north to south. A decadently relaxing way to travel, the journey from Adelaide to Darwin (or Darwin to Adelaide) takes two nights and three days and departs from both stations once a week, and twice weekly in peak season (June-August). 132 147, greatsouthernrail.com.au.

Pyndan Camel Tracks
Borrow a ship of the desert’s back by joining one of Marcus Williams’s camel tours. Half-day and one-hour tours, including a sunset ride, that take in some of the Red Centre’s finest scenery, are available all year round. 0416 170 164, cameltracks.com.

 

Eat
Afghan Traders
You’ll find every organic and health-food product you may have a hankering for while you’re in the NT here, but the drawcard is the locally grown dates that are always in stock. Cnr Smith St and Hele Cres, Alice Springs, (08) 8955 5560, afghantraders.com.au.

Overlanders Steakhouse
It’s a touch touristy, but after more than 40 years, it’s a bit of an Alice Springs institution and is one of the only places in town where you can introduce your tastebuds to camel, as well as a vast selection of other Australian ‘game’ meats. Order the ‘Drovers Blowout’ if you want the full experience. 72 Hartley St, Alice Springs, (08) 8952 2159, overlanders.com.au.

 

Visit
Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve
Wandering around the station that the cameleers helped establish in 1872 offers a chance to imagine what life in outback Australia was like 140 years ago. The best-preserved of the 12 stations along the Overland Telegraph Line, it’s also home to the Alice Springs water hole that the town eventually took its name from. Off the Stuart Hwy, parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au.

The Camel Cup
Starting in 1970 off the back of a bet between two mates, the Camel Cup is still going strong, with nine races and all of the money raised going to charity. Held annually on the second Saturday in July, this year’s event will take place on Saturday 13 July. Blatherskite Park, Alice Springs, (08) 8981 2010, camelcup.com.au.

 

Photography by Peter Eve.