The Return of Camels to the Goldfields


Camel team and wagon, Kalgoorlie. Image courtesy of Museums Victoria https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/767511

Ted and Colleen Heaton brought camels back to Coolgardie in 1977 and a few months later Peter Holmes walked into Kalgoorlie-Boulder with his camels. They began a tourist attraction and revived camel racing. There had been no camel racing in the goldfields since the turn of the century, except for one race at a 'Back to the Goldfields' function in 1932. Coolgardie held the first modern camel race at its annual birthday celebrations, on 23 September 1977. The place-getters at this event were: first, Ted Heaton's Little Fellah ridden by the shire president, Brian Willoughby; second, Rusty was ridden by Kevin Donovan; third, Sand ridden by Richard Barker; fourth, Sin ridden by its owner, Peter Holmes; Tammy, ridden by Colleen Heaton, came in fifth.

Nowadays the camel is something of a novelty in most of Australia, and pest in those outback areas where it has run wild. However, in the era before the motor car, it played an important part in opening up the outback. The camel can go without water for two days with little discomfort and up to ten days if necessary. Unlike the horse, donkey, or bullock it does not depend on chaff or grass and can live off the saltbush, mulga leaves, and other vegetation found in hard country.

The first camels used in Australia were imported from Peshawar in India (now a part of West Pakistan) for use in the Great Northern Exploration Expedition. The ill-fated expedition, generally known as the 'Burke and Wills', was financed by the Royal Society of Victoria at great cost and with careful preparation. It was plagued with problems from the beginning and some of the members, including Burke and Wills, lost their lives. The overloaded camels played their part as well as they were able, proving their value as beasts of burden in the dry and sandy country.

By the turn of the century thousands of dromedaries, most of them based at Coolgardie, were helping to open up the inland portions of Australia. The principal camel owners and contractors in that town were Faiz and Tagh Mahomet. Their main camel centre was in South Australia until 1894. The booming business on the new goldfields lured them to transfer most of their camels to Western Australia. In June 1894 their Coolgardie agent was J. J. Bowen.

There was a lot of carrying business between Southern Cross and Coolgardie. Even after the railway reached Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie in 1897, hundreds of camels were still needed to cart goods and machinery to the many inland towns and mining centres. Abdul Waid was in charge of 400 camels that were used to cart cement to build the Niagara dam, near Kookynie, a mining centre about 190 kilometres from Coolgardie. The dam was built south-east of the town to provide water for the steam locomotives on the railway line planned to run from Kalgoorlie to Leonora. Each cask of the great amount of cement needed for the dam was sawn in half in Coolgardie. The two sections were then loaded on each side of a camel's back. Long strings of camels then carted their load to the site of the dam. Ironically, a good supply of underground freshwater was later discovered at Kookynie so all the work and expense of building the dam was not really necessary.

As well as the camels used for carrying there was a smaller variety used for riding. The gait of these 'ships of the desert' put their riders in mind of a ship in a rolling sea. A young newspaper correspondent, Arthur Reid, who lived in Coolgardie in 1893, owned a good riding camel called Gunga Din. It carried him as far north as Leonora and south to Norseman and to all the new finds around Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie where he was able to gather stories to send to his editor in the eastern States.

Jack Duffy, who started the first open-call stock exchange in Coolgardie, had a profitable camel called Boko. This animal had a fistula in its hump and refused to move unless handled properly. Duffy sold the camel in his auction mart several times over. On one occasion he sold Boko to Sir Rupert Clarke for £60. Sir Rupert had paid £150 to Faiz Mahomet not long before for another camel, White Princess, which had been bitten by a snake and died. The baronet's camel-man went to collect Boko but it refused to budge, so its new owner gave it up as a bad job and resold it to Duffy for £40.

Among the other famous camels around Coolgardie in those early years was Misery, said to be the finest riding camel ever imported to Australia, and Outlaw, which belonged to Dinny O'Callaghan. O'Callaghan claimed that he could only keep this camel in check with a lump of wood he rode with in case the beast suddenly turned around and tried to bite a piece out of him.

Julius M. Price, an illustrator and journalist for the London Illustrated News, visited the goldfields in 1895 and hired camels to take him on a trip from Kalgoorlie to the northern fields. He found that a great deal of patience was needed when using camels. On his first morning out it took 4 hours to find the straying camels and get them loaded up for the day's journey. He deplored their lack of speed and said that the longest distance they could cover between sunrise and sunset was 40 kilometres. He wrote: "The monotony of these long, weary hours, through such dreary scenery is indescribable: only who has had experience of camel travelling can form any idea of what this means, and then only if he has been through the bush."

A good stock of books was Price's antidote for the boredom of travelling by camel. He claimed that the steady, quiet movement of the animal made reading possible, 'without any effort or strain on the eyes'. It is unlikely, in spite of Price's speculations, that bushmen on prospecting trips would also have read books to relieve the tedium of riding camels, as their eyes were mainly occupied in looking for signs of gold or water.

Most of Coolgardie's camel owners and handlers were Afghans or Indians, whose costumes and lifestyles gave a lot of colour to the district. However, other nationalities also used camels in their carrying businesses, as evidenced by an advertisement in the Coolgardie Miner on 7 July 1894: 'David Lindsay and Co. Camel Props. Carriers, Mining Agents, Surveyors, Mining Properties reported on, Camels bought and sold'. Lindsay was a surveyor and in April 1891 he had been in charge of an exploration party, financed by Sir Thomas Elder, from Warring in South Australia far west into Western Australia. He later opened up the wells that had been sunk by Hunt in the country between Southern Cross and Coolgardie. He was also responsible for another expedition which turned out to be a rather amusing affair, at least to the townspeople of Coolgardie, and concerns possibly the first use of camels as a welcoming escort.

It was June 1894, and the Premier, Sir John Forrest, with Warden Finnerty, was expected back in Coolgardie after paying a visit to Hannans (Kalgoorlie). David Lindsay offered to lend the Progress Committee some of his camels and the men organised a camel brigade to proceed out along the track to welcome and accompany Sir John back to Coolgardie. The party consisted of Lindsay, A. W. McDonald, A. McKenzie, J. Pyke, L. C. Goodrich, C. H. Cheeseborough, A. E. Smith, Howard Taylor, F. S. Harney, and newspaperman Smiler Hales.

Early in the afternoon of the appointed day the men assembled behind Lindsay's office and were introduced to their steeds. A large crowd of interested bystanders watched as the men climbed into their saddles. McDonald was the first to be seated and as his camel rose up on its haunches it turned with its mouth open and stared into the face of its startled rider. What happened next is best described in Smiler Hales' own words: "Goodrich wanted to show the crowd how familiar he was with camels and started to fondle his neddy about the head, but the desert-born steed was not used to the ways of the gallant gentleman and first coughed on him then tried to get away with the seat of his pants at one mouthful. J. Pyke sat on his saddle nonchalantly and tried to impress the crowd that he had been born on a camel and only walked occasionally for the good of his health. After a couple of false starts the little cavalcade was finally ready to go and the leader gave the order to trot. One camel headed straight for Lord's Hotel whilst another made tracks for Bailey's Mine and another tried to explore all the backyards in the neighbourhood and yet another tried to get through a pub door. Still the procession moved onward. Goodrich was bumping all the corners of his carcase and cursing camels in three languages. Harney drove whip and leg into flank and forequarter. My brute took a notion he was in a circus and wheeled round and round in a circle until he got as fast as a boy's peg top on an asphalt pavement. Eventually the band grouped together again and rode out of town towards a rise on the track to Hannans. There they dismounted and waited for 'the Western Knight and the Warden of the goldfields'. Smiler concludes his story: At last they came in sight in a four-in-hand looking dirty and hungry and tired after their travels. Then we sent up a cheer full of warm welcome and each man dashed to his saddle, clawed up the ropen reins and yelled to his ugly steed and rode for dear life. So we hunted the Premier in, everyone flogging. Lindsay's brute bolted into the bush and Goodrich's quadrupoid stumbled. Still we rode on. Howard Taylor came to grief flying far out of his saddle, landing at last up to his ears in dirt and soiling his town-made clothes but doing no damage. That's how we brought him home, he and the Warden. Then we sneaked sadly back, looking for plaster, looking for vaseline and stools that were soft to sit upon."


Coolgardie Camel Train

First published by Norma King in Colourful Tales of the Western Australian Goldfields in 1980. Revised and republished by Lorraine Kelly 20/11/2019

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