“…and when I say that the personnel of the expedition behaved as well as the camels, I cannot formulate greater praise.”
Ernest Giles, Australia Twice Traversed: The Romance Of Exploration Being A Narrative Compiled From The Journals Of Five Exploring Expeditions Into And Through Central And South Australia, And Western Australia, From 1872 To 1876. facsimile edition Hesperian Press, 1995
Charles Darwin Reserve has a long association with camels. Camels were first introduced into Australia in 1840 for circuses. In 1860 the Royal Society of Victoria imported camels from India for the Burke and Wills expedition, but only two survived. Thomas Elder, the wealthy pastoralist and Adelaide businessman who founded the firm of Elder, Smith & Co. imported 121 camels in 1866 to use in his dry outback sheep stations, where camels were more efficient than horses for transport. (Reader’s Digest Country Australia: the land and its people Sydney 1989, p114)
Thomas Elder was a great supporter of exploration in inland Australia, and financed several expeditions that used camels. These expeditions included that led by the explorer Warburton, who crossed Gibson Desert from Alice Springs to Roebourne in 1874, and Giles who crossed from Elder’s Beltana sheep station and camel depot in 1875.
Although camels subsequently proved invaluable in the Western Australian pastoral country, Warburton’s camels suffered badly:
We started with seventeen camels and ended with two. The following is a list of casualties:- 1 camel poisoned; 4 lost (they ran away); 3 left behind in the desert, unable to move; 7 killed for food; 2 survivors left on the De Grey – total, 17.
Giles’ route further south was better watered and his camels fared better. He crossed the southern end of Lake Moore on his way to New Norcia and Perth. Giles’ camels appear to have been the first camels popularly seen in Western Australia.
From the Monastery [New Norcia] our triumphal march began. The appearance of a camel caravan in any English community, away from camel countries, is likely to awaken the curiosity of every one; but it is quite a matter of doubt whether we, or the camels caused the greater sensation as we advanced.
The next town we arrived at was Guildford; on the road the caravan passed by a splitters' camp, the men there came round the camels, and as usual stared wide-eyed with amazement. Giles, ibid. quotes relocated from below
Thomas Elder’s nephew Tom Elder Barr Smith inherited Elder, Smith & Co and purchased the Ninghan pastoral leases in 1925. Shortly afterwards he purchased the Whitewells leases, part of which ultimately became Charles Darwin Reserve. Given his uncle’s enthusiasm for camels, it was logical that he would use them on Ninghan and Whitewells.
Camels and horses, the other main transport and work animal of the area, did not mix. Giles tells how the horses bolted from his camels, and Jack Reudavey of Jibberding recalls how the camel teams always caused trouble with farmers’ horses when they came to Wubin. Father’s horses bolted when they smelt camels. The horse tethered to the bogged camel wagon in the photo certainly looks unhappy.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Gus Clinch of Coodingnow Station owned a camel team which was driven by his son Peter. He used it to haul wool, hay and stores to and from Wubin. Camel teams were also used to haul gold ore to batteries for crushing, and sandalwood. This was a 15-camel team with a wagon taller than a man, and spare camels hitched to the wagon.
In the Banks collection of photographs stored in the J.S. Battye Library, are images taken in about 1926 that show camels in teams of two to eight ploughing the Whitewells hay paddock and carting chaff to Ninghan on a large wagon.
The last camel train to be used travelled the old road from Jibberding to Ninghan in 1935. Although the Great Northern Highway, then known as the Wubin to Paynes Find Road, had been cleared and used by motor vehicles since 1927, the slow camel teams and faster vehicles presumably did not mix on a narrow dirt road. This was particularly the case as the soft newly formed road appears to have been prone to bogging. The camels continued to use the old track with its regular watering holes until the motor truck ended the era of camels being used as the heavy 'transport' of the inland.
The most recent use on camels on Whitewells was as part of the tourist operation run by Bruce Boucher in the 1970s and 80s.
Bruce had 18 camels at one stage. He was taking tourists on camel treks. The camels and the cameleer came across Australia with Jo White, the Camel Lady. The hayshed at the corral was built for them. Garbutt re-pegged the camels’ noses.Bill Mutch, January 2006, interview by C.Nicholson
By 2006 the only evidence of the former presence of camels on Charles Darwin Reserve was the rusty frame and springs of a camel-drawn disc plough lying on the ground behind the Old Homestead, and the occasional large footprint made in wet clay and baked in the sun long ago like a fossil dinosaur print.
||‘Stared wide-eyed with amazement’. Bill Mutch’s son eyes a horse, donkey and camel at Whitewells, 1989.
Photo courtesy Bill Mutch