CAMEL IN THE DAM: Roger Garwood
“Hey, Boss, quick, we got camel in the dam!”
“Tiger, don’t call me Boss.”
It was difficult. I was a ‘whitefella’ managing a ‘blackfella’ community in the mid ‘90s. Reversing a 200 year old programme of brainwashing was an uphill battle. I was working for these people, they were my boss – spinifex people removed from Maralinga where atomic weapons were detonated between 1952 and 1963.
The community of Coonana is 200km east of the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie. Driving dangerously fast on the dusty track the trip takes a little over two hours, most of the time spent alongside the TransPacific rail track. A few old buildings are visible during the first twenty minutes or so but those decomposing artefacts of civilisation give way to relentless red dirt blistered by the high bright sun and a horizon sliced by a razor.
Emus frequently sprinted along the dirt road. I timed them at about 35kph as they ran in front of the Cruiser, scrawny legs thumping them along, kicking up puffs of fine dust. Occasionally wild cats, stealthy, three times the size of their domestic relatives, would dive for cover. You wouldn’t want to pick a fight with one.
‘Roos were common. Some had the fatal practice of playing chicken, leaving it until the last fraction of a second before bouncing onto the road and getting whacked. The ‘roo bar on the Toyota was made from old railway lines welded into a tough framework. It showed no mercy and I was under firm instructions to take any fresh roadkill back to the camp. A dead ‘roo is heavy, at least 70kg, but if I heaved one into the Cruiser and delivered it, still warm, I was a hero.
It was worth the effort. We’d sit around at the end of a hot day, chatting about nothing in particular and enjoying a beer. It wasn’t a dry camp but we operated a safe drinking programme which worked well. I got used to chewing a bit of ‘roo tail, gritty and half cooked over a camp fire. It was a gesture of acceptance by the mob. An elder explained that in a country with no water any moisture is welcome, aboriginal people do not cook meat, they leave it scorched like a rare steak, bloody.
During one amusing chat he explained: “You white fellas think blackfellas can smell water. We can’t smell water … we look for that black cloud … ‘im over there. Then we walk that way … find the water.” Perfect logic.
The community’s water was piped from a number of holes scattered around the flat Nullarbor country. Best described as shallow dents some were about two or three metres deep and maybe 100m or more across. When heavy rains came water drained into the holes.
Sitting in the centre of the community was an Israeli designed water purification plant. We needed it. The water holes were muddy but mothers would picnic beside them with their kids and disposable nappies ended up in the water. The purification plant worked overtime.
I was sitting in my dusty, air-conned office trying to get my head around the multitude of issues which plague administrations. Piles of bills, CDEP problems, school attendance, food orders, court orders, more court orders and funeral planning. The list wasn’t endless but circular. No problem was permanently defeated. They would sit, wait, plan an ambush and strike again. Some were sneaky.
This particular morning a new one arose.
“Boss, we gotta camel in dam, big fucka, not happy, stuck in fuckin’ mud.”
This dam was a 15 minute drive south along a track which led to our sandalwood camp, the working base for Akbar and Tiger who were making good money from the scented wood, selling it to a company in Albany on the coast of Western Australia.
Akbar was descended from Afghan cameleers, migrants who worked in the goldfields from the late 1800s until motorised trucks arrived after the turn of the century. With no demand for their services they turned their animals loose. This has resulted in Australia having hundreds of thousands of wild camels roaming the outback.
Akbar was tall, scrawny. Taut muscles and sinews, results of hard physical work, lay just under the surface of his dark skin. Ice blue eyes riveted people while he spoke and his smile reflected a savvy mind.
Tiger was a tall, fit but overweight aboriginal. A nice guy, quiet and self effacing. He once confided he’d done time for murder and asked if that made me feel bad about him. It didn’t. I liked him a lot and he appreciated that. He was one of a number of people in the community who I felt I could trust with my life.
Tiger had driven the wreckage of the sandalwood mob’s battered Toyota, an old short wheel based version, to deliver the news.
My Cruiser’s air-conditioning fought a losing battle and sucked in dust as I followed Tiger back along the track to the water hole. We’d had rain a couple of weeks before, followed by sunshine. Searing breezes blew low, scorching the land and rapidly evaporating half the water, leaving sufficient to tempt a thirsty old bull camel.
He had walked across the muddy slope to the water’s edge, topped himself up and tried to leave. In his attempt to turn around soft mud had swallowed him up to and including most of his belly. He was stuck fast and bellowing, half anger, half panic.
Leaving him there would result in a large camel rotting in our water supply.
News was spreading and a group gathering – this was as good as entertainment got.
I wanted to look as though I knew what I was doing, carefully surveying the situation as I stumbled around the edge of the mud, attempting to impress eyewitnesses. Fat chance!
This fellow was the size of an elephant, brown bordering on dusty orange, the colour of low sunlight behind a smoke haze. Matted hair was moulting and his muscular neck supported a massive head, lashing it around at frightening speed. Terrified eyes with long lashes kept us in sight as we – I – wandered and pondered. I say ‘I’ because like it or not I was Boss and in the mob’s flattering estimation may have the answers to the situation.
I muttered in my mind, waded knee deep into the mud to demonstrate I was kosher, brave, fearing nothing but thinking “What the fuck am I doing here?”
“We’re not going to kill him,” I shouted “probably head fella in his mob.”
The boys didn’t have to say anything. They knew exactly what the solution was. I could almost hear them thinking. One hollered solid advice: “Shoot the cunt boss”.
I had a high powered rifle in the truck. So did Akbar and Tiger. They often brought a bush turkey or ‘roo back to the community. They’d toss them in the freezer room at the back of the shop, along with the couple of hundred ‘roo tails I ordered regularly from a local shooter. We paid a dollar each for them and they were always delivered at about three o’clock in the morning.
“Tell you what we’re going to do … get back to camp and get some rope and chains.” By now a dozen or so blokes watched the entertainment. I asked a couple of them to head back and fetch the gear as I outlined the master plan – my master plan! They were happy to drive my Toyota. If there’s anything these guys enjoyed doing it was driving and I knew they were good at it. I didn’t own the vehicle anyway.
I estimated this camel had legs long enough to shame a beauty queen. That’s where the similarity ended, except for the eyelashes. We had to get into the mud and water behind him. If this didn’t work I could be a headline:
“WHITE BOSS KILLED IN SWAMP ATTEMPTING CAMEL RESCUE”
What an epitaph.
The truck returned with ropes, chains and grinning faces. We had a good supply of this tackle, it was needed to haul vehicles out of mud holes along the tracks.
A virtuous feeling crept over me, feeling braver, or more stupid, by the minute helped. Apart from that it was good to be out of the office.
“We’re gunna get in there, get the ropes around his back legs – don’t trap his bollocks or we’ll all be dead – keep away from his head – it’ll kill you.”
It got to the point where I felt I knew what I was talking about.
There was a lot of nodding, nudging and smiling going on. These guys were happy to watch a white fella make a complete prick of himself.
I stripped my shirt off and tied one end of rough old rope around my waist. If I got stuck I could be hauled out easily unless they decided to shoot me first.
Tiger did the same and recruited a handful of the crowd to help us in the mud. The rescue was getting a party-time feel.
Our friend, now known as Big Fucka, was not amused. Eyes wide open, head whipping from side to side as half a dozen of us slurped deeper into the mud dragging ropes and getting closer to the target zone, the old fellow’s rear ‘armpits’ which were under the mud. His arse wasn’t though and he had been crapping for a long time. His tail, complete with tassle, flicked rapidly, enough to hurt when it hit us, coating us with a concoction of crap and mud.
Added to that pleasure his head showered globs of snotty drool from his nose onto our faces. I had visions of marketing this sort of experience as adventure tourism. People would pay thousands to travel the globe to be shat on by a camel, king hit by a flying head-butt or shot dead in a mud pit. Definitely a pay in advance adventure.
It was critical to get the ropes around his hip joints and haul the ends back to the bank. It took the best part of an hour. The legs were trapped but it was easy to feel them trying to deliver a kick. I was beginning to enjoy this, my plan was working. I glowed, as would any hero. It was going to work.
Big Fucka was successfully roped around his hind legs and we retreated, slithering and stinking, to dry land. A few fellows had lit up cigarettes, settled down to watch and wait for Act Two.
We anchored Big Fucka’s ropes to the ‘roo bars on the two four wheel drives, parked side by side.
“0K,” I said to Tiger and Akbar, “Low four, gently, don’t pull his fuckin’ legs off.”
“Right Boss, no boss.”
I felt stupid. These blokes had done more four wheel driving than the Russian Army. The engines revved gently, backing away in tandem, slowly, very slowly indeed. With bellowing from Big Fucka and cheers from the support team, he was slowly, without ceremony, tugged around so his arse now pointed to the bank. The slurping, sliding, grunting and farting continued until he was on dry land. It was a good moment.
There was not an ounce of gratitude from Big Fucka and in no way were we going to try and undo the lassoed legs. If my impeccable planning had anything to do with it the ropes would simply drop off when he stood up. He lay in a mixture of drying mud, spit and more camel shit, panting, looking around, confused. After a few minutes he realised he was free and tottered to his feet.
I was half right, his legs were long and skinny but nothing like a beauty queen’s.
The rope did drop to the ground as he stood, his head went up, scoping us with those eyes. He shivered mud from his framework, snorted through botoxed nostrils and let a resonant fart adrift as he loped into the scrub.
We felt like heroes. We’d achieved a humane rescue. Everybody had won. After back slapping all round I chucked a few old sacks over the Cruiser’s seat and drove slowly back to the community. I stank like a dead horse, didn’t want to go into the house so hosed down in the garden, then ventured into a hot shower, scrubbed up and finished the afternoon with a cold beer or two.
The following day I drove to the sandalwood camp to see how Akbar and Tiger were getting along. I wandered over to the fire they were sitting beside, glowing in the shade of a small tree. They were drinking billy tea from chipped enamel mugs and gnawing on spare ribs.
“Wanna rib Boss?” Akbar asked.
“Yeh, what is it?
“Camel Boss.” They grinned, not in the least bit penitent.
© Roger Garwood 2021
Roger Garwood is a freelance reporter whose work has appeared in magazines including National Geographic, The Sunday Times (London), Time, Newsweek, Stern and many European and Australian magazines.
In partnership with Trish Ainslie he has published several books including “Off Like Flies”, “Chook on Sundays” and “’Til She Dropped Her Strides” which recorded the traditional lifestyles of prospectors and in the cattle industry. His photographs are represented in the collections of The National Library, The Australian National Gallery, The National Gallery of Victoria, The Art Gallery of Western Australia, The State Library of Western Australia, and corporate and private collections.
The work of Graham Greene, George Orwell and Somerset Maugham have instilled an interest in SE Asia where he now travels, specialising in feature articles.
He is a Fellow of the Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation.