I’ve never tried finding a caravan park that will accept pet camels – but as a modern-day cameleer preparing his herd for an epic expedition across the desert, Kamahl Druesne has and he tells me it’s not easy.
“There is an anti-camel mentality in Australia,” he says, after having been rejected by countless parks in the Northern Territory.
“People don’t want camels on their property anymore… Even though they opened up three quarters of Australia.
“But, I am pro-camel,” he says. “Camels are my Kung Fu.”
This pro-camel, Kung Fu-teaching filmmaker from Byron Bay eventually finds the camel-friendly Heritage Caravan Tourist Park in Alice Springs, set on a former camel farm that will be home base while his herd is trained for the Compassion Camel Caravan trek – an 1800km feat of endurance that Kamahl and his partner, Marie-Claude Asselin are undertaking to raise funds for Swags for the Homeless.
Kamahl Druesne was first invited on a camel trek in 2000 and decided: “This is the life for me”. He has since made a number of films about camels, including filming a trek with Bactrian camels into Rajasthan, India that was broadcast on SBS, while his latest film profiles Australian “camel whisperers” who are as equally devoted to the animals as Kamahl .
The pro-cameleers seem to be in the minority, however, with the animal now viewed as pests, so much so that the Australian government recently funded a $19million cull of 160,000 feral camels.
Camels are an outback Australian icon, but the anti-camel sentiment has grown steadily since they were first brought to Australia in 1860 to work in the outback, carrying supplies inland for the mining and sheep industries or the building of the Overland Telegraph Line, the Canning Stock Route, fence lines and railways.
The problem was, camels adapted too well to their new environment.
“Camels arrived in camel heaven when they came to Australia,” Kamahl says. “All of those wattles and acacias and thorny plants. There are 380 different types of fauna a camel can eat here.”
Camel politics aside, Kamahl is busily training his herd for the trip of their (and his) lifetime – a journey that will follow the track of the historic Overland Telegraph Line from Alice Springs to Adelaide.
The Overland Telegraph Line was Australia’s most ambitious engineering project when developed in the early 1870’s – made possible with the help of immigrant “cameleers”, known in Australia at the time as ‘Afghans’, who came from Baluchistan, Afghanistan and the north-west of British India (today’s Pakistan).
“It’s not easy travelling with camels” Kamahl says.
“It’s slow. You do around four or five kilometres an hour, but I like that.
“You learn to be calm around camels. They are sensitive animals; super intelligent.”
While Kamahl, Marie and their seven camels will be travelling the same route of the pioneering explorers such as John McDougall Stuart, after whom the Stuart Highway is named, they will have a few mod cons that weren’t around in the 1860’s and 70’s.
Their replica gypsy vardo wagon, currently being done up in a Rajasthani/Bedouin style, will be solar-powered and they won’t be relying on old-school telegraphs for communicating – when they are out of mobile phone range, they have a satellite phone as back-up.
When I chat to Kamahl about the trek he is on a lunch break from his work as editor and cameraman for Indigenous media group, Imparja.
He explains that it was a filmmaking program he ran for disadvantaged youth in Byron Bay a few years back that led him to his current quest to help the homeless.
One of his former students had moved to Sydney and had a photography exhibition called ‘exploring homelessness’.
“As I walked around Sydney, I would see the people that he had photographed. His film opened my eyes.”
When Kamahl then came across the Swags for the Homeless website he was inspired to begin a project that combined camel trekking and supporting a worthwhile cause. The swags – a backpack with storage that rolls out into an all-weather, protected bed – provide “dignity, warmth, comfort and safety to people who literally have nothing,” Kamahl says
“In Australia we don’t understand the homeless,” he says.
“We live in a bubble, but really, if you don’t own your own home you are only ever a step away from becoming homeless.”
Kamahl and Marie have been working various jobs over the past year to save up for their trek and have already raised $5,000 for Swags for the Homeless through various events – from film nights (showing the film Tracks based on Robyn Davies’ desert trek, as well as Kamahl’s latest film, “Camel Whispering”) through to old-fashioned sausage sizzles outside Bunnings.
They intend to begin their journey on August 1 from Alice Springs and, if all goes to plan, arrive in Adelaide by November.
“We are not in a hurry; not out to break any records,” Kamahl says.
“We’ve raised $5000 already but if we can make more than that I will be happy.”
To follow the Compassion Camel Caravan journey:
Visit the website here
Visit their Facebook page here
And, most importantly, you can donate to the cause here.