An expedition doctor trades the Antarctic ocean for the Australian desert, and makes some hairy friends.
In the hush of predawn at the camel camp, Eddie and Sal freely roam with tinkling bells while the others are still tethered to their overnight lingulata bush.
Crew jump up and out, half dressed in swags, in case of a sudden rainstorm, attack by a feral bull camel or an emergency among the cobbs (paying travellers). The campfire warms and cooks tea and porridge and there are moments of pure joy as naturalists, botanists, birders and indigenous archaeologists share their tales of discovery. The sun suddenly erupts, the temperature drops a little and the rest of the camp hungrily stirs.
Munga Thirri seems a much grander name for the world’s largest desert of sand dunes than the one borrowed from the inventor of the Simpson washing machine. Varying hues of red, ochre and white sand cover the land of the Wangkangurru whose mikiris (native wells) accessed the water of the Great Artesian Basin.
The camel caravan crosses some of these north-south parallel dunes along the songlines of spirit trails of people who passed before. The women carried large grinding stones to produce flour from the portulaca plant, which the camels slurp in like spaghetti. We pull native carrots and munch on parakeelya to moisten our lips as we travel.
Flints and middens are close to our chosen camp sites as the blood moon rises through the sunset colour swatch.
The camels are the life blood of the desert expedition team. They ensure our survival by transporting our drinking water and food, but luckily absorb their own fluids from grazing and don’t need to share ours. When offered, they can gulp 300L of water in two minutes but they can also survive months without drinking, as their oval red cells are fashioned to flow better even when dehydrated.
A constant balance of water conservation becomes suddenly crucial when a camel run-up causes a spooked camel to flee. Kate, a powerhouse cameleer literally in hot pursuit, charges 8km through mulga and returned with the camel but without his water load.
This is my first time as a desert expedition doctor, but much more important, I’m a trainee cameleer and cook!
These even-toed ungulates are impressive 2m-tall beasts and best befriended. Otherwise a frightened 600kg camel can charge at 40km/hr, sneak up from behind and bite or worse, spit some stinking green slime cud.
Thankfully in the process of hobbling, unhobbling, herding, brushing, ear tickling and bribery with orange peel, a beautiful long-lashed eye will regard you deeply and there is no doubt that the love affair has begun.
“Hoosh” spoken firmly yet with gentleness usually makes a well-trained camel sit on the thick pedestal pad on their sternum. Traditional Afghan-style saddles (although the Ghans as named were mainly from India) require some work to pad and balance – two hours of packing and unpacking with the camel vocalising his assessment.
Eight to ten camels in each string, one delightfully named Jee string, the command of “Ibna”, and there is a cautious start as the caravan wheels around to head across the dunes.
So, to the medicine – the cobbs are a bunch of extremely fit farmers, bushwalkers and stoics but my main role is to take some pressure from the expedition leader.
Having said that, I supply a few scenarios myself. I make the rookie mistake of lugging my swag up a dune then losing it in the dark, and need to call for help; even worse, my skewed sense of direction and excitement over having an important task sends me off on completely the wrong trajectory. Trying not to panic in the mulga, I start to “cooee”, initially controlled, then more strident. Max, expedition leader and chief scientist, replies from the summit of a dune and I tried to saunter nonchalantly back into camp.
My rooms are a rolled-up swag to sit on. The medical consults range from phlebitis to heel injuries, chafed thighs to hot sweaty feet with blisters – my ready supply of lanolined fresh sheep’s wool is the best padding for boots.
The aforementioned camel-chaser needs a large chunk of mulga pulled from her calf, only for another 3cm of the stuff to erupt after her return home.
The RFDS chest furnishes antibiotics, but I do resort to wafting the mulla mulla plant over a wound with seemingly just as much success. Prickles and sticks need to be picked out constantly.
A champion of a chap with type 1 diabetes has brought enough chocolates to supply Cadbury. Disaster, however, is narrowly averted when his insulin pens become blocked by sand. Back to rather the rather old-fashioned technique of trying to draw up enough insulin into a small syringe! The reward is a cache of goodies for the cameleers to munch through those afternoons of herding.
Camels eat for eight hours a day – not so different from my own intake, given how many calories I expend lugging jerry cans, saddles, wood for the fire and bedourie cooking pots. They’re by nature shy animals, but when spooked the “humps” can wreak havoc by bumping on heads or kicking out while being untied.
Always best to have an eye in the back of your head, as I discover when sneaky Sarje nips me. He only gets a mouthful of light down jacket for his trouble – I have been warned of his naughtiness. Flapping arms like a huge eagle becomes my modus operandi, but I’m impressed to see a cameleer bravely slither past along the sand while clutching a camel rope, determined not to let go.
The mix of crew is certainly gender-unbiased. My string has three wonderful girls who keep regal Raj, cute but scaredy-cat Claypan, Billy with the itch, solid Claude and Bronson in line – each with different approaches matching different characters.
Some days are anxious when other camels hovered on the horizon and our younger camels start to rut with each other; the intruders have to be seen off with grapeshot.
So, advice to a doctor cameleer in the future: repeated viewing of the Robyn Davidson film Traks and a few youtube videos on How to train your camel might have fitted me better for purpose.
Oh, and remember the word “Hooru” – camel for “stop”!
Dr Lesley Cadzow is a GP turned expedition doctor