Pt Macquarie



David Whitley mounts a prized Australian camel in Port Macquarie.


The toothy grin would be quite menacing if it didn’t look so ridiculous. Kneeling down, being strapped up with all manner of tethers, hooks and attachments, is Liela, the massive beast that I am about to entrust with my safety for the next twenty minutes. Her big yellow teeth hang down gormlessly as her handler finishes tightening the saddle. Emerging from behind the truck and the camels, he looks surprised. “Blimey! We don’t usually get this many for the naked ride,” he says, as we all look nervously at our trusty steeds.


The exercise yard for these ships of the desert is the extraordinary Lighthouse Beach in Port Macquarie, New South Wales. It’s a phenomenal stretch of sand, disappearing for 9km towards the headland on the horizon, as the perilous-looking surf crashes repeatedly into the rocks. Aside for one dog-walker, we’re the only people (and animals) in sight. The five camels kneeling diligently before us have been captured roaming the deserts of Central Australia, and where one goes, the others follow. It’s a full house today, but Greg, the decidedly ocker type in charge, says that as herd animals, you can’t part them even if only two punters show up for the ride. Which, he is forced to concede, will not be conducted naked after all.


We’re told of the battle with the local council to allow the camel rides on the beach, and it seems as though one of the provisos was that all of the creatures must be fitted with a ‘lucky dip’ bag. “Later on, you’ll all get to put your hand in here to find the two dollar coin,” says Greg as the final member of the herd gets a dung-catcher placed discreetly over its backside.


Australian camels are unique. They are thought to be the only wild population left in the world, as in their African and Asian homelands, the camel has been long since domesticated. The irony is that just over 150 years ago, there weren’t any camels in Australia – they were brought over by traders and explorers in a bid to chart the barren central landscape and freight goods across it. Some of the imports broke free, and given that no man in his right mind was going to go chasing after a rogue escapee in no man’s land, a substantial wild population emerged. Today, there are thought to be nearly a million descendants of these libertines milling around aimlessly in the wild, and it’s a figure that is increasing fairly rapidly.


The Aussie camel is also regarded as the world’s finest breed, free from diseases that have ravaged populations elsewhere, and, believe it or not, it is one of our major exports to Saudi Arabia. I look Liela in the eye as Greg reels off his big list of carefully accumulated camel facts. You are going to play nice, aren’t you?


“There are two types of camel. The ones with one hump are called dromedaries, and live mainly in Africa. And they don’t spit – that’s llamas…” Greg continues, as I mull over the saddle. And more importantly, how on earth I’m going to get into it. Finally, with our preparations for the camel trivia quiz fully complete, it’s time to get on, and it seems as though the method of choice is to stick one foot in the stirrup, then heave yourself over, trying desperately to hang on.


Once we’re all up, seated and ready for action, it’s the camels’ turn to rise. Liela rumbles to her feet with all the athleticism of a pensioner getting out of a chair. If there’s one thing camels are not, it is elegant. Another thing they are not is comfortable. As we slowly start to move down the beach, it is a succession of bumps, jolts and spine rattles. I had suspected that it may be a little like riding a horse, where you can make yourself more comfortable by lifting out of the saddle slightly and bobbing along with the footsteps. Alas, this is not the case; you’ve got no option but to clang along with your calves chafing against the stirrups.


We move at a very slow walk, which although devastatingly unpleasant on the rear end, is at least safe. Even the most accomplished horseman probably wouldn’t fancy trying to rein in one of these monsters in full flow, but a kilometre and a half down the beach, Greg decides to up the stakes a bit. He pulls out a flick knife and starts back on the statistics.


“Now then, these camels can run at speeds of between 70 and 80 kilometres per hour,” he says, moving his finger to halfway up the blade. “We stick it in this far to get to 70, and all the way in for 80. “Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to do that to the animals,” he adds, clearly having issues with the tree-hugging nanny state he’s been brought up in, whilst turning his attention to the bemused Singaporean couple on the front camel. “So we’ll have to do it to these two. And we all want to go at 80, don’t we?”


Fortunately for those about to be stabbed, nobody really does. The level of trust placed in our mounts is at the sort of level usually reserved for estate agents with slicked back hair, pony tails and gold teeth. So we start to amble back to our starting point. If there is one thing more awkward and uncomfortable than getting on a camel or riding a camel, it is dismounting from one. On command, Liela suddenly drops onto her front knees, sending me careering into the front of the saddle with an almighty crunch and fearing for my chances of ever having children.


“You should be glad you’re not on that one,” says Greg, pointing at the biggest in the herd. “He’s known as the Nutcracker.” But, all told, Liela has behaved herself impeccably, so a big hug is in order. We’re told the camels genuinely enjoy this, and given that the toothy smile is back out in force again, I’m inclined to believe it.