Over a dried-up creek where river red gum trees cluster, we come to a halt in the dusty yard of a remote farm. Here, the heavy silence of the outback is broken by an enormous Chewbacca-like groan, and a great smiling creature cranes its sea-monster neck over a wooden fence.
Australia has its share of animals that look pretty weird to European eyes but it is still a shock to see a camel in the heart of the Flinders Ranges, in South Australia, where kangaroos hop and emus stride under the fierce sun. Camels are not native but have traversed this vast country for more than 150 years, ever since mid-19th century explorers used them to open up its inhospitable desert interior to trains, mining and sheep farming. Like many animals introduced to the continent from Europe, including foxes and rabbits, wild camels are now a pest, and a million of these indomitable beasts now roam free in central Australia.
Below a mountain called Devil’s Peak lives a man who is doing something about it. Graham Cannard, a fourth-generation cameleer, has set up home here with his young family and 15 camels, which he caught from the wild and trained to carry visitors into the outback. A lean, wiry man in ripped jeans, eyes shaded by an Akubra bush hat, Cannard is a quintessential bushman — a great storyteller with a psychic connection to camels.
Camels are saddled with a reputation as aggressive, grumpy beasts who smell bad and spit. Cannard is keen to change this. “Don’t go on your cover. Open your book, read a few pages,” he says. They are not aggressive if treated well. “I treat my camels like I do my boys, with a lot of love and affection,” he says. “Camels are very misunderstood animals.”
Cannard was born among camels — if he cried as a baby, he was placed in a basket on a camel until he fell asleep — and if Australia has a better camel whisperer, I’d like to meet him. Cannard’s great grandfather, Hezekiah, an immigrant from Germany, fled internment in Australia during the World War I by heading into the outback. In Australia anyone who looked after camels was known as an “Afghan.” Hezekiah became an Afghan — he bought several camels.
Cannard’s dad, Lofty, a wild-horse catcher and champion rodeo rider, continued the family love affair with camels and founded a traveling rodeo show. The youngest of nine boys in Lofty’s eccentric, itinerant menagerie, which included two lioness cubs and a chimp called Tarzan, Cannard skipped school and devoted his life to animals, competing on the professional rodeo circuit and racing camels. (His much-loved camel Camanchi, descended from his great-grandfather’s first camels, once ran 400m in 28 seconds — significantly faster than Usain Bolt.) Such was his talent for breaking in wild camels that he was asked to train elephants in Indonesia.
“Marry him, marry his camels,” says his wife, Jannene, before we disappear on our camel trek. When they first met, Cannard phoned Jannene, a “city girl,” and, in a stately, old-fashioned way, asked her if he could “come courting.” He told her he would bring a gift; excited, Jannene imagined jewelry. Instead, Cannard turned up with a baby bull camel.
We drive in Cannard’s battered truck, with five camels in the back, deeper into the Flinders. You may think you’ve understood the size of the Australian outback from looking at a map but the scale of it is still a shock once you get there. The pleasantly rolling Flinders Ranges are far less bleak than much of the bush, but hardly anyone lives here.