Cameleering in the Simpson Desert

We love unique stories of women in the outdoors and so we are super excited to have Danielle Andreasen-Cocker on the SWW Blog to tell us about her cameleering experiences in Australia’s Simpson Desert.

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As a high school maths teacher, my job generally doesn’t liven up conversations beyond the ‘it’s so important to have good maths teachers’ comment. Conversation usually moves on to more interesting subjects. However, the statement ‘I’m working as a cameleer in the Simpson Desert’ does funny things to people’s faces as they try to work out what that actually means.

From four months, I spent most of my time working as crew with Australian Desert Expeditions. Australian Desert Expeditions is a not-for-profit organisation which runs ecological expeditions into the Simpson Desert. These expeditions range from 3 to 24 days in length and use pack camels to transport all the gear.

The Simpson Desert is located in the middle of Australia and spans across three states (Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland). About 1100 dunes run from the north to the south; the exact number is contested. This season, I did trips both in the western and eastern sides of the desert.

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I have spent a lot of my life around camels. I grew up on a camel farm in rural Victoria so working with camels is second nature to me. They are such fun to work with and are deeply intelligent animals. They each have their own distinct personality which can be seen almost immediately. There is one camel, Punjab, who has worked out how to open the water jerry cans with his teeth! He then tips them over and drinks the water as it pours out. Funny as this is, we actually have had to watch him like a hawk as water is a precious and finite resource for us on these trips.

Each day in the desert has the same routine, but somehow, the days are still different and interesting. The crew alternate between looking after the camels or looking after the camp. If I am on camel duty, the day starts at 6am for crew breakfast, then by 7am the camels get let off to eat for an hour. By that time, the clients have had breakfast and the other cameleers have packed up camp. We then load all the gear onto the camels and head off over the sand dunes. We have a few breaks and an hour lunch stop along the way before making camp at 3pm. We base our days on the camels, ensuring that they have adequate time to browse for food. We also choose camp sites with a flat area to unload the camels as well as adequate feed for them and good trees to tie them up to at night. We also care deeply for these magnificent animals and are always looking at their loads to make sure there is no rubbing or slipping of the saddles down their backs. We check for sore spots and keep an eye out for any changes in temperament or the favouring of a limb.

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As a 28-year old living in inner Melbourne, it is incredible to be able to completely unplug from technology and get away from the sound of traffic and railway boom gates. In the desert, I am always struck by how quiet it is. You notice the sounds of the wind over the sand and through the shrubs and the call of a lone raven or a bat at night. I imagine trying to count the number of different bird calls I can hear in the city, or the sounds of the breeze but these sounds are lost in all the others found in an urban setting. There is a lot of time to think and reflect in the desert and as we walk along, my mind always drifts off. I find I have my best thinking and musings while shepherding the camels in the evening or during the two hours of sitting in the shade watching the camels and doodling drawings in the sand. The desert gives my mind the space it needs to process thoughts and think deeply.

Being out in the desert reminds me of Banjo Patterson’s poem ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, a poem which speaks of the simple life that droving offers as opposed to an office job in a polluted city.

Lines from ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ by Banjo Patterson – 1889

The drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know…

In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,

And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,

And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.

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And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me

As they shoulder each other in their rush and nervous haste,

With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,

For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love living in a groovy inner-city suburb. Brunswick has many charms, wonderful coffee, friends living close, excitement and convenience. But I do need to escape regularly to remote and wild areas; places where there is clean air and vegetation all around, places where the stars shine bright and birdsong is the alarm clock, places which make me feel a deep sense of calm and peace. Out in the desert, I never use an alarm clock. I put trust in my body to walk me up at 6am. In truth, since we spend about 10 hours in the swag, I walk many times and gaze up at the stars. I know by the Southern Cross and Scorpio’s positions if it is almost time to rise. I also hear and smell the crackle of the fire being lit and know it is time to get up for crew breakfast. Vivid dreams have also always been part of my time in the desert; plenty of sleep under a blanket of stars after a day of fresh air and musings means that I have great and very realistic dreams.

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As the season ended, I left the desert and camels with many mixed feelings. While I was very happy to get back to my husband and friends in the city, I was sad to leave. Life in the desert is so simple, the fresh air and physical work invigorated me, the camels had me laughing every day, the crew members became close friends and the clients were amazing. I knew, though, that what I would miss the most was the time and space to think deeply. My aim is to ensure that even in the city, I give myself that time; time away from technology, time without distractions and time as close to nature as possible.

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Follow Danielle on Instagram, @dani.andreasen.cocker

For more information on Australian Desert Expeditions, please visit their website. Trips run from April until September each year.