Camel Expeditions through Australian Deserts - Interview with Andrew Harper OAM
Interview with Andrew Harper OAM Founder and Executive Director of Australian Desert Expeditions.
What started your Exploration Dreams?
I grew up in the bush and worked with sheep, cattle and horses all my working life. It seemed a natural progression to work with camels, not realising it would take me into a lifetime of exploration.
It took off when I did a trip into the Simpson with Rex Ellis, who started the business I eventually took over. I just wanted to work with camels, but that trip led me to realise what a perfect access vehicle camels were in terms of desert exploration. Camels played a significant part in Australia’s history of inland exploration, and I learnt a lot about that history after using camels as part of my exploration.
Do Camels need or respond to training?
Camels are very responsive to training and very switched on. We train them for our purposes, and it's accepted they are smarter and more switched on than horses. They have a natural bonding with humans, so training is relatively straightforward, especially as load carrying is their main purpose.
We have a five-month work period in the winter months out in the Simpson Desert. I must look after them to ensure they are comfortable. Due to the length of the season, my camels are not loaded to their full capacity. I look at up to 200 kgs for the bigger boys. We look at approximately a quarter to a third of their body weight as cargo. Their endurance, carrying capacity and the fact they didn't need a drink at the end of the day made them such an enduring beast for the early explorers.
Speaking of water - are your camels off the inland island caused by recent (December 2022) flooding in outback NSW?
The camels came off the paddock after 11 weeks in early January 2023. The paddock had shrunk with the flood waters coming through. We did two hay drops to supplement the food on their ‘island’. They weren't starving by any means but needed a bit of a supplement as they’d given everything on that patch of land a pretty good trim!
Do feral camels pose a threat when you are out and about with your train?
Camels by nature are curious so they do approach. The males are in season in winter so they can be a bit of a problem. I don’t have any females so there’s not much for them to get excited about. Generally, they are just curious. When they see 18-20 camels loaded up and trekking along, it's something very different for them. The shape and size are very alien to them. Loaded up my camels are big and something they would not have seen in their lives.
What do you love about your desert travels?
When I'm out there by myself, not leading a trip, it's a lovely sense of serenity, solitude, calmness and quiet slow travel. Slow travel is a result of travelling with animals for which you have no choice but to travel at their pace. The opportunity that slow travel gives is to notice everything. You don't miss a thing when you are walking in the landscape. You’re watching where you walk naturally, and you are looking for feed for the camels. When you are noiselessly travelling, you are just another thing walking, not intruding at all. At the end of the season coming back to reality can be a rude shock as you become part of the landscape when you are out there for an extended period.
What amazes you in the desert?
Hundreds of times over the past 27 years I have been amazed in the desert. Like when you come to a point that has taken weeks to walk to and you think that this is damn special.
We do a lot of work in our scientific surveys, documenting and discovering indigenous artefacts or places of meaning. When you come across a habitation site that you know no one has been to for at least a century, that's amazing. One of the sites was discovered a few years ago, and we went back to it with a team of archaeologists and anthropologists, the results of that study suggested no one had been to that site in over 600 years. That’s a ‘wow’ moment on reflection. Sites like that, have been lost in the entire-graphic record as indigenous people had left living in the desert 120+ years ago, we’ve connected with the local indigenous people and are looking to take them to that site. To take them and walk back to these sites where the ‘local mob’ haven't walked for a long time is very special to them. And us too.
It is also the simple pleasures of sitting around a campfire taking in the desert scene that comes with travelling to these remote areas.
Are you taking groups into the desert?
Most people aren't aware that you can walk in the desert and have camels carry all your gear. The first thing is the awareness and the general awakening that slow travel provides them. Because you are walking at the same pace as the camels, you don't have a choice but to slow down. Not just physically but thoughts and everything else. People on the tours are into the science of the trips and ‘bushwalking’ but it's the pace of everything that sticks in people's minds. It's the camels themselves with their characters and the carrying of the gear, which develops in people even on a seven or ten-day trip. It's nice to see people become aware of that.
How do you navigate in the desert?
I know the Simpson very well, it's like my home paddock and there are so many landscapes within a much bigger landscape. Drop me in anywhere and I’ll know where I am. The dune formations help me know where I am. There is a responsibility on the treks for the people, the scientists, my crew and volunteers, so we keep a very close eye on where we are so in the case of an emergency, the crew and the trek doctor know exactly where we are.
We now use an app that helps scientists photograph and mark exactly where artefacts, plant specimens etc are discovered. Quite a big difference to one of my first trips in 1995, where a GPS unit the size of a house brick could only give us latitude and longitude of our position, after about ten minutes of loading itself and connecting!
On some of my solo trips, I haven't looked at a map or GPS for weeks because I’m just poking along knowing where I’m going.
Do you have any tips for our readers?
Slow down. Modern mapping and GPS units in vehicles allow people to get out here and know where you are. Once you are comfortable with that, slow down. Go for a big walk, release yourself from your vehicle and explore where you find yourself. Be careful of course but take the opportunity to discover the desert in slow-travel mode.
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