With Christmas almost upon us and countless nativity plays and greeting cards featuring wise men and camels, my thoughts turn to a rare and interesting item in the Museum’s collection I researched a number of years ago, a camel pack saddle. It was used by Afghan camel drivers who led hundreds of camel trains throughout inland Australia. By the turn of the twentieth century camel trains provided transport for almost every major inland development project. They carried the poles, wire and rocks for the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line and stations; the sleepers, food, water and supplies for the men building the desert railways to Oodnadatta and Alice Springs as well as the Transcontinental Railway.
The Museum’s camel pack saddle is a timber-framed hessian saddle padded with straw. Timber branches or cross pieces form the framework and six sticks on each side are roped together. Great care had to be taken to make sure the saddle fitted comfortably. After every trip it had to be adjusted and refilled as the internal packing of straw was ground into chaff from the constant movement and pressure. The stuffing required particular attention to stiffen the body of the saddle and to keep its shape so that the load rested on the correct parts of the camel’s back to prevent chaffing. It was inserted through slits in the outer lining and hammered in with a wooden mallet.
The advantages of camel trains were that they could be led straight to their destination over hills and down gullies through country impossible to take a wagon. They were a boon in dry areas as they could go days without water and camels did not require shoeing like horses. Camels thrived on the native shrubs including saltbush, mulga and acacia which they could easily reach. They were ready for light pack work at three years of age and lived to be at least forty years. Constant steady work was essential for their health and, unlike bullocks or horses, camels could work for years never requiring to be turned out to pasture for a spell.
It is estimated that some 20,000 camels were brought to Australia during the second half of the nineteenth century from India to work in the vast internal areas of the continent. Accompanying the camels were their Afghan drivers. The term Afghan is a misnomer as few if any came from Afghanistan but rather from the northwest frontier tribes of India, including the Baluchis and Pathans. The Afghans, or Ghans as they became known, were extremely competent at working lines of camels and had great knowledge about the care of their charges and their saddles.
Little is known of the history of the Museum’s camel packsaddle. Its provenance is almost as enigmatic as the Afghan cameleers who must have used it. The saddle was found in 1961 in a remote part of South Australia by adventurer, Michael Terry, who had led a number of camel expeditions into Central Australia during the middle of the twentieth century. Terry sold the saddle to the Museum in 1962 and later Museum Conservators discovered fragments of a Melbourne newspaper in the saddle’s lining dating from 1887. By the 1960s pack saddles were rare, having been either burnt or discarded to the elements many years previously. The use of camel trains in Central Australia declined in the 1940s as railway and road transport took over.
Margaret Simpson, Curator
‘Camel Traffic in Australia’ in “Illustrated Sydney News”, 2 January 1892.
Barker, H.M., ‘Camels and Afghans …’ in “Australian Letters”, Vol. 1, No.2, November 1957.
Barker. H.M., “Camels in the Outback”, Seal Books, 1972.
McKnight, Tom L., “The Camel in Australia”, Melbourne University Press, 1969.
The animated film “The Camel Boy” by Yoram Gross, features archival footage of camels from the 1920s in Australia. It was released in Australia in 1984.