Inside the Collection

Making a nation: “Afghans” and their camels for Australian inland transport

Black and white photograph of a line of camels laden with packages and strung together on a rope. There are two men wearing turbans standing beside them and one seated on top of a camel.
Afghan camel train on the Wanaaring Road, north west NSW. Camel trains varied from 20 to 80 camels,1890-1917, photograph by George Bell, MAAS collection, 85/1284-765

It’s estimated that about 20,000 camels were brought from India during the second half of the 19th century to work in the vast internal areas of Australia. Accompanying the camels were Afghan drivers. The term “Afghan” is really a misnomer as few came from Afghanistan but rather more came from parts of India and present-day Pakistan. 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, a skill which Europeans failed to master.

By the turn of the 20th century, camel trains were providing transport for almost every major Australian inland development project. These included hauling poles, wire and boulders for the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line and stations, carrying sleepers, food, water and supplies to the men building the desert railways to Oodnadatta and Alice Springs and hauling equipment for the Transcontinental Railway from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie from 1912 to 1917. There are few physical remains from this amazing period of Australian transport history. However, MAAS has a rare camel packsaddle, a nose peg, leg hobbles and a camel bell.

A hessian saddle with a large wooden pommel. Six wooden sticks are tied with string down both sides of the saddle. Beside it is a bell, a pointed pin and a set of cuffs made from a chain and two loops of leather.
Camel pack saddle, hobbles, nosepeg and bell from South Australia, late 19th century, MAAS collection, H6926.

The Afghans brought their packsaddle design with them. They were strong enough to take heavy loads yet flexible enough to fit a range of camel sizes and humps. Timber crosspieces formed the framework of the packsaddle and six sticks on each side were roped together. The load was fitted to this framework as compactly as possible. The outer material of the saddle was made of anything at hand including hessian or goatskin to protect the camel’s back and hump from chafing. Some loads set up a churning motion and could chafe and create sores. A camel with a bruised or chafed back was not use and had to be released from work until the injury healed.

An assortment of camel accessories: a set of cuffs made from a metal chain and two loops of leather, a nose pin with a pointed tip and flat base, and a simple metal bell.
Details of camel hobbles, nose peg and bell from South Australia, late 19th century, MAAS collection, H6926

Leg hobbles for the camels’ fetlocks were needed at overnight camps to stop them rambling over large distances looking for food. They were designed on the same principle as hobbles for horses. It could often take many hours to muster the camels in the morning if they weren’t hobbled at night.
All the camels wore bells. The social leader was the camel most adept at finding food. That camel wore the largest bell. The group soon learnt it was advantageous to keep in touch with the big bell while feeding at night.

The nosepeg looks a bit like a pawn in a chess set and is made of hardwood. It was inserted into the muscle of the camel’s nostril with the thicker end on the inside and the pointy end protruding on the outside. A light piece of string was tied to the projecting end attached to a lead rope so that any sudden jerk from anger or fear broke the string and the camel was freed from restraint without injury. A ring in the nose would have been useless and caused permanent injury with a single toss of the head. Wooden nose pegs were eventually replaced with plastic ones and could still be bought at the general store at Oodnadatta, South Australia, in the 1970s.

Loading camels was notoriously difficult and camels were noted for their opposition to this task. Even the most docile camel would roar, groan or show its teeth, biting an unwary loader. Once loaded it would quieten down and the camel train moved along quickly and was kept going without stops if possible. The camels were led by the Afghans in single file, tied together with short lengths of rope extending from the nose peg of one to the tail or packsaddle of its predecessor.

Black and white photograph of a man dressed in a turban and traditional afghan clothing sitting on top of a camel loaded with packages.
Afghan riding a pack camel, detail of an photograph by George Bell, 1884-1917, MAAS collection, 85/1284-2197.

The Afghans led a nomadic life with few personal possessions and were always ready to move. Being Muslims, the Afghans didn’t drink alcohol and were a popular choice for carting beer and spirits to the hotels on the goldfields. They worked quietly and swiftly with their camels and never beat them. An Afghan cameleer recognised each of his camels by their distinctive appearance.

Why were camels more useful than horses or bullocks in the harsh Australian inland climate? They could be led straight to their destination over hills and down gullies where it was impossible to take a horse or bullock wagon. Camels could go days without water and did not need shoeing like horses. They thrived on the native shrubs including saltbush, wattle, 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 40 year old, twice that of horses. Constant steady work was essential for their health and, unlike bullocks or horses, camels could work for years and never needed to be turned out to pasture for a spell. As well as all this, camels could carry four times as much as a pack horse, around 260 kg, walking between 16 to 32 km each day, 8 hours day, for two months at a time.

As more railways and roads were developed throughout the continent, camel trains were used less frequently until the last ones disappeared in the 1940s. However, as late as the 1920s and 1930s the explorer, Dr C.T. Madigan, was using camels for expeditions into the Simpson Desert. He was the last of the Australian explorers to use them.

Black and white photograph of two men adjusting the saddle of a seated camel. Four other camels stand on the right already saddled.
Dr C T Madigan and Sandy pictured with camels preparing for the Simpson Desert Expedition, 1939, Northern Territory, Australian Broadcasting Corporation Archives.

Dr Madigan wasn’t impressed with camels initially but summed up their amazing capabilities in this quote:

At first they are queer, awkward, sly, hard to understand, stupid, smelly, unapproachable and unfriendly, horribly noisy with awful groans at loading-time, generally repulsive, and trying to the nerves of anyone in a hurry … the whole process of travelling by camel seems antiquated and exasperating. But when the thermometer begins to pass 100 day after day, when the feed disappears, and only dry brambles can be found, and, finally, when water and the possibility of water become nothing but a wild hope, then the camel comes into his own. There he kneels, uncomplaining and unconcerned, a tower of strength and comfort, living on the fat of his hump, and good for another 200 miles (322 km).

After that, all the exploratory and surveying work was undertaken with Land Rovers and Jeeps, although a few camels were kept for some outback police patrols in the Northern Territory until the 1940s.

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, May 2015

References
‘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” (1984) by Yoram Gross, features archival footage of camels from the 1920s in Australia.

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