Camels and cameleers 'forgotten'

Media release: Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Camel teams played a key role in developing Australia but their contribution has largely been forgotten, says Mairi Popplewell from the National Archives in Brisbane. She is giving two free public seminars in Brisbane on the history and role of camels and cameleers – and the prejudice they faced despite their importance to the nation.

'Neither camels nor cameleers found easy acceptance in many Australian communities,' said Mairi Popplewell. 'But records in the National Archives show camels were used extensively, under the control of highly skilled cameleers. Camel teams played a key role in the construction of the Overland Telegraph and, once the project was completed, they continued to carry supplies and mail to settlements and townships along the line.

'They were also used to develop the rail link between Port Augusta and Alice Springs which became known as the Afghan Express and later the Ghan. They carted water into the inland, pulled scoops and ploughs to build dams and performed various other heavy tasks. One photograph even shows a camel train transporting a house in Kalgoorlie in 1928. Camels were also used in war and in outback police work.'

A camel team would consist of up to 70 camels with four Afghans and travel up to 40km a day in desert country. The team would carry up to 20 tons with a large bull alone carrying up to 600kg.

The first camel arrived in Australia in 1840 and then, in 1860, 64 camels arrived from Pakistan for the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition.

'As more explorers recognised the benefits of using camels, camel studs were set up,' said Mairi Popplewell. 'In 1866 Sir Thomas Elder set up one of the biggest studs which operated for more than 50 years. But imports, mainly from Palestine and India, continued until 1907.'

While cameleers were all known as 'Afghans' they came from a range of countries including Pakistan. Facing prejudice, they were restricted to the outskirts of towns, where their settlements were labelled as Ghan towns.

When rail and road transport superseded the need for camel teams, cameleers faced the prospect of unemployment and many returned to their homelands – sometimes after decades in Australia.  Rather than see their camels shot, they released them into the wild, where they have since flourished. Others remained and made a living as hawkers.

The free public seminars at the National Archives, 16 Corporate Drive, Cannon Hill will be held on Friday 15 November from 2 to 3.30 pm and on Wednesday 20 November from 10 to 11.30 am. Bookings are welcome on (07) 3249 4200 or to mairi.popplewell@naa.gov.au.

Contact information

  • Mairi Popplewell (Assistant Director, Brisbane Office)
    t (07) 3249 4205
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014