Alice Springs, Australia -- the unofficial capital of the Northern Territory Outback -- is the kind of town tall tales are made of. Alice Todd, for whom it was named, never set foot near the place. Nor does it have any springs. In fact, its lone river, the mighty Todd, is bone-dry most of the time. Locals say that once you've seen it flow three times, your fate is sealed -- you'll never leave.
Without water, the Todd's ancient bed functions as sandy soil for spooky ghost gum and eucalyptus trees; as a sort of middle earth where many Aboriginal Arrernte people wander, still stunned by modernity after living off the land for 50,000 years; and as a sunken camel path where one of the Outback's wackiest traditions originated in 1970, when Lions Club members Keith Mooney-Smith and Noel Fullerton raced camels there. Now the Camel Cup (www.camelcup.com.au) takes place annually on a round, 400m designated track in Alice Springs' Blatherskite Park, drawing more than 4,000 spectators, and raising on average $20,000 for the Lions Club and other local charities. The 2007 competition is Saturday, July 14.
Wild camels, kangaroos, and brumbees (horses) are as common as Wisconsin cows in the desert outside "the Alice," as it's locally known. Founded in the early 1870s, it's still defined more than anything by the vast distances around it and the scrappy characters and beasts who have passed through or landed here en route to someplace else. Smack in the middle of Australia's Red Centre, it was originally built as a waystation for shepherds, then for gold miners, then for railroad workers and pole men who built the Overland Telegraph line that ran from Adelaide all the way to Great Britain. Surrounded for hundreds of miles by burnt-orange desert under big blue skies, it still feels like a makeshift outpost despite its population of 26,486. Kids on cattle stations some 1,000km away, for instance, "attend class" here through the School of the Air (www.assoa.nt.edu.au), which broadcasts lessons live via satellite. Prop planes, rather than ambulances, transport the region's Royal Flying Doctor Service (www.flyingdoctor.net) to dispatch medical supplies over the expanses of this harsh landscape. Outside town, Aborigines still forage for grub and other bush tucker to supplement their modern diets. And, in their wake, you can't toss a boomerang without hitting an anthropologist.
In this environment, cameleering -- the art of capturing, taming, and training camels to transport goods and tourists -- is a common profession. More than 500,000 wild dromedaries (one hump) still roam Australia. Most of the camel stock came from Afghanistan in the last half of the 19th century. To recognize this synergy, Alice Springs and the Afghan district of Paghman declared themselves sister cities in 2005. And so it is that the Afghani ambassador to Australia, in his silk robes and fez, visits Alice Springs every year to preside over the Camel Cup. Afghani Ambassador Mohammad Aswari attended in 2006, though he declined to race. "I need my neck," he says.
Why anyone would want to race camels leaves plenty open to speculation. No doubt they're extraordinary beasts, able to drink 27 gallons of water in 10 minutes; carry half a ton; and travel 100 miles a day. On average they're 7 feet tall and 1,800 pounds. Though we tend to think of them loping slowly, heavy laden, over vast distances, they can actually run more than 40 miles per hour.
But a camel running doesn't look like something meant to be, to put it gently. The animal's loose upper lip flaps and slaps against the lower one, its nostrils flare, thick white scuzz curdles in the corners of its mouth and foams. Its eyes bulge, its neck and head churtle forward like a power drill. It eliminates furiously without warning. We all know about their smell. And then there's the sound: Stressed camels groan like the bowels of the earth -- an infernal cry somewhere between an asthmatic gasp and a lion's roar.
The 2006 Camel Cup races each began once the last beast complied to sit -- which could take 5 minutes. Once the starting gun fired, several camels invariably shot off like race horses. Others didn't budge. Some wandered backward. One beast took off but sat suddenly, throwing its rider, leaping over him, and proceeding unmanned around the track. ("Loose camel!" was a common refrain that day.) Riders position themselves on a saddle behind the hump, which is hard but made of fat, and then they hang on and hope for the best. A female rider won one of last year's races by hanging from her camel's neck after it threw her from the saddle.
"These camels work mostly as tourist animals," says Nick Smail from the Frontier Camel Farm, which supplies much of the Camel Cup livestock. "One day they get along to the Camel Cup, and we say, "This is the track, mate. This is the start. This is the finish. Go if you like."
"A lot of those camels wouldn't run out of sight on a dark night," he adds. "They're real old drones. But they create chaos because they're slow to start or won't get up."
It's bulls that race, and they're kept from cows for days before the event. Smail says, "A good camel can finish in under 30 seconds. These are big bulls. They're hugely strong and ready to go off, so if you point them in the right direction and have any control at all, they're going to go like a rocket."
Shorty Smith, the Tasmanian jockey who won Alice Springs' 2006 Camel Cup, raises his own camels in Tasmania and trains each for 2 to 3 months before each race. For two to three hours a day, six days a week, he coaches them to run from 3 to 9 miles a day. "I ride them, walk them, and jog them. Hopefully they get to the point where they want to run."
Nevertheless, he claims it's just luck that has led him to victory -- both at the Camel Cup and at a similarly outlandish race in the United States, which he repeatedly wins: the International Camel Races in Virginia City, Nevada (Sept 7-9, 2007). The U.S. race is a worthy backup plan if you can't afford the airfare halfway round the earth to the Alice.
Like the Alice, Virginia City has a desert landscape, rich mining history, and plucky, pioneering locals for whom a good yarn is a lifeline. The town lives up to the fact that Mark Twain made his name there -- literally made the switch from Samuel Clemens, taking up the pen name that made him famous as a reporter at The Territorial Enterprise. (Incidentally, the camel races bear no small resemblance to Twain's "Jumping Frogs of Calaveras County.")
The Virginia City race is the oldest of the two. "It's the Kentucky Derby of camel racing," says Nevadian Gary Jackson, a camel jockey and arena announcer. It also involves more celebrities besides Twain.
Jackson says, "It started out as practical joke." In 1959, the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise published the results of a camel race. "It was pure fiction," Jackson says. "But in Virginia City, we never let the truth get in the way of a good story."
Editors at the San Francisco Chronicle saw the bogus piece and challenged the riders to a real race the following year. As if he didn't have anything more glamorous to do, John Huston -- the late Oscar-winning director who was nearby filming The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable -- led the charge to call the Nevada paper's bluff. Huston borrowed camels from the San Francisco Zoo. The Nevada race is now a 100-yard dash on a straight track, unlike the 400m round track used in Alice Springs. Many of the Nevada camels make their livings on the silver screen, as movie extras.
Shorty Smith makes the trip to Nevada from Tasmania every year. He was won both races multiple times. Reciprocally, Jackson often travels to race in Alice Springs, and in 1987 he became the first American to win the Camel Cup. Many Americans will attend this year's Camel Cup, which marks the 25th anniversary of its partnership with the Virginia city race. For both competitions, stakes are low: "Serious bragging rights for the jockeys and sponsors for an entire year," Smail says.
"Anyone who takes it seriously shouldn't be there. It's about raising money for charity and having a bloody good time."
"In July, you get a lot of people here in the Alice anyway, but the Camel Cup adds to the experience," Smail adds. "It reflects the character of the town." Sharyn Elkin, president of the 2006 Camel Cup Committee, says, "I can't bear camels. They're big and smelly, and they don't run smoothly. I'm more of a horse girl. But anyone brave enough or silly enough to ride these things fast along a dirt track deserves all the support I can give."
Frontier Camel Farm (www.cameltours.com.au), 4km outside Alice on Ross Highway, runs a number of excellent humpback tours through the Red Centre. In Alice Springs, you can visit the farm and ride camels along the bed of the Todd at sunset, with views of the red rock MacDonnell Ranges. The mount is high and the most difficult part of the experience; once you're up in the saddle, their gait is undulous, and the ride itself is almost lulling. The trip ends with an excellent dinner of simple, beautifully prepared bush foods such as barramundi fish and beefsteak. You can make the same trip in the morning with breakfast. Farther afield, Frontier also runs sunrise and sunset tours of the Red Centre's more famous red monoliths, Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas).
If camels aren't your thing, or if you want to make faster tracks, you might want to consider an escorted tour. Even adventurous travelers often opt for escorted tours in these parts. The best outfitter is Tailormade Tours (www.tailormadetours.com.au). Guides are local residents with insider information about the Outback's unusual -- not to mention storied -- landscape. Tip: Request Lorri Rasmus by name; his long and rich lifetime's worth of knowledge and personal anecdotes add another dimension to the region.
Getting There by Plane
Qantas (tel. 13 13 13 in Australia; www.qantas.com.au) flies direct from Sydney, Adelaide, Darwin, Cairns, Broome, and Uluru (Ayers Rock). Flights from most other cities connect via Sydney or Adelaide. Virgin Blue (tel. 13 67 80 in Australia; www.virginblue.com.au) flies to Alice Springs direct from Sydney, with connections from Adelaide, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, and Melbourne. The company offers heavily discounted prices if you book online well in advance. Prices start at around A$570 (US$456) for a two-way trip.
The Alice Springs Airport Shuttle (tel. 08/8953 0310; office: Gregory Terrace) meets all major flights, but not always those from small towns like Tennant Creek. It transfers you to your Alice hotel door for A$12 (US$9.60) one-way or A$20 (US$16) round-trip. A taxi from the airport to town, a distance of 15km, is around A$25 (US$20).
The Ghan train, named after Afghan camel-train drivers who carried supplies in the Red Centre during the 19th century, makes the trip from Adelaide to Alice every week, continuing to Darwin. The twice-weekly Adelaide-Alice service (leaving Adelaide on Sunday and Wednesday at 12:20pm and Alice Springs on Thursday and Saturday) takes roughly 24 hours. The Ghan departs Alice Springs for Darwin on Monday and Thursday at 6pm, arriving in Katherine on Tuesday and Friday mornings, and Darwin in the afternoon. The service from Darwin departs on Wednesday and Saturday. Stopovers in Katherine last at least 4 hours. The route is often treeless and empty, if fascinatingly so; don't be concerned that you'll miss it by overnighting on the train. The train has sleeper berths. For information, contact Great Southern Railway (tel. 13 21 47 in Australia, or 08/8213 4592; www.gsr.com.au) or see Getting Around Australia, for its booking agencies abroad.
The Airport Shuttle (tel. 08/8953 0310) runs between the station and the town center for A$5 (US$4) one-way and A$8 (US$6.40) round-trip. A taxi costs about A$7 (US$5.60) for the trip.
Greyhound (tel. 13 14 99 in Australia, or 07/4690 9950; www.greyhound.com.au) runs from Adelaide and Darwin. It's a 21-hour trip from Adelaide, and the fare is around A$220 (US$176). The 21-hour trip from Darwin costs about A$240 (US$192). The 36-hour trip from Cairns costs A$410 (US$328). A daily 5 ¾-hour run connects with Uluru (Ayers Rock); the fare is around A$75 (US$60).
Alice Springs is on the Stuart Highway linking Adelaide and Darwin. Allow a very long 2 days or a more comfortable 3 days to drive from Adelaide, the same from Darwin. From Sydney, connect to the Stuart Highway via Broken Hill and Port Augusta north of Adelaide; from Cairns, head south to Townsville, then west via the town of Mount Isa to join the Stuart Highway at Tennant Creek. Both routes are long and dull. From Perth it is an even longer, duller drive across the Nullarbor Plain to connect with the Stuart Highway at Port Augusta. If you fancy a driving holiday of the area, with rental car and accommodations included, then check out www.ntholidays.com. An example is a 6-day trip from Alice to Uluru/Ayers Rock, The Olgas, Kings Canyon, and then back to Alice Springs for A$952 (US$761).
The Central Australian Tourism Industry Association (CATIA) Visitor Information Centre, 60 Gregory Terrace, Alice Springs, NT 0870 (tel. 08/8952 5800; www.centralaustraliantourism.com), is the official one-stop shop for bookings and touring information for the Red Centre, including Alice Springs, Kings Canyon, and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (Ayers Rock). It also acts as the visitor center for the Parks & Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory. It's open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 5:30pm and weekends and public holidays from 9am to 4pm. It also has a desk at the airport.
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