Lasseters Camel Cup
Every year, thousands of visitors descend on Alice Springs’ Blatherskite Park for one of our more informal race meetings
IT BEGAN WITH a showdown. In 1970 Noel Fullerton challenged his friend Keith Mooney-Smith to a duel of sorts in the desert, with camels as weapons. The idea was simply to settle a long-standing feud, and neither had any idea this would be the beginning of a much bigger camel-racing phenomenon.
By 1979 the annual camel-racing competition had outgrown its original track on the dry bed of the Todd River in Alice Springs. A park, lovingly built by volunteers and named the Noel Fullerton Camel Racing Arena, began hosting it instead. It's here, in mid-July each year, that visitors and competitors from around the world still converge for the Lasseters Camel Cup.
Neil Waters is a cameleer who has participated in the Cup for more than three decades. In his faded Akubra, well-worn jeans and dust-smothered boots, Neil looks every part the cameleer. His tanned face is almost hidden by a substantial beard, which is more grey than brown, and a pair of glasses with thick lenses.
His first cup was in 1978, and, along with his team, he still races every year. Neil has trucked in nine camels, including a four-time-winning, prize animal, from his farm in Stuarts Well, 90km south of Alice Springs. Here, their normal day job is with Camels Australia, which takes tourists on outback camel safaris.
Unlike racehorses, the camels are not specifically trained for racing, nor are they pampered, he says. When looking for a racing camel among his working animals, Neil's not after a purebred.
"We don't look for a certain camel to race. You just put 'em on the track and the one that wins is the one you want. A lot of the times the little funny-looking camels are suddenly out the front winning."
Lasseters Cup day
When it comes to cup day, a maximum of 15 camels compete in each race. They are led onto the track by their handlers, who seat them on the ground behind the starting line; this is hand-drawn by an official with foam from a fire extinguisher.
A hushed silence stills the arena as the crowd braces for the starting pistol. The camels, while seemingly quite gangly and awkward, leap forward with some grace as the gun goes off. The grounds echo, not with the thundering of hooves, but with energised cheers as punters will their favourites on to victory.
Galloping around the 400m circuit, kicking up clouds of dust, the camels can reach a top speed of 65km/h, their padded feet spread out to prevent them sinking into the sand. The races are over in less than 30 seconds.
Although short, the ride is not smooth and rhythmic as it is on a horse, because a camel's gait causes the rider to lurch from side to side. It gives new meaning to the term 'ships of the desert', as some riders say it actually makes them feel "seasick".
"The second you take off, you're launched," says 2014 competitor Helen -Grimson, from Wollongong, NSW. "And then you come down with a thump, and you just grip on. It's nothing like riding a horse; it's a big bounding gait and you just can't settle in - you're always half-in, half-out."
Helen is not a career cameleer like Neil - she is here to commemorate her late husband. "He died on 3 June this year, and six years ago he'd said to me, 'Bullshit, you'll never [ride in the Cup]'. So this year I booked the last Tiger flight out to Alice to make the race," she says.
"I used to work in the nearby APY [Anangu-Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara] lands, so we'd come every year. We used to have a few wines and think 'Yep, let's have a go' - and now I have. He was riding with me, I can tell you. My arms were frozen and I thought I was going to fall, and then I said, 'Come on Dave, help me, help me'... To see that finish line was unbelievable."
Stubborn streak of camels
Although camels can sometimes appear compliant, they are more commonly stubborn and temperamental. It's not unusual for racing stars to get stage fright and bellow, groan and otherwise voice their objections to running around a track. When particularly agitated they froth at the mouth and spit regurgitated food.
In a previous cup, a camel owned by Neil had successfully won the majority of races during the day and was the favourite for the final. When the pistol sounded, the camel wasn't having any of it, and, with a rather noisy objection, turned and trotted away from the starting line in the opposite direction and back into the saddling paddock.
Spontaneity is not limited to the camels. Hannah Purss, from Epping, NSW, first came to the Cup in 2013 as a handler for camel-owner Peter Hodge. When the entrants for the grand final were announced, Peter found he had three camels in the race but only two jockeys with him. He suggested that Hannah ride - and ride she did.
In her very first race she and camel Roman Ruma Ruma won the coveted Camel Cup, a victory they repeated this year. "Not bad for a kid from the city who was studying make-up artistry and special effects," says Hannah's mum, Bron Purss.
Events such as fashions in the field, rickshaw races and 'kiddie camel capers' provide between-race entertainment. A much-anticipated event is the Honeymoon Handicap - a race for husbands and wives. The husband must race his camel halfway around the track, stop, and get the camel to sit down, collect his wife and then continue to the finish line.
This race rarely runs to plan, with many camels refusing to stop, husbands collecting the wrong wife, or camels refusing to continue after sitting, leaving the wife stranded in the sand and the audience in stitches.
As the sun begins to sink, the race day, too, winds down. Winners collect their trophies, camels are housed and fed, and spectators make their way home - covered in dust and maybe a little sunburnt - to wait until next July's race day.
- Australia's Afghan cameleers
- From Alice Springs to Shark Bay: a camel odyssey
- Video: Camel trek through the Simpson Desert
- Gallery: Camel treck in the Simson Desert
- Camel numbers halved in national cull