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Ships of the desert

Wednesday, 19th May, 2021

By Nardia Keenan

Camel man, John Elliot, is leading the first camel trek across Australia to pass through every state to raise awareness about skin cancer.
The unique fundraiser is for the charity Beard Season, which encourages men to grow beards over winter and start a conversation about free skin and melanoma checks. Beard Season is currently campaigning for a national screening program for skin cancer and the camel caravan draws attention to the issue wherever it goes.
Starting “in the worst drought that Australia’s ever seen”, John and his camels left Coonar Beach in North Queensland on April 11, 2019, heading south. They became caught in the middle of the bushfires but escaped to the mountains.
“It was just outside of Canberra and we disappeared into the high country,” John said.
When it was safe, the camel train resumed its southward journey and became the highest altitude camel trek in Australian history at the top of Mount Skene in Victoria. Unfortunately, the one hundred kilometres an hour winds and a foot of snow caused an accident requiring an emergency extraction.
“We had an eight-hour rescue after a few of my camels and I fell off a cliff,” John recalled.
With John and all the camels successfully rescued, the trek continued to the southern tip of Tasmania, Cockle Creek, and became the first camel trek to traverse Tasmania, a journey which took five and a half months.
Now on their way to Coral Bay in Western Australia, the caravan was greeted with delight on its way through Broken Hill and Silverton.
“It creates this little Mexican wave of smiles as you go through every town,” said John.
The camels also smile a lot and with good reasons. John saved the camels from going to abattoirs and they find enjoyment according to their individual personalities.
Ted is the leader and John explained that, although he is the most obedient of the group, he’s always aware of everything that’s going on around him and “can be a bit nervy.”
Jackson has the biggest tantrums but is probably John’s favourite because he “hangs around” John for company.
“Sometimes I wake up and he’ll be sitting next to my swag.”
Arthur is the least sociable camel but, for some reason, is best friends with the baby of the group, two and a half year old Charlie.
John recalled how he saw a little white camel in a paddock and asked the farmer if he could buy him. The farmer replied, “Mate, if you can catch him, you can have him”. But, he didn’t tell John the paddock was 12,000 acres in size and it took John two days to find and catch Charlie, who is “pretty happy and a good, little camel.”
John’s fifth camel could not be described as good. Bill the Bastard is always lurking at the back of the other camels and is often only visible by his legs.
“Whenever we’re going up a hill, he’ll sit back and let the others drag him up,” said John.
The number of camels dragging Bill the Bastard up a hill has been boosted by the addition of three camels brought along by Don Ainsbury, a man with a wealth of camel knowledge. These three camels prefer their own company, preferring not to mix with the other camels or the two dogs.
John’s dog Brusky is a red heeler-cross-dingo who is so energetic that a GPS tracker showed he travels more than double the distance that John walks.
“I walked 39 kilometres one day and he did 87,” said John.  
As John and his camels have walked approximately 6,000kms of the 10,000km journey, he estimates that Brusky has walked approximately 15,000kms so far on this trip.
Brusky, John and the camels were trained intensively for the trek by experienced camel trekker Russel Osbourne. However, John’s friend and his dog Sylvie have joined the trek for one month in what John calls a baptism by fire.
“Silvie was brought out of her loungeroom and pretty much straight onto the track.”
The journey sounds arduous but John said “We’re in no rush”. Most camel treks are short but because these camels will be on the road for so long, he has to think about minding the camels’ health.
For every walk day, John gives the camels a rest day. “So one day for me, one day for the camels.”
John also ensures that rest days accumulate.
“If we walk four days, we’ll stop somewhere and rest for three or four days.”
John finds that the modest pace of four kilometres an hour affords a rare view of Australia.
“You get to see the slow change in the country as you go through.”
To follow the camel trek via GPS tracking or to donate, visit johnelliott.com.au

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