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The Importer of Camels

Sir Thomas Elder, with his introduction of camels, solved one of the problems of transport of goods in the interior of South Australia, and also rendered the exploration and exploitation of the far regions possible.

The first camel was imported into Australia was purchased by the explorer J.A. Horrocks who unfortunately died after being kicked. The second lot were imported by the Victorian Government for the tragic Burke and Wills expedition. Burke and Wills did however demonstrate the mobility and endurance of camels for exploration work.

In 1860 Elder directed his fellow pastoralist, Samuel Stuckey, to travel to British India (now Pakistan) to research the breeding and care of camels, to purchase a breeding herd, and to engage sufficient experienced cameleers. Stuckey was unable to charter a suitable ship and had to return to Adelaide empty handed.

In 1866 he returned to India and succeeded in shipping 124 camels and 11 Muslim cameleers to Port Augusta. The herd was however reduced when many died from ‘the scab’ six weeks after landing. The remaining camels were removed to Elder’s stations at Beltana in the Flinders Ranges and Umberatana, near Lake Hope, where they were successfully bred. He introduced three different stock of camels – the Mekraua for speed and the Scind and Kandahar for strength.

Camels became the mainstay of explorations from Warburton’s expedition of 1872. Elder’s station Beltana was used as an important breeding station and a stepping off place for many exploring parties for camels and supplies.

From 1866 they were also employed for the transportation of goods to remote sheep and cattle stations, and proved of immense value in carrying supplies during severe drought.

Over 100 camels were engaged in the construction of the Adelaide-Darwin Overland Telegraph in 1872, to carry wire, insulators and supplies.

By 1895 there were estimated to be 1,500 camels in South Australia and 4,000 in Western Australia. The advent of motor transport has reduced the need for camels but camel trains were still needed in the first half of the 20th century for the cheap transport of non-perishable goods.

“Until Sir Thomas Elder took the field, camels were not generally popular as travelling companions … The prejudice yielded very quickly, however, before the test of practical experience. Warburton would never have reached Roeburn with horses, whose slender lives were only too ready a sacrifice to the rolling sandhills where there was no water. Forrest knew the value of camels sufficiently to deplore his own early methods (with horses). Ernest Giles needed no convincing. His own camels had taken him where horses were useless, carrying for the frailer animals the water which they themselves were not allowed to drink … In 1870 camels for Australian exploration were exotics worth travelling many miles to see, and not always recognised when seen. In 1876 they were more indispensable than damper, bully beef, or blackfellow.”

Bessie Threadgill. South Australian Land Exploration, 1856-1880 (Adelaide : Board of Governors of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia, 1922)


The exploration of the interior is a subject which has engaged my attention for a number of years, and I had partly the furtherance of this object in view when in 1862 I imported camels from India, which have now become quite acclimatized in South Australia, and have increased in number from 110 to 500 or 600.

Without camels, which can go a week or ten days without water on a pinch, the interior could never have been successfully explored, and the “ships of the desert,” as they are called, are the only animals that we know of fit for such an undertaking.

[From a manuscript lecture by Sir Thomas Elder, 1879], Rare Books & Special Collections

In 1861 Elder travelled as far as Lake Hope with the McKinlay search expedition sent out to rescue the ill-fated Burke and Wills party. Elder failed to persuade McKinlay to send out an advance party to rescue the survivors “otherwise we should have found out King before Howitt.” This episode is recounted in William Kinmont’s transcript of Elder’s “Notes from a Pocket Journal of A Trip to Lake Hope in 1861” by Sir Thomas Elder G.C.M.S.

I was in the Colony at the time and accompanied John McKinlay, the leader of our SA Expedition as far as Lake Hope within 70 miles of Cooper’s Creek and urged him to send out a party in advance to rescue the survivors, but he declined to take the responsibility, otherwise we should have found out King before Howitt; - after McKinlay’s refusal Mr Samuel Stuckey and I started by ourselves, but after travelling 70 miles our horses gave in and we had to return to Lake Hope. McKinlay had camels with him and could have managed it quite easily.

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