It’s dark as the little bus pulls up to the camel station. All lights are off, to not attract the giant millipedes and the biting flies that will arrive soon enough with the sun. Our guide Jared lets us in to the waiting room as he heads out to gather the camels, and we catch up on the last 150 years of Australian cameleering with the help of the displays on the walls. The beasts were first imported in the 1840s to carry supplies across the desert – their legendary water efficiency made them ideal for the Adelaide-Alice Springs run before the coming of the railroad. There are still camels scattered across the Outback, making Australia the only country on Earth to boast wild camels these days.
We’re led back outside past a line of four camels kneeling in the dust. In a shed behind the office we gather blankets which we throw over the aluminum-frame saddles. It’s a little bit easier getting on a camel than a horse, as a kneeling camel is low to the ground and there’s no need for a coordinated jump and swing. Of course a kneeling camel’s not going to go anywhere – Jared kicks our ride and it’s like he’s hit an elevator button. Whoosh we’re sitting six feet off the ground. But the camel’s very steady – these animals can carry a ton or more, no worries.
Maybe Jared’s not a morning person. “This is a camel tour, not a Rock tour. I hate that ugly thing.” Hey man, we went about a thousand miles out of our way to see this thing, and it’s pretty neat. We discuss the vegetation around us. We learn about the two stages of the Desert Oak’s life, and about the resin Aborigines cook out of the spinifex. Jared tells us that something like twenty of the world’s twenty-five most poisonous snakes are native to the continent.
Much noise is made about the way the Rock changes color at sunset. From our experience, dawn is the more remarkable time to view Uluru.
The eastern sky is bright now, and it’s clear from the reflections from below the low clouds that the sun is about to flood over the horizon.”Just about time – here come the helicopters.” Sure enough, a few hundred feet above the scrub there’s a pair of black choppers making a beeline for the Rock, getting a few sightseers positioned between the eastern face and the rising sun.
Jared warms up to us as we head back to the office. There’s only four of us (he’ll see as many as twenty at a time in the busy season) and we’re trying not to be too touristy. He’s in his mid-20’s and has been at the resort for 26 months (ask any Yulara employee how long they’ve been there and you’ll get a double-digit answer in months). It’s tough to get ahead out here – like a mining town, the resort company controls all the housing and supplies, and at the end of the week there’s a tight margin between the paycheck and the rent.
The sun and flies are out in force as we return to the office for breakfast. There’s billy tea and piping-hot beer bread waiting. The resort is bustling in the distance, getting ready for another work day, and I start to plan my mid-morning nap.