With the words “lean right back” ringing in my ears, Murphy, a towering 24 year old camel gracelessly lifts his backside in the air before unfurling his front legs and standing up. The cameleers assure us that several of their guests have speared head-first into the ochre red dirt – not a good start to a chilly pre-dawn ritual. Each rising camel is greeted with oohs and aahs as each with an apprehensive excitement awaiting their turn to mount up.
For Murphy this was little more than a stroll – he has crossed Australia west to east in an epic safari– and camels are so perfectly designed for desert conditions. In half an hour the full moon would be sinking into the morning sky as the sun paints the desert in its earthy colours and warms the sands for another day.
Each morning (and evening), Uluru Camel Tourslead a caravan of camels (camels naturally travel in single file) mounted with pairs of early risers to view the Red Centre come to life.
Fueled with a cup of warming tea (it is sharply cool before sunrise) the camels are mounted with their pair of human quarry one camel at a time. Being “rewarded” with the honey moon camel – the last of the train – Heather and I view with a smile as each of the camels shoot their riders skyward but all managed to survive the initial uplifting surprise.
“Ships of the Desert” is incredibly appropriate, the ride being a gentle therapeutic rollick as the camels glide effortlessly over the sandy terrain. The first semblance of dawn lights the surrounding desert as the horizon glows with a characteristic deep blue hue. Timed to perfection, the caravan stall on a gentle rise as dawn strikes, the deep red sands replacing the inky blackness in a handful of minutes.
But it is Uluru and Kata Tjuta at dawn the party has all come to see. It is incredibly spiritual and uplifting to see the twin giant rock formations of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) traverse a palette of colours from black through gentle hues of pink and mauve to russet red (see more Uluru photos)
Meanwhile the cameleers regale us in stories of the camels and their adventures. Travelling long safaris, the camels are the difference between life and deathfor the cameleers and their respect and pride in these fine animals comes through in every story.
Perfectly designed for arid conditions, camels cope admirably with dehydration. Oval blood cells ensure their blood continues to flow (rather than clot like oval cells) while their droppings are bone dry (all moisture retained before excretion). With practicality beating dignity, camels pee a pungent urine down their rear legs (to help with cooling), most of the water first extracted for internal recycling.
Only sweating at much higher temperatures, their thick fur keeps them both cool and warm (insulation from the radiated heat off the sands) while their luscious eyelashes and closing nostrils keep the sand out in wind storms. While being able to survive long periods without water, if arriving at a water hole, their adaptations allow camels to take on board over 100 litres of water at one drink.
And their breath and dental health is something to be believed!!
The Uluru camel tour takes an arcing path through undulating dunes, the rises highlighting panoramic vistas of the two famous rock formations. Over too soon, the camels settle for a rewarding meal of lucerne and hay while the party dine on warmed beer damper (local baked bread) with lashings of quandong jam or Vegemite for any brave non-Australian who want to try the famed Aussie black yeast spread. Sipping my tea, I note that several overseas visitors tentatively test Vegemite but no there are no international converts to the favourite Australia sandwich spread on this day.
I’ve ridden camels through the Sahara, at the Pyramids and around Indian forts but nothing beats the experience of seeing Uluru and Kata Tjuta at dawn and the pride with which the camels are handled. Along with walking around Uluru and seeing an Uluru sunset, viewing an Uluru sunrise on camelback is an iconic Red Centre experience not to be missed.
The author travelled as a guest of Tourism NT and Plus7.
Uluru Camel Tours offer one hour sunrise or sunset tours for A$119 including an outback breakfast (beer damper bread with quandong jam and billy tea or coffee) or evening snack of damper berad, nibblies and a cooling drink. Shorter tours of 45 minutes are available during the day for A$79.